Matthew Frederick : Tell Me28.06.2019 : Staylittle Music
The video for Climbing Trees' 2015 single Graves features a middle-aged man at the end of a drunken, kebab-punctuated night breaking free from his small-town surroundings and constraints, climbing a hill and literally throwing himself naked into the dawn sun. The film's narrative could be taken as an allegorical representation of the transcendence the band have sought in their music; creatively escaping the gravity of the humdrum to find some natural magnificence.
Climbing Trees have released two albums; Hebron (2013), which was a triumphant essay of soft-focus Cymrucana, and Borders (2016), which had a new, harder, rock edge. Songs from both LPs, performed somewhere between pedal-to-the-metal and acoustically, have featured in a string of sublime gigs; what the band does next, collectively or singly, will always be of interest. News has been sparse of late - but the wait for further activity is over.
Mid-May I was sat in an ad hoc cafe at FOCUS Wales 2019, flipping through the event's programme when, as if by magic, Climbing Trees' frontman Matthew Frederick appeared - as sudden, composed and quixotic-in-intent as the shopkeeper in seventies cult children's classic Mr Benn.
He had just finished playing the second of two solo sets over the weekend and, rather than offer a costumed adventure, was eager instead to explain his, and his cohorts', next musical steps.
Frederick is quick-witted and precise. He is from the Rhondda Valley, and has a tendency to self-deprecate whilst testing with humour – twin traits often found in areas with long working class cultural histories. Whatever the roots of his disposition, the less-than-remorse-soaked character you meet outside a studio diverges markedly from the elegiac misery ballads his solo career has been, at least up to now, notable for.
Luckily, in a festival full of aural distraction, we found a few minutes' space to speak in a nearby gallery. Conjuring instant conviviality, Frederick produced two bottles of Peroni (they were warm and small, as if they'd been uniformly crushed by black-hole-like gravitational forces in his enormous rucksack) and a Climbing Trees branded bottle opener, before mapping out his plans for the coming year. These initially pivot around his second solo LP (due for release late Autumn 2019 off the back of two introductory summer singles), then involve a switch in emphasis to promote it, as he explained;
"Once the album is out, I want to do something different live. I'd like to play in places where people don't normally go to perform – a lot of towns are completely missed out on the touring map, and these are the places I want to visit. I've found in those places people really appreciate the effort you are making – there's no feeling like playing to a hundred people in Wellingborough!"
"I have always really enjoyed those gigs, and the more intimate ones – playing to smaller audiences in out-of-the-way rooms. I get a lot more out of a gig when people can really listen, which allows more of a chance to interact in-between the songs."
He finished the point laughing;
"My set is a conversation, and now I've got a van with a makeshift bed in the back I'm happy to travel anywhere to have it!"
There is a risk of slight understatement here – the spontaneous aspect of Matthew Frederick's performances shouldn't be missed, in the right setting his comic timing is cut-throat razor sharp, and his communion with an audience definite and rare.
Talk detoured to the success of Steve Knightley's Grow your Own Gig project, and Frederick's splendid gig at 3rd Space Llandudno in 2018, before we spoke about the new album in detail. He was keen to express how his songwriting has developed from that documented in earlier releases;
"The new songs have a little more instrumentation on them, but I think they're more mature compositions also. My first solo EP was in 2011, I was 22 then - I am still proud of it, but it doesn't really represent how I sound, or how I am, now."
Smiling, he added;
"For those who already know me, it still has that sensitive, acoustic feel - in contrast to the upbeat character I am in life."
That contrast is as faint as it has ever been in the first single from the new recordings, Tell Me (out 28.06.2019), which extends the emotional range Frederick's solo career has so far explored.
To achieve this shift, he ripped up the song's previous slow and mournful live reading – the lyric is from the point of a man pleading for a relationship not to end – and gave it an irresistible, skiffling pop energy in the studio. It is a bright, buoyant piece closer to the singer's character than anything he has set on tape before.
The exchange meandered for a moment – we sketched through the many ways his name is misspelt on festival posters, then North Wales and Liverpool venues and audiences - before finding a new direction discussing Climbing Trees' collective future ambitions. He happily outlined the current situation;
"We've been hibernating, but we met up last week for the first time in a while, and started to jam some new stuff."
"We won't be playing live until next year, I imagine – we want to work on some new material. At the moment it's the three of us, Martin, Colenso and myself. James (drums) is currently based in London – so we're working without him in the room for now."
"We are thinking through what we do next – a stripped-back acoustic EP or one of absolute 'bangers'. It could go either way at the moment – we always teeter between those two options!"
With that the empties were gathered and put back, with the bottle opener and any stray thoughts, into the unfeasibly large backpack. A quick scan of my programme for bearings, and he disappeared into the afternoon to watch Welsh chamber-folk marvels VRï.
Like his band's sound, Matthew Frederick's solo music is hard to shoehorn into a specific genre. There are threads of Americana, folk, blues and pop running through it, but you'd not want to push too hard in justifying its roots are from any one place.
In reality he is a modern representation of the type of singer-songwriter who graced Top of the Pops in the late seventies and early eighties – timelessly out of kilter with the spiky new wave and disco they shared the bill with, but vital and compelling in their sheer ability to craft a mood with a song.
As this latest single re-affirms, Frederick is one of Wales' most emotionally articulate musicians. If Tell Me holds any predictive value, the new album will be great, and the gigs to promote it, wherever they are held, will be too.