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Gann Matthews – Taking Risks and Welcoming Life’s Happy Accidents

One thing every adult dreads are the childhood pictures and videos so proudly taken by parents, images of who we once were that come back to embarrass us or reflect beginnings that led us to where we are now. For Gann Matthews, singer, songwriter and urban troubadour, these images take him back to the results of his first concert at age five, after his parents took him to see John Denver.

“They have this video of me where I’m holding this handle to an axe that my dad had broken in the yard,” Matthews recalls, “and I’m holding it while a John Denver record is playing in the background and I’m singing along. I think I told my mom in the video that if John Denver ever dies I will learn all his songs and go on tour. Of course, I’m not gonna do that, right?”

Well, not quite. But Matthews does feel that all his musical chapters – from playing piano at age eight and writing songs on his guitar at age 13, to the series of events during the past few years – have all led up to where he is supposed to be at this point in his life: having graduated with a degree in Music Performance, finished with his EP Silent Sound, and now moving from Denver to New York where he’ll finish his second, full length album, Living Dangerously.

Five years ago Matthews was planning this move when life got in the way. His roommate backed out, and then 9/11 happened. Matthews decided to do something practical like, get into film school. “Really practical, right?” Deciding that wasn’t what he wanted he moved towards his passion, music, at CU-Denver in the spring of 2002. New York never left the back of his mind, but he was encouraged by his mom to finish school, and he’s now grateful for her persistence.

Pondering for a moment, he concludes that it was all meant to be, “It’s funny. If I had actually gone, I wouldn’t have been in music school and studied and all of that, and I would have just died out there, basically. I wasn’t ready and it’s perfect that I didn’t go. Every step led me…I’m now ready to go to New York.”

Although school was a major focus for Matthews, so was writing and performing. He’s made some major strides in Denver during this time, from playing local venues such as hi-dive, BlueBird, the Gothic, and Larimer Lounge, to the small coffee houses. His musical discography started with the EP Trafalgar in 2002, which led to his first full-length album, The Thin Line in 2004. These achievements and Matthews’s talent didn’t go unnoticed, as Westword named him “Denver’s Best Singer-Songwriter-Male” in 2005.

As a songwriter and arranger, Matthews began to utilize his music theory knowledge when he wrote Thin Line. Seeing it as one of his first turning points in his songwriting, the album consists of both full-band arrangements and solo acoustic songs, representing the first steps toward his realization of grand scale production on the two new releases.

“School took me places I never thought it would take me,” he says, believing that most musicians actually resist learning a lot about music from a scholastic level. “I think if you learn a little bit of [music] theory it can be dangerous. Before I was in school, I wrote way more adventurous progressions than the first year or two I was in school. I would sit there and say, ‘Well, that’s not right because I have to follow these theory rules.’ People learn a little bit of theory but not enough to know that they can bend the rules. It wasn’t until my third or fourth year in school where I discovered that they were guidelines, a basis to step off of. I found that I could do more exciting things quicker. Here’s my bag of tricks, what can I use?”

Grand scale and magic come into play within his new material, with a level of diversity from song to song that stimulates and surprises. On the new EP’s title track, “Silent Sound,” you can picture Matthews sitting alone at the piano within an expansive, Great Gatsby era ballroom as his velvety vocals sing of abstract characters–the politician who ran out of lies and is now bored and high, or the tin man falling into the lake nearby, getting “rusty as hell.” A huge circus enters the ballroom with flags waving and drums exploding as harlequin beings twirl and dance with joy.

The irony is that “Silent Sound” was one of his other happy accidents. Although the EP was meant to be all acoustic, stripped down versions of songs that will be on the Living Dangerously LP, Matthews wanted to write something new. If he was going to do it, he needed to knock it out before the recording session the following weekend. He was forced into a method that was akin to writing with the opposite hand.

“Usually I wait for something to come to me. But with ‘Silent Sound,’ I said, ‘I’m going to sit here until I have a song.’ The process was completely different than normal. I didn’t know if I liked it. With the other songs where I was walking around [in Capitol Hill], it was pure inspiration. And then I write down this idea that popped into my head. But with that one, I was pulling it out of me. When I listened to [it] I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ It took me a couple of days to realize that it was a good thing. I had to trust it.”

He’s also found his own, rich and wondrous vocal style, which when he began, followed closely to some of those artists he respected, like Thom York. “The most interesting thing I’ve found about getting away from emulating other artists and actually writing from my own voice is that it takes a lot more faith in what I’m doing. It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m going to write a song that sounds like Bob Dylan so it sounds right.’ I’m writing a song that isn’t derived from something, so it’s harder to do.”

The other risk is how those who fell in love with songs from Thin Line, which carries more rootsy, folk driven tunes than those of jazz, large orchestrations or even indie dance, will react to his evolution. This is something that any true artist will have to deal with sooner or later, and just comes with the territory of people’s resistance to change.

The title track to the new LP, “Living Dangerously,” (which features vocals from Jenny Vail) actually focuses on this very topic. For Matthews, the lyrical content touches on stubbornness of sticking to your old ways, and sees it tied to the risky venture of moving to New York versus staying in Denver where life could be a bit more “safe.”

“When we were recording that title, it was meant to be for the full length because it’s so ambitious and different. If people said, ‘Oh, this isn’t like what you did before,’ I’d ask, ‘Did you listen to the song?’”

He also looks to the king of changing things up, Beck, and how varied his styles and sounds are from one album to the other. “He’d say, ‘You liked Odelay? Okay, I’m giving you Mutations. Suck on that,” Matthews adds sarcastically, while making his point, “That’s what creativity is. If you’re creating a great album, and then you think, ‘Well, I’m going to do part two of that,’ you’re not really being creative at that point. You’re being a manufacturer.”

Each song on Silent Sound is far from cookie cutter. “All Things Meant to Be,” which portrays a smoky horn section, set to a downtown Chicago night when the streets are wet, the air is crisp, and steam billows up from the manhole covers. You can almost here the clang of the L train.

Matthews knew he didn’t want to use samples, he wanted real horn players. That’s when Gustav Hoffman (trombone) and Allen Hanuman (trumpet) came into the picture. The two players learned their parts, but when they came into the studio they had an idea to improvise over the recording. For Matthews, it was yet another unexpected event that had a major impact on him.

“I’ve never actually been into improvising or jazz music all that much, but hearing them make up this solo on the spot was the magical music moment of my whole life,” Matthews recalls with gratitude, further explaining,” I write this song and it has a very specific place that exists. Then I have my melody and my words and that’s the focal point for me. Then they took the chords I’d written and put a whole new spin on things. I’d never envisioned the song in that way. It just happened. That’s what’s amazing about music. You can take it in whatever direction you want to take it.”

“Icarus Wings” is yet another surprise from Matthews, bubbling with happy, catchy hooks and a bushel of sugar beats destined to pull any Denverite onto the hi-dive or Lipgloss dance floor, which is again in contrast to his previous work.

Unexpected discoveries have also surfaced for Matthews within his own lyrical writings. “Train Passing” brought about an epiphany, which occurred months after a break up and while he was singing his own words at a show, “And oh I need a change / When I’m seeing things out the corners of my eyes.”

“It was like my inner subconscious was screaming to me through the song, ‘You are miserable,’ but I was not seeing what I should be seeing. That’s what’s always happened to me creatively. My subconscious takes over. I’m conscious that I’m writing this melody, but the meaning just comes out of nowhere.”

Now, although he still relates and loves the lyrical inspirations of relationships between people, his present day focus leans in a direction of how he relates to the world as a whole. As much as he has doubted himself and allowed fears about moving to enter his mind, he’s dismissed them just as quickly, defying the typical habit of playing things safe in life and career, “Just think about how miserable you’ll be if you don’t try? You wouldn’t even be alive. You’d be walking around working a job but, so what?”

Matthews refers the book, The Alchemist, which was recommended to him by his dad, who knew his son was moving to fulfill his heart’s desire, “It’s about, whatever your dreams are, whatever you’re going for, this story is a metaphor for exactly what you’re doing.”

His penchant for irony is also evident in his song titles, from “Painfully Painless” to “Silent Sound” and even his quotes from previous interviews, where Matthews states his belief in artists staying in Denver to support the scene, and now he’s moving out.

“I have a bad habit of having personal jokes,” Matthews admits, coyly, “I was intending on flip flopping for a while so people would wonder. I love Denver and I think there’s an incredible scene here, it just hasn’t given me what I want. I have always wanted to live in New York. If I don’t do it now I don’t know when I would. Hearing about it, it sounds like my sound would do well there. I’m excited to see how the city’s energy and the cultural melting pot rubs off on my writing, which is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.”

When Matthews gets to New York he’ll be assembling a back up band and finishing up Living Dangerously (which will be produced by Ian Hlatky, who also produced Born in the Flood, The Swayback, Joshua Novak and Rainville), while scouting for potential label support. The EP Silent Sound can now be found at Twist and Shout, iTunes, from his website and at his last, going away show in Denver this Friday, March 31 at hi-dive.


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