A Conversation with Matt Hires
Mike Ragogna: Matt. It says right here on your press sheet that you're thirty. What?
Matt Hires: [laughs] Thirty-one, actually! I just turned thirty-one, so I'm not just not "thirty," but actually "in my thirties."
MH: Yeah, I guess “thirty” sounds more interesting than just being thirty-one.
MR: Well, you’re celebrating your thirties with a new album, American Wilderness, that seems to pick up from your first, not your last album. Might that be a good assessment?
MH: I think so. I don't know, to me, this new one feels very different from both of the previous two full-length records, but I know what you mean. I definitely hear that thread in there.
MR: With the exception of a couple of songs, it seems like your second album, The World Won’t Last Forever, But At Least We Can Pretend, intended to “modernize” you, updating your sound with more production tricks, et cetera. But this album seems focused more on its lyrical content, and strong melodies that can stand on their own, basically, capturing the purity of your first album.
MH: I agree with that! The first record had a decent amount of co-writes, but I wrote the majority of it on my own. The second album had more co-writes, but on this new one, I wrote all of the songs myself. That's probably a lot of why you hear similarities between them.
MR: To me, American Wilderness seems like a spiritual album, your allowing yourself to question your own “religion” precepts behind what you thought you had learned in the past. Has religion turned into more about “spirituality” for you, resulting in some of the questions you raise in these songs?
MH: Yes...that's the short answer, if there is one. When I started focusing on writing for this album, it definitely became something different than I thought it was going to be. I sort of accidentally wrote an album that has very strong spiritual themes, but I just wanted to write the most honest collection of songs that I've ever written in order to do that—the things that I had been wrestling with. I tried to give you the short answer first, because there are lots of things that played into it. I moved to Nashville about a year ago. I have a lot of friends in Nashville so we started this group called Scotch 'N' Songs where we would get together every other week, buy a bottle of scotch, share the bottle, and each of us would play some new songs that we'd been working on. The very first time the group got together, one of our friends who is a great songwriter, Rocco Wheeler, said something to us that really set the course for how all of the songwriters in the group would write throughout the whole year. He just challenged us all to write what scares you. That's what I started doing. I'm not a really prolific songwriter. Unless I'm pushing myself, I probably write five or six songs a year. But since we were doing Scotch 'N' Songs every other week, it really pushed me to keep writing. Usually, it would end up the day before we were all getting together and I'm going, "Oh crap, I don't have a song, what am I going to write about?" I would just be like, "Okay, if you were to put something in your CD player right now, what would you want to hear?" That's what I started doing. The necessity of having to bring that song to the group just made me really dig deep and write songs that scared me in a lot of ways, songs that aren't necessarily fluffy or super easy to sing in front of strangers, or maybe even more so in front of people that I do know. Moving to Nashville, my wife and I sort of took a year off of going to church, and that sort of caused me to really dive into wrestling with how I felt about spirituality and God. I started looking at the church that I grew up in because my dad was a pastor and that was a huge part of my life growing up. Looking at the way that we do church in America from the outside was really healthy for me. These songs are about my wrestling with that. So that's the sort of long answer.
MR: I think there's a lot of self-reflection among Christians right now because of what's happening in politics. Many ministers seem to be leading their flock to the polls however they can and it's making Christians ask, "What does it mean to be a Christian?" Considering the current environment, I’m surprised there aren’t more projects like this out there.
MH: Yeah, there are things about certain lyrics that I wrote... In the song "Holy War," the bridge of it is, "My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine," which is a line from an old hymn, but then I say, "But sometimes it sucks to have to love you in America." It was very scary when I wrote it, but I think it's become less and less scary to sing because it's become more and more relevant, unfortunately. I would consider myself somebody who follows Jesus, but then I look at so many of the majority of other people in this country who also would say that same thing, and I'm like, "Man, we're just on completely different pages." I don't know how that works, and to be honest, sometimes it just really sucks.
MR: Your song "Glory Bound" seems like an epilogue in some ways. How do you relate the song to your life?
MH: I view "Glory Bound" in the same category as "Holy War.” There's a lot of wrestling in that song. Even the end of it is almost like a reconciliation. A lot of "Glory Bound" is the concept of God being silent when you want answers. The main line is, "Glory Bound, I'm Glory Bound, but I could use a little help right now, because the devil's in my doorway and he ain't leaving." Even in the end of that song there's still no answers. God never shows up, but the line is "Hold me close to thee." We're always looking for something higher to give us answers, but sometimes, we find that in each other.
MR: Beautiful. Though I grew up Catholic, I remember “God” being explained as being a part of everything, literally, a mixture of a lot of sources.
MH: Well, there's the concept in the bible of the trinity, and part of that is the Holy Spirit, the part of God in you. It's sort of a humanist idea when you think about it, I think a little bit too supernaturally in the church. But what I think it's really saying is, "Part of God is in you and me," and that's kind of a huge thing.
MR: Matt, you're in Nashville. How are you navigating Music Row?
MH: I feel sort of removed from all that. Most of my songwriter friends are on the same page. We're trying to grow together and push each other's songwriting. I don't really do much of the Music Row, co-write kind of stuff. I feel pretty removed from that side of Nashville.
MR: So, to quote a song title from American Wilderness, you might say "You Are What You Are."
MH: [laughs] Maybe, I don't know.
MR: Were you going for a single with that one?
MH: I wouldn't say I wrote anything to be a single. I probably wrote the first six or seven songs and said, "Okay, I see how these feel together, now what other ideas need to be explored to make this feel like more a big picture, more of a complete collection of songs?" Some of the later songs were like "The Wilderness," "You Are What You Are," and I think "Don't Let Your Heart Grow Cold." They each played a part in how I wanted the whole collection of songs to feel together. "You Are What You Are" is a little more upbeat and hooky, I wasn't really writing it to be a single, I just felt like there needed to be some songs with a little more energy. A lot of the more hooky songs on the album were inspired by Brandon Flowers' last solo record—not that this is the only time that he's done this, because I feel like it's something that he does a lot. But he sings songs that are very interesting musically but are also pretty poppy and hooky, and I think that's cool.
MR: Two songs that I feel continue a thread on the album are "Mothers & Fathers" and "The Tragedy Of The Leaves." What’s the story on those?
MH: "Mothers & Fathers" was a song about the American dream and expectations and how so often you're trying to find something in that, trying to find fulfillment, but it just ends up being meaningless and feels empty, just like generations that have gone before us. That was the longer concept. With "Tragedy Of The Leaves"... There are a few songs that reference the changing of seasons, like Winter turning to Spring. That's because after moving to Nashville from Florida, that was really the first time that I had experienced the change of seasons. It kind of had more of an impact on me than I thought it would. I don't know if I could live anywhere without seasons now. There's the whole theme through the album of rebirth. "Begin Again" and "Tragedy Of The Leaves" are like that. “Tragedy...” came from a Bukowski poem of the same name. There are some similar themes to the poem, mostly through the beginning of the song. We were hanging out with some friends and one of them read that poem one night. I thought about it a lot. A lot of the poem is about death and futility and leaves dying, so that just got me thinking about rebirth and how everything that dies can come back--not necessarily literally. But there are things throughout the song about relationships coming back and all these other ideas. It was about rebirth.
MR: Then again, that's a recurring thing in nature, things die and come back. Most religions consider--if not reincarnation per se--at least the concept of “rebirth.”
MH: Like the line in the bridge of "You Are What You Are," it's sort of that concept. "Every beat of every heart beats from the death and rebirth of stars. If That's in me, if that's in you, why can't we be reborn, too?" That's where all of that is coming from. If that can happen, then yeah.
MR: So the cover of American Wilderness looks like the link between Matt Hires, the Universe, and the Earth.
MH: Yeah. It's very cosmic. [laughs]
MR: Let’s talk about the album closer, "Don't Let Your Heart Grow Cold." Everything that's come before on this album seemingly led to the point, "Okay, this all may be overwhelming, there's a lot of information to absorb in life, but try your best. Don't let your heart grow cold through this all."
MH: Stay open to it.
MR: Is that how Matt Hires does it?
MH: To try to not let my heart grow cold and stay open? I try as much as I can. When I play that song live, I sort of jokingly say, "This song is sort of like a suicide note, but in a good way." To me, that's the most honest song on the album and I just try to say, everything I would want to say if I were to die tomorrow. It ended up being a good conclusion to the whole album. It's not really a conclusion, it's not giving any answers as we tend to think of answers, but I just try to say, "In all of this, don't let your heart grow cold."
MR: So how does Matt Hires feel we should be traversing through this American Wilderness?
MH: Don't let your heart grow cold! [laughs] That's a hard question, but it's what the album's about...and it doesn't necessarily provide any answers, so I don't know if I have an answer.
MR: The usual question: What advice do you have for new artists?
MH: This album, for me, feels like the closest I've gotten to what I want to be as an artist, so I guess to a new artist, I would say, "Keep writing. Maybe in like seven or eight years, you'll write the album that you really want to write.
MR: In the end, do you feel like American Wilderness came off like a concept album?
MH: Yeah, unintentionally. I talked before about the whole Scotch 'N' Songs group, that kept me writing much more frequently than I usually do. I just wrote about what I had been thinking about and wrestling with throughout the year, so it was something with a common thread.
MR: Though I feel the new album connects more with your first album, Take Us To The Start, to me, there is one obvious link between your second album’s “Wishing On Dead Stars” and American Wilderness. That song seems to indicate your eyes were opening, consciousness was rising, whatever, and it was a sort of prologue to American Wilderness. And my last thought on that second album is I felt you were being molded into an artist you weren't excited to become.
MH: I don't know if at the time I would've said that or agreed, but looking back at it now, I think you're probably right. It was the second full-length record that I was putting out with Atlantic and I knew that my future with the label sort of depended on the record. And that was made clear, so there was definitely a heavy emphasis on getting a great single and all that stuff. I did a lot of co-writes for that album. I'm an introvert, so just walking into a room and meeting somebody and then writing a song... Well, I got some good songs on paper out of that, but I don't know if they were necessarily songs that said anything that I wanted to say. I'm not talking about all the songs on the record, there were a lot that didn't make the record that were definitely not songs that I would've wanted to put out. But some of my favorite songs on that record were ones that I wrote with people who were friends. My producer, who did the first and second albums, we wrote a lot together. Somebody who I'm more comfortable writing with, I felt like we could tap into that level of honesty that I was going for. In writing, I would always think too much about, "What's the A&R guy at the label going to think? What are my parents going to think about this? What are my friends going to think?" I tried to shed that as much as possible with this album and tried to write songs that I wanted to write.
MR: How did you work with your producer on American Wilderness? How did he enable you to get what you needed done?
MH: My friend Randall Kent produced it. We met probably three years ago, and he's played with me in my band for a while. Recently, he got into producing and I've been enjoying a lot of the stuff that he's been doing, so we started working on this new record together. He was also in the Scotch 'N' Songs group, so I felt like he really got it. He had seen everything as it progressed. I feel like it was a great fit, we're comfortable working together and we were able to hone-in on what the songs were really saying and try to express that through the music as well in the best way possible.
MR: Did any of the songs evolve further because of your collaboration?
MH: Yeah, definitely. Randy just has a great musical mind. I always write alone with my acoustic guitar, and sometimes when I'm writing, I can hear everything else going on; sometimes I just don't. Randy was great at being able to figure out where each song should go musically. The end of "Tragedy Of The Leaves," where it's just building and repeating that "...come on back to me" line, which ended up being my favorite part of the song, that was totally Randall's idea. I thought he was really able to pull out what the songs needed and keep it exciting and interesting.
MR: He knew you because he performed with you, but do you think he resonated with the album’s philosophy as well?
MH: Definitely. In our Scotch 'N' Songs group, we play the songs, we talk about them, people ask questions, so he was definitely tracking where I was headed lyrically and musically.
MR: Did you over-record or over-write for the album? Are there a couple of songs still needing a home?
MH: There were a couple that I had written but we didn't record. I sort of figured out the ten that were going to be on the record before we went into the studio.
MR: If someone were to dive into the album, obviously, you'd want them to go from top to bottom, but which songs are you most curious about a listener’s reaction to?
MH: Probably "Holy War" and "Glory Bound." My favorite would probably be "Don't Let Your Heart Grow Cold."
MR: I had a feeling. I'd say that could even have been on your first album.
MH: Yeah. Even on the second album, the last song on there, "When I Was Young," is another of my favorites, and I feel like it's in that same vein a little bit.
MR: The only other question I have for you is so obvious, I don’t know why I’m bothering asking it but I will nevertheless. Why is "You In The End" such an amazing song that should be on every playlist ever?
MH: [laughs] I don't know. I don't even know how to answer that. I'm glad you like it. I had stopped playing that song for a while live for whatever reason and I just started playing it again. It's fun to do.
MR: What did you discover about Matt Hires through creating American Wilderness?
MH: That most of the time, it's very hard for me to put what I'm wrestling with spiritually or where I'm at into words. It can be difficult doing that in interviews, but I feel like I did it better in the songs than I can just talking about it. Hopefully, that comes through for people.
MR: By the way, what was the story of your leaving Atlantic?
MH: Overall I would say it was good. Album sales weren't what they wanted and I wasn't happy with how the album [The World Won’t Last Forever, But At Least We Can Pretend] was released. I'm not mad about it at all. I think overall, it was good for me to be independent for a while, take a step back, try to figure out what I really want to be as an artist, what I want to say, and I think that led to this new record. If I had stayed on the label, I don't know that American Wilderness would've happened and that kind of bums me out. I'm happy that it happened and now I'm signed with this independent label called Rock Ridge Music. They’re putting the record out and I think it's going to be great. They're super artist-friendly. I know a bunch of people who are also on their roster. Just a lot of good, solid, hard-working, independent songwriters.
MR: You also personally released a project right before this one.
MH: Yeah, I put out an EP at the end of 2014 called Red Eye with a few B-sides from the first album and two or three from the second one. It was all songs that didn't make the cut on those two albums but that I liked and wanted to get out there. I didn't release it physically, but it's on iTunes and Spotify.
MR: Matt are you touring to support the album?
MH: I'm doing a fall tour around the release of the album, October 14th. The tour started September 23rd.
MR: I’m out of questions. What would Matt Hires ask himself?
MH: [laughs] It's funny, in the few interviews that I've done about the record, it gets very spirituality-centric, which is weird for me. I never intended to write an album that would be so strong in those themes, so it's just interesting doing interviews like this now.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne