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Interview: Matthew Fowler opens up about the long road to new album ‘The Grief We Gave Our Mother’

The singer-songwriter is ready to release his new album, which has been several years in the making.

Matthew Fowler
Credit: Mike Dunn

Singer-songwriter Matthew Fowler was born-and-raised in Florida but he now resides in Denver.

Following the release of his first collection ‘Beginnings’, Fowler has spent several years writing and recording his follow-up. The wait is finally nearly over as ‘The Grief We Gave Our Mother’ lands on Friday, marking the end of a lengthy journey.

I caught up with Matthew to talk about the long process of making the album, discuss the ability to artists to experiment with their sound, and to find out about his touring plans…

You been making this album over the past several years so it sounds like it’s been quite the journey. What’s the story behind it?

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Yes, it was quite a journey. I just turned 27. At the time I was conceiving this record, it was right after the first one was done when I was 20 or 21 after doing some touring and thinking about how do I make the next step? How do I make something better than I did before and how do I make it good? I’m a harsh critic of my own music. I really like music and I listen to lots of different music, and I come at it as more of a music fanatic. It’s something I really live and breathe. I had a really great litmus test for what I consider to be good and something I wanted to be proud of. I really did take the time and I went through a lot of life stuff. I was very much doing things on my own. I was going through like lots of different ideas and I was playing around with different instruments for the first time on this whole process. I was playing a lot of guitar, I was playing a lot of keys and drums, and all sorts of different stuff, and really widening my horizons on what I liked and was interested in.

Initially, I came at it from a pretty hardcore folk songwriter direction, that’s what I always loved like Bob Dylan, Ray LaMontagne, Ryan Adams, Damien Rice and Glen Hansard, and all those guys. I think they’re such excellent storytellers with acoustic guitar. As I got a little older I started listening to more different things like jazz and I got into Wilco, and a lot of other really great bands that are doing more than just like here’s a guitar, here’s this. When I got a hold of Shane, he realised that I was trying to do something a little more ambitious than just a straight up, one dimensional record. For ‘The Grief We Gave Our Mother’ what I’m most proud of is its variation. There’s a lot of different kinds of songs on there and the instrumentation varies. We did a really good job capturing the dynamic performance of our songs.

This is the first body of music I’ve put out that’s that I am truly proud of. The music I put out before, I was into and I’m glad that it’s out there and I think it’s a good representation of what I was doing, but I’m in a different place now. I’m excited about adding new things and not being typecast as just a singer-songwriter.

Matthew Fowler
Credit: Mike Dunn

Fans and critics spend far too much time pigeon-holing artists but now with the advent of streaming, genre doesn’t matter as much as it used to. That gives artists much more freedom to experiment. Have you felt that?

Definitely. I think it’s nice that we live in a time where you can explore and do more things. From my perspective, not having a dedicated band is actually a good thing because I’m not typecast. For this (album) it was very much what are we feeling, what’s coming naturally, what do we want to do? It’s more (about) what does the song need or what does the song deserve. That’s a cool approach. I have the freedom on the next album to just be me and an orchestra if I want to or me and an acoustic guitar, and I like the fact that it’s it’s not so obvious what the next move is.

Spotify and streaming, and just the general openness of people willing to explore is much more now. Obviously, there’s a lot more going on and you’re competing with a lot more but there’s enough to go around. I think you have a lot more people in a position to express themselves more freely, without a commercial demand that might be put on someone who’s selling a million units. We’re in this really beautiful middle ground where someone like me, hopefully, can make a normal living doing this and not have to compromise what they feel is their musical integrity.

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It’s so common in the music industry for artists to go into the studio, bash out an album in a week and repeat that process on a yearly basis. What challenges are there when you’re making an album over a much longer period of time?

I think that the challenge is really just keeping the engine going because life doesn’t care. There’s still things going on, you’ve still gotta pay your bills, there’s still a birthday to go to or a wedding to go to or whatever is going on, you have your own things going on. You have to be patient and willing to be okay with that process being a long one. I understand why people go into the studio and knock it out in a week. It makes sense to me. I’ve been thinking about that for this next one, just because this one was so long to do. I did like really extensive mix notes with Brian, we went through five or six rounds of mixes, where it was very minute changes here and there. That’s how I like to operate. I’m a pretty particular guyl. I listened to it over and over and over again and really picked it apart. For this project (that) was really necessary because I had spent so much time and effort over the last few years conceptualising and legitimising whatever operation I’m running. I think that’s part of the reason why it took so long to make this record because I identified that, for better or worse, doing music these days is not just playing music and writing songs. There’s a business aspect to it and there’s a foundational thing that needs to happen in order for me to make a living doing this, so I don’t have to work at a coffee shop or do another job. I realised a long time ago that there are lots of great musicians out there, and there are lots of okay musicians out there that are doing really well for themselves, so it’s possible to create a life and work hard.

I got to sign to a record label on this albuma nd it’s the first time that I have some gas in the tank. I’m really trying to give it a go and make this make sense. This is what I want to do and I don’t want to do anything else so I’m really trying to figure out how to make that the only thing. That takes time and logistics, and business savvy stuff. That’s part of what I’ve been working on. I book my own tours, which is not necessarily by design (laughs) but that is what it is. I make music for myself mostly but if I’m not happy with it, then it’s not working, but I really do need to make it work for my life.

Matthew Fowler
Credit: Mike Dunn

As you mentioned artists are expected to understand the business side of the industry much more now and get involved in their own marketing. Does that get in the way of making music?

Oh, 100% man. That’s the challenge. I think that’s why there’s a lot of short-lived acts. That’s why there’s a lot of bands that put two or three albums out and if it doesn’t reach a certain level of commercial success… it’s hard to keep four or five people on a project and have them pay their lives off of it. I get why people fall off or pursue other things. It’s not something you want to do if you’re not 100% committed to it because it’s hard. It’s a lot more work than you think it is. Booking sucks and the marketing stuff is tough, and it’s definitely a bunch of full time jobs on top of each other. That’s why I’m grateful to have a label now and a manager, and I have a co-manager who’s like my best friend. I have some support to lean on and that’s what makes all this easier and that’s what makes this more possible. It has been tough writing songs and doing all that stuff.

During the pandemic I could have been a lot more productive with my writing but I was pretty sad about a lot of it and the way things work. I’d worked so hard to book all these shows and then everything got canceled. I started doing live streams, which is like a shadow of playing a show, I would say. It’s a tough thing. It’s not for the faint of heart. At the end of the day, I’m not saving lives. I’m playing music, and I’m playing my own music, and it doesn’t have to be this super dramatic thing but sometimes it really does feel like I’m like being true to myself. This is what I’ve wanted to do for a long time so the work is worth it.

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You must be feeling good to be in a place where the album is out this month and the world is opening up again…

Yeah, it’s awesome. I have some tours in September. It’s been tough to try and book shows because because everyone on earth is trying to tour again so every venue is getting like 7,000 emails. I’m expecting to really hit the road hard and that’s where I find the most joy because that’s when you’re actually doing the thing. The last few months, I’ve been working on a computer doing these sorts of things or answering emails, or getting all my shit together like the assets and the artwork, but the road and being out there is really where the life is. It’s very enthralling. I think I’m kind of a homebody most of the time and (touring) gets me out of my shell in a way that makes me feel alive. I’m really looking forward to that feeling again because I think it’s inspiring and it usually leads to more creative synapses going on in here than not.

Are you hoping to take this record international as well?

I want to man, I really do want to. I’ve never toured over overseas before. My dream is to go overseas. Most of my favorite songwriters are European or Irish. Glen Hansard is my favourite songwriter and Damien Rice, they inspired me at an age when I didn’t even realise people were making music like that. It completely grew my head by 1,000 times, it was just an amazing, mind-blowing experience listening to Damien Rice’s ‘O’ for the first time when I was 13. I didn’t realise people were making such vulnerable music. I feel like overseas, you guys are really like into that and you like to feel things and listen. In America you kind of fight with the crowd every now and then. We’re a pretty talkative group of people and there’s a lot less emphasis on the sanctity of live music being a performance rather than a noise going on sometimes. The plan is to go overseas.

Are there any other things you want to achieve before the end of the year?

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Between now and the end of the year, I just want to survive and I want to get some other stuff going. I think next year is probably going to be the biggest year for me in a long time, just because it’s starting fresh on a new year and I’ll have a new album. I’m hoping to find a booking agent between now and then to try and get some more established opening slots with some bigger bands. My overall goal for the next year or two in terms of touring is I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of hitting all 50 states. I’ve done 41 of them over the last few years. I really want to hit all the other states. I don’t know where I’m going to play in Alaska, but I’m going to figure it out one day. Other than that, I really want to go to Canada. My uncle, he lives in Perth, I would love to go play shows in Australia and obviously go to UK and and play. I think it would it would be a big deal. I really foresee next year being a huge touring year for me and that’s what I’m most excited about because that’s what brings all the other things.

Matthew Fowler’s album ‘The Grief We Gave Our Mother’ will be released on Friday 10th September 2021. Watch the video for ‘I’m Still Trying’ below:

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