Interview: Going ‘Way Way Back’ with Matt Nathanson
Fall 2002: I by chance, open for Matt Nathanson at Bentley University. Each month an artist would play our local pub, which was really a hollowed-out classroom with Budweiser on tap. As I’m sipping my dollar draft from a solo cup, I notice this headliner who had embarked on a college tour, had brought his own area rug. He was playing barefoot and consistently exuding an emotion that could only be taken for pure passion. I assumed – it didn’t necessarily matter what group of untamed students where before him, personally, he had something to say.
And he still does. Perhaps more than ever, hence the megaphone fixture represented in Nathanson’s new record, Sings His Sad Heart.
I don’t recall Nathanson’s exact set that evening, but I know he closed with a Bruce Springsteen cover, and it resulted in a huge ovation. Being from New Jersey, I certainly appreciated it. That Boss song, that experience and that sincerity truly stuck with me.
Fast-forward about ten years, I happen to hear Nathanson as a guest DJ on Pearl Jam radio. I’m a die-hard Ten-Clubber and I noticed Nathanson introduced the Seattle legends covering The Who’s “The Real Me” by telling a story about them making mouths drop during their VH1 Rock Honors performance. I had always felt the exact same way, and this was the only person I had heard describe it in a way I totally connected with. Nathanson would then contribute to my 25 Years of Pearl Jam tribute a few years later.
Present day, Nathanson is on the heels of releasing (coincidentally) his 10th studio record with Sings His Sad Heart. Prior to listening to the record in full, I was immediately struck by how Nathanson was delivering the songs to his audience – straight from the heart – both his own, and the heart of the record. In fact, the word heart is written by what appears to be a hand filled with trepidation, but prominent, right in the middle of the album cover.
I had the opportunity to speak with Nathanson prior to his second sold-out show in Boston last week. For the first 10 minutes, we reminisced about the college circuit days, shared Pearl Jam stories and had a laugh over the joys of being a father. Though there were 17 years in-between our last Boston encounter, and you could fit about 14 Bentley pubs inside the Paradise Rock Club, Nathanson, who grew up in New England, still has a soft spot for the area. As we discuss the twists and turns of the new record and what it’s like taking it out on the road now, one thing is clear – the way it “Used to Be” in terms of genuine artistic expression, is actually exactly how it still is.
Sings His Sad Heart has been out for about five months now, you are a third of the way through your tour, how are you feeling?
I’m great. I’m psyched that the folks who like my music have really taken to this record in a super-strong way. That’s what you always hope will happen. You make the record for yourself, and then you hope the folks that have liked your past records will say, “Damn, this one is really good too, maybe even better.” My last couple records have been back-and-forth. Some people were heavily into it and others thought I was not being me, and they didn’t dig it. With Sings His Sad Heart, I finished it and I immediately loved it. I felt confident in letting it go. The response from people has been positive, and that’s just the cherry on top for me. During this tour, people are singing all the new songs back to me. It really fills you up.
I love doing this tour, too. The acoustic format is easy because I begin and end the whole show as opposed to having a full band where everyone has to pay attention to each other. This is pretty low stress, I’m just getting up there and telling stories.
These new songs are so full of meaning, how have they resonated with you now getting to play them live?
They are still so fresh that when I play them, I feel extremely invested in them. We play every song on the new record live and they feel truthful to me in a really cool way. I’ll play them and think, Fuck yeah, that’s exactly how I felt writing it. I’m not self-conscious with this record. It feels like a jacket that you still fit in and love.
It’s a very personal record. As a writer, what was your journey from Show Me Your Fangs to Sings His Sad Heart?
Creatively, I am always trying to get away from pleasing people. It’s strange because it’s one of my natural go-to settings, but you can’t be that way when you are making a record. I just kept chipping away at writing and recording until I was completely satisfied. With a band like Pearl Jam for example, you feel like every time they make a record, they created something that they really wanted to make – it’s a confidence. For me, it was a real journey to get back on my feet and to trust that I knew what I liked as opposed to experimenting and then getting feedback. I was coming from a place of my own strength when I was creating this. You would think that’s what everybody does but for some reason, the past few records I was struggling to figure out who I was. The truth is, I don’t particularly like my genre. I’m not that into male singer-songwriters. Of all the music in the world – male, pop, singer-songwriter is not on my list. I certainly appreciate it, but I always felt like – what am I doing here? So, I was trying to shake it up for a few years. I love Afghan Whigs, I love Achtung Baby-era U2, I thought – why can’t I do that?
I realized, If I am true with myself, everything then feels natural and those thoughts don’t come into play. It’s less why am I doing this and more this is who I am. I don’t think I’ll ever stop pushing to write better songs, but this is the first record in a long time where my feeling is – this is it, I hope you dig it but if you don’t, it doesn’t matter because I fucking love it.
You wrote a heartfelt introduction unveiling “Different Beds”. It was fascinating to me because you could have easily just announced the new song and where people can heart it. That would have been fine, but you let people inside your creative and vulnerable moment, and that’s a very powerful thing.
That’s awesome, thank you. It’s funny how less stressful things are when you are just being yourself. When you are as transparent as you can be at the time, and it’s honest, it really lowers your anxiety. I am a pretty anxious person and doing it that way feels much less like you are getting into a fist fight and more like you are just existing
Bringing that emotion to the stage now, how did you determine what was going to be on the wheel that’s part of your live show?
We have spots in the set designated to spinning the wheel a few times, that’s what’s great about not having a band on this run, we can call an audible easily. We change out the songs on the wheel every night. The last tour we did this, we did not have any categories on the wheel, it was all songs. This time, it’s about 80% songs and the rest are categories. It gives me more wiggle room. Last week in Virginia, it landed on “I never really play this” – which are songs I hardly ever play live. Instead of doing one from the list, I felt like doing a cover of “Girlfriend in a Coma” by The Smiths. It was so much fun. That’s what it’s all about, being able to be in the moment. I’m having a blast with it.
Having roots in Boston, is there a sentiment that’s different playing there that makes you reminisce on stage?
Yes, Boston is a loaded weapon for me. I grew up there and had most of my formative life there. Aaron Tap my guitar player, is also from Massachusetts. We grew up in the same town, so for both of us, it has a lot of depth. That’s why we did two shows in Boston and two in San Francisco where I live now, because I feel like those are my homes.
Coming full circle here, what does this Sings His Sad Songs chapter in your career mean to you?
I’ve never been young. Even when I was fifteen, I was old. As I get older, I realize I am starting to shed all the bullshit that I took on that made me an old kid. I notice that my own kid has a wonder that I never really had. Now that I am 45, I am starting to kickoff all the anchors that takes away the joy. I’m feeling the wonder of the world more than I ever have. That’s the arc I want in my life. I want to end up way more enlightened and way less heavy than when I started. I felt like I was at less than zero for so long, until this new record came to be. Now, I just want to throw paint around and express myself, be honest and not be fearful.