CREATIVE EXPRESSION: MUSICAL INSTRUMENTALIST
INTERVIEW AND NARRATIVE BY KENNEDY GACHIRI
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SARAH DE BURGH
Imagine walking into a space and realizing that foundational rules of physics don’t apply. There is no gravity. The walls change colors depending on your mood. Time and space are bending. And what if this altered consciousness is solely a result of what you are hearing? Meet guitar maestro Matthew Stevens: a designer of alternative realities through sound. “I wanted to make music that felt like stepping into a room. A totally enveloping environment. I wanted it to feel 3D and I wanted it to be something different than just capturing an acoustic performance of a piece of music. I wanted to create a tactile environment. Something that felt like it was all around you. And had depth and texture,” Matt begins. “I was…creating a parallel universe to where we already are in our living and breathing world. …A parallel universe where the whole spectrum of emotion and color and feelings and experiences…are present,” he adds. In his most recent album Preverbal, an album that features the vocal stylings of his friend and long-time collaborator Esperanza Spalding, Matt succeeds in creating an immersive arena that you have to hear to believe.
We meet at Matt’s studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn. It is a simple space that is a far cry from the vivid and fluid imagery that Matt conjures up through his music. “Nothing was off the table,” Matt says while referring to his latest album. “And so it crystallized over time. I had felt up until that point that I was more free-wheeling and creative when I was working on and producing other people’s music. Or writing songs for other people. And I wanted to bring that to my own music making. I felt that when I’m making my own records I’m sometimes playing it safe in [a] way that I don’t want to,” Matt adds. Esperanza Spalding served as timely inspiration for Matt to venture out creatively. “I [had] just finished doing a two year tour with Esperanza where I worked really closely with her on Emily’s D+Evolution and it was this wild and far-reaching art rock record produced in part by Tony Visconti [David Bowie’s longtime collaborator] …So coming out of that, I really wanted to bring that ‘anything goes’ spirit to my own music making. So we just followed our nose and tried to simultaneously be the creators and the recipients of it,” Matt says.
Just how does one go about creating a three-dimensional musical experience? “If I hear a particular sound…I feel an acute emotion. Depending on the environment and context, that feeling would change… That’s why the room or universe I’m trying to create can be so amorphous and can be [a] blob that comes together to take shape in an amorphous way and then disband. And the next time you hear that song it comes together to form a different shape,” Matt says. Matt is intensely focused as he searches for words to express abstract concepts and emotion that he is accustomed to channeling through this guitar. “As someone who up until this point has written instrumental music, talking about what it is about can be an elusive thing. Oftentimes, I’ve felt that making instrumental music [is] inherently abstract but the reason it’s appealing to me is because it’s giving me the opportunity to express something that I couldn’t otherwise express in words or through a lyric. It’s my way to sort of expressing changing and sometimes amorphous feelings at times. …I think of instrumental music as being representative of [the] whole dynamic changing of ourselves.”,” Matt says.
As a guitarist with an innovative approach to sound and musicality, Matt has developed a clear sense for what his musical priorities are. “Rhythm is really important to me. Each song I make I want to have a really strong rhythmic pull and foundation and identity. It’s not sort of ambiguous. So, if you think about the music on Preverbal,…I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly what the rhythmic foundation for the songs is going to be. What are the bass and drums going to do? And we build our house on that. That’s the most important thing. Cause everything is heard in relation to that. So that’s a huge priority for me. Melody is a real priority for me. Not being derivative is a really important priority for me. …Influence is important and inescapable…but the most interesting music is when people are able to take these seemingly disparate influences,…really digest them, really absorb them deeply, and birth something that is unique to them,” Matt says.
Matt thrives in collaborations with artists that share his musical priorities. One of these longstanding partnerships is with his friend and accomplished drummer Eric Doob. “We produced [Preverbal] together. …We’ve played together and talked about music and thought about music for the better part of 20 years… [Eric] has always been someone whose opinion I trust and has been a sounding board for me,” Matt says. He continues, “A lot of it [with Eric] is that we’ve been working together for so long that we don’t really need to explain our points of view to one another too often any more. …We can cut the fat and get to the heart of the matter pretty quickly,” he says. Matt has a similarly effortless relationship with Esperanza Spalding with whom he has collaborated extensively. “In the last 3 years, I’ve done 2 records with Esperanza. And the first one, my ability to interpret what she was asking of me [was less developed.] …By the time we were working on the second record, we [had] developed a shorthand between us where I was able to hear her and take what may sound ambiguous and crazy to someone outside our communication and interpret it and put it into action much more quickly,” Matt says. Most recently, Matt contributed as a composer, producer, and guitarist in Esperanza’s latest album, Exposure.
It is easy to see how Matt fosters deep collaboration. And it is a blend of substance and style. His general demeanor and affect immediately put you at ease. It is as if his ego is a minor actor in his life. “I…know the pitfalls [of] riding the roller-coaster [and] what it means to be a musician or in the arts in general. There’s just so much potential for huge highs and incredible moments of big-headedness and incredible lulls and opportunities for gut-wrenching self-doubt. …All of those things serve as distractions and if the goal is to make the best music that you possibly can, then staying as even-keeled as you can is in your best interest,” Matt begins. “When you think about ego, and what feeds your ego, and what drives your ego, I think what it means for me is I want to continue to be successful, and I want to continue to be increasingly successful. And I want to…continue to make music. That’s the reason that…I want to be successful. …The goal is to increasingly have more agency in my own career…To have that you need resources. You need money. You need support,” Matt says.
Thanks to his parents, Matt had a strong base of support to pursue music from early on. “My dad had an acoustic guitar under the bed that he bought in college. …I was drawn to it because a lot of the music that was played around the house was guitar driven. My dad was a real lover of music and my mom taught ballet for 40 years. …There was always music in the house and especially in my dad’s car …Music had a firm place in our home life,” Matt says about his childhood. It was piano and not guitar that Matt first experimented on. But there was no real spark with the piano. “My relationship to the piano was to try and do my best at this thing… Playing piano was much more academic and it was that you’re doing it right or you’re doing it wrong. So I never really developed a personal relationship to that instrument. For guitar, it became my mode of expression,” Matt adds.
What more is artistry than a mode of authentic self-expression? What does it mean to Matt to be an artist? “Just the act of being an artist is to be political… It is an act of defiance in its essence. …It’s so not part of the status quo and we’re looking at different ways to push back against complacency and normative roles in the various ways in which they manifest. To be an artist is to be inherently interested in shaking things up whether you are aware of it or not. I think a lot of artists may not think of that as being part of their mission [or] a part of the natural thing they are doing… But I think it’s…inherent. …It’s radical because you’re stepping out of line. You’re not just walking with the crowd. You’re going, ‘Wait a minute,’ and you’re taking a side-step from the other fish swimming downstream,” Matt says.
Is everyone an artist? “I think everybody has the potential to do something artistic… At the same time, to just say, ‘Everybody is an artist!’ …Well, no. Everybody CAN be an artist… I really believe that people are born with pretty limitless potential. But it’s about how we choose to explore and develop that potential. Where we put our energy. …[As an artist,] you’re putting yourself out there. It’s different. It’s different from working at a job and you go, ‘My boss wasn’t happy with how I handled this account. Well, fuck him, I don’t care about that stupid account anyway. I’m gonna go home to my life and things that I care about now.’ [It] is fundamentally different [when as an artist you go], ‘My work is myself. …I’m offering up my best self here to you.’ And that’s courageous because you will inevitably be rejected and not everybody is up for that. And it’s an important question to ask yourself and it’s something I ask myself…when I’m feeling down, ‘Well, what’s worse, none of this going the way you want it to go and ultimately failing in a myriad of ways? [Or] not trying?’ …I think it’s an important question to ask yourself, and answer honestly. For me, the bigger hurt would have been not to give it a go, and not continue to try. And that’s my reality right now. That makes being rejected or failing less scary because if that’s not the worst thing, then I have control of that,” Matt concludes.