A Chat with Joe Matzzie (22.09.21)

Drawing together elements of country, folk and indie, veteran musician Joe Matzzie has an obscure and unique sound. We speak with the artist about his fourth full-length album Baby Steps, future plans and the importance of track placement.

OSR: What drew you to music?

Matzzie: I think it was watching Rickey Skaggs playing bluegrass mandolin on Hee Haw when I was 5 years old. I didn’t know what the mandolin was, but he looked like he was having so much fun. Roy Clark played guitar on the show but for some reason, they always slowed the music down to do a campfire singalong type vibe whenever he played which seemed not as interesting to me at the time. I knew what a guitar was so that’s what I was gonna play.

OSR: Do you have a musical background?

Matzzie: That’s it. Playing guitar since the age of 5, trumpet a little at age 7, played viola in school from age 10, playing guitar in rock bands and writing songs and recording really bad demos around age 14, busking in the streets of Pittsburgh at age 18. I moved to New York at age 23 to make it and all that, and on and on.

OSR: What is the backstory to the album Baby Steps?

Matzzie: The album was recorded entirely in 2021 and it’s my second full-length album release during the pandemic. The first one was solo classical guitar and it was all covers. Before that was my album This Box Makes Noise in 2014, and before that was It’s All True released in 2000 under the band name Joe Matzzie Beyond Belief.

Baby Steps was a phrase I wrote down in my journal around 2017 and I thought it sounded cool, like John Coltrane Giant Steps. Then I got diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2017. It was pretty stressful at the time, and I figured if I don’t write that song ‘Baby Steps’ now then I’m pretty worthless, so I wrote it. At the time I was working full-time driving for Lyft and Uber and I was struggling to find time to get music stuff done. The pandemic came along and suddenly I couldn’t work and we all found out that the government actually had money to pay people to stay home so, for me and for a lot of creatives who I’m friends with, there was suddenly time to create and money stress was taken off the table and I started songwriting my butt off. A lot of these songs were written in 2020.

OSR: If you could change one thing about Baby Steps, what would it be and why?

Matzzie: So the album, it was recorded pretty fast. I learned a lot about music production while making it. I think if I could change one thing, I’d add another mixing phase or change up my mixing process. With Baby Steps, I did a lot of tweaking and mixing and then passed it off to other mix engineers working remotely. They did their thing, but they did it from scratch because I removed all my volume, panning, reverb settings because I wanted to give them the most flexibility. I that that first phase of mixing that I did would have been useful because I had been living with the tracks a long time. The next album will be a different workflow but that’s what I’d change, a different mix process especially with reverb. I think ever is such a personal taste thing.

OSR: If you had to place yourself in a genre, what would that be?

Matzzie: Post-indie folk acoustic.

OSR: Do you believe song placement is important on an album and how did you choose the position of the tracks on Baby Steps?

Matzzie: Oh yeah, it’s definitely important. Okay, so my system is:

1. Get a bunch of songs I’m working on, put them in a cloud folder and walk around the block listening in headphones so I’m listening to the latest mixes but also the way they flow together. Write down the song pairs that follow well and the pairs that clash.

2. The next day or next time I have some new mixes, put them all in a different order. Keep a spreadsheet tracking which songs sound right or wrong following which other songs.

3. In general, the first song has to be great enough to lead and it has to set the tone for what the album is doing. I don’t think it has to be the best song or the one that knocks everyone’s socks off but, hopefully, every song on the album is great in some way.

4. For Baby Steps specifically I had a lot of slow songs and a few upbeat songs. People were advising me to put the upbeat ones at the start but I knew if I do that the album is going to progressively get slower and grate on people. I wanted to own the fact that it was a mellow album. I saw it as something in the tradition of Norah Jones and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, something you chill out to.

For a long time, I felt like ‘Washington Square’ should be the opening song because it felt like an opener; “meet me down at the fountain” and all that and I didn’t like the way that 180bpm guitar lick sounded following a slow tune, so putting it at the tope would have solved that. At the latest minute, I put ‘My Old Friend’ as track one. It’s got lots of grooves and sets the tone that this is an album about feeling shit. Then comes ‘Home’ and ‘Lost In Translation’ which were songs that were getting under people’s skin when I demoed them. ‘Baby Steps’ the song I felt like I wanted it to be the final just because I felt it was epic and hopefully the point of the album. It felt like a “here’s the bottom line” kind of song.

I put ‘Starlit Winter Nights’ as track 8, even though it had actually won first place in a songwriting group that I’m part of. The song is long and a slow ballad and I felt like I wanted to keep the momentum going for the first part of the album then when people go to ‘Starlit’ it’s like this little gem near the end. ‘Plumb Wild’ is at track 6 because that is the opener for Side B of the vinyl.

OSR: What was your favourite part of making the album?

Matzzie: Making the cover art. Writing the songs is a real hight too. When a gem like ‘Closer’ comes out, it picks my spirits up for days.

OSR: If you could spend the weekend with any living celebrity, who would it be and why?

Matzzie: See, that’s a hard one. I think the why would be to make music together and the who might be, actually, The Who would be really cool to hang out with, Pete and Roger but Bjork, Joni, Mari Boine, Tom Waits, Paul Westerberg, Halsey, John Mellencamp…

OSR: If you were a colour, what colour would you be and why?

Matzzie: Hex 219EB8 Eastern Blue because it’s the colour of the Baby Steps cover. I was sage mossy green for a while, but I feel like 219EB8 comes sweeping in every so often in my life and wipes the palette.

OSR: What can we expect from Joe Matzzie in the future?

Matzzie: I’m really eager to tour as it becomes more possible. I’m still waiting for my passport renewal so hopefully international touring someday. I will be releasing albums now yearly or as frequently as I can. Next one, January 2023 and right now it’s just sketches and ideas.

Thanks to Joe Matzzie for speaking with us. For more from Joe Matzzie check out his official website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify.

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