A few weeks before his New York performance at the Living Room, I spoke at length with Matthew Perryman Jones about his latest album, Swallow the Sea. Jones filled me in on his writing process, which he describes as "a stream of consciousness exercise," as well as the current Nashville music scene and the inspiration behind many of his songs on the album.
Be sure to check out his MySpace, and if you like what you hear, find the widget on his page for a free download of his last album, Punches In the Dark. Read below for the in-depth interview and check back in a few days for the full MP3 of my interview with Matthew.
Swallow the Sea is your third full-length album. Did you go into the studio having a certain concept for the album?
About six months prior to the full recording of this record, me and the producer Neilson Hubbard had gone into the studio and recorded some stuff. We don’t really do demos anymore, it’s more do a recording of how you want it to sound. We did some recordings a while ago, like “Save You,” “Without a Clue” and “Don’t Fall in Love” that are on the record that we actually recorded a while before we started the full-on record. I think those were just recordings that started the idea to do a record.
Eventually, in March this year, we came back in and we did a live recording. What made it different for the rest of the record is that we came in and we recorded live. We got the whole band together and rented out a different studio where we could do a live recording. Our vision was to make a bigger sounding record, so the studio we used and doing it live gave it that bigger sound and also gave it a little more energy in the performance. That was kind of the vision in terms of finishing the record, which was really to go with something that has a bigger sound and a little more energetic than what we have done before.
“Without a Clue” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. I was just curious to the inspiration behind it.
I wrote that song with Kate York. I had the song idea coming in, I just wanted to have her come in and hash out some lyrics with me. We just came onto this theme of a nostalgic love song. Something that was good at a certain point in time and ended at some point. We fell on that theme as we were writing; it kept coming up a lot. A lot of times when I write, I don’t really come with an idea; usually the melody and there are words that start coming out with that melody. That one in particular ended up having that nostalgic feel to it. We just hashed out these lyrics and the idea of this old love story that was good when it was there. That’s the general idea of the song and we just worked it out.
This album you’ve co-written a lot. How is writing a song vs. co-writing a song different for you?
I used to always write on my own and after a while, especially when I moved to Nashville, I started doing some co-writing with people. At first I didn’t like it a whole lot, it felt too invasive. Then, I started getting to know certain people that became friends of mine that weren’t just songwriting partners; we knew each other, we had similar perspectives. I started writing with folks that I knew and I trusted and it actually became enjoyable to me because I’d have ideas; I’d come with a melody idea or song structure and lyrical fragments. It’s been really cool to bounce back ideas creatively and to see how other people approach an idea or a song. So, in a lot of ways it’s been a real growth experience for me, writing with other people and being able to be challenged creatively.
The way I do it, especially when Neilson and I write, I’ll come in with . . . I usually keep recordings of melodies and song ideas, structures, with little lyric ideas. I’ll come in and start singing these melodies and he’ll have a pad and pen and just start writing down everything. I’ll just start singing and I won’t think about what I’m singing at all, even if it’s complete nonsense. Kind of a stream of consciousness exercise. I just start singing and my main goal is not to think about it, just go and start singing out words even if they make no sense. He’ll write down things that he’s hearing; certain words that come out a lot or themes. Then we find the theme of the song, which is exploring it through the stream of consciousness way and he’s just transcribing words. And then we come on to the feelings of a song, or what I like to call it, the guts of the song. At a certain point, we have to start giving it some shape and really start putting some meat on it.
The process is mostly to try and find the guts and the feeling of the song so the song has an emotion to it; something from a deeper level. I used to think, is that writing approach less honest because you’re just not thinking about it? I think it’s the opposite. I think it’s more honest to do it that way because you’re not thinking about it, you’re not imposing any ideals or any ideas on a song that don’t need to be there. You just let the song do what it’s supposed to do. It’s just been a fun way to discover a new way to write songs.
On the surface you’re just aware of your daily life and the stuff you have to do here and there. But, on a deeper level and a subconscious level, there’s way more going on. It’s funny because after I’ve finished a song, even after I’ve recorded it and put out a record, I’ll listen to a song months afterward and go, “Oh, that song makes perfect sense now. I know what that’s about now because I’ve processed certain things and I’m more into my conscious life.”
Tell me about working with Neilson Hubbard. I know you worked with him on your last album, so obviously things have to be going well.
Yeah. I love working with Neilson. I knew some of his work before the first time we worked together and I really, really liked it. I loved his approach. As I got to know him, we’re both about the same age so we come from the same school of music which is the late 80s. Bands like Pixies, old U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, all those late 80’s mod-rock bands. It’s where both of us developed our musical tastes so we connect really well there. We both love the in motive, moody, vibey, yet edgy rock kind of stuff that’s really reminiscent of that era. We just connected really well. He’s definitely more of a minimalist in his production; he likes to be really sparse. I like that about him, but I tend to lean more towards the grandiose and a little overboard, so I think when we work together there’s a balance that happens and I think it’s a really cool balance of how we both approach stuff.
Your song “Save You” has been getting a lot of play on television shows like “Private Practice” and “Kyle XY.” How did that come about? Do you feel it’s helped your career in getting your name out there?
It came about a while ago. A guy in Birmingham who works at a radio show, Scott Register has a show called “Reg’s Coffee House.” When [last record] Throwing Punches came out, he really championed that record and really pushed my stuff to a lot of people. We recorded “Save You” because some people had heard it live and they were interested in the song, so we decided to record it a while ago. Actually, the version on the CD is the first recording we did. He gave it to a licensing agent in L.A., who heard it. According to what she told me, she said it wasn’t even done with the first verse and she wanted to work with me and work that song. Literally, within two weeks she had the placement on “Kyle XY.” It was really cool to see how that had an immediate connection with people. It’s gotten my music into a different audience because my music has never really found a way into a younger audience; the later teens, early 20s mind span. Mostly college-aged to mid-30s tend to be the typical audience. It’s gotten to a younger audience and it’s been cool to see how it’s connected with people of that age group and it’s definitely helped get my music out into a lot more people, so it’s been a great thing.
How do you feel the Nashville music scene is different from other parts of the country?
I guess, in a way it’s [just] different from other cities. I was in Atlanta before I moved to Nashville, and there was actually a really good music scene going on in Atlanta. But, it’s a much bigger city, and the music scene was not really part of the city as much as it is in Nashville. You think of Nashville and you think of Music City. Most people just think of country music. When I first moved here, there was this really cool, underground group of artists and songwriters that were amazing and inspiring. This town, even in the last three years, has just beefed up its artist roster.
People are moving here from other cities, even from New York and L.A. because the music scene definitely has more of a communal sense to it, people really support each other. In a way, I guess it’s different from other cities in that there’s definitely more of a concentration of artists here and the community is definitely really big and supportive. Not to say it doesn’t exist in other cities, I’m sure it does, but I think it’s a little more prevalent here. I think it’s helped me too, in a sense, because it’s a really inspiring city to live in. Especially right now, we just had a festival last week called “Next Big Nashville.” It’s just all Nashville artists — hundreds of bands and singer-songwriters and artists from Nashville. It’s amazing. I went to a bunch of shows and every show I went to I was blown away. I was just blown away by living in Nashville. This is just a great city to live in right now because there’s so much great music coming out of Nashville. It’s just inspiring I think.
Tell me about your “10 out of Tenn” showcase.
Trent Dabbs, a singer-songwriter in town, he and his wife went on vacation together, just to give you a bit of the story. They put their travel compilation disc together and as they were driving down, Trent turns to his wife and goes, “This is amazing, because our compilation disc is all our friends. We just put all our friends on this compilation disc.” So he got the idea, “Why don’t we put an official compilation recording together of all these artists and do a tour and bring it around the country?” Really, in a sense, bring a part of what’s happening in Nashville around the country in different parts and different cities. We did a tour about a month ago, went up to the north and southeast, played with Butterfly Boucher, Griffin House, Katie Herzig and Tyler James and a bunch of folks from the neighborhood here. We’re all friends and we all see each other and we just kind of hopped on the bus and did a show together, which was pretty awesome. We took Willie Nelson’s old touring bus from the 80s. It was pretty amazing, actually. It was really cool, but really bumpy and really hard to sleep in, but it was still really cool.
You’re an independent artist and a huge help is MySpace and the Internet on getting your music out. Do you feel it’s easier to be an independent artist nowadays or are you eventually looking for that record contract?
It’s definitely easier to be an independent artist today. One, with MySpace and a lot of mediums that exist out there for people to get their music in front of people and be heard and also collect a fan base and know where people are and know how to find people and play in certain towns. Its way easier now, because even 10 years ago when I was playing, we were doing hard mail outs to people to addresses. To put shows together we were literally physically mailing stuff to people and snail mail. That’s unheard of now. It was lot harder to get word out to people back in the day, especially before the Internet really developed a lot of these sites. Yes, it’s way easier to be independent now.
It’s actually more desirable. Even with TV placements these supervisors are looking specifically for independent artists, artists that don’t have the red tape of a big record deal and publishing. It’s a lot easier for them to work with independent artists so they’re looking for independent artists specifically. It works out best for both worlds, because they don’t have to deal with as much read tape and the independent artist is able to have this medium to get their music out to a broader audience. It’s a really great time to be independent. It’s not to say I wouldn’t sign a record label deal because there are definitely advantages to what they can do to sustain your career in a lot of ways. There’s another side to where they can completely ruin your career, so there is no hard way to go about it, it depends what’s right. I’m not apposed to it, if it ever happens, if it’s the right deal.
You’ve been getting amazing reviews, being compared to John Lennon and Leonard Cohen. How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before?
It’s funny, because I’ve read those reviews with those comparisons which blow me away. Because, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I’m anywhere . . . the whole, it just doesn’t even compare to me. Leonard Cohen and John Lennon are these freaking icons. I think what they’re saying by citing those artists is that there is more of a poetic element to my writing. I think that’s why they get the Leonard Cohen comparison, because a lot of his writing was more poetic. Even John Lennon had that element to his writing, more impressionistic, more poetic. Lyrically, I think I lean more that way; more impressionistic, more poetic. All music to some extent is poetry, but in the sense of singing it as poetry, if that makes any sense.
I would describe my music as mood-rock. It’s got a little rock in it, but it’s got more mood to it. If I were to sum it up in a way to describe it, it would be mood-rock. Because it’s not emo by any means, but it does have an emotional element to it, it’s driven by that. I know that sounds weird, because all music has an emotional element to some extent, but I think some music has more of an achy, mood to it, that I think I go for in my music.
Your song, “Motherless Child” is strikingly different then the rest of the album. You definitely feel the mood with that. What’s the story behind that song?
That song is an, old, old spiritual, from hundreds of years ago, so I can’t take the credit for writing that song. I improved a couple lines in the song. I reinterpreted that song. I did it live a few times and it had this real achy mood thing to it, but it also had this aggression to it, which is how I interpreted the song a little bit. And I wanted it to have some aggression to it. We created that song in a way that it had both elements, where it had this haunted feeling to it and at the same time, this anger to it. That’s one of my favorite tracks on the record. A lot of people say it’s so different from the rest of the record, and I know that it is and that’s why we put it in the middle because it sort of peaks the record a little bit. I was able to sing out more of an emotional, what was going on in me emotionally at the time. In the record, I feel like that really captured at least me, where I was at, at the time. I really liked how it turned out.
You can watch a live performance of "Motherless Child" below. Be sure to check back in a few days for the full audio of this interview.
For more on Matthew, visit his MySpace.