Interview: Matt Nathanson Is the Most Nostalgic Guy in the Room

When Matt Nathanson started writing his new record, he had a vision. He wanted it to be political. He wanted it to be uplifting. He wanted to inspire his listeners to see a brighter future.

The songs that came out of him had other plans.

Sings His Sad Heart, the follow-up to Nathanson’s 2015 LP Show Me Your Fangs, is personal instead of political, sad instead of uplifting, and lost in thoughts about the past instead of looking forward to the future. It is a complete contradiction of the album that Nathanson wanted to make. And yet, it’s also the most at home he’s sounded on a record since 2010’s breezy Modern Love.

Then again, Nathanson has always been an artist defined by his contradictions. He’s a riotously funny and jovial live performer who makes crushingly sad records. He’s a guy who exudes confidence and charisma onstage but admits he isn’t very confident as an artist. And he’s a songwriter who’d name the happiest song on his record “Sadness.”

When I spoke to Nathanson in August, I called him “the most nostalgic guy in the room.” It’s a role I often find myself playing: the guy who digs through TimeHop every day and sends pictures and “remember this?” messages to old friends, or the guy who spends entirely too much time thinking about people he lost touch with, wondering if they ever think of him too.

When he announced Sings His Sad Heart, Nathanson dubbed it an album about “being the only one left hung up on the past.” You can hear the truth of that statement in the songs. Sometimes, the tone is longing. In “Used to Be,” Nathanson uses his own obsession with the past as a way to beckon an ex-lover. “If you’re having trouble, baby, holding on to memories/I got a king size bed and a PhD in the way it used to be,” he sings. Sometimes, the tone is resigned. On “Different Beds,” he takes solace in knowing that he and his soon-to-be-former flame are going to find happiness again—just not together: “You and I are going to see the sunrise/It’s just going to be be from different beds next time.” Occasionally, the tone is even boastful. In “Back Together,” Nathanson proclaims “There’s no way I’d trade my scars for better ones,” because the most painful moments from our pasts are often the ones that shape us most.

In our interview, Nathanson obliged my request for him to rank his own records. He believes, firmly, that Sings His Sad Heart is the best album he’s ever made: the most complete and fully realized, and the one that best matched the music he heard in his head. He also acknowledges that he’s spent most of the 2010s chasing influences and sounds that haven’t always showcased his talents in the right way. His restlessness was audible on both Show Me Your Fangs and 2013’s The Last of the Great Pretenders, two terrific albums that are admittedly scattershot. Sings His Sad Heart is the sound of a veteran artist settling into his own skin and making a record that plays to his strengths. Crucially, one of those strengths is Nathanson’s own nostalgia. The album is expertly produced and packed with hooks, but it gets its life from deeply personal lyrics about memory, regret, and a longing to recapture something that ain’t coming back.

Nathanson and I talked about the art of making records, his goal to craft an album that truly reflected who he is as an artist and as a person, the surprising difficulty of being both a musician and a die-hard music fan, and the mysterious pull of songs about sadness and the past. Read the full transcription below.

Good to talk to you again, it’s been awhile.

I know! Good to talk to you. I’m in rainy Atlanta.

I’m in rainy Traverse City Michigan. So apparently it’s raining everywhere.

Dude, yesterday I decided to go find a sushi joint from the hotel, and got totally Google Mapped, and ended up down the street, totally in the wrong direction. And it started to rain, and I thought it was end days, man. I thought I was going have to buy a fucking canoe. So yeah, it hasn’t stopped since.

Wow. I hope you still got your sushi. Anyway, I think we last spoke before your last album, which…was that 2015.

Yeah, I think it was.

You’ve been away for awhile. What have you been doing for the past few years?

I’ve been writing a lot of songs and I’ve been trying to kind of figure out who I am. Even though that sounds dramatic. I know who I am. But I felt like, record-wise, I was a little bit adrift. Because I’m such a nerd for music and I listen to so much music, there’s a certain point where I really wanted to be able to make music like the music that I love, and not make music like the music that I make.

It’s almost like going to try on clothes, and somebody else looks so good in a suit, and you’re like “I’m going to wear a suit!” And you put a suit on, and you’re like “Yeah, I look good in a suit!” And the suit looks fine, but it doesn’t necessarily fit you. I felt like, over the last couple records, there were a lot of suits that didn’t fit me. The songs were there, but maybe from a production standpoint, I wasn’t getting to the root of it.

After the last record, I went right into writing for this record. I never stopped writing. And so these songs would show up and it was kind of Darwinian in a way. If you’re writing songs all the time, it becomes really clear which songs are stronger and which ones are weaker. And so I was just in this process of trying to woodshed and write, and also from a production standpoint, trying to figure out how to get a record that did what I wanted it to, but didn’t get in the way of who I was. This record was a lot of spelunking and trying to find my place.

I feel like when someone’s been making music and making albums for as long as you have, you must eventually get to the point where you get tired of how you write songs. Because you’ve done so many, and you have your own habits, and you don’t want the next album to just be more of the same. But at the same time, this is your career and you have fans who are expecting, probably to some extent, more of the same. How do you navigate that, and how does that play into the timeline between albums?

You know when you date somebody and you get lost in who they are? Sometimes I’ve gotten swept up in someone else in such a way that I lose myself. And I love music so much that it’s very similar: it’s easy to let go of the reigns and get seduced by something that isn’t you. You can take in new music and digest new music, but the thing that’s really important as an artist is that your identity is still there somewhere, very clearly defined. So that was what I was really looking for on this record. How do you find your identity while also evolving? And I feel like, sometimes, on past records, I lost my identity in the process of evolving. With this record, I really wanted to make sure that I didn’t lose it again.

I’m not that confident as an artist. I’m just not. I’m much more enthralled by the magic of records and songs and other people’s music. And so, for this record, for the first time, I wanted to try to be enthralled by my own music. I have a friend who is a photographer, and she said to me once: “The problem with you is that other people’s music saves you, but your music doesn’t save you.” And at first I was like, “Fuck you! That’s not true!” But then I started thinking and was like, “Oh my god, I think I’m becoming enthralled with the process of making records because I get to hide in these other things.” I get to hide in something that doesn’t necessarily suit who I am, but I love it. Like, I love PJ Harvey records. I love Kanye West records. So if something comes up in the studio that doesn’t sound like me, I get so swept up with it and so excited that I’ll run with it. And in the past, I’ve put out things where maybe I ended up kind of obscured.

So, on this record, it was very important that I felt like I was in there, and that I was the main part, and that everything else kind of hung off of that.

As far as making a record that is firmly you, how much of that is the writing process for you and how much of it is being in the studio with a producer? And on that note, who was the team on this record? You said you made it with friends, and I know you worked with Butch Walker, who I’m a big fan of…

Oh, he’s the best.

But I’m wondering, who else was on board, and how did they help you reach this goal?

From a writing perspective, I feel like the songs, because they’re always just acoustic guitar or piano, they always feel like me. At least when they begin. And then I go into the studio, and it’s really hard not to get caught up in the excitement of a producer doing their thing on top of your songs. Everybody gets caught up in that energy, and you get to a point where you’re like, “Oh, that’s the best drum sound” or “Oh, that fucking guitar part is so great.” And I’m not going to be someone who says, “Oh, I think that steps on the vocal” or “I think that’s kind of cannibalizing the vibe that we need for this song to feel like I’m talking to the listen.” Like I said, I’m not super confident. And then on top of that, I’m just such a fucking fan of music.

This record was the first record in a long time—probably ever, actually—where I went in with an actual plan. I said, “I want it to be rhythmic, but I don’t want the rhythms to get in the way of the songs, and I want everything to sit underneath the vocal and underneath whatever the instrument is, and I want it to be really sparse.” And I’ve tried to do this in the past, and kind of failed.

I went into the studio first with Adam Pallant and Amir Salem, who are two people who I’ve known for a long time. Amir and I wrote a bunch of the stuff on the last record and he produced a couple songs. So we went into the studio together, just the three of us, and I would just sing a rough vocal, and we would start building this beat, and then build the track. Everything was really manageable, because usually when you’re in the studio, you have other people and other egos and it gets hard to say, “Hey, that’s a really killer keyboard part, but it’s a little too much.” So this time, it was just the three of us in a little studio in New York, just building the songs like that.

I’d say we got the songs about 75 percent of the way there, and then I took them to Los Angeles, where I worked with this kid Stacy Jones, who is in Letters to Cleo, and was in Veruca Salt, and is Miley Cyrus’s music director. And I’ve known him for years because he’s the drummer in Matchbox Twenty now. We got in his studio and had a little time to really see things clearly. I sat on the album for a couple months, and then he and I went back into the studio and started to crack some of those songs open. He added real drums, and he added different sounds on top of things, just to put his twist on it, his feel.

And then I went to Santa Monica, and Butch and I have known each other for eight years or nine years, but we’ve never worked together. I took the record to Santa Monica and said, “Hey, this is where I am.” I had this weird thing that I thought might be a chorus, and then all of a sudden, we had written this song called “Different Beds.”

Butch is the kind of guy who works on inspiration in a way that’s like detonating a bomb. You pull the pin on the grenade and then you just have to step back. He moves purely on inspiration, and I’ve never seen anything like it. But he’s also, aesthetically, just totally up my alley. Records that he loves, like Shelby Lynne records or Sheryl Crow records, has this kind of this kitchen sink record making thing that we both love.

So I wrote a couple songs with him, and I also took him a couple songs that Amir and Adam and I had done. I would say, “Well this is a song we haven’t finished yet and I can’t quite figure it out. It feels like it’s missing an element.” And Butch would always be like, “Well, how about this?” And he pulls out a bass or a guitar or a fucking timpani. He’s just hitting and banging on everything. And it was a lot of fun, because Stacy and I approached the recording process more analytically, and then found inspiration in that. With Butch, it would be like, “Butch, what’s missing here?” And he’d say, “Hold on!” And then he opens the closet and all these fucking great ideas fall out.

So that’s why it took so long. There were a couple different generations of those songs. I didn’t want to just make a record and be psyched on it and say “Okay, perfect, let’s put it out.” I wanted to be psyched on it, and then I wanted to get away from it for awhile, and then I wanted to be able to look back at it and say, “We could do just 20 percent more with this song and it would be that much better.”

I want to talk to you a little bit about nostalgia, because I’m getting the sense from the songs I’ve heard so far that this is going to be a pretty nostalgic record. You said in one of your announcements that it’s about “being the only one left hung up on the past.” I think you and I are sort of alike in that we are, in most situations, probably the most nostalgic guy in the room. What is it for you about the past and youth and old relationships that keeps pulling you back to writing songs like these?

It’s gotta be some sort of “parents fucking me up” thing. But I don’t know why there’s such a pull. I’ve never been happier in my actual “now” life than I am now. I’m appreciative, and dialed in, and kind of living the moment as best as I ever have. But every time I’d write a song for this record—and I mean every time—I’d start out and I’d be like “oh, for this record I really want to write about political things and getting better and growing” and all these things. And then I’d sit down and I’d pull out the guitar and I’d start singing, and the lyrics I’d sing were all about sadness and looking back.

There must be such a pull to that. In some part of myself, I haven’t actually dealt with the past. I haven’t dealt with being let go of. The relationships I wrote about on this record are about me being let go of, and that idea of being abandoned. Those things must still be pretty fresh, because they just showed right up. And I still get moved by nostalgia in movies and books that I read, but not nearly like I did in the past. So I thought, “Well fuck it, look at this progress! I’m moving past it!” And then, all of the sudden, when you tap into the creative part of yourself, all these things come up.

There’s a song called “Used to Be” on the new record, and we took the lyrics from this poem that I’d written, just a stream-of-consciousness thing. One morning, I sat down at my computer and started writing. And I couldn’t believe how many of my lyric fragments were about the past or about this feeling of being abandoned. I don’t know when I’m going to move past it, but I felt like it would be disingenuous to the writing process and the songs if I did anything else to them, or tried to make them less sad.

That’s also the reason for the title of the record, Sings His Sad Heart. I thought that was a funny way to poke fun at myself. Because all the songs are so fucking sad! Except, there’s one song on the record called “Sadness,” which is not about looking back. It’s about my current life. And the lyric is “Sadness used to think that it owned me/But now sadness has to share me with you.” Everybody writes love songs about, “Oh, you saved me” or “You brought me into the light.” Even in my best relationship, the darkness is still very much there. it’s more like a sharing of space. “Sadness” was really the only song on the record [that was happy], and I put it last hoping I was going to launch from there onto the next record being less about “woe is me.” But, man, as a fellow person stuck in the past, you know how it feels. And it’s really out of your control.

I always think it’s funny, because when I write a really sad song, I’m thinking like, “I hope my wife doesn’t think I’m super depressed.” I feel like there’s this misconception, especially among people who don’t write songs, that when you’re happy you should write happy songs, and when you’re sad you should write sad songs. And then your albums should be a reflections of your life in that way. But I feel like the longer you write songs, the more obvious it becomes that that’s not the case.

I think songs, if you do them right, are digging up all the shit you don’t deal with. Whatever’s left over that you’re not dealing with in your normal life comes out in your songs. I go to therapy and I fucking work through a lot of shit, and I’ve moved on and moved past and feel pretty great. But songwriting, or any creative thing, if you’re surrendering to it, it’s really like getting into a part of yourself that maybe you don’t even know you’ve got.

The funny thing you said about your lady, I sent this album to a couple people and they were like “Dude, are you getting a divorce?” And I was like, “No! Things are fucking awesome!” But then I started thinking about it, and these are all really fucking dark songs. There’s a song called “Different Beds,” that I wrote with Butch, and the chorus is “We’re going to see the sunrise, it’s just going to be from different beds next time.” And I don’t know where that came from, but that lyric was in my journal. And I just thought, how cool is that idea that you’re seeing the exact same thing you used to see with someone else, but you’re seeing it from a different bed.

I would hide these lyrics from myself, because I didn’t want them to be the fucking main thrust of the album. I had all these super positive, pro “being a human” songs. And we’re in this weird political climate, and I was writing about empowerment. But those ideas just didn’t want to go into songs yet. So I would be like, “Nope, I think this lyric’s better. I think that one about being totally fucking destroyed by someone 15 years ago is the way to go.” So that was how it went.

You said that “Used to Be” has taken the mantle of your favorite song that you’ve ever written. What did it dethrone?

There’s a song on the last record called “Bill Murray,” which I thought, at the time that I finished it, “Well, I’m done. I put Bill Murray in a song, and I got to write about Van Halen, and it really moves me every time I sing it.” So I was like, “Well, I’ve reached my apex.” And then, when “Used to Be” happened, it was the first time in my life where I drove around with the demo playing in a rental car, and I felt like it wasn’t actually me I was listening to. I could thoroughly enjoy it. It felt like someone else was singing to me about their experience. That just has never happened, and man, it is real fun.

If you had to, gun to your head, could you ever rank your own albums.

Oh my god, I can do that without even having a gun to my head. I can rank the top three.

I think this record is first, and I’m not just saying that because I’m pimping it for a fucking job. I think that this record is far and away the best record I’ve ever made.

The record that I think is the second most realized record is Some Mad Hope. Which is the record that had “Come on Get Higher” on it.

 Yeah, that’s my favorite.

I see those two as “realized.” Some records, it feels like you almost cracked the ball and the bat. Some of them feel like you totally whiffed. And some of them feel like ideas that never got fully formed. Some Mad Hope and the new record feel like we crashed down every latch, and we got everything to feel the way it should feel. On Some Mad Hope, there may be one song that, if I could, I would try to do it a little faster or approach it a little bit differently. But not much.

Going back after that, Modern Love would probably be the third record, in that we almost got it. We got most of it. And then in the way, way back of terribleness, some of my early records, where I just had an idea, and I had no skill and no one around me to help me execute it. There’s a record called Not Colored Too Perfect, which ended up being a bunch of B-sides and things that never happened, but I had such an incredible vision for that record with a live band, congas…there was this guy called Nil Lara who put out a record that just fucking floored me, and I said “I want to make a record like Nil Lara.” Just a big band playing percussion, drums, bass, acoustic guitar leading it. And it could not have turned out worse. It just sounds like…I don’t even know. It sounds like a fucking car accident.

So, I’ve had plenty where my ideal and my imagination got outstripped by having absolutely no clue what I was doing. And on this record, and Some Mad Hope, and Modern Love, it was like “Okay, we at least got as close as we could to what I wanted.”

Well, the last two, Show Me Your Fangs and Last of the Great Pretenders, I’m curious how you feel about those looking back. Because I really love both of those records, but they’re definitely more all over the place.

And that was exactly what they were. I feel like Show Me Your Fangs got closer. I see them as leaning. Last of the Great Pretenders, the songs were really strong. I really like the lyrics, and I really like some of the melodies a lot. But the way I dressed it up, I feel like I was really trying to fit into a party that wasn’t necessarily my party. So some of those songs, I feel like I don’t know who that guy in that suit is. There’s a couple [that we got right]. There’s a song called “Last Days of Summer in San Francisco” on that record that is one of my favorite songs of all time, that I’ve ever written. But then there are some on there that are just…I’m like “Wow, man. Who?” I felt like I was kind of on drugs. I’ve never done drugs, but I feel like that was what it was. We’ll go to learn those songs, and I’ll be like, “When did I do that? Who wrote this?”

And then Show Me Your Fangs was a really transitional record, where I was trying so hard to get back to the thing that I finally got to on this record. So, maybe like half of it feels really on point with who I am. And then there’s another half of it that feels like, “Alright, well that wasn’t it.” Because I just love music so much that, if something sounded like the Afghan Whigs…like, I’m a huge Afghan Whigs fan, so instead of saying “Well, that’s not really who I am,” I would say “I love the Afghan Whigs, let’s go!” and then we’d jam on something.

That was kind of how I made records before. I thought that, as a fan of music, my job was to assimilate what I liked, and to make records that sounded like my heroes instead of having my hero be me. I realized that I have to be the center of my art, and that the only way for it to really feel genuine and be satisfying to me is if I am the main character in my story, even if the main story is me telling someone else’s story. I have to be there, and I have to be able to be seen and heard. And so, the records that ranked for you were the ones that really worked for me. I felt like I was really in there, for better or for worse. I’m there, and it’s me. And the other ones maybe felt like a kid trying on different costumes.

Craig Manning
Craig Manning Craig Manning is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @FurtherFromSky on Twitter and on Facebook.
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