Matt Keating – What a song is
The songwriter bemoaned the state of popular music, which marginalized the serious artist and glorified the shallow and inane: “I could hire out to the other side, the big money side….But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that.”
The songwriter was Woody Guthrie. The quote appeared on a poster Matt Keating saw in a New York City store window while recording his new album, Tilt A Whirl. Guthrie’s words rang so true to a man devoted to the craft of songwriting that Keating bought the poster as a gift for his producer, Gary Maurer.
“It’s something we would talk about while we were working on the record,” Keating says. “We think of this as a recent development, but Woody was talking about the popular music of the ’30s and ’40s.”
The point? No matter what is selling, there has always been a rich tradition of writers who use songs as a serious means of expression. Keating is one of them, as he demonstrated on three albums and an EP released on Alias Records in the mid-’90s. His song “That Kind Of Girl” also was covered by Mary Lou Lord on her 1995 debut.
Alias, which was devoted primarily to loud rock bands, closed shop several years ago, leaving Keating without a deal. That didn’t make him stop writing songs, though.
“That’s what I do,” he says. “I’ve been writing songs for twenty years. I have a studio where I write, and I would go there every day. Then I would come home and get out my guitar and play, and my [nearly 5-year-old] daughter would dance. I found I was writing more songs at home, with her there, than anywhere. The only frustrating thing about not having a deal is that it’s harder to move forward. You can’t release what you have and kind of move on to the next batch of songs.”
A mutual friend put Keating in touch with Maurer, who has worked with Fountains Of Wayne, Luna and his own band, Hem. “I was doing things the old-school way,” Keating says, “recording demos and sending them out in the hope a label would be interested. But the music industry changed. The way things are now, you make your own record and put it out yourself. So that’s what I did.”
The resulting album is out in Europe and Asia on Poptones, a new label run by Alan McGee, who once signed Oasis to Creation Records. It’s available in the U.S. only via Keating’s website and a few online retailers. Keating is in that same class of songwriter as Ron Sexsmith and Elliott Smith, but doesn’t sound at all like either of them. His songs are elegant in structure and packed with wordplay that can amuse, dazzle, or hit way too close to home.
“Our culture right now is very cynical about anything with depth,” Keating says. “Most people really think of music as just entertainment, something to take them out of their miserable lives. But there are always people who use music to examine their miserable lives and to learn something and maybe even grow from it.”
Keating found himself playing a series of gigs in England over the summer and was energized by the response he got. “They just really responded to the songs,” Keating says. “It reminded me of an early review that called me a troubadour. At the time, I thought, ‘No way am I a troubadour.’ It made me think of Jethro Tull or someone. But really, there is a tradition of people communicating through song that goes way back. It’s a fundamental human need, and it was good to be reminded of that.”
Woody Guthrie would understand.