The much cherished Minneapolis songwriter and musician Matt Wilson has returned after a five year silence with a remarkable new album When I Was a Writer. A stunning work of substance and depth, it is a record you can’t help but be joyously intimate with from the very first play. Credited to Matt Wilson and his Orchestra, his band this time around are an intriguing choice. On paper, an electric bass player, a harpist with the voice of an angel and a melodic Banjo maestro might not seem the obvious direction to go band wise in, but boy does it totally work.
Musically there’s not a stitch dropped, not a precious creative moment wasted or misplaced. A gently driving, subtly majestic musical cradle for his beautifully touching songwriting and rich warm vocals, both of which have never been in finer form. When I Was a Writer is a record you deserve to fall in love with, safe in the knowledge that it will never let you down but instead enhance your life with it’s honesty and wisdom. We are all loners but we are not always alone.
Matt is probably most well known for being the leading light in the unique and brilliant Trip Shakespeare, a magical band like no other you’ve ever been lucky enough to come across. Along side Matt was his older brother Dan, bassist John Munson and drummer Elaine Harris. Between 1986 and 1992 they released a quartet of essential albums culminating in one of the finest albums ever made - Lulu, a dazzling perfect masterwork chock full of superb musical invention. As a band Trip Shakespeare were rare in that they had a considerable surfeit of songs that they performed live that never made it onto albums. Yet when it came to Lulu, they seemed to arrive with a mostly whole new batch of songs entirely. It is one of those records that demands to be played in its entirety from start to finish every time. Its like a concept album except it isn’t at all that in the traditional sense.
If it is a concept album then its in the purest way in that the only concept is to make an album as a whole, rather than just a collection of songs brought together for a record. It jumps all over the place and yet remains a complete entity. If you compiled a best of then it would seem odd to take individual tracks from Lulu for inclusion. Dropped by A&M soon after they drifted quietly apart. Dan and John went on to form Semisonic and became deservedly huge beyond all dreams. Meanwhile Matt released a hugely underrated solo album Burnt, White & Blue, before teaming up with John once more in the brilliant Twilight Hours for two magnificent albums. Time now to drift into Matt and see what he has to say for himself. This is going to be splendid.
"When I was eleven, kids at my school had an opportunity to choose an instrument to play in the band. I didn’t know much, but I knew that drums were the only instrument that was remotely cool. I didn’t see any way to make awesome music with the wind instruments. So I became a drummer and that made all the difference in my life. Within a couple months the band had a concert performance and I played a two measure solo on the snare drum. Someone praised me and I became addicted to that, the appreciation. I have honestly spent the rest of my life chasing after that high.
I grew up in a house that had a very limited record collection. We had a decent stereo, but just a few LPs. So of course, those records became my bedrock. The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Glen Campbell, a little Cat Stevens. That’s what I inherited from my very kind and middle of the road parents. Everything I am grew from that garden bed.
It’s trite to say, but the Beatles especially were a dominant influence because of their sheer greatness. They have always been like gods to me. Not as idols that I worship. More like the creators. Eternal fixtures on my landscape. For a musician, the Beatles music is almost something that you almost have to recover from. I remember that no young rocker in my neighbourhood could even sing a song without an English accent. The only way we knew how to sing was in their voice.
But maybe the most important part of my musical influences, something that is both a weakness and a strength, is that I’m not actually much of a fan at all. I love music, but I’m not really interested in the lives of other writers. I don’t worship individual musicians or memorise their biographies. On top of that, I have always had a belief that if I become too deeply immersed in other people’s sounds and songs, if I became a student, that I would begin to imitate other people and erode my own originality. I’m not an amazing singer, or a particularly talented instrumentalist. So I always believed that my unique imagination was the only valuable thing that I possessed. I worried that the more I immersed myself in any vein of music the more, I would lose the original me.
All of that said, I want to give a shout out to one group that really floored me when they appeared. I was doing some work for a friend, driving their truck in the process and there was a Belle & Sebastian album in the tape player. For me this was like finding the Rosetta Stone. I would characterise their musical style as “School Play”. They remind me of young and innocent musicians in the pit band of the school drama production. That’s the music I have always wanted to make. They made me want to cry. For some reason listening to them does not diminish who I am. I love them. But on the other hand, I couldn’t tell you the name of their lead singer, who I admire so much."
"I like your characterisation of Lulu as a concept record that isn’t a concept record. My theory is that we made some production moves that cause the record to hang together in a way that seems to tell a larger story.
Concerning the unity of the record, we did have a good pile of songs at that point, but they were not really of a piece, not all written during that same period. At least one song, Patricia, was very old. But by this point we had played a million shows, arranged a million songs in the basement. Our approach was fully developed and any music that went through our filter ended up sounding like us and that’s the main reason that the album has that sense of alignment. Each song seems like a chapter in a wide-ranging novel. Then on top of that, producer Justin Niebank came in very excited about what he had seen of us as a live performance machine. He was determined to record the record live, all at once, as much as we would allow. Justin had a jolly supportive vibe that kept us inspired. He captured the rock power of the group, as well as the nerdy jam band aspect. He let us play and create. So we jammed out in our weird way like maniacs and he recorded all that insanity.
Sometimes the frame of a painting can really unify and elevate the image inside. I think that some of the little musical moments that we inserted into the record accomplish that same trick. They glue the music together and prop it all up. The opening mini song, “None of the regular rules were true…” really helps launch the record directly into a dream of the past. It points backwards and suggests that the whole record is a history and it is. All my lyrics were and true and false memories of the past, because that was the way I wrote. I try to remember what happened.
I’m droning on and on now, but I’ll just say that one last element that contributes to that concept record feeling is the sequence of the songs. Song order is so important. I can’t remember if it was Dan or John who came up with the final order, but it functioned so well. A powerful sequence is incredibly difficult to accomplish. I’m not good at sequencing. But I’m like everyone else, I can tell when it works. This particular song order really gives the album a sense of intention, like it’s trying to take you somewhere."
Burnt, White & Blue
"After Trip Shakespeare evaporated and Semisonic flew up toward the sun, I was staggering around a little bit, a little bit stunned by the turn of events, my change in fortune. But as I was working on Burnt, White & Blue, Dan, John and Jake, the Semisonic guys, were actually right there with me, helping me along. A lot of the album was recorded in a defunct plumbing supply store next door to the studio where those guys were recording their soon to be huge album “Feeling Strangely Fine”. That space was being used as staging area for their recording. Dan and John both played some bass on the record and Jake played drums on a track. They were very generous to me.
I saw this record I was making as maybe my last chance to demonstrate what music could sound like, how I thought songs could play out. Even with the help I had, making that record was a lonely journey and it took forever because I was chasing something elusive, something I thought was substantial and worth it.
I had an overarching worry at this time and I know that most people will not be able to relate to it, but it had bothered me for my whole life. I was convinced that I had no soul. That might seem comical to someone outside my experience or era, but it was a feeling that had haunted me especially in my musical work. There was definitely a racial aspect to this worry. I grew up in a neighbourhood that had diversity in the form of lots of Jewish people. Dan and Kit and I were total goys, but we grew up immersed in Jewish culture and I’m so grateful for it. It’s weird to say, but Judaism is a huge part of who I am, even though I’m the most white bread suburban knucklehead that ever walked the earth. On the other hand, there had been almost zero black people in my life up to that point.
Yet a lot of the music that I had discovered and deeply admired had been made by African Americans. Now I don’t claim to be a true student of any kind of music. I don’t know anything. But to me the mystery that I heard in African America music, the way it communicated feeling and sorrow, that was a source of wonder to me. Groups like Led Zeppelin were musically incredible, but I sensed they were like me, searching for a way to convey the mystery inside all of us.
So they stole some of that black sound, that way of speaking, that way of playing guitar. I knew that they were like me, searching for a way to be something other than a suburban kid with no magic at all. The authenticity, the guts, the hurt that I heard in the Blues and in Motown, was just a world away from the robot boy, the spawn of Devo, that I saw in myself. I was lost and I always had been and I felt like I had no soul. I felt like I was empty. That feeling of being empty and unbearably white, is what I finally managed to write about on that album, “Burnt, White & Blue”. I’m sure that I sound like a member of Spinal Tap as I talk about the importance of my past work. But that record is me trying to be honest.
Yet what kills me is that even on that on that record, there are still some songs written in code, poetry that sounds cool – and it is cool – but is full of shame and hard to decipher. Still, that album manages to accomplish the trick, the thing that musicians can sometimes do when they can see through the fog. It makes you feel something. It has an emotional thrust to it. Of course, that’s hard to accomplish because so often in the world it’s hard to feel anything at all."
"I write songs slowly. In a way I discover them. I try to be patient as I grope in the dark for melodies and words. I keep coming back to the same places, feeling around. As I grope along the walls, I record as much as I can with my pen, or onto some audio device. While I’m in that mode of writing music every day, I always try to write into a journal. That keeps the thoughts and emotion stirred up and flying around so they’re easier to see.
When I first started out, I had a trick for finding ideas in my mind. It was a way to fool my brain into discovering melodies and emotions. I used the pathway of memory. I would sit back and try to remember. Remember a feeling, a melody, a situation that moved me. I would use this method of remembering even when I was so young that I actually had very few memories to draw on. That didn’t matter because the ideas I was remembering didn’t have to be real. I was just using the process of remembering as a way to discover ideas that moved me.
One remarkable thing about me, something I’m proud of, is the fact that I have literally never stopped my quest to make music, to find songs and sounds that can connect a lot of people in a common experience of joy or pain. I have been true and loyal to my mission of making songs.
But there have been times when I’ve had a wrench in my songwriting gears. It often happens when I’m in that next stage of music making, when I’m working to produce an album. The most recent instance of that sort of lapse came when I was obsessed with recording and producing the second Twilight Hours record, Black Beauty. I felt like the songs were worthy and I so desperately wanted to present them in their finest light, in a way that no one could ignore. I failed in that, but as I tried, the songwriting went by the wayside. I wish that didn’t happen, but is seems the little computer in my head is too weak to record and write at the same time.
As part of releasing Black Beauty we did a kick starter campaign where we offered various services to fans in exchange for money. One service we offered was to write a song with a contributor. A guy named Tim Guthrie, an artist from Omaha, bought that service and he drove up to Minneapolis to meet me. He turned out to be a great person. To know him is to love him. We spent a very pleasant day together chatting on the porch and going for walks near my house. As we became more familiar, he told me about the death of his wife, how his life had been shattered and how he was trying to cope. He told me that he didn’t want to write a song with me, but instead he wanted me to go off on my own and write a song about what he was experiencing, his emergence from this tragedy.
I wrote the song “I Can’t Return” very quickly in response to Tim’s visit. Tim visit had jarred something loose in me. Writing that song triggered an avalanche of musical ideas that created this record, “When I Was a Writer”."
"When I think about time and my own age, all I feel is desperation. When I see signs of my decrepitude or sense my diminishing powers, it makes me want to rush round and do some stuff before I die. So, desperation and urgency are my response to aging. I want to get my songs across. I want to be heard. I want to spell out for everybody the cool things that I think music can do.
When I think about creating songs and recordings, my aim is to drum up some feeling or another. It’s weird, but for me the ultimate musical experience is to be crushed. To be driven to tears, or to be made unbelievably happy. Sad or happy, it’s really all the same. It’s this unleashing of emotion. That to me is everything in music. That’s what makes it powerful. When a song makes me want to laugh and cry and dance at the same time, that’s like hitting the trifecta. That is my ultimate goal. Because when you feel those canyon-wide emotions, you know you’re alive. You’re rising and fighting against the deadness, the numbness that always creeps around and wants to settle in."
Assembling the Orchestra
"Many years back around the time of Burnt, White & Blue, I took notice of a guitar player in town playing in a band called The Rank Strangers. He was doing things that I wished I could do, playing zig-zaggy leads through his reverby Silvertone amp. His music matched my rock fantasy and exceeded it. I was so attracted to this person, Jacques Wait, I wanted him to be part of my life somehow.
Then, as I came to know Jacques, I discovered that he’s one of those few who live a thoroughly examined life. He had a code. Now back in those days, his code was a little bit self-destructive, but he did have a code. This sort of integrity is something I respect tremendously. I constantly suspect myself of skating along, of not being thoroughly real. Because I suspect the worst of myself, I’m attracted to people like Jacques who are authentic. Jacques played on Burnt, White & Blue and he was part of the band that travelled with me after the release of that record. As the record began to run out of steam the band disintegrated. Jacques had to step in on bass for a period and I was surprised how propulsive that felt. I made note of it.
A couple summers ago, I became more deeply acquainted with the music of two people that I had known for a long time. A lot of people in the Twin Cities are aware of Quillan Roe because for years he has recorded and toured almost constantly with his own group The Roe Family Singers. I first saw that group at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul and was kind of amazed by the harmonies I was hearing. Quillan and his wife Kim sounded to me like four people. More recently I saw them performing a show out in the north woods of Minnesota. The astounding harmonies were still in effect, but this time I also observed that Quillan’s banjo playing was performing the role of a really good drummer. He had a pocket. All alone he had a groove that any band of musicians could hang on to and take a ride. My scheming mind made note of that as well.
At this very same music festival in the woods, I also had a chance to hear Phala Tracy playing harp quite beautifully in a solo setting. Phala and I had collaborated a few years earlier on a pretty wild show that had a lot of moving pieces. I remembered her primarily for her inventiveness. I thought of her as an arrangement machine. Intensely bright and full of ideas. And now out in the woods I was able to hear so clearly the beauty of her playing. Her mastery.
Sometime after I got back from that adventure in the north, the crafty wheels in my brain started turning and I began to imagine an ensemble that was gentle, that didn’t need roaring guitars or a drummer to build a fun groove. I had been longing for some kind of musical configuration that would allow my scratchy voice to peer through the curtains and be easily heard among the din. Suddenly this odd grouping, Jacques, Quillan Phala, and I, it all just sort of appeared in my mind. Wouldn’t that be cool?
I only conceived of this group as a vehicle for my past songs. A new way to play my canon where there was no temptation to imitate my past groups. But after we started to play together, the sound was immediately appealing. I couldn’t help but bring in my newer songs just to see how they might sound. Before too long we were arranging the new material, performing regularly and starting to record the new stuff one song at a time. Everything we’ve recorded along the way will be on our new record, When I Was a Writer."
Thanks Matt. A track by track breakdown of the new album would not go amiss before you leave….
When I Was a Writer
"From time to time in life, the light comes on. You have a period of insight when you understand who you are and what you have to do. When I was 25, all the lights inside me were turned on and shining out. To have had this moment of knowing what to do and to have lost it. Until recently that had been the broad pathway of my life."
"There’s a hole in my personality, a hole in my being. And it causes me to constantly suspect the worst from myself. I want to be good. But like so many people, I wonder if I’m a fraud. There are plenty of people who tell me, “No, Matt. You’re a good person.” But they don’t know me like I know me and there’s something broken in there."
Come To Nothing
"Here’s some logic. We all came to this with nothing. We will leave with nothing. That’s a truism. But this condition is actually our super strength. It frees us. We have not a damn thing to lose. Think of all the outlandish things you can try when the stakes are really zero. In a stealth way, this idea is all over the record because I’ve believed it my whole life, and I’ve never been more certain of its truth."
"The first job I had, when I was fourteen or fifteen, was to be a stock boy at a corner grocery store. Every night before closing I would help myself to refreshments, Twinkies, a quart of milk. I would feast in the back room. I was a good little boy, but maybe only when I was being watched. Later in my life, I met a young woman who made a serious practice of thieving in convenience stores. She’d wear a big coat and just take things for sport. She attracted me, but she scared me even more."
"This one is a favourite of mine, though most listeners don’t seem to understand it in the way I do. For myself, I’ll just say that the deal, the reality that we ordinary humans must accept, the proposition that we can work and rise, is not valid. It’s a mirage. I know it’s not real."
I Can’t Return
"When you lose everything. When you have so much and you lose it, you might long to return to where you were at the beginning. But you’ll find that you’ve lost that, too. You can’t return. You’re left with only the mysterious road ahead."
Dirty Broken Lover
"Once you’ve taken a few falls, once you’ve tried out a few of your theories, you start to realise that maybe The Beatles were on to something. Giving love, sharing love is the only perfect thing. It must be the answer, because everything else shatters or melts away except that."
Only Just A Boy
"I don’t want to be a man anymore. I don’t want to be strong and responsible. I just want to play. I want to screw around. I want to live forever in that sacred state, that moment when I feel unaccountable and totally alive."
"This one is similar in its escapist sentiment to “Only Just a Boy”. When the world around me seems to be a travesty, part of me just want to fly away with the ones who love me and live in the sky, to stare at the beautiful shining stars."
"I don’t need to be a doctor to know that we’re all mental patients, functioning as our own shrink as well, each of us nursing along our fragile mentalities. Look at you with all your pain and uncertainty. Look at me with my fears. You and I, all of us, are wandering together, united in suffering, on this strange inexplicable Odyssey."
When I Was A Writer is released on Pravda Records on 20 March. You can buy CD, Vinyl or Download here.
Remastered and Expanded Versions of Trip Shakespeare's Are You Shakesperienced and Applehead Man are available on the Omnivore label here. Across The Universe and Lulu await a CD Reissue, but can be bought second hand fairly cheaply on the likes of Amazon. Hopefully A and M will allow Omnivore to complete the reissues.
Burnt White And Blue and the two Twilight Hours albums can be bought as physical or download versions on The Twilight Hours Bandcamp site here.