Here’s the thing — I cherish honesty in music. Mind you, I’ll bop my head a bit to a little Auto-Tune and programmed drums and sometimes I don’t even mind a little synthesizer thrown in for kicks and grins, but when it comes right down to it, I need my musicians to play and sing and mean it.
I’ve found a few of those artists here and there over the years, in a handful of genres, but nothing lately. So, I reached out to old friend (and groovy publicist) Wendy Brynford-Jones to see if she had anything interesting on her pile. She tossed me a new release — we don’t call them albums anymore, do we? — by an artist she’d just starting working with by the name of Matt Turk.
Matt is one of those guys who delivers consistently strong music that flies under the zeitgeist. If you know his oeuvre, odds are you love it. If you’re new, you’ll be struck by both the simplicity and the intricacy of his songs. He’s made his bones gigging around New York City and beyond, playing with folk legend Pete Seeger and iconoclast Mickey Hart, as well as in a handful of bands and partnerships.
The singer/songwriter’s latest offering, Cold Revival is intimate and accessible. Indeed, the 11 songs here are captivating enough on first listen, but reveal musical and lyrical depth upon repeated listenings.
[bra_highlight style=”highlight1″]The Random Facts You’ll Need to Know #1: Cold Revival will be released on 7 October.[/bra_highlight]
Highlights are album deep here, but the opener “Cracked Egg” is a mandolin driven, Celtic inspired tune that utilizes a children’s nursery rhyme to detail a relationship’s rhythms. It’s well realized and executed. Further, “Say You’ll Live” has a Nick Cave storytelling vibe with an uplifting chorus. “Battle Song” is a troubadour’s dream that Matt delivers with emotion and clarity, even as he delivers the lyric “I used to dream about you, now I just want to kill you.”
In all, the songs on Cold Revival feel unique onto themselves but hang together collectively thanks to Matt and the band’s ability to serve the story and the music.
By the way, bassist Ric Markman, drummer Dean Butterworth, guitarist Dan Pinnella and pianists Russ Irwin and Chris Joyner join the multi-instrumentalist here.[bra_highlight style=”highlight1″]FYI:[/bra_highlight] Get more information about Matt at his website by clicking here and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
Matt picked up the phone at the house he shares with his new wife in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY — about 15 miles north of Times Square, he explains — and suffered through an awful VOIP connection to chat about life, music and longevity. He gives long and interesting answers, which I’ve cleaned up a smidge, but not too much. You know why? Because it’s interesting to see how a brain works.
DUMMY: You’ve been doing this a long time. What’s kept you in the business this many years?
MATT: What’s kept me in is really just joy and craft. When I was a little kid, my older brother was really talented at a lot of things, including music, and my Dad used to put on Otis Redding records and dance with my Mom. My Mom brought me to see Allen Ginsburg recite poetry when I was like seven. She took me to see Jethro Tull [on the] Songs from the Wood [tour] at Madison Square Garden with my Dad and brother. So, early on I was exposed to that. And I remember a Harry Chapin concert. So, at a very early age music was the most joyful thing I had experienced. I liked kicking around in the mud and catching frogs and doing boy stuff like you do in New England in the woods, but music caught my attention.
I was never very special at it, there were always kids that were amazing — that played in all-state orchestras, one kid went down to the White House and played for the President. I never had any of that going on. I never got any real attention for playing music.
Around 9 or so, my Mom said that I had to take music lessons and I said that I’d like to sing. We had a family friend named Pat Brooks, who was an opera singer at the New York City Opera and was married to Ted Mann who ran the Circle in the Square Theatre [in Manhattan]. So, when I told my Mom that I wanted to sing she said we’d go check out Pat, because if anybody knows about singing it’s Patricia. We went over to Pat’s house and she had early stages of MS, which was really sad, because her career was cut short. She was second only to Beverly Sills and she was so beautiful, like a young Meryl Streep. I didn’t know any of this as a kid, I just went over there with my Lionel Richie chart and my Let it Be chart. We sat down at the piano and we played and we sang. She said to my mother that I didn’t know what I was doing, but that I was having fun.
So, I think that joyful feeling playing music was what got me into it and then as I got older, and certainly now what sustains me, is the craft, which is playing, learning ways to record better, play better, write, rewrite, how to listen better. Just to have an experience of some quality and craft.
DUMMY: Hold one second, we’re going back to something… I can’t imagine taking my 8-year-old daughter to a Ginsburg reading. How heavy was that? Did that freak you out?
MATT: Well, here’s the thing man… I went to NYU, so about 10 years after I was first exposed to Allen Ginsburg, I would see him like two dozen times and we would talk. He was very present on the Village scene that I entered in the late ‘80s.
My experience at seven years old was that I was in the basement of some church where he’s giving a poetry reading and he’s pulling back and forth on some harmonium and he’s got like Nag Champa incense burning everywhere and the place is packed. I’ve got no sense of what the hell was really going on, but I knew how to listen to a story and how to follow words. He started talking and he’s saying this and saying that, and at one point I pull on my Mother and I’m like, ‘I really need to talk to you. What does he mean about like going to Chinatown to meet boys?’ There was some poem that was very homoerotic and my Mom was really cool. She said, ‘Well, he’s gay, and that’s what he’s doing.’ That was a big eye opener for me. I just learned at a really early age what it was to be egalitarian and try to be non-judgmental. I thought it was really cool, but really out there. It wasn’t shocking, disturbing, but it was very different.
Then, years later, when I was a band called The Hour — we started out as a Jefferson Airplane style band with a woman singer and a couple guy singers and then we went acoustic. We used to travel all over. At first I’d see Allen Ginsburg at the Continental Divide and at the NYU Student’s Center and there would be times where I’d sit on Bleeker Street and play my guitar and he would come and sit down next to me and talk to me for a few minutes. He was just kind of omnipresent. That’s where he lived and had been for the previous 25 years at the time. He was really cool. I didn’t really understand him and his significance at the time the way one might now. At the time, I was in this feeling of playing music and being artistic and young and, I guess, kind of naïve too, and he just was there. He would talk to me.
DUMMY: That’s such a New York thing. That has to influence you, right?
MATT: I’ve been very fortunate that way. I’ve always been a part of discovering music, art and culture. I remember in ‘95 or so, I was living near Howie Wyeth, who was the drummer for the Rolling Thunder Review with Bob Dylan and T-Bone Burnett, and I used to bump into him all the time. He was playing in Donner Bums [a local band] and I would just talk to him about music and what he was doing. He was just the coolest rock and roll drummer. He’d been through stuff and he was always happy to have a cup of coffee and talk about shit.
I remember when Jeff Buckley arrived. He was playing the First Street Café, which was this little café that held about six people. I met him early when he came to New York and I used to see him all the time, even through when he got his record deal. I saw him less, of course, when he got famous because he left that circle and went on to bigger circles, but that was a really special time for me when I was discovering the joy of the craft. Jeff would ask what I was doing and I’d say, ‘Well, I’m trying to get better at writing songs.’ He’d ask who I knew in the area that was doing stuff I liked. I’d say Jesse Harris, who used to be in Once Blue with Rebecca Martin. Then Buckley would say, ‘You should check this out — it’s not traditional folk. Have you ever heard of Fishbone? They’re a California band and they could add edge.’ It was just an attitude of wonder. I still live for that. In my experience, that’s a New York thing, just discovering small little things. I will say that last year I went to Berlin and I spent some time in the former East Berlin and it had that same attitude of discovery. You’d come into these little clubs and they’d have some crazy band playing amazing music and then they’d show a film that somebody had made, then somebody would get up and tell a story. It was about being. That’s been a really special part of what makes me happy.
[bra_highlight style=”highlight1″]The Random Facts You’ll Need to Know #2: Matt first worked with David Dobkin, who produced this record, on a cover of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that appeared on the soundtrack for the film Fred Claus. (Never saw it. You?) David is better known as a film and television director. His credits include Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up and the now filming remake of Vacation.[/bra_highlight]
DUMMY: When I asked you what keeps you going one of the things you said was “listening better.” Does that mean listening better to the people you’re playing with or listening better to… I’m not sure if you’re one of those guys who believes the universe is writing songs for you …
MATT: That’s really cool. I would say that music is a listening art and how you listen to your band and musicians that you work with and collaborate with and how you listen to people respond to what they’re hearing is really important. I’m also in touch with listening to the quiet voice behind everything and not cluttering it with things that stifle it. I do agree with that. As far as writing goes, like “Cold Revival” the song, I was able to get that song out in 30 minutes. It was late one winter night. I remember the night. I remember the moment, and I was like, I just have to sit down and write this song now. It did come through me in a complete way. That’s very rare, but that does happen. So, you want to be listening for that. But, that quiet voice behind everything is really what I’m hoping to always be connected to and stay close to.
DUMMY: How do you get in touch with that? Are you a meditation guy? Are you a smoke a little weed guy? Is there a way that you can inspire that?
MATT: Part of it, I think… As a young child, I grew up in a place that was really beautiful with a lot of woods and there was something about my experience that allowed me to catch something that was really quiet. I remember being out in the woods just playing by myself. There was solitude and I resonate with that Walden, Thoreau kind of attitude. Playing music and practicing can be very solitary, so you spend a lot of time being quiet in your mind. It’s different than being alone on a computer where your mind is really active, you’ve got like 10 browsers open and you’ve got 14 conversations going at once. But, at a very early age I had that experience and it resonated with me and now I have teachers and friends and partners who remind of it and I try to bring myself back to it when it’s not there, which happens because I’ve got conditioning and wiring that can take me away from that.
DUMMY: And life happens. Let’s talk about taking lyrical risks as a songwriter. In “Battle Song” you sing, “One day I want to kill you.” Please talk about being honest in lyrics. Do you ever hold back? Do you ever feel like, ‘I can’t write that.’
MATT: Well, now I’ve come to a place where a lot of the work has nothing to do with me, so I’m able to play that and sing that. It’s very liberating to give voice to things that are real, but not necessarily what I do personally. I think there is a healthy anger. I think there is a healthy frustration. There’s a healthy negativity. There’s a healthy fuck you. I mean, it’s just human to express these things and repressing them when you’re aware of it can be damaging. So, with Cold Revival and the new writing I’ve been doing the last few years, I really needed to express things that were beyond me and that weren’t about me, but were more about being human and what we go through living and the situations where the people completely deconstruct and devolve and explode, murder, lie, cheat, squash people’s feet. All that stuff. Some people think, ‘Oh, this is about you, how can you write this?’ I’m like, ‘Some things are really direct to my life but some things are really about me tapping in to what people do.’ “Long Black Veil” [originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell and written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin in 1959] and these murder ballads are so real, but you read about it all the time and you hear about it in the news every day. For me, it was a very exciting thing to write about. Also, in my own feelings, I have feelings of great anger and frustration and I want to be able to express it in art. It helps deal with those emotions on a personal level.
DUMMY: You know, I think that question was more about me than you. As a writer, I’m occasionally afraid to write certain things. So, that’s where that question came from, to be candid with you.
MATT: I appreciate that. I deal with a lot of rejection and with a lot of people who don’t get what I do, don’t like what I do, don’t understand what I do, aren’t interested in what I do, and I’ve come to a place where it’s just about honoring the work, doing the work, and not judging it. It’s about putting it out there and it attracts whatever it attracts. There are other moments where people get it, they enjoy it, they appreciate it, it moves them. I kind of understand that there are always going to be a lot of people who are just down on shit for whatever reason. I always remember that John Lennon lyric: “Nothing’s going to change my world.” What am I going to do? I’m not going to stop. But, having fear is human. I understand what that feels like.
DUMMY: Do you write as a solitary exercise? Just you and an instrument?
MATT: Yeah, mostly I’m writing alone. I write in different ways. I accumulate snippets of lyrics and music and build up folders of ideas, then sit down and work on them to develop songs. Then, I’ll play it for an audience. The audience gets to hear stuff here and there early on that is being test driven. The traditional model of the open mic was go there, play a song for people and if they dig it, you knew you had something. If they didn’t, go back and work on it. Sometimes I do that at gigs, try shit out. Over the years, most of that stuff kind of fails [laughs], but sometimes it works. You’ve got to test it out.
Then I’ll work with my producer. The idea with [producer] David Dobkin was: don’t judge the work, just exercise the muscle. Write, rewrite. They are all songs. If they make the record, it fits the record. If they don’t, you put ‘em on the shelf. It’s just about doing the work. That freed me up a lot. David is a great person, a wonderful friend and a fabulous producer. He’s really a musician that really understands not to judge the work, just to work the muscle and do it.
I was really inspired by the box set for Darkness on the Edge of Town. I was watching the DVDs and how Bruce made that record. I was inspired by how much work he did and how hard he worked on it. I wasn’t trying to equal him in terms of making however many notebooks he made and how many songs he’d written, but I knew that I could push myself to write and rewrite and put songs on the shelf and trust David to pick songs that fit the emotional center of the record that we first identified as “Cold Revival.” That really helped give me focus as a writer.
DUMMY: So, did you go into the recording sessions with one song? Or, did you have a batch of songs ready to go?
MATT: What happened was, I did a gig in L.A. and I played “Cold Revival.” It was written. (David) had never heard it and he came up to me and said, ‘That’s the first song on the next record we’re going to make.’ We started having conversations and he said, ‘You just have to keep writing and we will recognize the songs that fit with that and the body of work will form.’ It went all the way to the end. We even recorded one song that didn’t make it on the record, because it didn’t fit. I wasn’t sure why, but we both came to the same conclusion. It was an organic process, because initially he was inspired and wanted to work with me. Then he inspired me to help focus on how to push myself to make better work.
DUMMY: Interesting. I feel that records, or whatever we’re calling them these days, lack that themeatic quality. They’re just collections of songs that hang together by the same synthesizer and there’s no vibe to the whole collection. Anyway… So, you’ve crafted these songs on your own and then you turn them over to a band to bring them to fruition. What’s that like?
MATT: It’s pretty exciting. It’s really unknown. I was so excited to work with [bassist] Ric Markman this time. He was new to the team. Ric is such a great musician and bass is so important to music, and to songs and songwriting. Just look at the great Beatles songs and what the bass means to that music. [I’d worked with] Dean Butterworth, Chris “Wag” Wagner, who engineered Cold Revival, Chris Joyner, Russ Irwin, Dan Pinnella and was having relationships with them. But Ric and I had never worked together, so it was really exciting to have a guy like him who’s such a key creator of music, an incredible producer, a great writer and a chill guy. I’d ask for his opinion and trust it, because he brought it to a place that I would never think of. Like, what he did on the bass on the song “Cold Revival” at the beginning. He just had ideas on everything. It was amazing. Very rewarding and exciting. And really, unknown. So, kind of nervous, adrenaline a little bit. A little bit, oh man, this better land on its feet. But, pretty exciting.
DUMMY: So, after all this time, I wonder how you mark success. Albums sold? The people you connect to? Listening back to what you’ve done?
MATT: Yeah, that’s a tough question. I guess the basic answer is being healthy, being alive, being with people who I love and respect and who love and respect me at that basic human level. To be able to work on my craft, to be able to play music —I feel that every day that I’m playing music in front of people is a great day.
Sometimes I get these awesome blips, like the night before I turned 40, I did a concert with Pete Seeger and in front of the audience, Pete sang Happy Birthday to me. It was all unexpected and it made me feel so good. Pete (mimics Seeger’s voice) was like, ‘Happy Birthday. Keep on keeping on.’ That just really moved me.
So, success is about doing my craft and sharing it with people and progressing. As far as selling albums goes, that’s a whole other conversation. As an independent grass roots organic guy, it is what it is and it’s good enough with what it is. It’s got room to grow. I just really want people to hear the music and enjoy it. They can buy the CD if they want, they can stream it on whatever when it comes out, they can come to a show. I want people to be able to listen to it and share in it. I got into this for the joy of making music, which involves writing lyrics that are real and setting them to a melody that is singable over a rhythm that feels good and having people enjoy it.