Although he’s just now on the threshold of turning 40 years old, Matt Schofield has already been playing the blues for more than half his life.
The Manchester, England born guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer and bandleader first climbed on stage in front of the general public at the tender age of 13 and has been solely focused on doing one thing ever since.
Playing the guitar.
And even though the road he’s traveled has not been paved with gold bricks, it’s a road he still chooses to navigate up and down.
“At that time (when he was a teenager) I decided that’s what I was going to be. I was expected to go to university in England after I finished school, but I was saying, ‘No, I’m going to play guitar,'” Schofield said. “So in some ways, this is exactly what I expected. It has been harder than I expected. I’ll be 40 this year and I think anyone (in the blues music world) will tell you, it’s not easy and it’s not getting any easier, either. There’s only about two or three artists that are wealthy and playing the blues these days. Other than those couple, everybody else is out driving around in a van. We do it because we made that choice, for better or for worse. Essentially, I’m married to this (playing the blues). When I picked up the guitar and started playing as a kid, I knew who I was. I knew this is it … this is me. In some ways, 27 years later, I’ve just been refining what that kid did straightaway. I feel like I’m the same person and it feels just like it did back then, because I love to play.”
While he’s still been playing some select shows – and attending events like the annual Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards (BMAs) in Memphis – the past several months, the lion’s share of Schofield’s energy and efforts have been recently focused on the business end of the spectrum.
“I’ve actually been enjoying a bit more time not on the road the last few months, more than I probably have in about 10 years. I’ve been doing some restructuring of the business, really. I’ve got new management. It’s quite tricky with a foreign office to work here in the U.S. in terms of things like taxes and visas and things like that, you know? So we’ve been making things a bit more streamlined,” he said. “I’ve been playing a bit more locally (he currently resides in Florida) and writing a new record. When I head out on the road in the middle of June, I’ll be pretty much gone until November. When things get busy in a minute, they really get busy.”
The new record that Schofield is currently penning material for is a follow-up to his well-received 2014 release, Far As I Can See (Mascot Label Group).
“The music industry marches to a different beat than my creativity does, so I’ve been keen to get it out. I would have hoped to have had a new record out by now, but sometimes you just have to wait your turn. As everyone knows, this is a difficult time for the music industry. There’s a lot of different ways of doing things these days. The old model of having a record label and getting signed and then releasing a record is not necessarily the only way of doing things these days. All of that has been a part of these last few months of restructuring and seeing which is the best way to move forward.”
Some artists can’t seem to keep themselves from writing new songs and working on material on a daily basis, whether they have a new album looming on the horizon, or not. And some artists are content to wait until a new project is set to begin before authoring the songs that will make up that new collection. Consider Schofield to be a member of the later camp.
“I’m not a habitual writer; I’m a habitual guitar player. There’s never a guitar very far away from me, but in terms of writing things, I’m not a person that sits down and writes a song every day or even every week,” he said. “What I have to do is, I have to get a clear idea of what the next record is going to be in my mind. I define the canvas area in my mind and then I start filling that in with the songs. So I need to know what the project is going to be in order to write what I feel is appropriate for it.”
Some of Schofield’s songs are based on things or experiences that he encounters while going about his daily routine and some of Schofield’s songs are more fictional, more story-like with a narrative that he makes up himself.
“I’d say bout half-and-half. On the last record there was stuff that was very much stories in the classic good relationship or bad relationship mold and then some stuff on there, like the opening track (“From Far Away”) that is very directly inspired by Carl Sagan, the scientist. Being a fan of his work and being a fan of science and philosophy and that side of things, that comes into play in my writing. That may be a bit unusual for a blues artist, but I’m an avid reader and that comes into my song-writing. And perhaps this time around there’ll be some slightly more political leanings with the various things that’s going on in the world .. here and abroad and back home in England. It’s an interesting time in all of that and that’s all stuff that I’m keen on.”
Regardless of whether his songs are about love gone wrong or about what lies on the other end of the cosmos, the one constant thread running through a Matt Schofield album is a whole bunch of mind-blowing guitar work. He’s capable of shredding – which he does on occasion – but the real beauty of Schofield’s guitar playing is it’s tastefulness. From breath-taking to mournful and on to soulful, Scofield’s voice on the guitar is utterly unique. There’s no doubt that he’s a blues player extraordinaire, but his playing favors the Robben Ford end of the rainbow more than it does the Bob Margolin side, although he’s certainly comfortable in either camp . It’s bluesy, it’s funky and it’s jazzy … and at the end of the day, it’s all Matt Schofield.
“I do consider what I do as playing blues guitar. That’s what it is to me. Some people might be surprised to find out that I do consider myself a blues guitarist … and obviously my vocabulary is broader than just the blues. What I’m doing is expressing myself continually through the instrument, which to me is what the tradition of it is about. That’s what all the greats were doing … they were talking to you,” he said. “They were saying something with the instrument as opposed to saying something in somebody else’s language. It’s about having your own voice on the instrument. That’s why I consider myself a blues guitar player. Unfortunately, I think people’s minds have been somewhat narrowed in what blues guitar playing is. If you actually listen to B.B. King, people will always talk about him playing the one note better than anyone else. But he also played all the other notes better than anyone else. It wasn’t that he could just play one note. He was an incredibly sophisticated guitar player … far more sophisticated than your average blues/rock guitar player these days. When you study it from a guitarist’s perspective, B.B.’s influences were guys like Django Reinhardt and Lonnie Johnson; very sophisticated players. The idea of him being this downhome bluesman is a bit unfair, I think. In my mind, I’m basically just doing what B.B. did 60 years ago. It just doesn’t sound the same (as B.B.), but in terms of the approach, I’m trying to make it sound good instead of fit into what someone’s idea of blues guitar is.”
The way Schofield sees it, if your own personality doesn’t shine through in your own guitar playing, than perhaps your time would be best suited doing something else.
“I was just having a conversation in the lobby of the hotel (at the B.M.A.s) with the great Anson Funderburgh. I’m a big fan of his and he’s a sweetheart of a guy, as well. We were having a conversation about electric blues guitar and with T-Bone (Walker) and B.B. being right there from the start and about how everybody had an individual voice. You could put them all next to each other … Albert Collins, Buddy Guy … and you’d know which one was which, instantly. That carried on down all through the generations to guys like Anson and Jimmie and Stevie Ray (Vaughan) coming out of Texas. And in the ’80s you had guys like Robert Cray. They all had their individual voices, just like their heroes did. They all found their own route. But then sometime shortly after that, everybody started sounding the same and their voices got weaker and more homogenized. And then it becomes a thing where you have to learn these certain licks in order to become a blues guitarist. That’s not the way I saw it. I’m just trying to be sincere and honest and play what sounds good and what comes out from me.”
One signpost of how you are viewed as a guitar player is when you have your very own name stamped onto a piece of gear. That can be a lofty perch to reach and in Scofield’s case, he’s reached it more than once. Not only does he have a signature line of guitar strings (Curt Mangan Strings; www.curtmangan.com), he’s also got a signature amplifier (the Two-Rock Matt Schofield 50; www.two-rock.com) and signature overdrive pedal (Free The Tone MS SOV MS-2V; www.freethetone.com). These are not simply just product endorsements for Schofield. He really believes in and uses this gear on a nightly basis.
“It’s mainly the search for the things that are going to reproduce your voice well. Everyone that I work with in terms of gear is a friend. We became friends through me using their stuff. I’ve drank a beer with everybody from my string maker to my amp maker and so on. It’s the element of being friends and then using something that you really believe in,” he said. “Nothing that I use is a commercial; all the stuff I use I bought first and then got to know them (the product makers). It’s great. Probably the number one thing that I’m asked after one of my shows is something about my equipment. So it’s important for me that I’m aligned with people that I like and respect as far as the equipment that I use. Some artists get paid to simply just endorse a piece of equipment, but that’s not my cup of tea. I like everything that I use.”
So well regraded is Schofield’s guitar playing that he is a member of the British Blues Awards’ Hall of Fame. While he is rightfully proud to be recognized as such, Schofield doesn’t believe that that is the be-all, end-all and that it’s now OK to just coast throughout the rest of his career and rest on such accolades. Especially with so much music for the 39-year-old still left to play.
“You know what? It’s great, especially something like that, which was fan-voted when I won the first three years at the British Blues Awards. It became more of a panel-vote after that and became a bit more political, but when I won the first three years and the Hall of Fame thing, it was because fans voted. That’s wonderful because it lets you know you’re reaching people and they appreciate what you’re doing,” he said. “But beyond that, I don’t pay that much attention to the whole idea of awards. It’s useful for spreading the word on you, which is great because we’re not playing mainstream music here. It’s grass-roots, spread the word music. But beyond that, I don’t believe in any of it (awards) at all. I mean, I can’t even listen to my old records … well, I can, but I don’t. I’m just looking forward. How I see it is, the next gig will be better; the next record will be better. No resting on the laurels.”
Schofield has been busily trying to carve out inroads and build his fan base in the United States after having already successfully making a name for himself throughout the United Kingdom and most of Europe. His plan on breaking through in the U.S. market centers around a simple – yet tough – concept; take things state-by-state.
“It’s such a big country (U.S.) that I almost view each state like a country in Europe. There’s areas of the country where I do considerably better than I do in the U.K. I have a great turnout in northern California and in the northwest and northeast – they’re all very good for me. It’s been a fairly consistent build since I’ve been touring here. Where it gets tricky for me, and my music may not resonate the same, is filling in the middle (of the U.S.). And you’re also at the mercy of the routing of a tour. I’ve done pretty good in Chicago even though I’ve only played there three or four times. But if nobody knows about me, getting there logistically can be an issue if I’m going there from New York and nobody knows about me in Cleveland, you know? But I must say that I feel very warmly-embraced by the American blues fans … that’s why I’m basing myself here now. I feel like the future is stronger for me here.”
In addition to being a dynamite guitarist, Schofield is also an accomplished producer and helped give birth to several of Ian Siegal’s records in the mid-2000s, including standout albums like Meat & Potatoes, Swagger and Broadside (Nugene Records). Much like Schofield, Siegal is an extremely-gifted British blues artist that really hasn’t captured all the acclaim that he’s due from the this side of the pond.
“My goal as producer was to make him sound the most Ian Siegal that I could – as I heard him, you know what I mean? It was a thoroughly-enjoyable experience. I really enjoyed the production side of things and because he’s such a talented artist, when you’re in the production chair, there’s a lot to get stuck in there,” Schofield said. “There was a lot of creativity from him to draw on, which was exciting to me. That’s the main take away from that. I wanted to make him the most ‘him’ that I could. I’m a bit more studio-savvy than Ian. He’s very much just ‘sit him down with a guitar and let him go.’ And even though he doesn’t play the same kind of blues as me and vice-versa, we trust each other’s musical opinions, which is great. All our frame of references from where we come from and what we grew up listening to are very much the same, so we understand each other musically. But I’m a guitar player that sings and he’s a singer that plays guitar. I learned a lot about singing from Ian.”
While he may consider himself a ‘guitar player that sings,’ Schofield is nevertheless a highly-competent vocalist and is clearly becoming more confident in his own abilities with each album that he issues.
“Bobby Bland would be one of my favorites (vocalists). What a pure vocalist. As a matter of fact, they just dedicated a statue to him here today in Memphis. And another favorite of mine would be B.B., as well. He was my first guitar hero and also one of the most incredible singers. And then I love Donny Hathaway, he’s one of my favorite singers. And Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt. But that’s not ever going to be my thing (singing like his vocal influences) … I wish it was. I’d trade the guitar if I could sing like Donny Hathaway. But I’m never going to sound like that.. When I open my mouth, I just try to make sure it’s in tune and in time.”
Another of Schofield’s heroes on the guitar – Eric Clapton – also kind of developed his own vocal style as he progressed through the early part of his career.
“I really like Eric Clapton’s singing on a lot of stuff, as well. He’s been an inspiration in as much as he grew up in the public eye singing. He started out being a little rougher around the edges when he was younger and then started to sing on a couple of tunes on the John Mayall record and then with Cream. And over the years, he’s matured into a very fine vocalist in my opinion. I view myself more in that mold in that my whole singing style fits in with my guitar playing. One of the best things I ever did for my guitar playing was singing all the time and writing my own songs. That contributed to me finding more of a voice on the guitar. It’s a whole package thing. Was B.B. King a vocalist or was he a guitar player? Well, he was just B.B. King, you know? That’s the whole thing for me.”
If an artist is looking to strike gold and get rich quick in the entertainment industry, playing the blues is the first thing to avoid. That’s pretty much how it was 50 years ago and that’s pretty much how it is today. However, Schofield says there are examples of those that have managed to do pretty well for themselves in this new millennium, chief among those being Joe Bonamassa.
“Yeah, all credit to Joe Bonamassa for figuring out a way to get it in front of people. Whatever you may think of how he chooses to interpret the music, he’s making it work and almost nobody else is. I saw Joe play at the Hammersmith Apollo in London in front of a sold-out crowd of 5,000. I am not even concerned about playing to 5,000 people. But 500 every night would be really good … for the rest of us, that would be life-changing. To be constantly playing to 500 people every night and not 150 some nights would be a huge thing. If I had 10-percent of his audience, it would change my life. That’s the way to focus this thing, what do we need to offer music lovers to get to that level? Joe’s doing very well for himself now, but I know for a fact that he drove around in a van to the point of saying, ‘Can I do this anymore?’ at one point in his career. I know he got to that point before they figured out what he needed to do. Whether you may think it’s too commercialized is not really the point. The point is, he did do it. That’s what the rest of us need to focus on.”
Visit Matt’s website at: www.mattschofield.com
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues. His first book, Blues In Modern Days was published in 2014.