Celtic Calling: Talking Matt Steady’s Latest Album – Nawglan – And Open Hands Compassion

Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas

Artboard 1

Matt Steady is a very busy, interesting and talented individual. Between his full time job as an independent musician from Leicester, UK, business owner, marketer & distributor, designer & webmaster, he still finds time in his day, and perhaps most importantly — in his heart, to foster children and help with fundraising at Open Hands Compassion Centre in Leicester

In the last 5 years, Matt has self-released eight (8) full-length albums and has worked himself to, well, the bone. When you love to create music as Matt does, doing just that doesn’t usually feel like “work” in the traditional sense, but had begun to feel that way. Matt decided to take some time to chill, relax, and re-center himself. He still wanted to make music, and continued to do so — but only music that helped him achieve this goal. He found himself making instrumentals since they felt a lot less stressful. 

Matt may have found what he was looking for on this journey into self-relaxation through music as the music seemed to be playing him, not the other way around. What came out was meditative, relaxing, and soothing. In the creation of these instrumentals, Matt remembered a trilogy of books he’d read as a teenager featuring a fascinating mix of ancient Celtic legends mixed with early Christian beliefs titled The Song of Albion by Stephen Lawhead. Recalling a strong resonance with the novels, a resonance almost as strong as the ones in his instrumentals, the beginnings of Matt’s latest work — Nawglan — began to take shape. 

His Challenge

Creating music is no easy task. When you’re a one-man show like Matt, you also have the additional tasks of production, marketing, distribution, plus managing accounts and bookings. While COVID may have put a stop to gigging for the foreseeable future, Matt’s still been able to produce quite a bit of music, even despite having the lion’s share of homeschooling his small herd of children. However, Matt knows if he doesn’t work hard, he won’t get paid. 

In my interview with Matt, he mentioned normally he just picks up instruments and jams out, recording what he does until something that sounds nice comes out. Using his Digital Audio Workstation, the technology he noted didn’t exist a few decades ago, Matt can manipulate the jam sessions he’s recorded, cutting and pasting them together, as well as introducing sonic complexity. Speaking of, Matt mainly plays the guitar, violin/viola, Uilleann pipes, cittern, and the piano, but he’ll have a go at any instrument if you’d let him. 

After layering in some synths and other instruments, a track can begin to take life of its own. Composition seems to come naturally to Matt, as he listens to his track over and over, shaping it like clay until he ultimately feels he’s serving the music, not the other way around, mastering the sound and bringing the sound out. With each album Matt has composed, save for his first, they have a concept, and in this, he thought Nawglan was no different. 

His Solution

Nawglan was different, however. As Matt began composing, he would shut his eyes for a minute and mentally visualize a picture of the tree the track represents, set in a field or by a river. He visualizes the colors, sounds, weather, birds, and other wildlife nearby. These trees, of course, are the sacred nine from Ancient Celtic Legends – Alder, Ash, Birch, Elm, Hazel, Oak, Rowan, Willow, and Yew. Celtic Monks believed each of the trees contained characteristics pointing towards the various attributes of the Godhead at the center of their religion, and they would meditate upon these trees while harvesting them in turn. 

Matt composed each track on Nawglan with the distinct character and divine characteristics held by the Celtic Monks in mind. After exhaustive research, cross-referencing with Celtic mythology and early Christian writings, Matt had a list of attributes each tree represented, an aspect of God, and would let this “rattle about in his head” Picking up an instrument, or starting with a drone or beat, he’d simply improvise and let the music flow from within. Most of the tracks on Nawglan came from an improvised recording session, Matt told me. He had moments where he would go back and re-record something to “tidy it up”, then add other instruments and percussion around it.

You could definitely say there is a freedom and spontaneity in the approach Matt took to record Nawglan and he believes it comes across in the final recording. 

In this way, the finished album is the ash and the creation process, unseen, is the act of worship and devotion, similar to the gathering of the wood by the Monks. These Monks, upon burning the wood of the Sacred Nine, called the ash Nawglan. 

His Results

The album is certainly different from his previous releases. When I began listening to Nawglan on my headphones, I felt compelled to switch the audio output to my Hi-Res speaker system to truly appreciate the soundscape Matt has created. Tracks like Elm of the Glens have a symphonic atmosphere, where the strings float above an intimate background of bells and other percussive instruments, only to disappear with a dramatic crescendo about 3 minutes in. if Avalon were a real place and they had HiFi, they would have certainly listened and had Nawglan in their Spotify-equivalent playlists. 

Matt describes his music as “Roots. Served Raw.” His music is from the Heart. He doesn’t write to serve a particular audience or use recommended ingredients to make a hit. He writes what is inside of him and needs to come out. Most of Matt’s past albums are roots-based, with heavy Folk and Blues vibes. Sometimes he flirts with electronics and rock, of course, Matt had a classical background growing up, but all in all, he stays true to his roots. Often his music has Celtic flavors, Irish in particular as he loves to play the Uilleann pipes. But sometimes there are some Americana singer-songwriter elements in some tracks. With Nawglan making it an even eight albums, I’d say Matt has found his sound. 

I had a chance to ask Matt how ChemiCloud Hosting and applications like WordPress have made it easier to share the music he’s created and he said “having my own website is a game-changer” because he can sell his music there without anyone taking a cut (except the payment providers, like Stripe or PayPal). He can control who listens to his music, but generally allows visitors to his website to stream his albums in full to be sure it’s what you like before committing to a purchase. He also mentioned using his web hosting and WordPress, he can host a crowdfunding event on his website without a third-party taking a cut and potentially not giving anyone money, which has happened with some crowd-funding events. 

Matt’s also brought several musician friends over to the ChemiCloud web hosting platform, which is amazingly easy to do he mentioned because our Migrations team does all the work for you! Matt was with a “big name hosting company” before and it was just awful. Technical support was on another continent, maybe planet, and they weren’t any help whatsoever if he had problems or questions. His experience with ChemiCloud has been vastly different, having found our Happiness Engineers ready, willing, and (most importantly) able to answer his questions, not just running through a script. 

“Never accept poor customer service from a company – take your business to someplace where you feel welcome and valued,” Matt told me on the subject of customer loyalty. And when it comes to ChemiCloud, “relationships are everything” Matt says”, and each time he talks to someone at ChemiCloud, he’s more and more convinced he made the right choice. 

Q&A With Matt Steady

Many of our customers are creative people, passionate about what they create, and are interested in hearing from professionals who are using platforms like WordPress, and other digital software to create their dreams and bring them to life. While I had Matt’s ear, if you’ll pardon the pun, I wanted to get his insight into other topics. 

In “The Why” of Nawglan, you mention you have 4 kids, 3 of whom are adopted – as the son of a couple who adopted me when I was born, a huge thank you and your partner for being brave, caring people who did this! You also mention the proceeds of Nawglan will be benefiting the Open Hands Compassion Centre in Leicester. That’s hugely generous of you and your family. Can you tell me a bit more about their center, mission, and what they do for your community?

Well, it’s 6 kids now we’re fostering! One is at uni, and another has moved out too, so it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. We love having a big, noisy family. Open Hands are amazing – they are a charity in Leicester that helps the homeless, poor, and the needy. They distribute food and hygiene parcels, have evenings with free hot meals for anyone who needs one (sponsored by Pukka Pies no less!). They restore furniture and give it to people who have finally made it into council housing. They teach English as a second language. They have nurseries and playgroups. They give advice on debt and help with filling in forms. Any need they can see in the community, they will try and help with.

My wife, Abi, and my two eldest children volunteer at the meal evenings, and we try and get stuck in with fundraising whenever we can. And it isn’t full of managers and marketing gurus. Every penny goes to help people who need it. During the lockdown, whilst money coming in from my music business dropped, my wife’s income was consistent (she’s a deputy head at a special school). We were very aware that in times of need, the poor and marginalized suffer the most. So we wanted to help with that.

The technology used to create and record music has evolved rapidly in the last 20 to 25 years. What are some of your favorite things to come out of this “tech boom” and also some things you still like doing the “old-fashioned way?”

20 years ago, I would not be doing what I’m doing. The internet and digital technology has made it possible for me to work from home, make high-quality music, and distribute it across the world. You can now take a basic PC, a mic, a cheap audio interface, and some free software, and you can make top-quality music. The missing ingredients needed are skills, ears, brains. But if you’re dedicated enough you can do this. It’s amazing!

It is also brilliant being able to collaborate with other artists so easily. I’ve played violin on people’s tracks in America! I’ve had a drummer from Sweden play on several albums. It’s mind-boggling. There are downsides too of course – don’t get me started on streaming!

What do I like to do “the old-fashioned way”? Well first of all, if I possibly can, I like to actually play my music on instruments. Digital instruments are fantastic these days, but for me, I like the vagaries of the real thing. I like to hear my violin bow scraping, my fingernails hit a piano key, my voice wobble and break. But the main thing I like to do the old-fashioned way is … talking and working with people. Respecting people and doing my very best for them. Talking to people in person and on the phone as well as just email/messaging. Our relationships with people are the most important thing around, and it’s easy to not spend time on them and almost use people as a black box that “does stuff” on the other end of an email. Relationships are everything!

What advice would you give young and aspiring composers and musicians who aren’t sure how to get started? What is something you, at your current age, would want to tell your teenage self?

Just do it!

If you want to get better at singing or playing an instrument – well get singing and playing! Lessons are great if you can afford them, but actually, if you have the drive you can get really good at anything if you practice hard enough, and if you practice right. There are free resources everywhere. Don’t ever use money as an excuse to not do something. There’s generally a way around it. Don’t give up. You won’t get hugely better in one day, but you can make a conscious effort to pick one small thing and improve on it on that day. It all adds up.

If you want to make your own recordings (which I highly recommend): You’ve probably got access to a PC or a Mac, or a laptop. Save up and buy a second-hand audio interface from eBay and a mic. Download the free version of Ableton, or any number of other DAWs. Record your voice, instruments. It won’t be good to start with for sure, but the only way of learning is to do it. The best piece of advice? Don’t get suckered into spending money on plugins – you honestly can do everything you need to do with the standard stuff in your DAW. Don’t get suckered into buying lots of expensive courses on production or mixing or recording. There is a ton of free content out there on YouTube. Take everything with a pinch of salt. If you can watch other people record and mix. You’ll learn way more from that than any course.

What advice would I give my teenage self? Do what you want to do, not what you think you should do.

If you could collaborate and record with anyone, who would it be and why?

Oh dear – how long have you got? I have two answers to your question really. Firstly, I’ve made some amazing friends in the independent music scene, and it has been my privilege to play on their albums and to have some of them play on mine. John and Duncan Reed, Sam Jefferson, Eleanor from ‘Eleanor and the Lost’, Terl Bryant, etc. The camaraderie between us and the fun we have is just immense. I look forward to working with other independent musicians so much!

But I suspect you’re thinking about a wish list of stars and geniuses! Well, I’d love to record with Mark Knopfler. He’s a bit like me, loving to play in all sorts of styles and scenarios. He seems a really genuine kind of man, as well as being a musical hero of mine, and I think anything he touches turns to musical gold.

Thanks for hanging in there with me so far! Last two questions – what’s your favorite album, any album, any genre! And – what are you most looking forward to next, personally, musically, anything!

That’s tricky! Just one? There are so many albums that I love. Some for their musical content, and some because they bring back amazing memories or feelings. And sometimes you love albums because they helped you get through something. Gretchen Peters’ album “Blackbirds” is a wonderful album, and it just so happened the CD had arrived the very day we had a great sadness in the family. I ended up doing a lot of driving with the music on repeat. And while the pain doesn’t really go away, the music helps you unpack it and deal with it, it helps to heal and make it part of you, helps you accept it rather than hide it and bottle it up. Music is so powerful. Thank you, Gretchen. You’ve made a difference in my life, and I hope I can do the same to others in return.

What am I looking forward to? Well, we had a holiday in the Isle of Wight canceled a few months back, and we’ve booked a replacement in the Lake District in a few weeks’ time. I’m desperately hoping that this doesn’t get canceled as well! I’m very much looking forward to being out and about in the countryside with no distractions, getting to know the new additions to the family even better!

If you haven’t already checked out Nawglan, go have a listen for yourself on Matt’s website and buy a copy if you feel so inclined.  To Matt, thanks so much for the interview and for your time. It was a blast getting to know you through your music and replies and I look forward to listening to Nawglan, among other selections, when I need to meditate and relax. 

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