Randolph Matthews, my life in a suitcase

Randolph Matthews is a mesmerising performer with the ability to create and layer a cacophony of sounds.

He’s a master of vocal improvisation and performs his jazz inspired music solo, accompanied only by his looped voice. He’s often compared to jazz great Bobby McFerrin; both share an innate vocal finesse.

Over the past two decades Matthews – never seen on stage without his trademark fedora and battered suitcase – has built an international following. He has collaborated with artists from the jazz and contemporary music worlds including Herbie Hancock, Grace Jones, will.i.am, Beverley Knight, Seun Kuti and Angelique Kidjo. He spoke to Kimberley Cartilidge.

iSing: Can you tell me about your suitcase? I know you take it with you everywhere.

RM: The suitcase is Randolph’s world. I take what’s in my world in this suitcase: my past, my present and my future thoughts and aspirations. In terms of the past, well this is my mum and dad’s suitcase and it reminds me of the journeys that they took. Present is about the music that I’m creating at this moment, and the performances I’m doing; so I have a loop sampler and clothes. And future is to be able to meet new audiences, to travel the world, to go to different places that I hadn’t been before and spread the thing which I really love, which is music, singing and the power of the voice.

Randolph Matthews on iSing Magazine

iSing: Why did you decide to pursue singing as a career?

RM: Singing came as part of a whole picture I think. I was into the sound of life. From the sound of my mum playing church music and gospel and blues music; and then my own interpretation of that through sounds that I heard in my head. That would be: drum sounds, bass sounds, instrument sounds and the sound of an owl that used to keep me up at night with nightmares. All of those things were always evolving round in my mind. I found an opportunity with a cassette player – two cassette players – to start to layer up my voice, and I recognised that I was into voice. I was into what the voice could do. Singing was a part of that experience.

iSing: How did you feel about the versatility of your voice? Was that a part of the attraction for you?

RM: Not at first because you don’t analyze it too much as a child. I was seven years old, so I was just playing. I was able to revisit it in later years – in my teens – and remind myself that I loved that openness and playfulness of what the voice is. Then, through my own discovery, through my training, I recognised that the voice is unlimited.

iSing: Where did you train?

RM: I studied, thanks to a scholarship, Voice Movement Therapy; I ended up leaving my young family for three weeks at a time to study, which was really tough. It looked at everything to do with the voice. The archetypes that are in the voice, the vocal components that are innate in all human beings and many of the fundamental characteristics of how you take your emotions and it becomes a piece of work. It was extraordinary, it changed my life basically.

iSing: You clearly have a passion for loop station work. Why?

RM: I’ll tell you very, very clearly in one word: economics. I recognised that I couldn’t afford to justify paying musicians a certain amount of money for what they did in the band. I was looking at guitarists who were using loop samplers and thought “hold on, this could work for me”. So, I tried it out. It changed everything because it meant I could move into different spaces and try things out. For me, it was like I was destined to work as a solo artist with the voice. Even though it started off for economic reasons, I think I was meant to start to move into this direction.

iSing: Have you got any tips for singers looking to start using a loop station?

RM: The most important part for a singer using loop technology is to understand what the loop technology is there for. You are the singer already and you bring to life your ideas by using the loop sampler. Explore it through play.

When you sing the songs that you love you have rhythm in what you do, you have a meter, you have a tempo, you have a pitch. Everything is already there. You’re just using this as an opportunity to maybe create a sonic landscape which can help you to even go further, higher and be more inspired by it. To put it as a percentage, it’s like 85% to 90% of it is play and 10% of it is technology. The technology does a simple thing – it loops. The rest is just up to you.

iSing Sessions: Randolph Matthews covers Englishman In New York & originals Rockizms.

iSing: Do you have a regime to keep your voice in top shape when you are travelling?

RM: I do have a regime, and I’m flexible with that regime because I think the most important thing is this: what can you do in five minutes that will change everything about your voice for two hours? When travelling, you’re up against other things; you’ve got tiredness, you’ve got temperature changes and you’re getting on and off aeroplanes. Your vocal chords are adjusting to early mornings and late nights. You’ve got to know that sometimes the right thing to do is not train for an hour. The most important thing is your engine. For me, five minutes keeping the engine ticking over is more important.

iSing: How do you access your falsetto? 

RM: The first thing that helps me to access it, because I don’t think about it anymore, is just acceptance of the sound. I think sometimes the biggest thing that people have is that they don’t accept the sound of their falsetto. So they get caught up in that mentally and they can’t switch it off because they’re now listening to that sound. For me, I love the sound of falsetto. I don’t have any barriers between it; I just accept it. I’m a vocal improviser, and you can’t improvise with the voice if you’re constantly trying to pinpoint every, single thing – you just can’t do it, it’s not freedom. You have to first find freedom in your awareness, and acceptance of the sound of falsetto. The rest will come because you can start to develop it around it.

iSing: What’s your top tip for singers who want to broaden their horizons vocally and experiment?

RM: Investigate the feelings behind your voice more than the words that you put on top of it. I would make your lessons, your warm-ups, your band rehearsals an exploration without telling people that you’re doing it. Just explore what your voice is able to do. We have created such an emphasis, such an expectation on the word singing but everybody has a voice that is free to express, free to enjoy, free to cry, free to express emotions, anger, hunger. All of it can come through the voice. Remember, audiences aren’t just coming to see a singer; they’re coming to see a person who’s real and honest with what they express through the singing tool. For me, heart is a really big part of my work. My heart has to be very, very much there. As a singer, if you can use the voice openly and honestly, you’ll find that it will always work for you and not against you.

Matthews’ latest album is Untamed.

For details about Matthews’ upcoming gigs visit randolphmatthews.co.uk

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Kimberley Cartlidge has spent her career working with some of the best mentors, coaches and professionals in the music industry. As a professional vocal coach, she specialises in performance, songwriting and technique. Kimberley uses her own experience as a professional vocalist, writer and musician to empower her clients and help them reach their goals.