“What makes this city special is it's nestled here on the Cumberland River, you know, in the hills of Middle Tennessee - it's not like it's on a beach or something like that. So people are coming here purely because of the passion and the vibe of the city”.
Matt Stell is pondering over just what that makes the city of Nashville so enticing; not only to a budding artist and musician, but to entrepreneurs, restaurant owners or anyone with an eye for making a career from their blossoming creativity. Stell quickly notions that its the collective creativity that comes from everyone's unified desire to pursue their dreams, while appreciating the ability and capability of those around them, that has made Nashville a hub of productivity. “Nashville is a city of creative people that are all passionate enough about something to uproot their lives and all move here to chase that dream. That is what binds everybody together at a real baseline level, right?”
Stell himself moved to the city in 2014 – upon nearing his tenth anniversary since arriving, he’s learnt that you can’t plan what’ll happen in your future, and where there’s an open door, you should walk right through it and see where it leads. Stell should know - in pursuing his dream of songwriting, he found he had the potential to actually be the artist he was writing for – something that’s led him down a path he never intended on taking. Two hit singles later, and with a third looking likely to be on the way, the singer-songwriter has carved a niche for himself in a world he simply didn’t expect to be a part of.
Sitting down, we discuss the beauty of Nashville’s creative ideals, how the industry is evolving on a day-to-day basis, and how becoming an artist in his own right has made him re-evaluate what songwriting means to him, both on a personal and artistic level. If there’s one thing to take from our conversation together, it's that Matt Stell will always do things his way, and with constant authenticity.
When you first moved to Nashville, did you arrive with any preconceptions of what to expect from living in a city that’s so linked to country music and its industry?
When I first moved to Nashville it was to write songs. I was an artist, but I thought I was going to follow my own muse, make my own little indie-sounding records and hopefully write songs for bigger artists. So I moved to Nashville for a publishing deal. Now Nashville is a great place in so many different ways, but when you get a bunch of people that are really passionate about something in one place, you just can't help but cultivate your own vibe. Country music dominates in a lot of ways, but there's a lot of different other kinds of music that's made here, or at least that's represented. So you have people from across the creative spectrum here. I knew Nashville had that, but that part of the city and the town is under-noticed - it doesn't necessarily get its due. But that's what makes it so great when you move to town to be a songwriter, because you're around other songwriters. It's not just moving to town because it’s where the industry is, it’s moving to a town with people that share a passion. From that standpoint, you really have a hard time finding somewhere better if you love songs. Nashville is special in that way and that's how it was built.
When you first moved, did you feel a pressure to pay your dues?
Yeah, in a couple of ways. I was paying my dues on the road, driving a white van and trailer all over the South and Midwest plain, playing songs from records that I'd made myself. But in Nashville, it goes back to everybody moving here and trying to chase a dream. It’s really productive but also kind of daunting when you have that much concentrated talent in one place. You have people from different walks of life that are just the best guitar players I've ever heard - I play guitar, but I just do it enough to write - I wasn't a guitar player. I knew when I came here that I was drawn to the music being made. With songwriting, you pay your dues by putting the time in to hone that craft - being able to sit down and do it. I knew that I loved songs, and I knew I had a little bit of a knack for it, but I knew that would need cultivating.
I think that's what's so great about how your sound has developed – it’s not got that traditional country sound - that unique approach gives it an authenticity. That time spent has allowed you to refine what you have today. You’ve paid your dues in that sense also?
It's evolving. I have to wear two hats in town, even now that most of my songwriting is done for my own artistry. Trying to figure out what it means to write for myself, to be an artist and what it means to have a voice. I'm pretty lucky that I have a lot of creative control over what we do; whether that's the songs that go on record, the singles that get picked and whether I write them or not. But at the end of the day, I'm lucky that I get to cultivate a voice and something distinct, which is kind of the name of the game. I feel like we have an idea of what we do - we may nail it or we may not, but we definitely know what target we're throwing at.
So when you began investing in yourself as an artist, did that feel like a seamless jump?
As I said before, I always planned on writing for the radio, but I didn't know that I was going to be the guy to cut these songs. My idea of what my sound is sometimes fits on the radio and sometimes doesn't - I definitely wasn't trying to put a round peg in a square hole there, I was just trying to make music that I thought was cool. So when we released, ‘Prayed For You’, and it started streaming well, it changed my life in that way. It made me an artist that makes and plays radio country music, and I didn't really ever necessarily see myself doing that. A wise man once told me that you take what the music business gives you, and it gave me an opportunity to be an artist in a way that I didn’t expect.
What’s interesting about ‘Prayed For You’ kicking off your career is it, like you said, simply started streaming well. That doesn’t warrant as much outside interference or gatekeeping, that’s simply your music engaging with an audience?
It definitely is more direct. Obviously that stuff doesn’t happen without a little bit of support from streaming platforms and playlisting - so there is still some gatekeeping there, which is just kind of necessary with how much music is being made today. But to your point, the song is really what got things going for us, every label in town turned us down before we put out our own music - it just happened to work this way and be that the song opened the doors for us. So the lesson that we took from that is going forward is that a song, even still in this day and age, is still the most important part of what it is that gets done. A song that resonates is the thing that we're all chasing, whether that's as a songwriter – in trying to write something cool and make somebody feel something awesome - or from a business standpoint of what's valuable. We feel the way we came onto the scene from the side door is a benefit to us.
Do you have to see yourself as more of a brand now?
Definitely. The brand is a constant focus because that’s just our shorthand for what it is we do as as artists. Social media is such a big part of everyday life now from an artist standpoint, that not only do you have to try and stay on brand with your music and sound, but also your look and the vibe and all those kinds of things. There's a lot of different dimensions to it now, and every day we're just trying hone in a little tighter on what it is that the brand is - so we definitely think in those terms.
Would you say that’s a good thing?
I mean, it can be. It's like anything, I suppose, where it could be a positive or a negative. I'm having hits on country radio, which is positive, but it could be a negative if it boxes you into a certain kind of music, it depends on the situation. It depends on what the brand is – if it’s authentic, and what you're chasing after as an artist is to show that this what we do, this is our identity - in those ways, it is positive. Now, of course, a brand can make something sound kind of cheaper or commoditized - typically, a lot of times when a commoditization of art or music happens, you lose some of the magic. So there is definitely that part of it too - you can definitely think too hard about the business side of stuff, and forsake the whole reason that you did it in the first place. But you know, if it's coming from a true and genuine place, it makes it really handy to think in those terms creatively.
So you're in this place where you are an artist in your own respect, and you’re making these creative decisions on quite an independent level as well. Do you feel now that having chart-hitting singles boxes you in - does it restrict you?
You know, that's a good question. I don't feel boxed in necessarily, as much as I am just figuring out what it is I do. It just so happens to fall into the country music world. I have interests outside of that and I'm like everybody else, I listen to all kinds of music all the time. But at the end of the day, when I sit down to write a song or make music, it comes out that way. So in that sense, I don't feel boxed in by it, but I am very conscious that I want to have as much room as I can to work inside the genre.
What would you say you've taken personally from making the move to Nashville and following this path?
The reason that I got to town, and that I’m fortunate enough to still do this now, is from being around creative people who are all pulling towards that same goal of writing something cool that day. Nashville itself has so much to do with that - the rubber really meets the road there for me, when I sit down to write a song with folks that are so talented, are unique in their approach and at the top of their game. That’s what the passion of this town grows on.
Matt Stell's latest single, 'That Ain't Me No More', is out now via Records - listen below.