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The Songs That Changed My Life: Matt Andersen

By Jof Owen

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“Out on the road is definitely where I'm most comfortable”, Matt Andersen admits from Pittsburgh, the morning after a show in New York and before another that evening.

The year before the pandemic hit, Andersen played 200 shows, so it’s no surprise it’s where he feels at his most comfortable. His latest album, House To House – his first solo studio album - captures the sheer earth rumbling power of his live performances, his voice stark, unadorned and truly extraordinary.

Switching away slightly from the full throttle chandelier shaking that his live shows are known for, the album shows his softer side with gospel-infused country, introspective folk and gently stoked fireside ballads; it’s a showcase of the power and versatility of his remarkable voice.

“I just treat my voice like any other instrument. If you're playing a rock and roll song, you push it up there to the top, but then you’ll use a different tone for a chilled folk or country song. Take someone like Tom Waits, on one side he has that great poetic kind of voice, or he can sound just like a pirate”.

The songs on House To House, he says “are as much about the space in between as what happens within them. Nothing can be considered big and strong if there isn't a quiet moment to compare it to".

As we start to talk through the songs that he’s chosen for The Songs That Changed My Life, it quickly becomes obvious that he’s drawn to the singers as much as the songs themselves. “When people ask me what my favorite instrument is, I say the voice”, he explains. “I find it amazing how people can switch the tones of their voice, in the same way you could on any other instrument".

“I think of myself as a singer first, a guitar player second and songwriter third, so the voice is definitely something I'm drawn to right away. You can swap out guitar, bass or keyboard players and things will change, but you swap out the vocalist and that's when things really can take on a whole new form. You could put Ray Charles, Van Morrison or Bonnie Raitt up on stage with the exact same band of musicians and it would sound completely different”.

Andersen grew up mostly listening to whatever was in his parents’ collection; mainly a lot of old country and gospel, while his brothers introduced him to heavy rock like AC/DC and Metallica. It wasn’t until he left home that he discovered the music he’s now become synonymous with.

“When I got out of high school and first lived away from home, I was getting into blues bars - and just bars in general - and I started hearing all kinds of music I'd never heard before. My first time hearing live blues got me into Clapton. When you start listening to somebody, you start to read interviews with them talking about their influences, and other people they played with, and you go on a journey from there”.

Somehow, whenever you start talking to an artist like Matt Andersen about the songs and singers that shaped them, you always know it’s going to lead you somewhere unexpected. “I pretty much picked the songs that when I first heard, I listened to over and over again”, he says. “I figured that was my life change”.

Bruce Cockburn - Pacing The Cage

The first version I heard of Bruce Cockburn performing 'Pacing The Cage' was from a double live album he did a few years ago. It’s just him in a church in Quebec, I think.

It's full of the best lines I've ever heard in a song. The delivery is simple. If I’m ever suffering from lack of inspiration for writing, or wanting to get to a level with it, I just go to this. He just nails it.

I think I first heard it about 10 years ago, I'm not sure when Bruce wrote it. I wasn't really familiar with a lot of his work. I'd see them live a couple times at festivals, but I never really dug into his stuff, and then I picked up that double live album and it just jumped out at me. I listened to it over and over again. If I want to introduce somebody to Bruce Cockburn, that's the first song I play.

Paul Pena – Jet Airliner

A lot of people are familiar with the song by The Steve Miller Band, and I always loved that version. But then I saw this movie Paul Pena was in called Genghis Blues, where he went over to Asia and into these communities to learn Tuvan throat singing.

So he made this pilgrimage and the whole documentary is about that, but then I picked up his backstory: he played with Bonnie Raitt and all these really cool acts, as well as putting out two albums I’d never heard at all, so it also got me digging into his music.

I didn't know that he wrote ‘Jet Airliner’, and his version’s the one for me. Steve Miller does a great job, but Paul's version is just a little more rough around the edges; it's just a great rock and roll tune.

When I play with the band, we pull that one out because it's just a great vibe. His vocals are killer on it, he has such a cool delivery and his phrasing is awesome. I play it over and over again for a while to start the party at the house.

Sam Cooke – Bring It On Home To Me

Right off the top, his vocals just kill me. I know when those guys recorded those songs there are no tricks, there's no going back and editing. That’s just how he sang it. I can't imagine being the people in the studio hearing that go down for the first time.

Lorraine Ellison - Stay With Me

I’d heard people cover this song before I heard Ellison's version of it. The arrangements on it are pretty stunning, but when her vocal hits the chorus, it's a really good example of just what you can do with your voice.

It starts out as a pretty arrangement, but then her voice just arrives like a jackhammer, she's like a banshee. You can hear her voice tearing to pieces. It’s the thing that a lot of people try to do, but can't pull it off.

If I'm driving my car and somebody sees me singing along with something and looking like an idiot, it would be that song.

Rod Stewart - Mandolin Wind

Every Picture Tells A Story is one of my favorite albums; a desert island album for me. It’s a record that’s just full of mistakes - the band miss count ins and the bass is out of tune on a lot of songs. I always begin by playing it to producers I want to work with and telling them I want this kind of vibe; just a band playing their ass off.

Rod Stewart's voice is killer on those songs. One of the lines is “I don't have much / but all I've got is yours / except of course my steel guitar”, and when I was a young kid that was exactly how I felt. That whole album has intros that don't really make sense to the rest of the song, they're kind of separate to it. I love the whole bit about that.

Bonnie Raitt - Love Has No Pride

That song is all her voice. It’s a fantastic song, and she has one of my favorite voices. There are some singers you hear and can instantly identify, and it takes all of a quarter of a second to know it’s Bonnie Raitt, which is pretty amazing considering the amount of music there is in the world; she’s just that distinctive. The whole song is perfect. Her voice soars and it slays me every time I hear it.

Matt Andersen has announced tour dates in the UK and Ireland for October this year. Details below. Tickets available from Friday 10th June here

OCT 8 Dublin - The Workmans Club*

OCT 9 Belfast - The American Bar*

OCT 11 Birmingham - O2 Academy 3

OCT 12 Glasgow - Òran Mór

OCT 13 Newcastle upon Tyne - The Cluny

OCT 14 London - OMEARA

OCT 15 Cardiff - Clwb Ifor Bach

OCT 16 Manchester - Night & Day

OCT 17 Leeds - Brudenell Social Club

OCT 18 Brighton - The Hope & Ruin

Solo shows with special guest Laura Evans (except *)

Matt Andersen's House To House is out now via Stubbyfingers Incorporated / Sonic Records.