Chloe Matharu is set to release her debut album, Small Voyages, on Friday. It's an absolutely captivating listen from start to end, comprised of eight enchanting tracks you'll find yourself lost in.
It's quite remarkable that music is something that she's only really started to focus on in the last five years, as you'd think this was something she'd been doing her whole life. Matharu was, in fact, in the Merchant Navy and it was her time at sea that inspired her to start creating these wonderful pieces.
I had the chance to speak to her about her life at sea, her inspirations and the album.
I grew up in Edinburgh and, to be honest, I used to leave town [during] the Fringe because I’m not a huge fan of crowds *laughs*.
Performing in it gives you that feeling that you’re part of something special. There’s this feeling of being part of something so multicultural and international despite it being your home city. But there’s always the fear that no one might come, and there’s also the fear that someone very important might come *laughs*. You prepare with not really having any idea how your show is going to turn out. You just have to give it your all and see what happens.
The Pianodrome gig, I didn’t do any of the publicity myself. It was a free lunchtime concert so, to be honest, I didn’t know if anybody would come…and that one was actually packed, people were crammed in. That was amazing.
As someone who [now] lives on the west coast of Scotland, I really crave the Fringe. When I go back, I try to cram in as much as possible.
What I love about your music is that you don't just sing, you also play the harp too. How did you start playing that? It's one of the less common instruments and, certainly, wasn't one of the many instruments that my school offered lessons in.
I was 8 or 10 and I went to Edinburgh Castle for one of these Historic Scotland events, it was like Christmas songs at the Castle. We went in and I remember seeing Katie Targett-Adams standing, singing and playing a clarsach. The sound was so beautiful and rich and, coupled with her voice, was one of the most magical moments of my childhood. I was instantly at my parents [saying] ‘I wanna play, I wanna play!’. [Katie] actually used to go to my school in Edinburgh, [and] I think they had one other student that played the clarsach so luckily they had an instrument.
I think it is becoming more and more widespread but you’re right, I don’t think many people did play it. I was very privileged to grow up in Edinburgh with [its] rich music scene.
What came first for you - playing or singing?
Definitely singing. To be honest, although I played and got my lessons for the harp, it was always something that was just for myself. My family is not from a musical background so it was really just going to music lessons. It was a stilted learning process, especially with my first teacher. I would learn a piece of written music, [and] we would perfect it over weeks and it was not really inspiring. It was the love of the instrument that made me keep going back but I didn’t really enjoy the process of learning it.
It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I got this amazing harp teacher, Helen Macleod, who is sadly no longer with us. She had a really special energy and she kinda brought this traditional learning by ear and the music and combining the two. The pieces started getting more relevant to me. I was always interested in Scottish traditional music at that age and I was previously being asked to play classical pieces on the clarsach which doesn’t make much sense *laughs*.
I didn’t really start realizing that I could venture out and perform live in front of people until about five years ago. I had about three songbooks of all these songs I had written whilst at sea in my cabin. When coming shoreside on my leave, I would wonder what to do with all these things that I had written, and I always felt I needed to start a wee band or rely on a guitar player to arrange them. I like being around other people but when it starts to rely on them for creative projects, it suddenly loses its appeal having [them] on this project because [these pieces] are very reflective of me and the timing is all over the place which often throws other instrumentalists. So I sat down at my harp and decided that I’m going to be brave and start doing arrangements.
It’s only really in the last five years, and only since October 2021 that I’ve actually performed these written pieces in a serious way at venues. It’s been a huge learning curve for me in the past year because, up to then, I had kinda kept these songs, the music and the harp playing to myself.
Picking up on what you said about writing in your cabin...what is the seafaring experience like for a creative person such as yourself? Did you have others to collaborate with while at sea?
A lot of the people who go into the merchant navy…I’ve met many interesting people and, to be honest, we’re all slightly crazy - I don’t think you’ll ever meet someone who’s ‘normal’ on a merchant navy ship *laughs*. It’s fun because our conversations are just off the wall.
When it comes down to the music though, no. It would be so amazing if there were other people that played and you could have a jam. Although, having said that, I had some singer rounds. I managed to sail once with my friend’s dad and he brought his guitar and we had a singer round. It does happen, there’s no reason for it not to happen. But often on the small vessels, if you’re actually sailing [then] you’re all doing watchkeeping. There’s just so much work to do, and the watchkeeping means you’re awake while others are asleep.
It’s been a bit lonely, I guess, and I think a lot of modern day seafarers would say the same thing. The job has changed. Thirty years ago, you’d hear stories of people finishing work and going down to the mess and having a drink. But, in the merchant navy, most ships are dry so you don’t have alcohol. It’s also really small crews which means when you finish watch then it's time for you to get your rest hours so you’re awake and fresh again for the job in eight hours.
What I found was a huge inspiration was being surrounded in almost isolation with the natural environment miles from land; having the natural phenomena like storms and huge waves; and also amazing wildlife that you can see. At least two of the songs on my album, Small Voyages, are about long distance relationships so it’s this sense of longing for loved ones that are ashore. I think everyone can see that, and you can really see it at the beginning of a contract of someone who joins [the merchant navy]. Someone who is fresh-faced and ready for the job and, by the end of their time at sea, they are getting really ready to leave ship and just aren’t themselves. It takes a lot of mental strength to be at sea for that length of time. To kill time I spent a lot of time reading in my cabin.
I didn’t really plan to write music but there’s a lot of ambient noise on the vessels. You have the drone of the engine and that can be quite rhythmic, the creaking, sometimes knocks and bangs…that really starts to get rhythms in your head for music. There’s also very strange noises, such as water gurgling through pipes which can sound like voices of children giggling. The wilderness in the UK is really getting eaten into and I think that sense of the mystic and magic is starting to get more rare to find when you’re on land. [On land] you can hear the sound of the road not that far away or there’s views of houses, so that kind of wilderness and feeling at one with nature and that sense that there could be another world that we don’t know of…we’re losing that connection with that whole kind of thing. Whereas when you’re on a ship and have that phenomena of all those different noises, such as the water making these strange other-worldly noises, you really start to understand why bygone seafarers have been very superstitious and there’s legends of mermaids, that kind of thing. It’s just a breeding ground for imagination and your creativity and, so, a lot of these songs came into my head and I had to write them down as I was getting cabin fever. The phrases of these songs were coming into my head and driving me crazy. I was like ‘right, I’m going to put them down and see if I like them when I get shoreside’.
I would leave ship with notebooks of songs and fragments of songs and lyrics, [as well as] these snapshots of me singing in my cabin on my phone. I would listen to them when I got shoreside and piece them into whole songs with arrangements on the harp, and I’ve now selected eight to release.
The album was produced by Brian MacDonald of the MacDonald Brothers. How did that collaboration come about?
My neighbor is a very talented singer. She had decided to get some tracks recorded and just happened to find Brian MacDonald. I had actually never heard of them from The X Factor and they are very successful but, just being at sea, I didn’t hear of them. That all went over my head.
He’s the most amazing multi-instrumentalist and musician. He set up a recording space during lockdown, and he’s picked up all this knowledge about recording and producing music through his own experience. He’s an amazing person to work with. If you have an idea, you just tell him what you have in mind.
One of the ideas that I had, I wrote a song called ‘Arctic Terns’. We use a lot of field recordings of the natural world on this album, and on that song we have the song of the Arctic Tern…and I really should’ve done a bit of research what that sounds like before I wrote the song *laughs*. It’s literally a seagull going ‘arrrgh!’ I realized that I had pitched that whole idea to Brian and then listened back to the field recordings and I was like ‘oh god’. He was like ‘we’ll give it a try’ and somehow managed to put it all together. I think it works really well.
In the past, when I’ve worked with recording studios, I’ve felt a little bit like I’ve not been listened to or my ideas are instantly pushed to the side. Whereas Brian was amazing to work with, and I highly recommend him because he takes on board all of your ideas and gives them a shot. He did such a good job of everything and also put his own spin on stuff in a subtle way and managed to integrate all of my ideas onto the record. It felt like a really inclusive process and a dual project between the both of us.
To wrap things up and to tease your album, which is out in just a few days…how would you describe Small Voyages to a prospective listener?
It’s an authentic voice of the female seafarer, which hasn’t really been done in folk music before.
I set these reflective songs to a backdrop of celtic harp music and field recordings. I hope that creates an evocative feel.
By putting together this album, I’m hoping to give people who haven’t been to sea a little glimpse into the life of a modern day seafarer and that experience of being completely exposed and vulnerable to the natural elements at sea.
I’m lending a voice to the modern day seafarer.
Small Voyages is released September 16th. More information about the album and Chloe can be found on her website.