Solo Songwriter

August 24, 2008

Matthew Alexander: A Musical Life in Five Chapters – Part II

Filed under: Acoustic Pop Interviews — julianwilson @ 9:31 pm
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Written by Barry Andrews

You can say that Matthew Alexander has been around the block; in fact, he was there when the roads were still being paved. With Early Recordings (1967-1977), Alexander is coming to terms with his past, the disappointments and near-misses of his musical career over the last couple of decades. Early Recordings reveals that, even in his youth, Alexander’s gift for melody and writing memorable narratives had already blossomed but they remained in the vaults for many years, waiting to be uncovered.

Barry Andrews: You recently released Early Recordings under the name Matt Alexander. What was the experience like sifting through these old tapes?

Matthew Alexander: All these old recordings were done on audio, reel-to-reel tapes in the ’60s and ’70s. At that time, I was performing under the name “Matt” rather than Matthew. During the subsequent years, I had been carting these recordings around the country in cardboard boxes and storing them in basements, attics, and closets. I had always assumed that one day I would play them again and recently even bought an old reel-to-reel machine in hopes of doing so. It was at that time, however, that I was informed that old tapes are indeed very fragile and could be destroyed after even one play back session. And so I sent them to a Canadian expert, Richard Hess, who specializes in restoring old tapes and making digital transfers. He informed me that my reel-to-reels were badly mildewed and compromised by dirt, dust and age. To restore and transfer them, he took months to bake them and, in some cases, leave them out in the open Canadian air for days at a time to clean them up.

When I finally received the digital transfers from Richard, I was in a state of awe because I hadn’t listened to these early recordings for approximately 40 years. It took me a few days to get up the courage to go out into my studio, turn off all the lights, turn on the CD player, put the CD in and listen to the songs. When I heard them, it was like being transported in a time capsule. I was stunned by the untrained quality of my voice, the rawness of the recordings (some of which were recorded in mono), and the innocence of many of the songs. I was extremely gratified, though, that I had been able to save these recordings from “reel” obscurity, I felt as though I had closed a circle and made good on a promise I had made to my younger self to not forget these songs or experiences.

Andrews: Listening to your vintage performances, I could trace back your current style to what you were doing back then. The voice is certainly younger, dare I say virginal, but your songwriting was already developing a knack for emotional narratives. What changes do you see between your younger self and Matthew Alexander circa 2008?

Alexander: In the 40 some years between when these songs were recorded and now, I have become more financially self-sufficient and confident, less melancholy, and more complete as a person. In other words, I have grown up. As a songwriter, I have changed as well. “Bring Your Friends Home, David” (which appears on Early Recordings) was representative of a whole style of writing which I have since abandoned. In fact, sadly, it is the only remnant; I simply can’t remember the other songs, and they were never recorded. These songs were all very intricate, used multiple rhythm changes, leaned heavily on finger-picking and classical guitar styles and were pensive story songs. I got tired, however, of writing tunes that were so complex musically that no one could play along with me and so I dropped the format. However, I am delighted that this one song still remains. “Reap What You Sow” (another song that appears on Early Recordings) is a message or protest song that was a popular genre in the ’60s and ’70s. I avoid writing message songs now and try to write lyrics from a more universal and general perspective that allows for multiple interpretations. Also, I think my music has changed from my earlier days in that I am striving now to blend the different styles I was experimenting with at that time (i.e. country, pop, folk rock, and folk) into one style that incorporates jazzy rhythms and chord changes. Finally, after taking singing lessons, I have learned to sing from my diaphragm rather than my throat and so am able to achieve what I think is a far better and more relaxed vocal tone now. In terms of what has not changed, however, I still seek to write songs that have emotional resonance, still love playing the acoustic guitar, and I am still in pursuit of writing that “perfect” song.

Andrews: You were in a songwriting class offered by Paul Simon. Describe that experience and what did you learn from him back then that you’ve never forgotten?

Alexander: Paul Simon was my idol when I was in my twenties. Next to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel were my biggest influence. I loved their music and songs. And so when my sister-in-law told me that she could get me into a class that Simon was teaching at NYU, I was floored. Since the class had already been filled, however, I could only sit in on one session. Simon was late to the class and when he walked in he seemed shorter than I expected (gods are always tall in one’s mind’s eye). As a newcomer with a guitar, he immediately spotted me and asked me to play a song or two for the class. He complimented my finger picking style on the first song I played (“Nancy’s On My Mind” which appears on Daredevil Angel) and asked me to play another song. I proceeded to play “Bring Your Friends Home, David,” a six-and-a-half minute finger style song with multiple chord changes written from a mother’s perspective about her young son who gets killed by a car. When I finished playing the song, Simon surprisingly asked me to sing it again which I did. When I finished the second time, he asked each member of the class to give their opinion of the song. Half the class loved the song and half the class hated it. Simon proceeded to ask me if the song was based on a real person named David. I said “no,” and he opined critically that songs should only have the name of a real person in them. He proceeded to say that he thought my song was maudlin and then blithely went on to ask others in the class to play their songs. When, at the end of the class, I shamelessly walked up to him and asked how to contact him again, he gave me the number of his agent. I knew this was a brush-off and never called. I didn’t agree with Simon at the time about songs having to have real names in them and still don’t agree with him on that count. In fact, I am more likely to choose a name for its phonic qualities than its reference to the actual person (or persons) that inspired the song.

However, I still learned some valuable lessons from my idol in that one session. One lesson is that it is OK to take your time to work on a lyric, even if it takes years to complete. He played for the class a fragment of a song entitled “Armistice Day” which he had been working on for a long time. I later heard it on one of his solo recordings. These days, I am apt to take as much time as I need on a lyric and have learned to be a lot more patient with the songwriting process. Another lesson I took from that one class with Paul is that you don’t have to have a “big” voice to be a successful singer. Simon had what seemed like a “small” voice in person but it was plenty big when he used microphones in the studio or in concert.

Andrews: Were these tunes recorded for a label? What happened after you made them?

Alexander: Two of the songs on Early Recordings (“Going My Way” and “Crying”) were demos recorded for Musicor Records in New York City in 1971. Musicor had produced and released several of Gene Pitney’s hits in the ’50s.  I had just turned 21 at this time and was awestruck to be in their studios, next to huge posters of Pitney and framed gold records of his hits.  They hired a studio pianist to back me, and I recorded demos of four original songs for them. Musicor was run by a father and son team. It turned out that the son wanted to sign me but the Dad nixed the deal and that was that. “Bring Your Friends Home, David” was recorded and produced by Lou Stallman, an award-winning songwriter who wrote the N.Y. Yankees theme song and co-wrote the standards “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle” and “Round and Round.” Lou had “discovered” me in a summer camp in 1966 where he came yearly to produce a musical with the camp teenagers. He would spend a week at camp teaching the teens to write their own songs upon which the musical would ultimately be based. Stallman liked my guitar playing and proceeded to groom me as a songwriter over the next few years, something publishers did back in the ’60s. He went on to publish “Bring Your Friends Home, David” with his company, Think Stallman Music, and pitched it (unsuccessfully) to record companies, probably as something of a novelty song. Some of the other songs on Early Recordings were demos made for Four Star Music, an L.A. based publishing company. I had found their name in the phone book when I arrived in Los Angeles and called them to arrange an audition with their song screener, who turned out to be an attractive, red-headed woman named Jody. I simply walked into her office and played my songs for her on the guitar. She was very enthusiastic and responsive and went on to demo and publish three songs (“Counting the Hours,” “When We Say Goodbye,” and “Give It Away”). Back then, when a publisher published your song, they paid for the recordings, which were then transferred to little acetate records (like 45s) and had formal lead sheets constructed. As someone who never learned to read music (much to my father’s chagrin who was a classical composer), it was quite a thrill to see my melodies “in print.” Four Star pitched the songs to multiple recording artists who “held” them but ultimately chose not to record them. Fortunately, my songs were all published with reverse clauses that allowed me to retain rights to them in the event that they were not recorded.

Andrews: What was the coffee house scene like back then?

Alexander: Back in the ’60s, coffee houses were coffee houses not laptop-oriented establishments serving Starbucks coffee, iced lattes and chocolate cappuccino frappes. The coffee houses were often housed in churches or universities and provided stark furnishings and simple refreshments, mostly black coffee with milk and cookies. The whole attraction was the acoustic music. I headlined for many years at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Harvard Square (where the photo for the front cover of Early Recordings was shot) and, in retrospect, marvel at the innocence and purity of that experience.

When I first arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1967, the historic folk club Club 47 was still around. I will never forget seeing legendary acts like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Tim Buckley perform there. The sound was awesome and you got to sit so close to the artists that you could almost reach out and touch them while they performed. Hearing music in Club 47 was like going to church; it was a religious experience. No one talked, no one stood, no one texted; we just soaked up every word and every note of every song.

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