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Aspen Songwriters Fest: Matt Nathanson ‘a huge nerd for music’

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Lynn Goldsmith/Special to The Aspen TimesMatt Nathanson closes the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival with a performance Sunday night at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN – When Matt Nathanson first noticed how powerful music could be, it wasn’t really the craft of songwriting that captured him. Nathanson was 5, listening to classic, mid-’70s Kiss through his sister’s bedroom wall, and thinking of the photo he had seen of the band in full costume.”It was powerful, dark. It was real rock ‘n’ roll energy,” Nathanson recalled. “And they were good songs – ‘Christine Sixteen.’ There were some melodies. But I can’t separate the image of Kiss from the songs.”By fourth grade, Nathanson was playing piano and in sixth, he got an electric guitar; within a year he was in his first band, banging away on covers of Def Leppard and Van Halen.And then came the new folk movement of the late ’80s, and Nathanson found that, rather than testosterone-fueled electric guitar licks and big waves of hair, the most interesting sounds were soft voices with acoustic guitars, especially female voices: Tracy Chapman, the Indigo Girls duo of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, Suzanne Vega singing “The Queen and the Soldier.””The first time I saw Amy Ray with a black guitar on MTV, and then saw Indigo Girls open for Neil Young, it felt like a chemical reaction,” the 38-year-old Nathanson said from Salt Lake City. “Before that it was, ‘I want to spit fire and play electric guitar and jump around. This was expressing something with wood and steel. It felt revolutionary for a guy who’d only been into hair metal. The fire there was palpable.”So Nathanson, moving out of his adolescent years, loses his taste for hard rock, picks up an acoustic guitar, focuses on songwriting – end of story, right?Pretty much. Armed with his acoustic, Nathanson squeezes into the singer-songwriter mold. He makes his first album, “Please,” in 1993, recorded in a house in Southern California. His next album, 1997’s “Ernst,” is all acoustic; instead of shrieking electric guitar riffs, there is cello accompaniment. In Nathanson’s words, he had become “that guy with a guitar playing with a band in a room.” When he had his big breakthrough, it was with the song “Come On Get Higher” – not a pot-smoking rock anthem, but a sweet, mid-tempo love song from his 2008 album “Some Mad Hope.” The song was covered by the country duo Sugarland, landed on several youth-oriented TV dramas, and sold nearly two million copies. Nathanson was launched into the upper realms of singer-songwriterdom and it was a good fit: Last year at the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival, Nathanson, appearing among such writers as Shawn Colvin, Keb’ Mo’ and festival co-producer John Oates, gave what was said to be the event highlight – good enough that he was invited back for this year’s 7908, in the festival-closing Sunday night slot.But there is a next chapter to the story. Nathanson was feeling pinned down by the guy-with-acoustic-guitar label. “I had done the songwriter thing (8 albums of it!). I didn’t want to be defined by only that,” he wrote on the current bio section of his website. Itching for something different, something more, Nathanson got to thinking about his next album. He wasn’t thinking about Eddie Van Halen and Kiss’ Ace Frehley, but about rock albums from the ’80s that paid close attention to production. “I wanted to start using the studio,” he said. “I was inspired by the great ’80s alternative records – Echo and the Bunnymen. Back in the ’80s, the production you heard on ‘Let’s Dance’ by David Bowie, the production was overwhelming, just incredible. I wanted to pay tribute to the way these records sounded. Something more futuristic, like it was beamed in.”What Nathanson came up with was “Modern Love,” an album that truly uses the studio – or to be more accurate, studios, with Nathanson recording in six different spots, from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Atlanta. Produced by Nathanson and Mark Weinberg, “Modern Love” takes Nathanson out of the realm of the guy with his band; there are fleets of drummers, multiple bassists and guitarists and a three-piece horn section – nearly enough to drown out the acoustic guitar.”I’d never used the studio as a tool – cutting things up, drummers playing over other drummers,” he said. “Before I’d just use the studio as a place to get the songs down. This creates a landscape. It adds depth to the songs. That sonic palette is so endless and it adds such I depth that I wanted to explore.”Nathanson swears the songs aren’t getting short shrift, just being treated in a new manner. While there are songs on “Modern Love” that sound like radio-made pop hits – “Faster,” and the title track, both peppy, upbeat, catchy and sleek – there are tracks like “Bottom of the Sea” and “Kiss Quick” that seem to come from a more internal place.”The songs are still crucial. They’re the same engine,” he said. “The songs themselves continue to be about the craft of writing. The most important part being, How do you get what’s in you out? Not like Ikea, but like being built by the Amish in the middle of Pennsylvania – craft over anything else. That still exists.”Nathanson’s new approach seems to have been validated by the response to “Modern Love.” The album his number 17 on the Billboard 200; he has toured as an opening act for Kelly Clarkson, and on Tuesday he appears on “Dancing With the Stars the Results Show.”Nathanson isn’t sure about the road ahead of him – whether his next album will revert back to guy-with-band-in-room mode, or continue to explore the potential of the studio. One new approach he would like to take is to be prepared better than he has ever been before, with an album’s worth of songs ready to go.”I’m constantly tinkering. With ‘Modern Love,’ I wrote in the studio; we built and changed the songs,” he said. “Now I want to be the person who shows up in the studio with finished songs. I’ve never done that before. I’d love to go in and be dialed in and have the players bounce off the songs. I always read 1,400 pages for the test the night before – it’s be nice to be prepared.”Whichever direction he takes, Nathanson will bring with him his intense love of music. His early efforts in songwriting he refers to as “creative thieving” – Nathanson was so respectful of the songs he heard that he didn’t dare do something different than what had already been done. His first song was a knock-off of Don McLean’s “American Pie” – “about all these dead rock stars,” he said. He wasn’t someone who immediately wanted to break new ground.”I came though a different door,” he said. “I was such a fan of music, I wanted to be like the people I liked. It came from a sense of worship of these people. I’m such a fan, a huge nerd for music. It’s pretty much the center of my world.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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