By Lynne Margolis
“Songwriting is all I really have. It’s the only thing that can’t be taken from you. In the grand scheme of the world, it’s my only stock; the only proof that I’ve ever existed at all. People come in and out of your life. Bands play and break up. Record deals go south. Promises get broken. Friends and lovers pop in and pop out but the songs survive. I can remember a song and for a little bit it takes me back to the time when I wrote it. You can sugarcoat anything with anything: fancy vocals, tons of instruments, lots of lights, a video, but at the end of the day it’s the song that really matters.”
Matt Powell has been a musical presence in Austin since his arrival nearly a dozen years ago. Yet, like so many musicians, he’s still struggling to make ends meet as an artist. So he’s doing what several of his peers have done — he’s packing up his gear and heading down that well-trodden path from Austin to Nashville. The former surfer — he left behind his beloved Outer Banks, N.C., to follow his muse — is hoping to catch a wave of momentum with the release of his latest album, New Kind of Something.
Drawing from many musical styles, Powell has crafted a fine album of tunes best described as Americana; New Kind of Something both draws upon and encapsulates his pop leanings, his love of bluegrass and some grounding in blues, country, rock, folk and just about any other roots-music form. He can’t put his finger on an exact description because, he says, “It’s still shaping into its own thing.
“The older I get,” Powell adds, “the more it settles into something most people can find a place for.”
Finding his own place has been a little more difficult. A restless soul, the Virginia native lived in Los Angeles before making his way to Texas, and he expects to give Nashville just a year or two. But, like most of his musical brethren, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Asked what his life might be like if he weren’t playing music for a living, Powell, 35, says he’d be a grouchy bastard “if I was even alive at all!”
“If I had to guess,” he confesses, “I’d say living at the shore somewhere with a beautiful wife and a few kids, making music for myself and my friends and wondering how I got there.”
If he can continue to create work as strong as New Kind of Something — which fits easily onto the list of 2007’s top Texas releases — his lost-dream regrets will be nothing more than the subject of a song. As for the wife and kids, well, that’ll have to simmer on a slow back burner. The musician’s life doesn’t provide much room for this dog-lover to keep a canine pal, much less a family.
We caught up with Powell in Austin recently to discuss his recent CD, the possible transition to Nashville, and the staying power of a good vinyl record.
Are you making a living with music?
I wouldn’t call it much of a living. Yeah, it’s all I do.
Ever tried to get that Nashville publishing deal?
I’m actually pursuing that right now. I’ve got a few people I’m talking to. I make trips up there from time to time. I’m trying to stick my foot in the door and get someone to give me a stipend. I’m actually thinking of moving up there. I’m talking to realtors right now. I’m trying to find an apartment so I don’t have to go up there and sleep on somebody’s couch. That’s one of the avenues I’m pursuing these days. Just trying to get some sort of pub deal. I write so much music and I write so many songs that I never do. I write a lot of country songs that I’m trying to get somebody to pick up. Things that I never play out live.
What do you think will be different than living in Austin?
There’s no industry in Austin. All the industry’s up there. I have a ton of friends who live up there and a ton of friends that have lived there. About 95 percent say ‘Oh, you’ll hate it there.” There’s about 5 percent that say “Yeah, go up there.”
It’s just something to do. I don’t really have anything going in Austin. I’ve played all the clubs here and there’s nowhere to take it further for me here. I don’t really want to live in Nashville forever, just for a year or two. I’ll see if I can’t make something happen, something different.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who have done it the other way, moved from Nashville to Austin. It’s quite a well-worn path both ways. But the people who moved to Austin say “We don’t want the industry here, we’d rather have it there. We can go visit the industry.” But if you’re looking for that kind of connection, I can certainly understand the value of doing it, like the Greencards did, and Rachel Loy (is doing). So … what do you like best about the Texas music scene?
Um … the free beer! I really don’t want to sound like I’m badmouthing everything but it’s really not my scene. I got into it about four years ago, really from Bleu Edmondson doing my songs (including the popular “$50 and a Flask of Crown”). I got stuck into that whole “You know my name, now start listening to our records” thing, so I started touring a little bit. But I’m not a country artist by any stretch of the word, so it’s kind of tough for me. I have a certain few places I can go and play by myself and do OK, but most of the time I just don’t go because it’s just not worth it.
What I like best about the scene is the fans. There’s a lot of music fans and music supporters, way more than other states and other places. Sometimes I wish they would broaden their horizons and listen to other music more, but there are a lot of good fans in Texas.
What do you like the least about the music scene in Austin and Texas?
Well, I’ll say about Austin, it’s its own entity (separately) from the Texas music scene. What I like the least is really the level of talent. There’s a lot of bands coming up that kind of water down the talent. And so your everyday fan can’t tell the difference between a seasoned player and some guy who just starts a band and decides, “Oh, I’ve got some money,” and goes out on the road. That’s what I like least about it.
So your roots are in Virginia. What part of the state?
Do you know where Roanoke is?
Sure. I actually grew up in Pennsylvania.
An hour and 20 minutes west of Blacksburg. I’m actually watching the Virginia Tech game right here.
Oh, I’m sorry. I caught you in the middle of a football game!
No, that’s OK.
Did you ever spend any time in the D.C. (bluegrass) circuit where Emmylou Harris came out of, the Birchmere and those places?
Not really. I left home before I got really, really serious about music. I went to college in Richmond for a year. Then I moved out to L.A. for a couple years but then I went back to Richmond and moved in with this band. But I was only 21, 22. I didn’t have a whole lot of craft to speak of so I didn’t really get in the scene out there.
What motivated you to go to L.A.?
I was a guitar player. I was on the ass end of that whole metal scene. Three guys I went to high school with, they went out to Hollywood and went to guitar school so I just moved out there with them for something to do.
I saw another article in which you listed your top 10 albums. I laughed my ass off, frankly, because you’ve got the bluegrass and King’s X, and …
I love King’s X.
Not that anyone can’t have amazingly diverse tastes, but that one really caught my eye. And why, out of all the Rolling Stones albums, Tattoo You?
Because I used to have it on vinyl. I love it. That B side, that slow rhythm ’n’ blues B side? That’s the best. I don’t know, that always stuck with me. My dad has it on vinyl. When I was a kid I used to go to sleep with that B side. I just love it.
Have you seen them live?
Yes, some years ago. I’m not a huge Stones fan, I just love that record.
Let’s go down the list. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band: The Mountain.
Alison Krauss & Union Station
New Favorite, did I say that?
You indicated (in an e-mail) that you had been influenced by Alison. How?
Actually, more of the influence I took from them is from their guitar player, Dan Tyminski He used to live in my hometown in Virginia for a while. And there’s a place up in the mountains outside of my county that’s just notorious for breedin’ bluegrass pickers. Dan used to live up there and they had a band called the Lonesome River Band before he joined Allison Krauss. And I’ve always listened to him, played golf with him. And I saw him for the first time live out here at the Riverbend Church Center, and it was just one of those concert experiences that just changes your life. It was just so amazing. I was just really getting into doing acoustic music and it was just a great concert and it really moved me and inspired a lot of my Fluke Luck and Jesus album.
How long ago was that?
’03, I guess? Or ’04?
Let’s see … Guy Clark (The Dark).
What do you say about Guy Clark? (Laughs) Just a songwritin’ hero. One of my heroes.
What about ZZ Top’s First Album?
What can I say, you know? Just a good rock band.
Seems to me there’s a Texas influence on this list, actually.
I’ve always listened to ZZ Top, even before I came out to Texas. There’s nobody like ’em. I had their Fandango album on vinyl, too. Always been one of my favorites.
That is a good one. Their early stuff, I really liked.
Oh, yeah, big time. I’m not a fan of their new stuff, really. But any of their first five or six albums can’t be beat.
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder: Bluegrass Rules?
Yeah, just another bluegrass influence there.
It’s funny how they go back and forth.
I like any kind of music, as long as it’s good and real. I love bluegrass – especially Ricky Skaggs. They approach it like rock. I mean, it’s like they are aggressive with it. It’s almost like acoustic rock. It’s all about attitude, you know.
How about Led Zeppelin III?
Led Zeppelin III was always my favorite Zeppelin record because it’s acoustic-oriented. A lot of my favorite Zeppelin songs are on that record, so I’m always drawn to that.
Now, who is Brian Rung (his first record was listed as No. 8)?
Brian Rung’s a good friend of mine. I’ve known him for years He’s a singer-songwriter. He played steel guitar with Jarrod Birmingham for a while. He’s living in Victoria now. Where did you find this top 10 list? Must be from years ago.
You’ve got Springsteen on there, and then you’ve got King’s X. Say something about Nebraska first.
I don’t know, I’ve always just liked Nebraska ’cause it’s a demo. It was just kind of something he made at home and gave it to his label for, like, demos of his new record and they just put it out. I thought that was cool.
Steve Earle quotes that as a major influence in his career.
I’ve been wearing out the new Springsteen record (Magic). I love it. I’m a huge Springsteen fan. … And the E Street Band. I love Springsteen’s stuff, but as a unit, the band is just unstoppable.
How about the first album you ever bought: Michael Jackson’s Thriller?
That was the first one I remember going to the store and buying with my own money. When I was a kid, one of my dad’s friends gave me a giant box of albums. It was my first collection, he had every Kiss record, so Kiss was one of my early influences. He had Beatles records, just a bunch of different stuff, but I think Thriller was the first album that I actually bought with my own money.
You’ve got some slight R&B in your sound, but obviously nothing that could be construed in any way as that sort of style. Do you ever think that you’d want to break out and go in a completely different direction like that?
Oh, I think about it all the time. Actually, I have a good friend in Chicago and he’s working on some beats for me. I’m eventually gonna do a pop album. Just drum loops and stuff. Like track four on my new record (“Soap and Water”). That’s actually a drum loop. I write all kinds of stuff. I definitely want to do a pop record sometime.
I can hear that in your music. You definitely have a strong leaning and you should develop it. But how would you do that? Do you have to think about the direction or is it just, “OK, this is the kind of song I want to write,” and it comes out?
Well, you know, a song can be done a thousand different days. That song, “Soap and Water” … was just an acoustic guitar song. I went out into the studio and said, “What are we gonna do with this?” So I just started playing it and made it like a beat box (Powell says “brmmm chicka chicka brm”… in that way musicians have of verbalizing drum sounds). And he said “Why are you trying to do it? Let’s just make a drum loop out of it.” It’s just about how you construe the song. Like a Peter Gabriel song. You can take most of his songs and you can play it on piano, you can play it on guitar. But when you put a drum loop behind it, it completely changes the whole thing. It’s really about the song. Any different producer can take it in a whole different direction.
Is there anybody else in the pop realm who’s had an impact on you lately?
I was listening to that new John Mayer record (Continuum) a lot. I listened to D’Angelo, because the rhythm section on that last John Mayer record was on the two last D’Angelo records. As far as influence, I don’t know if you could say that because it’s such a different style of music, but that’s what I was listening to. Because I’m a big John Mayer fan as well.
It’s funny, because it took him a long time to prove himself as a guitar player.
He’s a great player. When he came out, he got overlooked because he got delivered as such a pop icon. I remember the first time I heard him (as a guitarist), I didn’t realize … I heard Any Given Thursday, the live CD, somebody was playing it in a car, and I had no idea who it was and I said, “Who’s this guy who’s the guitar player? This guy’s great.” And my friend told me, “Oh, that’s him.” And I was like, “Shit! He’s a great guitar player!”
So let’s talk about guitar influences then. Got anybody in particular?
I play so many different styles I take it from everywhere. I used to be huge into (fellow left-hander) Hendrix and Stevie Ray, of course. Now I play mostly acoustic. So Darrell Scott’s a huge influence of mine. Just any bluegrass guy I can get my hands on. I’m a huge Mark Knopfler fan. Eric Clapton. I could go on for days.
Tell me a little bit more about your instrumental background.
I can remember picking up a guitar when I was 4 or 5. My dad had a guitar for a little while that someone had loaned him. I didn’t really take to it. I just remember picking it up and strumming on it. My mom had one of those little electric organs you plug in with the pushbutton chords on the side. I used to mess around a lot with that when I was a kid. I started playing piano when I was about 12, just teaching myself. I think I was about 16 or 17 when somebody gave me a guitar and I just really took to guitar and started learning how to play. And after that, I just picked up things here and there. When I was in Richmond and started playing with (a band), I just worked at night. I was working at a restaurant. And those guys were at school all day. We had our little studio set up in the basement, so I just learned drums and bass, just noodled around on the bass in the daytime. And then over the years here in Austin, as I acquired money, I’d buy different instruments. And learned to play mandolin and dobro along the way.
When did you decide you wanted to sing?
I started singing pretty much as soon as I started playing because you’d start bands and couldn’t find singers. I think I’m still developing it. Of course, that’s my least favorite thing, my voice. I’m still self-conscious about it. The older I get, the lower my voice gets, the more comfortable I get with myself. It’s still evolving. I think if I live to see 45, my voice will be ready then.
I disagree with you about your voice. On this album, it really works in the context of the songs you’re doing. Second of all, a lot of people tend to feel that way. You would have been laughed off the stage at some point if you couldn’t do it. But you said you don’t play out much anymore, so are you leaning toward writing?
No, I play out plenty; I play guitar for different people. I’ve been playing with Bonnie Bishop. Basically, I stay alive by being a sideman. I play guitar for whoever calls me and if I like their music, I’ll go play with ‘em. It’s just easier. I get paid well to play guitar and sing. And I don’t have to pay for gas and hotel rooms and stuff. Financially right now, I just can’t afford a band. Shit, even gas is $3 a gallon. I play acoustic shows all the time. I’ve played every club here (in Austin) on a regular basis.
So you are planning to head out of here for a while.
Yeah, I think so. It’s all up in the air. I live day-to-day right now. I don’t have any ties. I don’t have a girlfriend, I don’t have a record label breathing down my neck. I’m just looking for opportunities.
Nashville is not a place where you can really play much. If you’re looking for a writing deal or to become a songwriter in somebody’s stable, it’s a whole different thing. Is that anything you’d be interested in doing?
That would be my only reason for moving up there. I know I wouldn’t get to play much. I would tour out of Nashville and do acoustic runs out east and the southeast. I just have a lot of good songs that I don’t have on records, and just to get pitched and hopefully get cut. Miranda Lambert’s expressed interest in doing some of my stuff, so it just takes one little thing to get your foot in the door. Basically, I’m trying to find some sort of in-house pub deal just for some sort of stipend, just to live on, so I can really decide exactly what I want to do musically. Ultimately, I really do want to get some other band together and hit the road again, but I don’t want to do it just because … the time has got to be right, the players have to be right and the money’s got to be there. Essentially, I’m just trying to get somebody to cut my music.
What are some of your favorite aspects of the new album?
I like the whole record. I’m pretty proud of everything on it, really. My least favorite song is the last one (“Good to Not Be Gone”). I mean, I like it, too, but it’s kind of a dark tune. I’ve actually had people call me about it because it’s kind of a hidden suicide song.
Yeah, I heard that.
People were calling me and going “you OK?” I’m not gonna kill myself; sometimes you just write things, you know?
You really didn’t have a whole lot of players on this album. You did a lot of it yourself.
I did most everything. I had a couple of drummers come in. I actually played drums on track 3, only because I’d done that song without drums and we were mixing it and I said, “Man, this song needs something,” so I played drums last on it, which is really hard to do. But I had a good friend of mine, Geoff Queen, come in and played some steel and a little guitar. I don’t use a lot of players usually because I love being in the studio so much that I really like to do everything. No. 1, it’s cheaper to do it myself, and No. 2, I enjoy it. I still have a producer helping me, but as long as I’m paying for it, I’m gonna do everything that’s in my power to do.
(He makes a comment about reading interviews where the only subject discussed is the artist’s influences.)
Well, I’d sure like to hear what you think the meaning of life is … but that might be a little too existential for ya.
I just read these little rags you see in bars and the articles are so boring. You know, who is this person? I don’t give a shit about what record deal happened. I want to know really what this person’s about.
I know. The influences questions are really obvious, too. I ask them because it gives a context, but I do, I wanna know what you’re about. What makes you burn to be a musician at the expense of everything else and despite the fact that it’s a hard life?
Well, there’s a passion there for it, of course. But then there’s also the fact that I don’t know how to do anything else! I’m just an artist. And I try to express that. … I kind of have this weird, flaky reputation in Austin – not flaky, but I have this, like, stigma about me. Ninety percent of it’s like, you’re trying to live up to the legend. And people are scared of me. People are scared to work with me ‘cause they think, for some reason, they think something’s gonna self-destruct or something, just because I’m a lot different than most every artist who’s out there doing that Texas thing because I really don’t give a shit about much besides real, honest music. I don’t bullshit people and I don’t play games and I don’t kiss peoples’ asses. I’m just an artist. And I always thought that’s what you were supposed to be, and that’s what managers and record labels were for — to deal with everything you didn’t want to do and didn’t have to. You could just be the person you wanted to be, and create your music, you know? … I don’t want to (compromise) my art. So I get kind of misunderstood from time to time.
Do you think that’s just a hazard of being a musician in general? Like with John Mayer, you were shocked to find out he could play guitar because you thought he was that schlocky, “mothers love your children” guy. So is that just a common thing about being an artist?
Yeah, you know, most of my friends in Austin are musicians and they’re just sick talented and so good, but they just don’t do really a whole lot because people know who Jack Ingram and the Pat Greens and the big touring acts are but they don’t know who Guy Forsyth is. Sometimes it just bothers me but I guess it’s just a matter of exposure.