by Wout de Natris
Copyright WoNo Magazine 2011
Circa one and a half year ago Matt Harlan gave a very intimate solo performance that was well received by the audience in the Q-Bus in Leiden, supporting his first album 'Tips & compliments'. Afterwards I approached Matt and asked if he would like to do an interview. This was published in WoNo Magazine #11.1. As Matt is in the final stages of releasing his second album, WoNoBloG publishes the interview again. A review of his new album can be found on this blog at a later stage.
For the readers who are not familiar with you, who is Matt Harlan in a few words?
Hmm, that’s kind of a tough one. It’s rare for me to use only a few words to talk about anything. Although, that could sum up a lot about me right there. I’m just another guy out there trying to make a living w/ a pen and a guitar.
At the concert I noticed that your lyrics can be very visualistic, as if I could see the scene in front of my eyes. Are views and graphic impressions what inspire you?
Most definitely…it’s like that saying “a picture’s worth 1,000 words”. If you’ve only got 3 minutes to tell a story, painting a literary picture immediately gives you more room to work. From an inspiration point of view,
seeing something, even figuratively, definitely helps write about it. So when a picture presents itself it makes the process easier. It’s those times when I can’t immediately get a view of what I’m trying to get out there that makes it tough. Sometimes I’ll just stop writing if I can’t see what’s happening in the story.
In some songs states or places figure in the background. In what way are they an inspiration?
Well, that totally depends on the context. Although I end up writing songs about places I’ve had direct experiences with, I don’t have to have lived there or even spent more than an hour there. I think I only spent the time it takes to pass through Mississippi on the highway when I got the inspiration for that “Skinny Trees of Mississippi” song. Places all have their own connotations too…can you imagine what a song like the Tennessee Waltz would sound like if it was called the Delaware Waltz?
Lyrics in general seem important to you. What is there first, the subject or the music?
Well, the music can come first, but the lyrics have to fit directly into it, or it won’t work for me. It can come down to the syllable sometimes. Typically, it’s the lyrics, or at least an idea for the lyrics that turns into a musical idea for me. It can go anywhere after either of them really gets going though. Sometimes it’s a challenge to try and fit words into a particular melody line, but if it gets too forced, it just won’t work.
At what moments does inspiration come to you?
That’s tricky. I think it can come at any time. It’s like that Mitch Hedberg joke about sitting on your bed at 3 am and having to convince yourself that whatever you’re thinking about isn’t worthwhile. I just try to be open to inspiration whenever it might come along.
|Photo from Matt's MySpace|
You wrote two songs on the album with Phoebe Hunt. Is writing with someone different and if so in what way?
Well, I actually wrote those songs on my own, but had Phoebe sing on them. I do a fair amount of co-writing though. It is always different to do that. I think I work well with a lot of different people, so it tends to work in at least some way. But, if we get too far away from where I think the characters or the theme should be, the ideas that are being brought to the table better be intriguing or I’ll start to lose interest. There’s a song I
wrote with my friend Brad Boyer where he wouldn’t even start to help me with the song until I took it in a different direction. But I trusted where he was trying to send it, so I followed his advice. It turned out being one of my favourites.
The line that hit me most is “You can’t always decide what you remember”. It’s wise. Was there a special something that made you write it down like this?
Thanks very much. I wrote that song as a challenge one weekend at Folk Alliance. I got a slip of paper that looked like one of those fortunes you find in a fortune cookie that said, “Write a song about your first pet.” In trying to do that, I started to think about how difficult trying to remember a particular time or event can be and how it can be downright impossible sometimes. On the surface it was supposed to be about that, but later on I was talking to my cousin about it and remembered out of nowhere the history of alzheimer’s we have in my family…specifically involving my grandpa, who appears in the first line of the song. So, even as I was trying desperately to remember a past evnt, in my inability to do that I end up referencing my grandfather and it comes full circle without me even knowing it. Strange how those things work out.
What music did you listen to in your youth?
Pretty much everything I could get my hands on. My parents listened to a lot of 60s and 70s folk, but other people in my family were big country & western fans. Although I heard a lot of that stuff, I pushed it away after a certain point and listened to a lot of hard rock, rap and anything that wasn’t folk or country. It wasn’t until college that I bought a Townes album and Gillian Welch’s Time – The Revelator that I really felt a re-connection with the kind of music I play today.
What are the main influences on your present work?
Man, it’s a great question and one of the hardest to answer. I’ve been influenced a lot by driving in the past and I’m trying to get out of that. We were talking about pictures and how they figure in to songwriting and it
seems like if you’re just looking out the windshield all the time you can get stuck. So I’m trying more to invent stories for the random people I see more than I had before. I want to get outside of myself more than I have recently.
Did you set out to be a singer-songwriter or is it something that grows on you?
I always wanted to play music of some sort, but I wasn’t sure I’d end up doing this. I thought I’d be in a metal band for years. I have to admit that I’m glad I chose this path.
What made you pick 'Tips & compliments' as the title track of the album?
Are there differences in performing in the Netherlands to e.g. Texas?
There’s definitely differences, but it’s the similarities that I try to focus on. In both areas there are people that care very deeply about songs and music in general. I think you’ll find the same hearts and souls in each one of them, but maybe the places you find them are not as obvious. I guess the strange thing is that you aren’t guaranteed to find the people you hear about in the songs or read about in the press in either place. You’re just as likely to find a drunken heckler at a coffee shop or listening room than you might find a soft-spoken musical connoisseur at a honky tonk. I think the biggest surprise I had in playing in the Netherlands was that the sense of community was so strong and the people really talk to each other. I can travel thousands of miles from home and there are folks that have already heard my songs in Holland, but I can go hundreds of miles in the States and play for people who have never even heard a note of mine. The reception might be the same, but the sense of community helps break down the barriers of anonymity.
At the gig in the Q-Bus it was almost as we were in your living room. So intimate I thought your performance to be. Is this an atmosphere you go for?
I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing, but I definitely prefer a more intimate feel. It might be more for my own comfort than anything. I know I play better comfortable and if the audience isn’t, then I sure won’t be.
Thanks for the interview. What can we expect for the near future from Matt Harlan?
Well, I’m planning the next album right now. The songs are there, but we’re working out how it’ll be recorded…there’s some really cool possibilities, but I guess I can’t talk too much about that yet. In the meantime, look out for me somewhere around your cities and towns. And look out for some live recordings…I’m thinking of setting a few of them out into the wilderness.
You can listen to a few of Matt Harlan's songs here.
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