Reaching for the sky

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JULIE Matthews’ songwriting antenna is seldom switched off.

But it’s her indefatigable social radar that has provided a seam of material over the years, much of which has appeared in several ditties, ballads and up-beat folk numbers. This astute approach to songwriting has led Matthews to be one of the most hailed artists in the British contemporary folk scene.

And this month, Julie Matthews, together with her songwriting partner Chris While, release their latest album, Infinite Sky, a collection of songs that span Nazi Germany, 9/11 and the broken heart.

Matthews describes the pair’s songwriting philosophy. “At the end of the day we are folk musicians, folk music is representative of the people - it’s social commentary.”

This commentary includes tackling the unjust, as the duo does in Inconvenient Hero, a song about the fact that 9/11’s first responders were not allowed to the ten-year memorial service at the World Trade Center site.

“I was so appalled by that, and the fact that many of the firefighters have suffered from respiratory problems since 9/11 but the US government has only recently agreed to pay for treatment.”

Matthews’ social conscience also meant that she was chosen to pen some of the BBC’s Radio Ballads in 2006 inspired by the ground-breaking documentaries produced in the 1950s by Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker that wove recorded interviews into songs.

“MacColl interviewed everyday people from everyday life, which was rare at the time - these were real people, not actors.”

Matthews was given the enormous task of contributing to some of the 2006 ballads and one of her songs, Nie Wieder (Never Again), tells the tragic story of Gretel Bergmann, a Jewish athlete who was banned from her team in the Nazi Olympics. The song also appears on Infinite Sky.

“I love getting my teeth into a project,” says Matthews, especially a radio project.”

Matthews and While share a house with a built-in studio in Penistone.

“We make a studio album once every two years but it’s not hard to come up with material because we both write. This album feels very complete because everything came together at once - Chris and I bought a house together and our friendship’s solid.”

The album features other Sheffield musicians Nancy Kerr and Martin Simpson.

“Sheffield has become really trendy on the folk scene,” says Matthews. “John Boden from Bellowhead’s up here.”

Matthews was born in Sheffield, so her recent move is a return to her roots, but the folk artist is still keen to travel.

“Travel is a really good thing, songwriters are attuned to picking things up that they see and hear on their travels and recycling them in songs. I find things ridiculously interesting,” she says.

“I’ve got so many songs from the news - you can touch on other people’s lives when you are standing in front of an audience. You’re talking and singing about what people go through.”

But Matthews and While’s concerts aren’t all serious.

“We like to move them as well and at the end of the day it’s entertainment, you’ve got to cover all bases when you are playing a show.”

But while her material’s sources may vary from a train journey to reports from Nazi journey the subject matter - human nature - remains timeless.

Julie Matthews’ and Chris While’s Infinite Sky is out now.