The first time I (Emily) heard one of Matthew Fowler’s songs, I thought I was listening to Damien Rice (and I confess for a while I confused “Beginners” for a Rice song every time until the “La Vie en Rose” strain would slip in). But as I listened to the other songs on “Beginning,” Fowler’s debut album, I was able to hear the unique qualities of his simple folk style, his well-crafted story lyrics, and his open voice. I recommend listening to the whole album through in proper order. Fowler’s beautiful stories of love, tragedy, and an ache for home will reward a careful listen. We’re thrilled to have had the chance to talk with Matthew, and we can’t wait to see where this young but talented artist will go with his musical career!
(Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part 2!)
Ethan Weitz: Matthew, how did you get started writing and performing music?
Matthew Fowler: Well, the acoustic Yamaha guitar that I use today—I got it for my 14th birthday. I’d never really played guitar before then. I was always kind of a geeky kid. I would hang out with my history teacher, after class, and we would talk about Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, that kind of stuff. I’d go to friends’ birthday parties and hang out with their parents and talk about music. So I was always kind of that weird music kid. But my parents bought me the guitar and I started playing. My first performance was at a middle school talent show or something—I played “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. It’s a fantastic song.
I pretty much immediately started writing songs. I have a song on the album “Beginning” called “Don’t Change,” and that’s actually the first song I ever wrote. I think I was like 14 when I wrote that song. It’s gone through various iterations over the years.
It’s kind of interesting: when you’re that age—early teens—you have a lot of angst. I didn’t necessarily write songs so that anybody else would hear them. I mean, I didn’t think that I wouldn’t play them for people, but it was certainly not my main goal with it. I always wanted to do it, but I didn’t write a song with the anticipation of it having to sound good for anybody but myself. Now I do, because obviously it’s a different ballgame, obviously I don’t want to put stuff out that’s going to suck. I try and make it a little better.
Ethan: So when did you decide to start getting into the touring musician thing?
Matthew: It kind of grew. I started playing in Orlando at coffee shops or bars or different restaurants. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant and they have a musician playing—that’s what I did from age 14 till even now whenever I need a couple of bucks. I was 15 and playing four nights a week, in different places. Mostly covers, but I’d throw my own songs in there and no one would be able to tell the difference, which is great. So that’s how I started performing.
I knew I wanted to do music, and I didn’t feel like I needed a degree to do that. So instead of spending all that money getting a degree and being stuck somewhere for four years I got out of high school and just started touring.
The week that I turned 19, I put out my first record and headed out on my first tour—all in a span of ten days. A buddy of mine, Austin Miller, heard me playing and asked me to be his electric guitar player on tour. He said that I could open up the shows. Really, the whole reason I recorded “Beginning” was that I had nine songs that I thought were good, and I wanted to have something that I could pass out to people when I played. That was literally the fire under my ass that made me record the album. I borrowed equipment, threw it together as fast as I could, put it out, and then left for tour.
Ethan: You recorded that album in a kitchen, right?
Matthew: Yeah, so my parents are from oversees. My mom is from a country called Mauritius, which is an island off the coast of Madagascar. It’s a French-speaking island, so French is her first language. And my dad is from South Africa. They moved to the United States right before I was born.
My dad is a chef by trade, so he has this kitchen that he uses for catering and stuff like that. And when he’s not using it, I would go set up all my stuff and that’s where we would record. It worked out really well, and it worked out in a kind of weird metaphorical and symbolic way. Growing up, the kitchen is such a central part of the household.
Ethan: What would you say is the thing that comes easiest as far as songwriting goes, and then what is the hardest part of songwriting?
Matthew: Well, the easiest part of songwriting is coming up with the first ten seconds of a song, or like one chorus. The hardest part is taking that and finishing it. I have like a hundred ten-second songs that, in my head, are done and complete and awesome and ready to go—but in practice, they are nowhere near done. So the hardest part is sitting down and writing. It takes a lot of discipline.
I mean, obviously you have the songs that just kind of come to you in five minutes. And what’s ironic is that those are always the best ones. It’s absolutely unfair and doesn’t really make any sense. I think there might be two songs that I’ve written like that. One of them is “Beginners.” I wrote that song in like five minutes. I have a piece of paper that I scribbled it on, and I don’t think I’ve ever changed it since then. It’s just exactly the way it was.
Another song that I wrote in a very short span is “Everything That I Could.” Everything I wanted to say in that moment I said in that song—which is the most satisfying thing, because you’re doing all this work for something, but when it’s done you can play it. Like I can play that song for fifty years. It’s a cool feeling to know that you’ve created something that’s absolutely going to stand the test of time, at least for you.
And it’s funny: with “Beginners” and the rest of the songs on that album—it was a while ago. So it almost feels like they’re not my songs anymore. And I don’t mean that necessarily in a bad way, because it’s given me the amount of space I need so I can sit and judge them for what they are. I can look objectively at them and say “That’s a good song,” or “That’s a weak song,” or “That’s a great line, but I could have done better on that one”—which is something that’s hard to do when you’re really close to it. That’s been one cool thing about time passing. I mean, I listen to that album about once every 9 months. I feel like it’s just weird to drive around in your car and listen to your own music. I’m not like Kanye West or anything like that. But after some time being away from “Beginning,” it’s really nice to look back on that and be like, “I did this at a time when I had no idea what I was doing, and I’m proud of myself.”
Emily Cardé: “Beginning” has some repeated themes of love, journeying, and home. Did you have any specific stories in mind, or any messages that you were specifically trying to convey with the album?
Matthew: I don’t know, I mean, all the songs come from my life. Maybe that’s why it takes me forever to write these days—because I can’t just phone it in. I can’t just make up a story in my head and write about it. It has to come from a place that’s very near and dear to me, otherwise I just don’t get inspired to write something. Does that make sense?
Everything I wanted to say in that moment I said in that song—which is the most satisfying thing.
Emily: Yeah. So, in the middle of the song “Blankets,” you have the line that goes, “I’m thankful for the poets who gave me ways to feel inside.” I was a lit major in college and I love poetry, so I’m just curious: were there any specific poems or poets that have fulfilled that line for you?
Matthew: Now you’re calling me out. I used “poet” in a pretty broad sense. To me, the poets were all the musicians, and I consider their lyrics to be poetry. I have to be honest, as much as I wish I was kind of the tortured, Keaton Henson sort of guy, and sit and read poetry on the sidewalk, that’s not really me. I’m not smart enough for that yet, I guess.
Emily: So who are some of the songwriters that resonated with you?
Matthew: Glen Hansard is my favorite musician of all time, hands down. His story and his passion, the way he presents himself—there’s something about that guy, he’s like my spirit animal. He’s a guy that I could look up to, an example of what I could do with my life. I did meet him once, but that was on accident and I was too scared to really say anything.
We live in a world where the biggest popular music is not what it used to be. But when I kind of discovered Hansard’s music—that was the first time I saw a contemporary artist who wasn’t Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen or Van Morrison. He’s doing something really special with folk music. So that line pretty much has to do with Hansard.
Emily: Regarding “Beginners,” Ethan and I were debating whether this was actually there or not, but at the end of the song there is a little tribute to “La Vie en Rose,” correct?
Matthew: Yeah! My mom is from Mauritius, which is a French-speaking island. So French is her first language, and growing up we’d listen to a lot of French music. And “La Vie en Rose” means “a life in pink.” It’s about love and seeing the world through rose colored glasses—that kind of haze that goes over your eyes when you’re in love. You see everything differently, you’re happy for no reason, and you’re annoying to be around for your friends, you know? When you’re in love—that puppy love—that’s what that song’s about.
“Beginners,” in my mind, has a similar theme. It’s about that doomed love, when you’re 16 and you’re just going to marry this person and have their children and live in this house together for the rest of your lives and you’re going to be perfect. It’s totally unrealistic, but it’s that idealistic perfect love that everyone goes through at some point. Later on, they’re crushed, but that’s a whole different song.
When I was a kid my mom would play “La Vie en Rose,” and she used to sing it to me as a baby. So I gave it a little ode at the end of “Beginners,” because I thought that the two songs were similar enough in theme, and it was just kind of a way for me to show my mom that I was listening when she was singing.
Emily: Well, moving on from the blissful love of “Beginners,” the last song on the album—“Smoke”—is really heartbreaking. It also seems like a very tragic way to end the album, especially since it started out with a lot of hope. What inspired that song and what led you to end with that song?
Matthew: “Smoke” was one of those songs that I didn’t really think anyone would care about, but I liked the build of it. I liked the anger. And I think that’s something that a lot of singer-songwriters tend to shy away from for whatever reason. I don’t hear a lot of angry singer-songwriter songs. I hear a lot of hopeful ones and this and that. But anger is just the flip side of affection. In my opinion, I’ve never been in a relationship where you aren’t really angry at the other person for some reason at some point, because that’s part of letting somebody so close to you.
Anger and passion is where a lot of writing comes from for me. I honestly don’t often sit down and write a song when I’m just super happy, because I’m content, you know? I write when I need to work something out or say something that I can’t say in any other way to somebody.
“Smoke” is definitely not a happy song, and it’s not one I usually play, because it’s an emotionally taxing song. It’s about infidelity in some form or another. It’s about a deep hurt. I thought it would be good to show that other side of me, that angry side. I also wanted to something a little bit bold for a first record. I think a lot of people kind of tiptoe around things early on, and I just wanted to be ballsy and put out a five and a half minute angry song with the same chords over and over again. And I wanted to do a La Vie En Rose tribute, why not? I want to do it. And it’s funny because those decisions that I made for myself—those tend to be the songs that people gravitate towards. I think there’s a lesson there in just listening to your gut and doing what you feel is right.