This month’s artist on Between the Art is Singer, Songwriter and Harpist Chloe Matharu.
Raised in Scotland, of Punjabi and Welsh heritage, Chloe is currently based in Wemyss Bay on the Clyde Coast. Growing up in Edinburgh, she was exposed to traditional music, particularly at youth gatherings led by renowned musicians such as Julie Fowlis and Karine Polwart. It was there that Chloe learnt traditional and burn songs, as well as learning to play the clàrsach (Celtic harp). After leaving school, she studied with singer songwriters Lauren MacColl and Ewen McPherson, and they created an early album together along with musician Alec Hunter. This was when Chloe realised that she wanted to pursue music but also needed more life experience and confidence to have a story to tell.
Chloe decided to leave Edinburgh and experience life out at sea. She was based at Fleetwood Nautical College and, after training, travelled around Northern Europe on oil tankers as a cadet. Whilst on board, music didn’t leave Chloe entirely and she became inspired by her experiences out at sea. After her time as a Navigational Officer in the Merchant Navy, Chloe returned to music to tell stories about these amazing experiences, as well as motherhood, a sense of community, and the landscape. She also explores breaking down cultural and gender barriers, and performs in Scots, English and Welsh.
Chloe’s award winning debut album Small Voyages was released in October 2022 and was selected for Celtic Music Radio's Album of the Year and was included in the Top 20 of the World Music Charts, Europe. Her latest single release is Towards the Hebrides.
Here, Chloe shares why her time at sea has become inextricably intertwined with her music and how she is challenging preconceived ideas about what the modern day seafarer looks like. Read on to find out more...
Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?
I still think of myself as a maritime professional. I still feel very in tune to other Marines, I feel very much at home, and I think that is a sense of place. My approach is twofold in the fact that I'm coming from a working background, as opposed to a musical background; and secondly, I'm coming from a background of being at sea. The sea in itself as a natural space has quite an impact on my music. Essentially, it's come from these amazing musicians that happen to play music on the side of working. We need to keep these traditions alive, through old songs and sea shanties, but we also need to reflect on how the maritime industry has moved on, and what the current working conditions are now. A lot of the time it can be quite lonely.
For me, a long distance relationship was quite a big part of my experience of being at sea and a lot of my songs are about that and this longing for loved ones. Me and my husband had a long distance relationship for about eight years, when he was in the Royal Navy and I was in the Merchant Navy. One way that we used to keep in touch was by spotting wildlife from the edge of our ships, and this inspired one of my songs called Arctic terns. The arctic tern migrates the furthest distance in a year of any other bird. The birds can migrate from pole to pole and they keep a mate for life. I remember spotting them from the bridge of my ship in Alaska, taking a picture of it and sending it by email to my husband, waiting for him to respond. As a lovesick seafarer, this was a really romantic idea that they would meet up in the same place every year after travelling a big distance. The birds do this amazing dance, bringing each other fish and dancing up into the sky. It made me want to write a song about long distance relationships.
Being completely exposed to the elements at sea is very inspiring. It makes me feel vulnerable. I think that a lot of people’s creativity comes from a place of vulnerability because you are putting yourself out there or experiencing something new. Since becoming a mother, my music is a way to keep the narrative going about the maritime past that I've had because it's quite a marginalised part of society. I was a navigational officer, meaning I was driving the ships, but often when I say that I've been at sea, people say, “Oh, were you a steward on cruise ships?” And I reply, “No, I drove the cruise ships!” There’s still this ignorance around gender, but also around people assuming that you're in the military because you work at sea. In the UK we've got so many islands and oil tankers are needed for their communities to survive.
Celestial navigation has also inspired some of my songs – the idea that you're in different places on the sea to someone else but looking at the same sky. With the celestial sky the view of the stars might be different because of being in the northern hemisphere or the southern hemisphere. In the maritime we navigate by the stars and so it was something that you would be tracking every watch. At one point, it occurred to me that my husband was navigating using Polaris, and I was looking at the southern class in Australia. I wanted to include this in my music by taking field recordings of the natural world: whale songs, storms, waves, and integrate that as a backdrop to the Celtic carbon voice. Essentially, I want to offer the landlubber a little glimpse into the maritime world because it’s an amazing experience that should be shared and talked about.
How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?
A song usually starts from some kind of phrase of music with lyrics that kind of float down and begin to get stuck in my head. I usually have to just sing that around for a while. It's very spontaneous. I lose a lot of songs on a daily basis, because a lot of thoughts come to me when I'm in the midst of something else or there are other things to be done. When I was at sea, it would be a case of if I had my mobile on me, I'd quickly record it. On oil tankers you're not really allowed to have any kind of electronic devices, so often I would try to hum it, remember it and then record it later, which wasn't always possible.
I think my creative process is quite haphazard. It’s a kind of natural environment exposure as ideas come to me almost as though it's in the atmosphere. If I went on a writing retreat I might struggle as I need to have a bit of a sense of chaos and other things going on to feel this higher level of creativity come to me. Otherwise, I’m putting too much pressure on myself thinking about what I need to write and actually it needs to be very organic.
Do you have any rituals that help with this process of creating work?
I think everything about my life is about rituals. I usually have to take one of my pets with me to my harp when I'm about to do a recording. It’s a ritual of having my pet near me and feeling like I have some kind of quiet silent audience. I've got a little toy poodle with me now and he will often come in with me as he's very content to sit at my feet while I'm playing. I also have four different cats. One is a Ragdoll cat who is really soft and just drapes over my chair. I do feel he is quite attentive and it feels like a part of my practice to bring him into the music. I definitely like bringing animals into the space as a way to calm down this environment because you can sometimes feel very busy, but pets are always in the moment, similarly to mindfulness. I guess this is something that I’m always trying to achieve in everyday life, but especially when I’m creating as you need to be in this mindfulness zone and just focusing on the here and now. I think that animals are really good at giving you the sense of timelessness.
Also, another ritual for me would be going out and experiencing the outside space. When watchkeeping, I've often stared at the horizon for hours at a time as it’s something that's always on view from the bridge of the ship. Where I live now it's quite different as we have mountains behind us and mountains on the other side. You can't look for miles and miles out towards the horizon. For me, going up somewhere high to be able to look out at the horizon is something that I find really centres me back into being able to write from a blank space. Swimming in the sea helps with this as well. If I can’t find that kind of open airiness in the view, then there's a beach at the end of our street where I like to swim in the sea there all year round. That is also a ritual for me too.
"When watchkeeping, I've often stared at the horizon for hours at a time as it’s something that's always on view from the bridge of the ship. Going up somewhere high to be able to look out at the horizon is something that centres me back into being able to write from a blank space."
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just recorded a song which is going to be my second single that I release this year in September. I've just recorded a music video for it on a local beach here in the Hebrides, called Hosta. Recently, I was in a global music match which was a WOMEX awarded project that brings international artists together into an online space. There was a real sense of community. You are given a coach who you work with on a weekly basis over six months. It really felt like I had a family. I finished this in January and have since met up with people in person, which has been the most amazing thing! Off the back of that I've learnt so many skills, such as video editing, and so I invested in my own video equipment. It's another way of widening my artistic practice: I can do the music and then also do the video to carry on the expression of whatever the song is trying to say. I filmed the video for my single The Silkie of Sule Skerry. This next video filmed on Hosta beach is all about journeying from the city out to the space of the Hebrides. This kind of project is something that will continue now that I've got the skills and the equipment to do it.
Another thing I'm working on is a theatre piece. I'm writing new songs for what will be an eight track album about my time at sea, as well as traditional songs that I think reflect the feelings and stories of the maritime. It's also going to involve spoken word performed by myself about love letters narrating my time at sea. I’m hoping to work with Ballet Folk, an amazing company that work with dancers. We are hopefully going to bring my music and their choreography together and produce a tour.
I'm also starting to explore the use of archive recordings and using them in an electronic soundscape. My music is starting to explore electronic soundscapes, bringing more narrative into the music, along with the field recordings. It will be a crossover of different cultures, because hopefully I will be using Welsh songs and working with Welsh artists. I’m hoping to establish a trio and tour this too in the future.
What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?
Strangely, a sense of place was something I felt strongly as a child. I would have this dreamlike sense of place that I had either imagined or visited at some point. I would call them ‘atmospheres’, which would come to me and I would have this need to explore. It was a sense of place in particular locations where I would feel inspired. If I returned to a location, it would trigger this higher sense of place.
Later when I was in the maritime, I would sail into ports and these childhood feelings would come back. It happened in places like Hawaii and Alaska, but also in Scotland. There were places where I felt this really strong sense of place, almost like I had visited them in my past, though obviously I hadn't! I think maybe it was my subconscious telling me that I have to go and see these places as part of what I need to do. It would often feel like I was trying to find a place where the sea meets the land. It was really uncanny coming to Wemyss Bay because I felt this sense of coming home. I'd found a place where the sea meets the land. Here, from my window where I live and work, I can see the islands – Isle of Arran, Isle of Bute and Isle of Cumbrae – so there’s this real feel of the water coming to meet the land.
I think that we all create these senses of place that might not be real. Storytelling is something that you have to have a sense of place for, and obviously the audience imagines what the teller is describing. We have all of these kinds of ideas of a sense of place and I guess we create ideals. For me, I was lucky enough to actually find those ideals in real life, and to realise that the reality was that these places were like I had imagined.
What I try to do with my music is to capture the feelings of the scenery that I was being exposed to at the time of writing, such as the meteorological conditions on the site or the atmosphere at the time. From a personal point of view, I can often chart back to a specific position point on a navigational chart through the songs, for example: knowing that it was as I pass a certain headland and saw the view that I thought of writing a song. Sense of place is very strong in my work, but I'm just not sure if it comes through to the audience, or if people register it in the same way that I do on a personal basis.
"Being completely exposed to the elements at sea is very inspiring. It makes me feel vulnerable. I think that a lot of people’s creativity comes from a place of vulnerability because you are putting yourself out there or experiencing something new."
Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world through your practice?
My music is very much lending a voice to modern day seafaring, especially from a female perspective. I'm trying to create a voice that is challenging people's preconceptions, gender stereotypes, and role stereotypes. If a female is at sea people often think that she will look manly as they have this preconceived idea that you can’t have feminine people at sea. Whereas I’m stereotypically feminine looking: I've got long dark hair, I wear dresses that are long and flowy, I wear heels and makeup; and I love to perform in those things with my harp, which again is a stereotypically feminine instrument. It's very important for me to challenge these ideas. It's special enough to be a musician. It's a creative, pure practice but I think people will be quite reductive in thinking, “Oh, it's another woman playing a harp.” The juxtaposition between that femininity and the fact that I also do maritime work on oil tankers is something that I want to bring together. I want to hit audiences with a statement that says I'm challenging your preconceptions. This is what the modern day seafarer looks like. I hope that I do that through my music.
Chloe's Book List:
1. Historical maritime books by Janet Paisley
I went through a stage of reading a lot of Paisley’s books as they made my time at sea go quickly! For me, the more books you read, the quicker the trip! On the ships is largely a male dominated environment so I brought these books with me because I think they are geared towards women.
2. The Ponies at the Edge of World: A story of hope and belonging in Shetland by Catherine Munro
I've recently acquired a Shetland pony called Braveheart and this book is an interesting exploration of the relationship between land and people through animals, and something I myself am exploring since moving shore side and acquiring our alpacas, pygmy goats and other animals.
To hear Chloe on a recent BBC Women's Hour show, go to www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001pf3y
All Images: Artist's Own