Singer-songwriter Matt Sherwin has been around and paid his dues. If one didn’t already know that from this native New Yorker’s longtime presence on New York City’s indie music scene – where he’s been performing and recording for over a decade now – then his new album, 12:30 Songs, will certainly put the world on alert. Showcasing his talent and versatility as a songwriter, Matt’s new album gives listeners a multitude of New York-ish stories and viewpoints gained by hard-won experience.
Amidst a batch of newly scheduled gigs to promote the album – including one this Friday night at the Lower East Side hotspot Pianos, which will feature the premiere of a music video for one of the album’s most notable cuts, “George Washington Slept Here” – Matt took some time to drop by the ol’ blog and talk about his music, his longtime band The Silent Killers, and the meaning of the album’s title. Good stuff, people. Check it out…
The album’s title, it seems, was partly inspired by the daily grind of a survival job. Could you talk a little more about that?
While I was writing material for 12:30 Songs, I was working in a day job in the Wall Street area. And while the job really wasn’t bad…I wouldn’t necessarily call it the “daily grind” – I sometimes let myself feel bad about having it…that I was wasting my life, and that kind of thing. So to make myself feel better about my predicament, I would set aside 45 minutes or so every day during lunch to work on my writing – so that I was treating writing like a job in and of itself, albeit a less time-consuming one. I happened to take my lunch every day around 12:30, so that’s where that came from – though the title is also a bit of a nod to Randy Newman (his album 12 Songs) as well as the poet Frank O’Hara, two artists who’ve meant a lot to me.
One of the songs, “Care,” was written twelve years ago. How come it’s only showing up on an album of yours now?
Well, around 75 percent of the song was written a decade ago, but I never felt the bridge section was working, and therefore never released it…That was part of the reason anyway. I guess I also felt like I hadn’t earned it somehow – that I wasn’t grown up enough to really pull off the themes in the song, which deal with the loss of passion in a relationship over – as I’ve always imagined it – many years. At the time I wrote it, I hadn’t even ever been in a consistent long-term relationship, so I don’t even know where the impetus to write it came from. In any event, I always wanted to come back to the song, and after a few years I was able to come to terms with its themes, so I re-wrote a bridge I was really happy with, and that was it.
Another song, “George Washington Slept Here,” was inspired by your interest in the history of architecture. How so?
Ha, well that’s a slight exaggeration, but yes…I have this addiction to
The AIA Guide to New York City Architecture, and there’s a reference in there to “George Washington Slept Here architecture” – which refers to buildings of dubious historical authenticity, despite their claims to the contrary. I just thought that was a fascinating phrase, and I knew I’d want to use it for something. Then a few months later when I saw the Robert Redford movie The Candidate, which deals with the political corruption of this very moral man, I found myself thinking about the phrase again. I guess it was this idea that no one is incorruptable I found interesting – and what if we took the country’s first great hero and exposed him as a total philanderer and bastard, and that might actually work on a number of levels. So the song wound up having this real thought-out intricacy, but it initially came about in a totally random, stream-of-conscious way.
You’ve also got a couple of political/protest songs on the album, which is not your usual bailiwick. What prompted these?
I’m not a political person in the sense that I read The New York Times and watch Washington Week on a regular basis. I do try to be aware of the issues, but then again I feel everyone’s more aware of politics than they are normally – which is one positive side-effect to the country slipping deeper and deeper into trouble. Everyone’s affected, and everyone cares about what happens. Maybe I didn’t really write more political songs until I felt there’d be an audience of people who’d actually care about what I had to say…I don’t know. In any case, there’s something really, really exciting to sing songs like “George Washington” or “Walk in Single File” live and have everyone respond in an immediate way. At those times, I feel like I’ve tapped into something everyone’s feeling, and it’s like nothing else. Of course, I imagine people would respond much differently to those songs in more conservative parts of the country – I haven’t been able to experience that yet – but I’d like to think those songs would get a strong reaction, even if it’s negative. Some reaction is always better than ambivalence, I believe.
You recorded with your longtime band. How long have you all been together and how did you all meet?
I’ve known a couple of the members for years – Tara since high school, I went to college with Carter, Ben I’ve known for about five or six. Dave for four or so. I’ve mostly met those guys through mutual friends or playing together with other musicians. We played together as The Matt Sherwin Band for the first few years – and what’s interesting is in the last year or so, since we started calling ourselves The Silent Killers, I think we’ve become a much better band. Of course there are a lot of reasons for that, but I do think there’s power in a name.
For the most part, you are a very personal songwriter. Who are some of your musical influences and inspirations?
Well, I think any form of art is personal, but the first album in particular had kind of a confessional ring to it, so I know what you mean. I don’t really feel the second album has that aspect to it as much. I’m not writing as myself all the time. It was quite liberating to write a song like “George Washington,” which is in someone else’s voice, ostensibly Martha Washington. You know, some of my favorite songwriters do that all the time – Randy Newman uses the “unreliable narrator” – where you don’t know if the narrator represents the author’s views, or the opposite (you often hope the opposite in his case because many of his characters are bigots and/or not such nice people). I think that’s often a lot more interesting than some poor sap saying “look at what’s in my heart.” I feel bad saying that, but for every Jackson Browne there are a thousand bad writers. Speaking of which, I guess you could say he, and Randy Newman of course, were a big influence. Who else? Dylan, Lou Reed, The Beatles, Richard Thompson, Warren Zevon. A lot of the post-punk stuff from the 80s, which meant a lot to me during adolescence – particularly Bob Mould and Husker Du, The Replacements, The Minutemen. Elvis Costello has always been huge – someone I could look to and say, there’s someone intelligent and articulate in popular music and not afraid to show it, cool! He’s also someone whose career I can look to as a sort of model in the sense that he doesn’t let himself be pigeonholed – doing a rock album with The Attractions here, a classical album there. People like Randy Newman, Joe Jackson, Duncan Sheik, who do something more ambitious than just the singer-songwriter thing are very inspirational to me.
Now that the album is out, what’s up next for you and the band?
I’m really proud of the album, though right now I feel it’s like the nervous new kid at school sitting by himself in the cafeteria, or something. He just needs to be noticed, you know? I’m doing what I can to get radio play, press, and that kind of thing – but I really hope that if someone likes the album, that they’ll let five people know, who in turn will let more people know, and so on – a chain mail kind of thing. It’s just about getting noticed. As for the future, I’ve got lots of things I’d like to do – write a song cycle, record with a string quartet, but you know, it all depends…what’s that old expression: ’til the money runs out? Or is it ’til the bank collects on my debt? Well, as long as I’m building a following and people want to see me, I believe I’ll keep doing this. I’ve thought many times about hanging it up and becoming a teacher, an architect, a funeral director (during a prolonged Six Feet Under phase), but I think if you’re really in this, you’re in it for the long haul. And the nice thing about the whole music industry model becoming less about major labels, and more about independent musicians taking charge of their own careers, is that from where I am now I can go just about anywhere. No one’s holding me down or telling me what kind of music to play. It’s kind of exciting and terrifying – in this climate anything can happen.