Guest Post by Matthew Barton: A Postcard from Quarantine
Back in March, in England, along with the rest of the country, I went into lockdown. No visits outside, no socialising, no face-to-face contact with friends — a transformation of our daily life. It’s now August, and I am releasing a project, Queen of England, made in quarantine. But I didn’t know that I was doing that at the start.
COVID-19 has unquestionably hit everyone hard. I feel fortunate at all that I was able to maintain a level of creativity that allowed me to make this project, and I don’t take that for granted. Did I have days when I didn’t get dressed and just watched episodes of Poirot? Yes. Maybe that’s why this rough-hewn recording took longer than perhaps it should to make… but it became a kind of friend. It became my postcard from quarantine.
I recorded it on four-track, which means: tape hiss, lo-fi, rough around the edges. I’ve grown to love those kind of records. Nebraska is my favourite Bruce Springsteen album, recorded in a day on an old Tascam and the master tape carried around in his coat pocket; PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos has become a talisman for me, forty-five minutes of raw power captured on a Yamaha four-track in her kitchen. Daniel Johnston, the Marine Girls, early Perfume Genius, Medium Soft’s Paradise Slums which I first heard in April… they all showed me that it’s less about the equipment and more about the song, and the spirit.
At the beginning of lockdown, the only song entirely in the can was “Barb,” and I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it yet. I had just been recording, as always, my four-track demos, for my own amusement, as a creative outlet, not as part of any particular project. And that’s exactly how Queen of England began. There was no real theme, or plan. But, as often with creative projects, it began to reveal itself over time.
It wasn’t until maybe halfway in that I thought, “Maybe this could be a record.” Knifepunch Records, a label based out of Florida, were already on board to release a cassette tape of my music, which I figured would be the odds and ends I’d collected and put out, including songs from earlier in the year like “Orchid” and “Fag.” But new songs began to form, and Queen of England quickly became the soundtrack, and motivation, of my quarantine. It became my own little project.
It gave me a purpose and structure to my day: adding a guitar here and a keyboard fill there, experimenting with a harmony and editing in — and out — instruments that did or didn’t work. I didn’t have any real rules except I got it in my head that I wanted to try and use every single instrument I own in some way (some of those you can find on the cassette version). I began to see it as my own kind of radio station, or jukebox.
It became clear that the guitar was central to these new songs, but I wanted to try and reflect some of the things I was interested in musically at the time, whether more rhythmic playing like on “Cruising” or experimenting with open tuning on “Alcatraz,” or ditching the guitar altogether for autoharp on “Lady Jane Days.”
With “Barb” completed, I returned, on the insistence of my friend Alice, to “Judy Garland,” which had mostly been recorded last summer. “Judy” was inspired by 60’s girl groups and Brill Building pop — simple and direct melodies. “When I Was Young” was another older song that began to reassert itself and I loved layering up the guitars and harmonies, pretending to be my own Fleetwood Mac. These songs seemed to be pillars that the rest grew around.
“Queen of England,” which was first featured on Z Tapes’ Hope for European Bedrooms compilation in the spring, went through three different versions before I settled on one that incorporated guitar and autoharp. The tempo progressively slowed, but, inspired by Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, released in the middle of this project, I tried to make it a bit more percussive. This song was written before 2020 but it’s become probably my most 2020 song of all. In my mind’s eye, the harmonium wheezing out “London Bridge is Falling Down” at the end is a salvation army band at the end of the world. I’d been listening to Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones.
What beforehand I might have edited out – mistakes or accidents – I decided to keep in. I began to enjoy the imperfections. Thus, the plane flying overhead during part of “Cruising” seemed to curiously fit. There’s a flatline in part of “Queen of England” that maybe only I can hear but I also kept that, partly because I felt it fit the theme of the song (it’s really my song version of the This Is Fine meme.) I did, however, have to do three takes of “Lady Jane Days” to cut out the barking dogs.
Quarantine also forced me to be less fussy about recording location and time. I did it whenever I could, wherever, whether in the garage with the wind howling or in the backseat of my car, using the headrest as my “soft furnishings.” I added dulcimer parts to “Judy Garland” in between iPlayer catchups of Killing Eve. Some vocals were done after a cup of tea and some, I can’t lie, after a few beers.
Making Queen of England was fun and infuriating. It could be lonely. There were times I could have done with someone saying “Matt, stop fiddling with the reverb” or “Yes, you DO need to re-record that part.” There were times it was just like playing. I spent far too much time faffing. Are the drums panned correctly? Is this harmony actually terrible? Is the chord change at 2:36 clear enough over the bass? You don’t know if anyone is going to hear it, or connect to it, and you begin to question why you’re doing it. You have to fight to stay true to the reasons you’re doing it in the first place. Ultimately, it’s all about the song, not you. I wanted to be able to say, at the end of this, even if no one ever hears this, even if I never put it out, Have I done the best that I can for these songs right now?
Could they be better realised in a studio? Yes. Do I dream about putting strings on “Judy Garland”? Yes. Did I have any real idea what I was doing with mixing? No. But what I can say is that it is mine, warts and all, for better or worse. How did I know that it was finished? I don’t know. I just remember procrastinating by watching Kiki’s Delivery Service, going for a walk to delay the inevitable even further, and then coming back and mixing down “Alcatraz,” the last song, and knowing it was done. It felt weird. I think I had another cup of tea.
Since finishing it, Nottingham-based mixing engineer Sam Wain gave it a final master and the homespun artwork that I made, continuing the postcard theme, became the basis for a fruitful collaboration with the brilliant artist Paul Snyder. Paul was able to take the music, and the artwork, and distill it into a series of beautiful films that really capture the spirit of the songs. My collaboration with him has been a real joy and I hope we can work together again.
Making Queen of England has taught me several things. It’s shown me what I want for future projects – to be less precious, more decisive – but also simply that I can do it. I didn’t have a little record a few months ago but now I do. That is liberating. Is it perfect? No. But is anything? Now it’s out in the world, and whoever may listen to it or stumble upon it, I hope it can show you that if you have a creative idea – doesn’t have to be musical – keep at it. Because you can do it too.
Based in England’s Midlands, Matthew Barton describes his music as “where 60s girl groups and DIY cassettes meet, on a fuzzy four-track with guitars and synths and autoharps and harmoniums.” Today’s feature is Matthew’s fifth appearance in these virtual pages. We previously featured “Orchid,” “When I Was Young,” “Hide,” and “Fag.” The latter two posts were written by Matthew.