Aw, shit. It's a frigid Monday afternoon and songwriter-singer Matt Jones is at tonight's show venue in Columbus, Ohio, but its doors are locked. The joint's closed. Of course it is. Think about it: If you're some unknown dude out peddling your tunes, 35 cities in 37 days — road-dog style — do you think the club would actually open up for you on time? Bah. In an era when every jackass with a bad, home-recorded record tours with a stupid, faceless band, armed with heaps of Facebook and blogger "press," kindness is a lost virtue with promoters and rock 'n' roll clubs. Nobody cares about your band, especially when there's a million of you now, circling this continent, a gaggle of unkempt bodies in a stupid van.
Indeed, the next section of this piece is hell-of predictable: This digit will attempt to explain how the self-effacing Matt Jones is deserving of attention, how he isn't some faceless band out peddling bad songs to clusters of uncaring folk. That he's a songster who trades on the "real deal," whose insight is born of experience, with finely wrought songs of ache and sorrow, and so on and so forth and tra la la la laaa.
Well ... the guitar-equipped Jones is traveling solo, with the exception of a female cellist and the occasional on-the-road appearance of his violinist girlfriend. But, yeah, Jones is pretty damn real. What's also true is, beyond his swelling Mitten popularity, nobody cares about him beyond the state's borders. Not yet, anyway.
It's Day 17 of the Jones tour. He woke up in Lexington, Ky., a burg that saw his first hotel stay ("a big night, an Econo Lodge!"), funded from a strictly monitored and dwindling tour budget, he just downed breakfast at an Ohio Cracker Barrel and he's, um, "tired." He talks of his "professional" cellist, Colette Alexander — a woman who's all over his just-released 11-song stunner, The Black Path — and how he can't afford to pay her.
"I told her we'd be sleeping on as many floors as possible," Jones says. "But she wanted to do it, even though she tours with much bigger acts than me, acts that I don't really like, like Josh Groban." Laughs erupt at the very idea of dad-rock Groban, and Jones' scorn sounds no different than any barstool-warming band dude. "She toured with Ryan Adams for awhile," he adds, he voice rising in a what's-she-doing-with-me lilt, "She plays cello for a living."
Jones, you'll note, is a one-time Prom King who paints houses for a survival coin ("in the winters, I go pretty much insane"). And judging solely from his argot, that particular strain of Midwestern simplicity — uncomplicated, leisurely sentences sliced in half by bursts of chuckles and beer talk — you'd guess him blue-collar. Sure, the down-dressed, bespectacled Jones could be any band guy in any stupid van (his is a 2001 Chevy Venture minivan) with a decade of performing — solo and in bands — behind him, but it's his speaking voice that deceives, with incalculable measure, the one heard on his songs. You'd never guess in a million years it's the same guy, the one who began piano training at the age of 8.
His backstory is peppered with arduous living, wonderful oddballs and circus performers, some of which turn up in fractured images and ideas in his songs, as does his obsession with the Civil War. (In fact, the Adrian-born songwriter claims his fave Black Path tune is "Antietam" — the album's only instrumental! — a song as sad as we can imagine a Maryland battlefield post-fight, dead bodies splayed and silent; it closes on a soft march-like waltz, like some eerie, faraway victory elegy. The song mines two sentiments — sadness, optimism — with weird hypnotic aplomb, sans lyrics, in under four minutes. Wow.)
His folks are musicians (Dad plays accordion, once sang bass parts in a do-wop group) and Mom's pop toured with the circus as a performer, as did her grandfather and his father. The singer's great aunt was a sideshow attraction in the classic horror-show film Freaks — she was the armless one who played guitar with her feet. Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy was an occasional dinner guest in the family home. "It was pretty exciting growing up, seeing my grandparents."
Big-top wonder leaks into Jones' songwriting, and not just in imagery; his music reveals an inherent baroque knack for odd, if not graceful, twists on pop clichés, an unpredictable waltz thing here, unexpected film soundscape there. "I grew up with this sort of weird, freaky mentality," Jones says. "So, if you are going to play something, you don't want it to be normal."
And normal it ain't. The Black Path (his album debut after the 2005 Right to Arms EP) unfolds in untold grace and beauty, of regret without redemption, like life. Parts feel like narcotics too, but in that good way — one-step up from a dreamy wine high — as if readymade for languid late nights. "A Missing Vein" could double as an addict's lullaby, as could the aptly titled "One Cotton Shot Short," which sounds like how opiates feel draping you in warm blankets and the sensation of a mother's soft forehead caress, a lost-innocence lament. Soothing, ominous and stomach-tickling cellos and Jones' girlfriend's violin stroke their singsong melody; it's as close as the singer gets to, say, Neil Young's Harvest. But you wonder if Jones has ever even heard Young. He's heard of Jeff Buckley, though, and Tom Brosseau; he's been compared to both (accurately, somewhat).
"I don't actually listen to a whole lot of music. I had the circus thing and I listened to almost all ragtime growing up (he was, and is, hugely into Scott Joplin). I got into places where I write songs about the Civil War," he laughs.
The 11-song Black Path is almost purple and lush with its authentic strings and real horns ... real everything, subtle as all get-out. It's even kind of visceral, with fat low end: Think of it as autumnal balladry with balls. Jones' conversational croon soothes its way into the head on such lines as "This isn't a sin/ It came with the skin/ I wear loosely ..."
It's where life experience informs songs, minus boring 21st-century indie-pop irony — yes, Jones tells it like he sees it. Well, sort of: "I know the images get a little convoluted," he says, as a kind of apology. "But that's just how I think. I'm not trying to make people go, 'What's he talking about?' I could care less [laughs], most of the time."
Thing is, if Jones hasn't experienced life enough to spin such yarns with heart-stroking melody and refrain, then he's some kind of musical and lyrical magician, a circus freak, if you will. In terms of his songs' subjects, the singer's suddenly guarded, and tenders little: "I wouldn't say that I've necessarily gone through stuff that other people haven't, I just get to write songs about it," he laughs. "I don't write about that stuff completely literally because I don't really want to own up to it. I don't want to have a conversation with somebody after a show about that song where I was like slumped over in a fuckin' bathroom at Tiger Stadium" (an image referenced in "A Sort of So Long").
On lovely "Holy Light," Jones' only sibling, Betsy, plays a beautifully simple euphonium ostinato that lifts the song's beginning and choruses. ("My sister's a child prodigy," Jones says. "She never heard my music until she stepped into the studio to play on it!") The tune's tone is set with what could be the best opening lyric in contemporary pop: "I've been drinking like it's Mother's Day," a Raymond Carver-worthy line offering half-dozen directions. In fact, many of Jones' words seep out like Carver, open-ended and airy. "Wow. I never thought of that," Jones says. "My mom put his stuff on me. I read a lot of Carver short stories a long time ago. My mom's also an English teacher. ..."
The album's unhurried tempos hoodwink the listener because what's really lurking is true dynamic power and (dare we say?) drama. The Jim Roll-helmed Black Path was mastered with a music-lover's touch featuring zero compression — some passages must see a 30-decibel difference in dynamic range! — and the album breathes with life. There's spontaneity too; Jones' vocals are first-takes, mostly, only a word redone here or there. More, Jones (and band) commands, as subtlety is hardest to pull off. And live, the shuffling band lineup actually sounds "heavy" — as Metro Times photographer Doug Coombe puts it, "They can really kill the slow tempos and give the songs a lot of power ... Like the Bad Seeds, but not that dark."
Jones' current combo is all-killer, no-filler too; most of them played on the new album, including cellist Alexander and Jones' girlfriend Carol Gray (whose onstage antics challenge the violin's unwieldy nature). There's also Chad Pratt (Morsel, Midwest Product) on skins, Kendall Babl (Elm From Arm, Butterfly) on keys, and songwriter-producer Jim Roll on guitar, and Serge Vandervoo on bass. And add tuba to the inventory of instruments Jones plays.
The Ypsi resident occasionally backs like-minded Ann Arbor-area pals; he manned a drumstool in Great Lakes Myth Society, for example, and guarantees us that Misty Lyn is "going to be a huge, huge star." He's got a manager now, and a guy helping to shop his songs to films. Jones has no support — so what's interesting is The Black Path was funded by Fox on a Hill Productions, a Michigan-based company that offers interest-free loans to worthy, "community-minded and independent" artists. He got $5,000 to do his album, for which he's eternally grateful.
"I just want this record to do well," he says without irony, sipping coffee near the still-not-open venue. "I want to pay that money back. I also want to do something bigger than Ann Arbor or Ypsi. ... I get crowded into the Michigan indie folk scene a lot," he continues, and then he finishes the thought as if he scorched his tongue on the hot liquid, "I love it, but ..."
At 9 p.m. on Friday, March 6, at the Atlas Bar (2363 Yemens St., Hamtramck) with Battling Siki, Four-Hour Friends and Great Lakes Myth Society.Brian Smith is features editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org