Matt Owens was a co-founder of the hugely successful indie-folk band Noah and the Whale – he played bass for them.
Since they split, in 2015, he’s fronted raw rock ‘n’ roll outfit called Little Mammoths and launched a solo career. His debut album, Whiskey and Orchids, an acoustic-guitar and-piano-led record, came out in early 2019.
This year, he’s released the follow-up, Scorched Earth, which sees him cranking things up. His Neil Young-style harmonica and beloved ‘60s Gibson Dove acoustic can still be heard on some songs, but this time around it’s joined by a vintage Gretsch electric, as well as bass organ pedals, synths, stomp boxes, synthetic drums and even turntables.
The chugging title track sounds like Springsteen and Tom Petty – with a killer ‘punch the air’ chorus, it’s a stadium rock anthem in waiting. First single, ‘Cargo For The Road’, written about the monotony of touring, is a dark, haunting ballad in the vein of ‘70s Neil Young, ‘MacCurtain street’ is a big, folky protest song about homelessness that’s crying out to be sung in Irish pubs, and ‘Strip It Back’ is quirky and lighthearted with a low-slung funk groove.
I spoke to Matt, who lives in Bath, Somerset, to find out why his new record sounds much more adventurous than his first, and hear some of the stories which inspired his songs.
SH: You’re a full-time, professional musician. How have you been coping during the pandemic and how has it affected you?
MO: I’m used to playing five shows a week on average, and I was going to do 30 festivals this summer, but I’m good – I think it definitely helps having an album to focus on.
I abstained from doing online gigs for a long time, but then I started doing a song a day – playing different songs by my favourite artists. I thought it would be a novelty, but it started to take over my life. I pride myself on having a decent live sound, but so many online platforms have compressed audio – you need to know how to make yourself sound good in different formats. Online shows definitely haven’t replaced live gigs.
Did lockdown impact on your plans for the album?
It was always going to come out in October, but it made me much more neurotic because there was constantly a risk that it could all get taken away. I did wonder whether the album would happen, but I’m a big believer in making records when you’re ready to make them.
My album was part-recorded. I did four days in a studio in Manchester [Airtight].
This was where I’d recorded my debut album, so I had the skeleton of it – nine tracks that I could work on. I also went into a studio in Bath [Mizpah] – when you’re cutting a record and you have limited funds, you want to trust what you know.
It was quite reassuring – I was producing the album myself. A week after I left Manchester, the city was in lockdown. It was only when I was locked-down that I realised how much I get done career-wise when I’m gigging. When I’m driving to shows, I call my manager and venues – that’s my time to ‘work’.