Reading the individual discographies of veteran singer/songwriters Iain Matthews and Elliott Murphy is like reading a Who's Who of Rock and Folk.
Iain Matthews first came to prominence as a founding member, along with Richard Thompson, of Fairport Convention. Matthews lent his perfect tenor to the seminal English Folk group's first three LPs — including their best albums, What We Did on Our Holiday and Unhalfbricking — before striking out on his own to record the Matthews Southern Comfort LP in 1969. Later in that same year Matthews formed a group called Matthews Southern Comfort and recorded two more LPs. After releasing Later That Same Year, which included a hit version of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," Matthews disbanded the group and began anew as a solo artist. Since the early '70s, Matthews has recorded such notable LPs as Journey from Gospel Oak, Some Days You Eat the Bear Some Days the Bear Eats You, as well as group projects with Plainsong and Hamilton Pool.
Compared to Matthews, Elliott Murphy is a relative newcomer — He's only been recording since 1973. Elliott's debut LP Aquashow has often been described as one his finest efforts, earning the singer comparisons to Dylan for his literate songwriting style. In 1976, Murphy released Night Lights, which featured musical help from Billy Joel and former and future members of the Velvet Underground and Talking Heads. Over the years Murphy has recorded roughly 20 more critically acclaimed albums for a variety of labels, including his most recent solo effort, Rainy Season, on Blue Rose Records.
While neither artist has attained an extraordinary amount of commercial success — though Matthews did score a Top 10 hit with "Shake It" in 1978 — neither Murphy nor Matthews has ever wanted for critical acclaim or an enthusiastic fan-base.
Unfortunately, much of their work can be difficult to find in record stores. Though with a little effort, much can be found on Internet auction sites or by visiting the official Web pages of both artists: www.elliottmurphy.com and www.iainmatthews.com. The good news is, you shouldn't have to look to hard for their new collaboration, La Terre Commune, which is now available on the Nashville-based Eminent Records label (www.eminentrecords.com).
The CD brings together several Matthews and Murphy originals, with each singer also throwing a couple cover versions into the mix. For Murphy's part, he chose to take on Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" and Bruce Springsteen's "Sad Eyes," while Matthews covers more obscure ground with Jesse Colin Young's "Darkness, Darkness" and an outstanding song by Adam Sherman and Carmen Di Marca titled "One Cold Street."
Murphy is currently residing in Paris and Matthews is living in Amsterdam. Fortunately, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, CityBeat was able to reunite the duo for a trans-Atlantic chat.
Surprisingly, neither Murphy nor Matthews had anticipated their musical collaboration. La Terre Commune came about at the suggestion of Blue Rose Records head Edgar Heckman, rather than from some long standing desire of Murphy and Elliot to perform together. Given the circumstances, I was curious whether or not either artist had any reservations about the project. But Murphy says the collaboration was easier than expected.
"I knew whatever Iain offered would be high quality," Murphy says. "I just worried that I would be too Rock and he too Folk. But in the end we almost agreed on everything — except that I wanted him to sing 'Dusty Roses' instead of me. Some of my favorite fans just adore Iain and so I knew I was in a sacred place of sorts, so I spoke in hushed tones in his presence. And we both know a lot of filthy jokes, which is always a plus in any situation. I think you can judge any musician's credentials by the amount of jokes he knows."
For his part, Matthews also found the collaboration an easy one, citing the musicians' shared professionalism as the "common ground" from which the pairing prospered.
"We are both seasoned professional touring songwriters," he says. "Anything else is pure gravy. All we had to do was get on as human beings, and that was no effort at all. Elliott is very easy to work with, he makes no unreasonable demands on his collaborators and hopefully neither do I. Music is our common language and respect for each other."
On La Terre Commune, Murphy and Matthews match each other track for track, with each songwriter being responsible for album highlights. I mention to Matthews my admiration for "Close to the Bone," a Matthews original that would not be out of place on Neil Young's classic After the Gold Rush LP.
"It seems for some reason we're all suckers for that Em7- Am7 progression," says Matthews of the song's structure. "I anguished over birthing this song for a couple of years before finally acknowledging that it has its own set of values. I still feel that I maybe should have just put Neil Young's name in as writer, but hey, he'll never miss it."
For his part , Murphy agrees with my enthusiasm for the song. "I really love 'Close to The Bone,' " he says. "The melody and the structure are so fine."
While a non-teen oriented album like La Terre Commune is unlikely to spawn a string of hit singles, Murphy's "I Want to Talk to You" sounds like it could have been a hit in another era, an era in which a musical and cultural renaissance were played out on AM radio.
"There's no complete satisfaction in recording or performing or any art for that matter, so we all have to live in our own world," says Murphy, "and in my case its called 'Elliottland' and it's someplace in the early '60s when there was this incredible dichotomy of the Folk resurgence led by Dylan and pre-Beatles Rock & Roll like Del Shannon and Roy Orbison. God, I love all the comparisons you used: Phil Spector, Neil Diamond, the Searchers — these were all very important moments to me, magic moments in the hardening of my cultural resolve."
After listening to the successful pairing of Murphy and Matthews on La Terre Commune, one can't help but wonder if there will be future releases from the duo. But only time will tell if Murphy and Matthews will reunited for another album. As Matthews says, "It's too soon to talk about future collaborations. We still have a year's worth of touring and promotion to do. Let's see how we feel about each other's company next year at this time.
For now, if you want to catch Murphy and Matthews live, you'll have to do it in Europe, where the duo have planned some upcoming performances.
"We're gonna do some shows in Germany along with Oliver Durand on guitar, whose contributions to this album were enormous," says Murphy. "So we'll see how it goes. We're figuring it out as we go along: I told Iain he's gotta stand up when he plays and I guess I'm gonna have to sing on key, so there's hard work in store for both of us. I'd love to be able to do a tour of the States with a band behind us. Who knows? We've been pretty lucky so far and at least we didn't call the album MandM which could have caused real havoc in both the Hip Hop and candy worlds."
Elliot Murphy and Iain Matthews La Terre Commune is available on Eminent Records.