Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Winter Child For All Seasons

When Matt Duke was a teenager, he wanted to get an album out by the age of 21. Now he’s 21—and he has an album out. Sometimes dreams do come true.

I first became aware of Matt after he was signed by MAD Dragon Records, an imprint formed by Philly’s own Drexel University to give music students first-hand experience in running a label. In case you’re wondering, “MAD” is the College of Media Arts and Design, while “Dragon” refers to Drexel’s mascot, Mario The Dragon. So, have I made it painfully obvious that I went to Drexel…or what? In 2005, MAD Dragon placed a few of Matt’s songs on XYX, a compilation which also featured fellow singer/songwriters Trisha O’Keefe and Julia Othmer. Matt still considers this a great experience, albeit one with a downside: “We had to go on the road a bunch as a songwriter circle. The thing that always bothered me about that was that nobody could ever understand that it was a songwriter circle. They always thought we were a band.”

I understood that “XYX” wasn’t a band, and when I saw Matt and Trisha for the first time—Julia Othmer was absent from that particular gig—I was immediately hooked on these fine young talents. They’ve since gone their separate ways, and now Matt is celebrating the still-recent release of his debut album, Winter Child. I’ve followed him for almost one and a half years now, and as good as his recordings are, they cannot compare to the unpredictable thrill of his live shows. You never know what songs he’ll play, how he’ll play them, or even in what order he’ll play them. However, he has had two CD release parties—one in New York, the other in Philadelphia—and both were full band shows. How does he feel about that? “I think that full band shows, for me, help to keep me grounded,” he replies, but he’s quick to add, “When we were rehearsing, one of the main things that I did try to get the two of them to do—meaning [drummer] Nathan Barnett and [bassist] Dane Klein—was that they need to be able to complement a certain amount of spontaneity as well.” In spite of this drive for spontaneity, Matt’s set lists have become somewhat more restricted by the release of a new album; he hardly ever plays some of his older songs anymore. As he explains it, “I just think it’s a time thing, as you move forward there’s just certain ones that you give a little more weight to that may be a little more relevant to where you are at any given time. Obviously, with this record, I’ll be kind of focusing in on a lot more of those tracks.” Even with tighter reins, Matt is still a wonder to behold on stage, as he contorts, convulses, screams hysterically, and makes all manner of strange faces—even though he’d rather not. “The faces are totally unintentional,” he admits with some embarrassment. “I do not like to see pictures of myself at the shows. I can’t take it. ‘Cause I know that I make weird faces, but I can’t help it.”

One listen to Matt’s music lends credence to his biography’s claim that he counts artists like Jeff Buckley and Damien Rice among his main influences. But those are fairly obvious; I hear something funky in his grooves, especially live, and he even throws ‘60s soul covers into his sets on occasion. I had to ask him to what extent R&B music influences him. His response was surprising: “Growing up with my dad’s sort of music, we listened to a lot of The Band, Blood Sweat and Tears, Earth Wind and Fire, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, Sam Cooke. So I went through a potpourri of music. All those things, in one way or another, help shape you in the way you approach music.”

Still, Winter Child is a smooth blend of folk, rock, and pop with dazzling songs that often draw their inspiration from outside sources. “Don’t Ask (For Too Much)” (which differs significantly from the XYX version) is about an old friend of his whose father died abruptly; “Listen To Your Window” was written about a girl who was hopelessly in love with someone who had no such feelings for her. Yet Matt writes and sings these songs in the first person. “I think that human beings are generally by nature—depending on whom you happen to meet in your lifetime—we’re empathetic to certain types of situations,” he explains. “I mean, ‘Listen To Your Window’ is about obsession, and everybody at one point or another has experienced a feeling similar to that. Maybe not to that great of a degree, but we’ve absolutely felt it.”

Matt is also a voracious reader, so it’s not surprising that some of his songs are based in classic literature. He was so floored by Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” that he wrote “Ballroom Dancing” as a musical encapsulation of its essence. “The Love We’ll Never Know” namechecks Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Matt’s thinking behind the song—and the theory of natural selection—is striking: “The basic feel centers around the fundamental truth that we, in essence, are animals—a glorified species of animal that still succumbs to the instinctual need to survive. In that sense, love is a fruitless pursuit because natural selection and evolution would tell us that we must constantly adapt and protect ourselves in order to survive.” With a song about evolution on board, it’s only fitting to include an opus on the subject of religion. But with lines like “My tongue is tied from reciting inspired Bible verses and bullshit lies,” “Tidal Waves” is bound to rattle some cages. Maybe I’m just taking it too seriously. Matt: “It is a general idea that God isn’t there—a very nihilistic (or realistic, depending on who you ask) view about a higher power. We all, at one point or another, question the existence of God or an omnipotent spiritual deity, but the idea of the song is that sometimes we can get really hung up over it and that’s a very unhealthy thing. The fact of the matter is that we will never have all of the answers, but we can certainly bide our time and continue growing through questioning all the way up until we are dead and gone.”

Like all singer/songwriters, Matt comes up with some of his most intriguing material when he turns inward for inspiration. The anti-utopian “Yellow Lights” came about in a most unusual manner: “I’d written a song that was from a very anti-war, anti-conservative, more pro-humanitarian sort of—looking at life and looking at things as an ideal sort of way, like the way that we should approach the use of our land and everything like that. I figured it would be fun to rebuttal myself!” He couldn’t help throwing in another literary reference; the line “I think Henry would probably be proud” is a nod to Thoreau. As for the anti-conservative song, Matt didn’t record it—or the other anti-conservative song he wrote. In his opinion, neither was as good as “Yellow Lights.” Maybe fate’s trying to tell him something about his political views.

One thing that makes Matt’s songs so exciting is that they’re usually anything but typical. Rarely does a Matt Duke composition follow a standard verse-verse-chorus formula, and Matt almost never gives his songs obvious titles. The words “Don’t Ask (For Too Much)” don’t even appear in that song, much less in that order. “I’m actually not that good at writing titles,” Matt confesses. “I can write a body of work, but as far as a title that might accompany what the feel of the song is, I have a much harder time figuring out titles or trying to label what the song is.” So imagine my surprise when I heard Winter Child’s lead single “Oysters,” a simple tune with a verse-verse-chorus structure and an obvious title. I had no choice but to ask him whether he was trying to write a radio-friendly single. Matt’s response proved me wrong…sort of: “I know what the formula is for a radio hit single, all that crap, that Top 40 bullshit structure, I know what that formula is. And I think that most songwriters tend to avoid it, but as far as having just a fun single song, we wanted something that we could pitch to radio. I really, really like that song. I just think it made me happy to use such an absurd metaphor as oysters and pearls, and to do something so absurd as to do a whistling solo for the bridge. We’re pulling out, like, ‘Top 40 101,’ but in a very tongue-in-cheek sort of way, I guess.” The idea of turning the mainstream on its head even applies to the song’s out-of-left-field lyrics. “I’ve found a lot of oysters these days/And with all comes a pearl and a pretty hard shell to break” is a takeoff on the old adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

As impressive as Winter Child is, there is one glaring omission. The exquisite “Weeping Winds” was featured on XYX and has become one of Matt’s most enduring tunes. His impassioned live performances of it always bring down the house, with his loyal fans invariably mouthing along as he belts out the lyrics. So why wasn’t it reprised for Winter Child? “Weeping Winds is one of my favorite tracks that I’ve written. In the format that it was recorded, I don’t necessarily want to feel like I have to re-record it over and over again the more that I do it. Once it was done, it was done.”

With his two MAD Dragon releases and much touring of the East Coast and the South, Matt has built up a sizable following. His biggest audience can be found in Philadelphia and his native South Jersey, but he is definitely in demand in other areas as well. His records have national distribution, but his popularity is still regional. How does he feel about the regional-versus-national dynamic? “The most important thing is that you do set up a regional fan base. That is the most important thing because then you have a home base, you have a very solid following, and it’s a place where you can kind of explore different musical options and also you know that in the financial scheme of things you can do fairly okay for yourself. But everybody ultimately wants to be able to manifest farther across this country in whatever direction they’re heading, and also maybe even on an international level, they do wanna be heard, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. So it is always important to focus on the regional stuff.”

Regionally or nationally, Matt Duke is an artist on the move, and deservedly so. And like a fine wine, Vermont cheddar, or William Shatner, Matt Duke gets better with age. The future for this budding young talent looks bright indeed, but even in the present he has already built up a fine body of recorded work and a history of many wonderful live shows. If you doubt me, just ask any member of his loyal following.

For more info and to hear Matt’s music:

Many thanks to Matt Duke for the interview and associated correspondences.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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