The Chester blog

20 questions: Matt Baker

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Matt Baker is a Chester based composer/musical director and performer known for his work with Theatre in the Quarter, Handbag of Harmonies, Chester Mystery Plays, Proud Marys and more.

1.How are you ? very well thanks, feeling very humbled to have been on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, but other than that, business as usual.

2. What are you working on at the moment ? As we move into what we really hope is the ‘ autumn’ of the pandemic, my work continues to be a blend of online and face to face activity with the various groups and choirs that I am involved with. Choirs are still very much restricted in terms of what they can do. They still cannot gather indoors, and can only sing outdoors with strict social distancing in place. One very exciting project I, and some of Chester’s teenagers are currently involved in, is an international digital production called ‘Memoirs of an extraordinary year’. Teenagers from China, Hong Kong, USA, Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, Italy and……Chester UK…are each telling their (and their peers’) stories of experiences in the incredible year when the pandemic struck. I am currently putting together all the music they have composed together online which acts as underscore to the film. It will be ready in September. Other than that, as ever, I am spending a lot of time trying to develop new projects for many different groups, a lot of which involves huge applications for funding. Further down the line, plans for Chester City Passion 2022 and Chester Mystery Plays 2023 are starting to happen, as well as opportunities for me to pop out of Chester and musically direct in other places. 

3. How did you cope with the trials of 2020 ? When lockdown first happened in March last year, absolutely everything I did stopped. My work involves bringing people together to tell stories, make music, celebrate life, and that all came to a sudden halt. It was only a matter of days, however, before we started to discover what new opportunities to connect and create were achievable through online means. And from that point onwards my theatre and choir work took on a whole new approach. We have been very creative over the past 15 months; rehearsing online, creating musical videos, creating ‘socially distanced’ films and learning new songs and choreography. The young people we work with, both the teenagers and the smaller ones, have really done some impressive film stuff over the past year. Only recently have some of the groups been able to meet face-to-face, even if it is 2 metres apart under an umbrella. One unlikely group that was able to achieve something during the first lockdown was my street! Unable to commemorate VE Day in the way that I was commissioned to do so in Chester City Centre, my wonderful neighbours agreed, albeit after a drink at our front door steps, to learn some songs and create a small musical commemoration. We were so so strict with the regulations, yet we managed to pull something off. Little did any of us know that it was going to feature on national and international news last May, and be viewed over 450,000 times online during that week! Following this success we decided to create a very heart-warming and magical ‘Chester during the pandemic’ Christmas film called Christmas Street which was received very well indeed. 

4.Which person living or dead would you take for an independent coffee or drink ? Benny Andersson from ABBA; I’d love that. Though I would like to sit at the piano with him. Similarly Freddie Mercury, maybe George Michael. I’d love to have a chit chat with Jean Martyn (theatre organist extraordinaire and BGT finalist a few years ago – she has kept so many people going with her nightly online shows – and her talent, spirit, multi tasking  (playing with her hands and feet, reading the online chat and responding  – whilst she is playing  – as though you are all with her) is actually phenomenal. But perhaps top of the list; my Mum. 

5. What are your musical influences ? Peculiarly diverse I would say; I grew up with 3 brothers, all in to heavy metal and rock – and whilst I didn’t like it  – it must have filtered into my head. In the family car we flipped (constantly) between ABBA and Showaddywaddy and I used to buy and love all the top ten hits during the 80s. I joined the church choir when I was 7 (and still haven’t left) and also learned to play the organ. My music teachers at The Bishops’ High School were a total inspiration. As a teenager I was in a cabaret band which played all the working men’s clubs in Liverpool, and was also in an Indie band with mates in Chester. Through my whole career I have been thrown into all sorts of different musical and theatre situations and so have embraced a real diversity of music. Oh and i love the beautiful songs from my great grandparents generation. 

6. How has Chester’s cultural offering changed/ improved? in the last 5 years I have been so consumed in cultural activity in Chester over the years that I was always frustrated at the accusation that, just because there was for a long period no formal theatre or art venue, that Chester was a cultural desert. That said, it is wonderful to have Storyhouse as the mother ship of cultural activity, and Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre has put Chester on the national map together with the Chester Mystery Plays. Up until the pandemic hit, Chester has had a wealth of choirs of all genres, theatre activity for young people, a continual improvement in the offer of dance, more venues offering live music, and more cultural organisations emerging. I always feel that there needs to be a far more potent and robust way to promote all of the cultural happenings in the Chester area; so much good work happens, and good connections are being made, but Chester’s impressive offer needs to be highlighted in a more cohesive way as we move into this new ‘post pandemic’ era. . 

7. What do you love about Chester ? Other than the obvious beauty, it is a compact ‘people sized’ city. You can get to many places on foot. If something exciting is happening in one part of the city centre, you will only be seconds away from it. I hear people say that there has been so much change in Chester, many would say not for the good; boarded up shops, more people asking for money, parts of the rows needing some real tlc, certainly less people about, even when the shops recently re-opened. And yet, despite all this, and, compared to other city centres, I think Chester has a sort of timeless charm. Shops and restaurants may come and go, sometimes the flowers, or bunting, or Christmas lights – or sunny weather  – have made it look stunning. Sometimes the boarded up shops or uncared for corners of the rows make it look depressing. But seeing through all this, I really think our city has great potential, whatever the future holds. Perhaps what I love most about Chester is its potential; we can never ever be complacent about it. We need to help to re-invent it like generations have done so through the decades and centuries. 

8. What would you like to see change ? A shared optimism and confidence from residents, decision makers, civic leaders, entrepreneurs, creatives, influencers and business people that Chester can move ambitiously into a new post-pandemic era. 

9. What advice would you give to your younger self? Never try Frosties or Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. 

10. Favourite film of all time and why? Billy Elliott. I was working in Melbourne one time when it first came out and I watched it on loop for the whole flight there and back, I laughed out loud and cried at all the same parts. 

11. If you could time travel when/where would you go ? Of course I would love to see Chester at various points in its 2000 year history. Other times and places (as long as no once could see me); On the maiden voyage of the Titanic, various key locations during biblical times, witnessing a singalong in a London Underground Station during the war, Liverpool in the 60s, New York in the 70s, perhaps back to my family home in the 80s. 

12. Who would play you in the movie of your life ? People say I sometimes look like Danny Dyer. 

13. Name a famous person you have met. I’ve met one or two members of the Royal Family and appeared alongside one or two well known names in my fleeting tv appearances. My most stressful but rewarding encounter was with Liz Dawn (who played Coronation Street’s Vera Duckworth) who just turned up at a piano cabaret bar that I used to play at in Manchester and led a singalong with no warning and expected me to just follow every song, in all the right keys, on the piano. i just about did it. At the end she turned to me, handed the microphone back, gave me a little appreciative wink and smile and disappeared. 

14. Favourite place in the borough (specific) St Thomas’ Church and grounds is a very special place for me. I grew up here. I sang in the choir, was in the local scouts and youth club there, had a very happy time at St Thomas’ school. All my brothers were married here, my Mum and Dad too, and many things happen here now; rehearsals, concerts, celebrations, community events. 

 15. How would you reinvigorate the city centre ?  I would be out of my depth to talk about the retail and hospitality sector, though I do think we need real vision here. Despite the current setbacks it has been thrilling to see a real explosion of innovative alfresco dining opportunities. Department stores have closed all over the country, but it would be wonderful for Chester to be the home of interesting independent shops. But I feel strongly that culture in its many forms could play a very strong role in reinvigorating our city. In my view, Chester’s heart beats more when wonderful things happen; bringing the streets to life, and making people feel excited or proud. Through history VE Day 1945, street pageants, St George’s Day Parades, the Queens Jubilee and her 90th birthday all would have been spectacular. And added to that, Chester has staged events which, by their diversity make so many more people feel that they can belong here and feel proud to call this their home; Diwali celebrations following the passion plays, Midsummer watch parades sitting alongside visits from African or Malaysian choirs, regimental parades followed by the colourful Chester Pride. I also have a dream that one day our greatest and most unique asset – The Rows – may come to life in a most vibrant exciting way – perhaps like they did back in the mediaeval age – with a unique offer of unusual crafts, wares, eateries, music and pop-up cultural happenings. People flock to cities for their Christmas Markets – but nowhere else in the world would be able to offer a unique Christmas on the Medieval galleries experience other than here in our own city. 

16. What part of Chester of the past would you bring back if you could? The trams – it would be wonderful to have a tram system which connected all the suburbs with the city centre and railway station, and then far better links to other major destinations. 

17. What do you do to relax ? swim, cycle or take Dotty my dog out for a walk. 

18. If you could choose one superpower what would it be ? to be invisible and be able to time travel. That’s two – is that ok? 

19. What are you most proud of in your career ? My career is only as wonderful as all the communties and individuals that I have had the privilege of working with; it is often the smallest moments that may have made me most proud; when a mum says that her son has had the time of his life being in a play, or when a community choir member says that a project has enabled her to feel ok to leave the house for the first time in years. I remember when 700 children sang on the racecourse for a film with refugees, and one of the refugees arrived during a rehearsal and burst in to tears a she felt so happy and welcome. All the choirs and groups I am involved with make me very proud. I am blessed. 

20. How do you feel about the future ? If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the value of connection. The first lockdown gave many of us the permission to slow down, stop going mad, and re-evaluate what is important in life. I would like a future where people give each other time, where an acceptance of diversity in all its forms becomes a stronger force than small minded, intolerant and backward thinking attitudes which are allowed to percolate from so many elements of our press and social media. I would also love educators to have the freedom to excite the younger (and not so younger) generations into learning and growing, free from a hideous data driven agenda. I would also like community (in whatever form) to become a really cool and important concept. 

Matt Baker – Homepage (mattbakermusic.co.uk)

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