Matt Maeson’s very first performance was anything but traditional. A Chick-fil-A open mic…which he took first place in…which netted him the restaurant’s food for a year. “That went away in about three months because all my friends were poor, and they would just jack the coupons.” Believe it or not, but that amusing bit of history might be the most conventional part of Maeson’s beginnings, detailed here by the artist.
Following his captivating origin story, you’ll then find yourself deep within the makings of his debut full length album, “Bank On The Funeral.” From joining up with frequent producer James Flannigan, to getting the inside scoop on tracks like “Beggar’s Song” (written at SXSW at a particularly rocky moment), “Cringe” (a breakthrough moment for the album’s production style), and “Feel Good” (first conceived in 2011), it’s an intimate look into this achievement, featuring Maeson and those creatively closest to him.
Interviews: Matt Maeson, Derek Davies (Neon Gold), James Flannigan (Producer).
Jesse Cannon: Hi, my name is Jesse Cannon and I’ve devoted my life to figuring out what goes into making great albums. I’ve produced over 1,000 records, written two books, and recorded hundreds of podcasts pursuing the hidden secrets of how great music gets to the world’s ears. Now I’m proud to present Inside the Album, where we get to go deeper on how your favorite artists have made the amazing albums in their catalog.
We will hear firsthand from the musicians and the team behind them that helped craft these records, while getting to know the little secrets that go into making great music. In this episode, we talk about Matt Maeson’s debut LP, “Bank On The Funeral.”
Matt Maeson’s music has been bubbling up into the mainstream over the past few years. In 2017, he started with his debut EP, “Who Killed Matt Maeson.” And working through “The Hearse” in 2018, the dark imagery in his storytelling has been catching listener’s ears and has now led up to him making a big impression on the world of alternative pop with his debut LP “Bank On The Funeral.” I sat down at Atlantic Records Studios in New York to discuss how he got here. And as you’re about to hear, I got one hell of a story.
Matt Maeson: Well, my name is Matt Maeson, and we’ll start from the beginning. We’ll start off on a dark tip. When I was about 4 years old, almost 5 years old, my uncle was murdered. That definitely changed my family’s lives. We were in West Virginia at the time, and we moved after a couple of years after that to Norfolk, Virginia. I played drums at the time when I was a kid for a long time because that’s what my uncle did. But that really shaped my life. So, I was very isolated growing up and I started writing songs when I was about 15. That’s when I figured out that I could actually sing. And so by that time I was very emo, obviously. Well, I mean emo as in just personality. I did listen to a ton of emo bands, but I wasn’t allowed to listen non-Christian music for a long time. Growing up, my parents wouldn’t let me listen to that stuff. Probably for good, because going through all that stuff I was already depressed as it is.
But yeah, I started writing music when I was about 15. I wrote my first song, I remember it was called “Time to Say Hello.” I can’t remember what it was about, but I remember the lyrics were “Time to Say Hello.” Kept writing music and just learning random covers. The first cover I learned was Plain White Ts “Hey There Delilah,” which is kind of a bummer. That’s not the best first song to learn. But, and then I obviously learned some of the classics like “Wonderwall” and songs like that. Growing up and going through all that stuff, I obviously felt like I had a lot to say, and I started writing more as a therapeutic thing as I could. For some reason, I could articulate the way that I was feeling through music and the words I write to music more than I could just talking.
And I’m still like that honestly. And so yeah, it just started pouring my heart out into the songs that I wrote just from me. And I always did want to be like a rock star one day. My ideal thing was I either wanted to be a professional skateboarder; that clearly did not work out. I wanted to be a stuntman, or I wanted to be a rock star. That one’s starting to work out. Hopefully it keeps going. Yeah, I just kept writing songs that meant something to me. And then by the time I was 17, I played my very first show, which was at a Chick-fil-A open mic night. And I won because those kids sucked. I sucked too. But they were just really bad and I won. I was like, “Oh shit, this is crazy.” And I won Chick-fil-A for a year, which is sick.
That went away in about three months because all my friends are poor and they would just jack the coupons that Chick-fil-A gave me. And then from there, I just kept trying to play whatever shows I could around town and started playing just different little clubs. And it was funny because I would play like…in Norfolk and Virginia Beach there’s a pretty big hip-hop community and a lot of like pretty sketchy clubs. And I would go in as this little 17-year-old white kid with a ‘fro and play these emo songs and people were into it. And so I was like, man, if I can convince these crowds then there’s something to this.
Jesse Cannon: Unfortunately, something happened along the way that made this story get a little rocky.
Matt Maeson: After that is when I started to get in a bit of trouble. I turned 18 and I moved out of my parents’ house the day I turned 18, and I just started getting into all sorts of stupid, stupid shit. And then I started doing some drugs, and then I started selling those drugs, and I started getting arrested. I got arrested for breaking and entering, and I was put on probation for a year and with only a week left of that probation I got arrested again, which is a big no-no. So, then I got put on two years’ probation and six months supervised probation.
So, then I was like, “OK man, I got to figure my life out.” So, I moved away from all in a spurt of 18-year-old wisdom. I decided I’m going to move back to one of the towns that we lived in, away from all these people that I’m getting all this trouble with. And I’m just going to work, pay off these court bills, do my community service and just be done with all that.
And so I moved to Gloucester, Virginia. I worked construction 70 hours a week. My only day off I would do 10 hours of community service. So, it was like a gnarly summer. I got deeper into using drugs in that period, which is crazy because I was on supervised probation, so I had to pee in a cup for six months and they would test me for it. Finally, I did get through that and I passed all my probation. After that was a real like, “OK, What do I do with my life?” I do want to do music. And so I hopped in my car with a buddy of mine and we traveled the country for a month. We left with 500 bucks in our pocket and we would just work random jobs or find ways to get money on the road. Once that stopped, I was like, “All right man, I really want to start going for music.”
So, I joined my parents’ prison ministry. They started a prison ministry where they go to obviously a ton of prisons and then biker rallies like Sturgis and Daytona Bike Week. And basically places that a lot of people in the church won’t go and a lot of places where the people that my parents minister to are people that are treated like monsters or outcasts, or people that the church typically wouldn’t want to be around at all. And that was very inspiring to me. And I would play those shows and I’ll go into prisons, which is one of the darkest places in the world. It’s just so dark in there and there’s so much…it’s like you get arrested and thrown in jail for being a monster and then they treat you like a monster for the rest of your life. And it’s like, what is the point of that?
So, it’s such a dark place and I would just see my parents go in there, and I would go in there and play music and just see how much of a light that would shine over these dudes that are clearly just completely fucked up in the head and they need help. And so when my parents would go in there and I would go and I would just see how much music can really affect you, affect your emotions, your entire life. And us just taking the time to show them love and show them that they are loved and playing my songs. That about me feeling misunderstood. They related to that because they obviously feel misunderstood. And I did that for about three years and then I decided I want to finally go. I feel like I’m stable enough to make a career out of this. And I moved back to Virginia Beach, Norfolk area and got a desk job and just worked with my buddy Ross for a couple months, made a song with my friend Masego, put it on SoundCloud. And that started going crazy. And then we put out another song that started going crazy. And then six months later I was signed to Atlantic Records.
Jesse Cannon: About here is where Matt meets up with Neon Gold Records, which is a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. I’m going to let Derek Davies, who’s A&R there, talk about his side of the story.
Derek Davies: So I found Matt by complete chance. We’ve got a different discovery story for every artist we’ve worked with. They’re all unique and Matt’s was perhaps the most unique of all of them. I followed a songwriter called Mark Johns, an artist and songwriter on Twitter who posted a 10-second snippet of her covering a song called “Melons.” I thought it was an interesting top line with a really unique lyric and hook. And so I clicked through and I listened to it a few times and then I saw that she said it was a cover of an artist called Matt Maeson. So, I click through to his page and it was a song called “Melons” that he put online in…I guess it was early 2016. And it was an acoustic singer-songwriter, just like classic, Matt with an acoustic guitar.
And I just kept coming back to it day after day, week after week. And Matt’s in a space where he’s very different from a lot of the artists that we’ve become known for, and we work with kind of big left-leaning all-pop females, but like a more developed pop sound. And Matt’s a more kind of classic singer songwriter. So, at first I just felt like something that I liked that I wasn’t necessarily thinking was the traditional Neon Gold kind of sound. But I came back to it over and over again. And then after about a month of that, he put another song online called “Grave Digger,” and I was like: “Oh, the song’s ready to go. This is a fully realized and big song that…put a mix on it and you could take it to radio tomorrow.”
I mean that voice just stops you in your tracks. But more than that, he’s got just this unique writing ability and his own deeply personal take on lyrics. You hear a Matt Maeson song and songs like “Cringe” and “Hallucinogenic” and “I Just Don’t Care.” Those are Matt Maeson songs and no one else. You can’t imagine anyone else in the world writing that song. And that’s what makes them special. And that’s what we’ve been known for a certain sound over the years with Neon Gold. But really what we look for more than anyone is: who has that unique singular voice and who releases a song and it’s like, oh that’s this artist and that is no one else. And Matt has that as much as any other artists on the roster if not more.
Jesse Cannon: One of the interesting things about Neon Gold is you don’t often hear about community and pop music, but here Derek explains how big a thing it is for this label.
Derek Davies: I emailed him and we hop on the phone and I don’t think either Matt nor I, neither one of our preferred method of communication is the phone. And we talked for over an hour. And I was in London at the time and he was from Norfolk, Virginia. I grew up in DC, so just a few hours from Norfolk. So, we just talked a lot at length about everything, his backstory, our backstory, and it just felt like a connection. And at the time we were just starting to put together our first writing camp in Nicaragua that was happening in 10 days. And it was all artists from our immediate family who we’d worked with for a considerable amount of time or had really strong relationships with. But I just kind of got the feeling with Matt and I emailed him the next day and I was like: “Listen, this is crazy because this is in 10 days and it’s in Nicaragua. A bunch of people you’ve never met before, but would you want to come down and do this?”
And he was like: “Shit man, I’d love to. But I don’t have a passport right now.” And obviously 10 days notice is too quick to get that together. So that didn’t happen. But we ended up obviously staying in touch and meeting up as soon as I got back to the states a few weeks later. And Matt came to New York and happened to be in town for last night at my old apartment, which had become like a social hub for Neon Gold, where like all of our artists crashed on their first ever tours.
It’s like Charlie XCX. I met her when she was crashing on our couch over around her first shows that we promoted in New York. Mumford & Sons stayed on their first tour, Grouplove, Walk the Moon. Kind of like was this mini Chelsea Hotel for like mid 2000s alternative pop, but with a bit less drug use.
And so he happened to be in town for our last night there before we moved on. So, we had a meeting with him at our office and then invited him on by, and it just felt like this kind of seismic about where he just…he met a lot of artists already in our kind of family in our network. And so we kept in touch from there. And a few weeks later we started the deal conversation and everything just moved the way you hope these things do. Like the negotiations part of the signing process is always the worst. But I felt like everyone was transparent and for the right reason, and it made sense from the start, and everything moved along pretty painlessly, and we got to the finish line of it right as we were scheduling our second writing camp in Nicaragua. The first one had been such a success that we wanted to get that same group back down there as soon as possible later that summer.
And so we went down there for that and Matt was excited to come, but he came in there kind of being like, listen: “I’m excited to write songs to other people. I don’t really bring other people into my own writing process.” And we’re like: “Yeah man, the beauty of this thing is it’s a very open-minded thing. We like to let things happen organically. If the song makes sense for you, great. If it makes sense for another artist at the camp, great. If you want to pitch it out, that’s fine too. We kind of go in with no pretense and see what happens.” So, he was pretty set on writing for other people and kind of keeping his own stuff out of it. And he’d never written with anyone before. And that’s the beauty of Matt. He’s 100%. He can take it from start to finish himself and write the whole thing and acoustic guitar. And it can be incredibly compelling, including when he’s playing it live. Like his first three tours were just him solo acoustic on the guitar.
So, the first session I put him in, the way these camps worked, we would rotate groups of three or four writers together, working in different groups each day. And so each group would get a song a day. So, you’d leave with 15 and 20 songs across the 12 people who were there by the end of the week. But the first day I decided to start Matt out — just he’d never written with anyone before or collaborated in that capacity — so we put him one-on-one with a British writer who is now living in LA who we become quite close with called James Flannigan, who just struck me as a kind of the perfect fit for Matt.
And they just instantly connected. And they just really hit it off and Matt went into the session pretty dead-set on not writing for his own project and came back being like: “Hey, James is my guy. James is going to be my guy for the entire project.” All in the space of about eight hours. That day they wrote a song called “Lockdown,” which is still one of my favorite songs. It’s not on the album but I’m sure it’ll find its way into the world somehow. But yeah, it was just kind of an instant connection. And since then James did in fact become his guy and James produced every single song on the album and wrote or co-wrote just about all of them with Matt. Although Matt for the most part wrote every song on the record 100% himself and then brought it to James to bring to life. So, James might help with a bit of writing and arrangement here and there.
Jesse Cannon: After all this talk about James collaborating with Matt, I wanted to hear his side of the story. He’s a seasoned producer and songwriter who’s worked with artists like Andrew McMahon, Carly Rae Jepsen, Hayley Kiyoko and many others. Here he is talking about how he came to work with Matt.
James Flannigan: Derek, who’s actually the guy who found Matt. He’s really on the pulse, he’s kind of got that old-school-scout blood in him where he just still finds people on SoundCloud when they’ve had one song up or whatever. And put me onto Matt pretty early on, because in our whole group of friends I guess he figured like this was more my vibe. That’s how we kind of find out is in our network. We just like tip off friends and stuff and he sent a song of Matt’s “My Way” and I was just into it. I was like, this is the kind of artist I’m looking to work with at the moment. And he managed to get hold of Matt who was working a day job and he sent him to a writing camp with us.
It’s a really bizarre experience. It’s kind of funny to see Matt turning up a bit rabbit in headlights kind of situation of just like: “What are all these people doing here? And they all just write songs in the morning with each other and they’re strangers in this whole thing.”
But I guess I was a little sensitive to that because I saw that he’s more of an introspective songwriter and that kind of scenario is quite intimidating. I mean it’s intimidating for me. I think it’s intimidating for everyone to a certain degree. But yeah, we got in the room and I think I chose this method of really just letting Matt do whatever he wanted to do and if it led to nothing then I wanted to present that as an option in the room as well. Because these scenarios, like this so cool, this whole writing camp situation. But if you can balance the inorganic process with…I just wanted to be sensitive too basically because I saw he was scared and I saw he was skeptical about what goes on at these places and who all these people are wanting to write songs for him.
He did really well and I just kind of rolled with it that day and we wrote a cool song. And I think we both realized we could do cool shit together if we just spent a few weeks together in a room.
Jesse Cannon: We heard about this writing camp before, so Matt’s going to tell us a little bit about who else was there as well as some of the other collaborators he met there.
Matt Maeson: James Flannigan, Carly Rae Jepsen, Captain Cuts, Kyle Shearer, Nate Company, Phoebe Ryan, just a ton of really, really talented artists that we would just go into different cabanas and work on songs. And so I met him, we had a session, just me and him one day and we wrote this song called “Lockdown.” I don’t know if that’ll ever come out, but we loved it and I just loved working with him. And that was actually the same Nicaragua trip where I wrote “Go Easy” with Captain Cuts, which is coming out on the record.
And that was two years ago. So that’s where I met him. And then by the time we got to the point where we wanted to track the EP and everything, I was like: “I want James Flannigan. I want to work with him on it.” So, I moved to LA and we just recorded everything in his studio over the span of like two weeks, three weeks.
Matt Maeson — “Tread on Me”
Jesse Cannon: Matt’s now going to talk a little bit about how his two previous EPs helped shape this current LP.
Matt Maeson: Well originally we were going to do one EP and then the album, and that’s the original deal I signed with Atlantic. So we put out that first EP, which is basically “Who Killed Matt Maeson.” The idea of that is there were parts of myself, there are parts of everybody that growing up [and] becoming an adult, there’s parts of yourself you have to theoretically kill and parts of yourself that you have to grow and water and give time to, if you want depending on who you want to be in life. So that’s what that was about. And then we decided we wanted to do another EP just a get momentum going in my career and fanbase. So, by the time I do put out an album I have a stable foundation.
I think it’s awesome that we did that. At first, I was against the idea because I wanted to just go straight into the album. I had a lot to say, but looking back it was such a therapeutic experience writing “The Hearse” because if “Who Killed Matt Maeson” was like years 18 to 21, “The Hearse” was years 21 to 24, which were just as impactful in my life as “Who Killed Matt Maeson.”
Going into the album after that, it’s kind of like, it’s weird. It’s just like it all came together at the perfect time and there’s songs from the EPs on the album too; there’s three songs from the EPs on the album, because I think they clearly defined, up to now, that entire period rather than just these years, these years. It kind of defines my life from really being like six years old to now.
Jesse Cannon: Many artists see the borders of their music as the things they don’t want to do and that will often define their sound more than most things. I asked Matt about how that affects his music.
Matt Maeson: I think that used to happen a lot more. I think if I heard “Go Easy” when I was 19, I’d be like: “I could never do that. That’s straight pop.” In my mind, even making that song, I was like, “This is a pop song.” And now people are like, “Dude, love the new folky vibe.” And I’m like, “What? That’s crazy.”
But less now more than anything, now when I hear that stuff I see it as more of a challenge of like, “OK, how do I adapt my style and my lyrics and my thoughts to this different kind of a brand or sound?” Growing up writing songs, I always envisioned myself with a band. So when I would write songs, I would write that with that in mind. So, the dynamics would change from a typical acoustic song — it’d be like quiet, quiet, quiet, build up, build up and then boom, boom, like really loud. It’s kind of unintentional. But a lot of my songs do that and it creates for just, I think a lot more emotion through the sonics of it rather than just the lyrics and the melody.
Jesse Cannon: I then asked James about how the process goes when he gets one of Matt’s songs.
James Flannigan: It’s really interesting. I’ve never actually worked with someone in this way before. It’s quite exciting what he does. He’ll send me voice memos and he’ll send me maybe an entire song. Or maybe it’s a one-and-a-half minute clip of something really exciting. And being able to be involved, even though he’s written it by himself, being able to combine that with being involved with the very inception of the song, hearing the energy of the very first idea really helps me realize what we can’t lose if I’m going to produce this record. I’m like: “OK, whatever this raw bathroom, reverb energy is on this voice memo. I can’t screw this up and make it too clean.” But it’s funny because by the end of the album we were so familiar with working in this process of him bringing me a raw track like that, that we kind of just had a muscle memory thing going.
It was always relatively delicate. And every song was a problem. Every song was like, “How do I make this really amazing, raw sounding thing produced in a way that’s exciting and not ruin the essence of it?” I mean, that’s the same problem with everything, it’s the same problem with great singer-songwriters like that.
I guess I would try and capture just the vocal and guitar again from the bottom up and often he would leave and I would just produce and produce and produce until I found that it was exciting and I hadn’t deleted the energy that he brought in the room. But I guess a lot of that was me alone in the studio, losing it a bit and waiting until I felt I had this start of something I could play Matt.
Jesse Cannon: And now here’s Matt talking about how he sees the process from his end.
Matt Maeson: The working with James Flannigan, who I work on everything with, he produces pretty much all of my stuff. We basically, I wrote most of the songs on an acoustic guitar, either in my bedroom or wherever. And then we go in to his studio and we just track out the acoustic and then we just build from there. So, he’ll do a lot of the programmed work and then I’ll do a lot of the instrumentation, and we’d just kind of bounce off each other. We’ll pick a song and work on it for eight hours one day and then move to the next song, and then kind of bounce back and forth between.
So it’s pretty like, I hate saying it’s organic because everybody says that, but it really is. It’s just like writing these super serious in-depth songs and having a lot of fun building the environment that they live in.
Most times I have the song fully written before I go in. It’s pretty rare that I don’t, but it is, that does happen sometimes. I can’t remember specifically what songs that has happened on. I know I went in and I finished “The Mask” with James Flannigan, and I had written the first verse and the second verse, and we wrote the bridge together when that was actually here in New York. 90% of my songs, I write the whole song before we go into the studio, but 10% of the time I do write a little bit of it, or a lot of it, and we go and we finish it. Whenever I do a co-write, I go in with an idea, or like a verse or like a chorus. And then we build around that.
Jesse Cannon: With 2,000 voice memos to choose from, I was a little curious about how often they start a song but it doesn’t work out.
Matt Maeson: I mean we’ve had songs that we’ve produced all the way up and been like, “We don’t like this anymore.” Because I have, like, 2,000 voice memos on my phone right now of just different song ideas. It’s less often, do we actually like sit there and produce up a song and then scrap it. It’s more of just taking all these different ideas and figuring out which ones we actually want to go with.
So, it’s pretty rare actually for us to pick a song be like, we’re doing this song, produce it up and scrap it. And there’s probably only like five songs that we did that with. And then there’s so many songs that we just didn’t actually go in the studio and start that songs that I worked on by myself and wrote. And then songs that I went in sessions and wrote with other people that we haven’t used.
And there’s a ton of those songs that I’m thinking about using for the next record, but I just have such like, it’s good and bad. I’ll sit down and I’ll write 45 seconds of a song and then just forget about it and move on. So now I’m at the point where I can just scroll through my voice memos and then stop, and then pick something to work on. So it’s kind of cool.
Jesse Cannon: Matt’s music often deals in very dark and heavy subjects and is heavy on the cinematic descriptions inside his lyrics. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about the vibe when him and James record together.
Matt Maeson: Every studio he’s had has been in his house. So it’s like super relaxed. Like I hate working, even in the Atlantic studios, just like office vibes. I feel like there’s a lack of creativity in it. We did the second EP in his studio in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. And then when it came album time, that was a little more sporadic. Because now I’m at the point where I’m touring all the time. And doing press things. Or I’m doing whatever else. So we would do a week, I would fly out, do whatever I had to do, and then we do another four days, fly out, do whatever I had to do. And then kind of did it like that. So, it came together a bit more choppy, and I was really worried about it not having a cohesive flow to it, all the way up until the point we got all the mixes back. And then I listened to his third straight through once we picked the tracklist. And I was like, “Man, this is awesome man.” I was really happy with it.
Jesse Cannon: There’s often a myth about the cookie-cutter factory that major labels are. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about the influence of outside collaborators on this record with Matt.
Matt Maeson: I’d kind of wanted to be left alone in that sense because I had made the EPs and I was like, “All right man, I know how to do this, in a sense.” And I really only take that kind of advice from my close friends and James Flannigan, my producer, and my buddy Roswell, who’s also an artist, an amazing artist. But then yeah, there’s obviously like the A&R in like Molly Lehman is A&R and then Pete Ganbarg was involved in the album and had a lot of good things to say. Just like little things too, just like what if you put the pre-chorus here? What if you repeated this part here? And it makes the song so much better.
Jesse Cannon: And here’s James talking a little bit about how he saw the process go down for himself.
James Flannigan: It was a really interesting, weird record in terms of having…we had ultimate creative freedom and there were no boundaries, but also I kind of, I felt like I could do anything and Matt and me really trust each other. And it was rare towards the end that I would do something that didn’t work for the song and that he didn’t like. But what worked? I think I found a lot of the time every now and then when maybe I was trying to make something that was more radio friendly or something, I would do it without bringing it into the room. I would just think in my head, I was like, “Why don’t I try to do that today?” I think if I didn’t have the vocal and the guitar completely nailed already, we would just sit there meandering on track stuff for a while and we would always end up being like, why don’t we just track every vocal for the song?
Why don’t we lay out the entire dynamic of the record without anything other than guitar and layers and layers of vocals? And then I don’t think there’s a case where it didn’t just flow subconsciously after that. It was just easy. It was just like you, didn’t even have to think about all these problems like what kick drum sound or whether we are OK experimenting with a with a synth here or not. It just always worked around his vocal, and it’s so simple and everyone like, I’m sure like many producers will say that’s the key to anything, but we try it the other way a lot of the time and it just didn’t work.
Maybe starting with a cool track or something never worked. And starting with just a really cool beat or something. And we would try it. I never closed the door on any of these other more pop/contemporary kind of approaches to producing a record,
because it could work the next time we do it. But in general it only worked if we started with every vocal and the guitar and then just added things as we needed them. And there are a few, which is cool, on the record where we didn’t add very much and at the moment they’re actually my favorite. Well it’s interesting because I did this record years and years ago, one of the first albums I ever did, and it was for an artist who’d kind of made a name for herself just doing guitar and vocals. And she’d got quite a big following and I was to produce the first pop record I guess, as it was. And it did well, but I felt like I’d lost the essence of the person sitting in their bedroom that was coming up with this stuff and sharing it with me in this room. So, I think that was the goal with this, to make sure we never deviated too far. And there are some really big tracks. There’s some really produced tracks, but it’s all driven from him.
Matt Maeson — “Cringe”
Jesse Cannon: Speaking of some of the outside advice Matt got, Derek is now going to tell us about the hit song “Cringe” and how it became the second song on “Bank on the Funeral.”
Derek Davies: It was around the second or third time I’d met Matt as we were starting to enter the deal process. He sent me a batch of demos that he’d written and he always writes his demos and just they’re iPhone voice notes. So they’re pretty crude. But when he’s got something you can tell he’s got something. He sent me this one minute long voice note of “Cringe,” which at the time it was just a verse and a chorus. And he’d written it I think a year before that and hadn’t really had any intention to finishing off. But it was this one minute verse chorus that I was driving myself crazy, just going back, listening to over and over and again and I was like, “Dude, you got to finish that. I need to hear the rest of that.”
And a week could go by and two weeks would go by, and I texted him again and now I don’t really know the kid at this point, but I just must sound like a super fan. And so we finished it and sent it back and there’s just like, “Oh wow.” I’m blown away. This is the first single. Oh this is very clearly it. Few weeks later that Nicaragua trip happens and a few weeks after that we get him in with James to bring “Cringe” to life and they just instantly knocked it out and instantly clicked and we sent it to this mixer, John O’Mahony.
And he absolutely knocked out of the park on mix one and just all of a sudden that song came together so quickly. And Matt likes to tell the story live now about how it’s this song that he had never planned to finish until his A&R heard it and hounded him like a psychopath until he finished it just to get me off his back. And now he likes to point out that it’s all over the radio and it’s the reason that he is playing a lot of the rooms he’s playing today. But he likes to also point out that just because he was wrong does not mean that I was right.
Jesse Cannon: And here’s James talking about the experience of making “Cringe.”
James Flannigan: They all had their revelation moment. The first song we ever produced, I don’t know if Matt mentioned, but it’s “Cringe” and it’s the one that is on the radio right now. And it’s really cool that that’s the first one that’s out there on the radio, making the rounds, because that whole process was a lot of me and him looking at each other, figuring out if we trusted each other creatively and it was the baby steps. It was a real breakthrough moment seeing how heavy we could go and seeing that I could do huge production stuff, which is what I like doing. I like doing big wall of sound things, and you’ll notice that if you listened to the album. It’s a lot of wall of sound stuff.
But I know it’s that, and this is kind of similar to what I said before, but if these huge guitars and these huge bass and these huge drums were all kind of in unison with his guitar startups. And they were all following his vocal melodies, really guided by it, then it didn’t feel like production that was taking over and that was a breakthrough moment on that first song. Realizing how we could make this huge and still sound like it’s focused on one guy. And we deviate through that on some of the records where we do instrumental stuff or whatever.
Matt Maeson — “Go Easy”
Jesse Cannon: Earlier we heard Matt talk about the song “Go Easy” and making it with the producer group Captain Cuts. I wanted to get him to talk a little bit more about that process.
Matt Maeson: So, there’s two songs that I co-wrote with Captain Cuts on the record. That’s “Go Easy” and “Tread On Me.” Captain Cuts are these three dudes. It’s so fun to work with them because they all produce, they all play instruments and they’re all writers. So you go in and they basically…just each one of them hops on the computer at different times as you’re writing the song and keeps like producing little things. So, by the time you leave the session it’s like you have a full produced song. That was the first time I ever experienced, number one, co-writing, and number two, just like being around super professional people. I was still working that desk job at the time that I took that trip.
So, it was just such a cool experience and I left there just thinking, “Man, I can actually do this.” And what had happened is we were out all night drinking. We all woke up so hungover and we went into the session and we just…that was the first time I met them too. So, it’s a little awkward and you’re hungover and you just don’t care. We sat around for at least four hours trying to write something and whenever you’re forcing it, it sucks. And we just couldn’t write anything. And then finally, Ryan McMahon from Captain Cuts played a little riff on the guitar and I was like, “That’s sick.” And I started writing lyrics to that and then it just started folding together and within two hours we had “Go Easy” and we were just all just like, “This is a hit dude, this is such a good song.”
And then that was two years ago. So, by the time we actually got in the studio to do the album, we wanted to reproduce it and everything because it was obviously in the sticks and Nicaragua didn’t sound great. And so we collaborated with Captain Cuts and James Flannigan and we just went back and forth. There’s so many versions of that song, it’s insane. The actual structure of the song has remained the same, but we’ve definitely changed a ton of the sounds in it. And then we would do things to it, send it to Captain Cuts, they’d be like, “We don’t like this but we like this and we’ll do this.” And they’ll send it back and we would just go back and forth. And then they sent a totally stripped version and we loved that. But we were also like, “We need a heavier version.”
And we kept going back and forth. And then we sent the song to Atlantic, and Pete Ganbarg actually had the idea of like throwing the pre-chorus underneath the last chorus, which made it sound so much bigger at the end, and then you get into mixing and that’s back and forth. We went through like 14 mixes of that song. It’s crazy. There were ones everybody would like and I would hate, or that I would love and everybody else would hate. It’s so weird how it works. And that’s one of the songs that took the longest to actually nail down to one that we all collectively liked. And that’s the version you’re hearing now.
Matt Maeson — “Beggar’s Song”
Jesse Cannon: Next, Matt’s going to talk about bringing “Beggar’s Song” to life.
Matt Maeson: “Beggar’s Song” I wrote at South by Southwest two years ago. I wrote the first verse in the course of that song at South by. And it was just like everybody, I had just got off a tour. I had just had a night that I just did a ton of things that I really regret and I was just very depressed and I was over the whole party thing. And it was just like, “Man, I don’t want my life to be like this anymore.” So, everybody was partying and I was like, “I’m going to go back to the hotel room and just write.” And I wrote that bit of that song and it made me cry. It’s like a psalm in a way. It’s just kind of a confession and a desperation for anything that can help. And that song just kind of sat there for a while until I took that trip to upstate and I met Simon, and Simon, he’s just like a shaman dude and he just brings it out of you.
And I showed him that clip of that song and he loved it. And at that point, I think I’d written the second verse too. And we just kind of workshopped it there for a while, and I wrote the bridge to it there, and then we had that song in the bag for a while too. And then I went in probably six months ago with James Flannigan and we actually tracked it out.
We got a dude to come in and play the trumpet on it, which is sick. What’s crazy about that song is we finished it, we wrote it, whatever. When I was on that South by trip [where I] wrote it, I met this guy Weston Razooli who came to just shoot some of the gigs that I was playing there. And he was such a cool dude. Just kind of out there, but so creative and someone you just want to hang out with. And he was awesome and he filmed a couple of the gigs and we said it, parted ways and then come two years later, a month ago, we filmed the music video to “Beggar’s Song.” And the person that we picked to do it was Weston Razooli because he works really well with film and I wanted everything to be film oriented.
Jesse Cannon: And here’s James talking about how they flushed the song out.
James Flannigan: “Beggar’s Song” was one where I tried to hazard a guess at how we’re doing it as soon as we did it and I’m really proud of that one. I think Matt’s really proud of that one too. And this is how most of the songs that start when we’re producing, he would play it to me and I’m like, “Dude, this time let’s just like, let’s just keep this just raw, just you and the guitar.” And then we’d find ourselves producing a huge track. But that one was a really big breakthrough moment because it was anthemic and it was bright and it was the most hopeful song we’d done. So, opening the door to a real drum kit in a room and a real trumpet player coming in just had this new light on Matt’s songs that we’d never had.
And I think it was a friend of mine that listened to it as we were working on it. It was like, “If we get some brass on that.” And it completely transformed the end of this. And it was the first time we’ve had this euphoric climax, because up until then we’d been really diving into these heavy, dark sinister endings. We haven’t actually spoken about this. And maybe I wonder if it’s the same for him. But when we felt great about having such a, I don’t want to say happy, but it was such a hopeful light climax to a song, made us realize that we can go other places emotionally with the climax of these records. And that’s a huge moment for a new artist because we were finding an autopilot with like some of the ways we…what our end point of an epic song was.
And this one really opened the door to a much happier emotion I guess. And I think it might pave the way for some of the records on the next album. But that was a huge breakthrough moment. Real instruments and brass and just big gang vocals like that. It was really cool to try that out. I think that helped with legacy. We use some of the same brass as well. It was a nice kind of a light and shade for the record, having those two tracks.
Matt Maeson — “Feel Good”
Jesse Cannon: Next we’re going to talk about the song, “Feel Good” and how his faith plays into his music.
Matt Maeson: So “Feel Good” is another song on the record and that’s the oldest song that anyone will hear that I’ve written. I wrote that song in 2011 when I was on a prison tour, and it’s mainly about my relationship with my dad. But that song, literally I wrote that entire song and it sat there. I just didn’t stop thinking about it for years and years and years and years. Then when it came time for the album I was like, “What about this?” I actually hadn’t written the bridge to that song. So that’s what I wrote. Like I randomly just reopened that song and I wrote the bridge and I was stoked on it and I showed it to James Flannigan and he loved it. And we went in, we recorded it and it’s such like…whenever I pull out a song that I wrote that long ago, I sing it just in a different way because it’s kind of just ingrained itself in me.
And we sat down to do the vocal take for that and we just did the whole vocal take all the way through and it was just flawless. And James Flannigan was like, “That’s the best vocal take I’ve ever heard you do.” And that’s the one you hear on the song.
Jesse Cannon: I then asked Matt to go a little deeper about how his faith plays into his music.
Matt Maeson: Struggles with doubt and you can’t have faith without doubt, specific lyrics…I mean it’s literally in every single song. “The Mask” is a big one. If you’ve heard that song, that’s about my uncle. And that was a big struggle too of like why…my uncle basically was a criminal growing up, finally turned his life around. He really became a church guy and trying to reach…exactly what my parents do is go out and reach to people of the church deems an outcast or whatever else, and one of those dudes ended up killing him.
That was hard to figure out because I was like: “Man, why? When he’s so on fire for Jesus, why would he let that happen?” So that’s something that I struggled with for a long time and that’s something you hear come up with my music all the time. And then later on, it became more about…if you listen to “Cringe,” that’s a lot about how I was treated when I started getting in trouble and started doing drugs and all of that and kind of fell out of church and all of that. How they responded to that with more reprimanding me rather than trying to reach out and pull me back in. And so that’s where the whole phrase of, “Do I make you cringe now? Ya know, fuck you, whatever.” It kind of just pushes you, and “Go Easy” is the same idea, as that kind of just pushes you deeper in the hole and makes all the mistakes you made that much more attractive because it’s a lot easier to do that again than to fix yourself when everybody’s against you.
Jesse Cannon: Obviously we’ve heard from Matt that he cares a lot and he really feels some deep passions. But starting your album with a song title like “I Just Don’t Care That Much” kind of gives a different vibe. But here Matt explains it.
Matt Maeson: We came to New York to do some press stuff and some writing sessions and I wrote with some guy, I can’t remember his name, and I left the session feeling very jaded, very like, when you get put into a writing session and it’s just like, “If you put this guy that’s good at writing songs together and this guy that’s good at writing songs, they’re going to make a super song.” And that’s just not how it works and it feels very forced. And I never want my music to feel like that. And I had been in a ton of writing sessions before that in the six months prior to that where I felt the same way, and I was getting exhausted from it. And I was just thinking, “Man, if this is what this is, I don’t want it. I don’t want to do that.”
And I went back to my A&R’s apartment where I was staying and nobody was there and I started writing with the thought of: “I just don’t care that much. I don’t care about writing the next hit, that’s not why I’m doing music. I’m not doing this for money or fame. I’m doing it because I want to write songs that make people feel understood and more so make me feel understood.” Ways that I can write how I’m feeling and kind of…it’s a therapeutic thing where I can write and say how I’m feeling. And I’m like, “Oh wow, that speaks to me.” And so I was just like, yeah you know what? I just don’t care that much about any of this. All I care about is writing these kinds of songs. And then that song came out and I wrote that whole song in 30 minutes.
Matt Maeson — “Bank On The Funeral”
Jesse Cannon: The album closes with a dark, dark tone song “Bank On The Funeral,” which Matt explains here.
Matt Maeson: The song “Bank on the Funeral,” when I wrote that, it was such an emotional song for me. I was just sitting in my bedroom, I hadn’t written anything I really liked in a while, and I just sat there and wrote out that whole song and it just came out. And I was like, “This is the album, the title track.” It has a couple of different meanings. So “Bank On The Funeral,” there was years of my life where I was super depressed and suicidal and I was just like, there were nights that I just did so many drugs that I just hoped I wouldn’t wake up. I mentioned earlier that my uncle was killed in ‘06, in his life, the way he lived his life, and then the impact of his death shaped how I try to navigate my life and my career. And so I bank on that funeral, you know what I mean?
And then now I’m at a point in my life where I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and I have people around me that I really love and they’re people that love me. And so it’s like I’m more scared of death than anything else. Or scared of them dying than anything else. So, it’s more of a bank on the funeral as in, I could check out any moment. So, I’m going to try my best to live my life as good as I can until I do. And so I wanted to just kind of express all of those different definitions throughout these different songs.
Matt Maeson — “I Just Don’t Care That Much”
Jesse Cannon: Lastly, I wanted to talk to some of Matt’s collaborators about what makes him unique. So here’s Derek to talk about that.
Derek Davies: Yeah, I mean, he’s kind of such an incredible backstory and he’s just the realest kid I’ve ever met. Growing up, playing in biker rallies in prisons with his parents who ran a prison ministry is a pretty incredible way to cut your teeth playing live shows. You just hear it in the music, it’s no bullshit. We felt it in the A&R process. We put Matt in the room with a lot of different writers, but all the best songs are the songs that Matt wrote 100% himself. And that’s rare. That’s when you’ve got the real deal. And so this record is really truly Matt’s purest expression at its purest form. And I can also, as someone who was putting Matt in a lot of these rooms, it’s now my turn to say that I was wrong and Matt was right, but that doesn’t mean he was right. It’s been a really long road. But it’s been an amazing journey and totally just beginning.
Jesse Cannon: And here’s James talking about what he thinks makes Matt unique.
James Flannigan: It’s almost like, it’s always cool to listen to Matt’s story or any other stories he’s got, because it’s really is a classic stranger than fiction situation. But Matt is so in touch with the combination of his story, his background, his soul and his lyrical vernacular is so intertwined. I’ve got complete faith that through all of his ups and downs, he’s going to be creative and write great music. And it’s one of my criteria as a producer that I work with someone that’s got their own lyrical vernacular. Without that we’re really struggling to paint a picture and he paints such a vivid picture. Throughout all the technical issues I have had, he made this just so easy by presenting himself in the room so transparently and it’s not through like music production rule that we decided to do the vocals first on all the songs.
It’s because he pulls his heart out so consistently and so honestly, that a lot of these songs are one take. It’s the first take and we’ll add few bits here and now later on. A lot of them are the fifth take and then we’ve gone back to the first take because he’s just the most in the moment visceral kind of performer I’ve ever come across. And that’s just such a luxury. You just made my job like now I’m suddenly taking credit for you. I’m taking credit for the amazing thing that you laid down and I’m just going to follow. And that’s when I feel really excited about an artist.
Matt is one of those artists where his production and his sonics can change throughout the years, but I think people will recognize his personality is the thread. And that’s a great position to be in, especially like when the world is so production heavy these days, especially in alternative music. He could do any project and that same energy and soul transfer. So, it’s a luxury and I’m really honored to work with this guy.
Jesse Cannon: Thank you for listening. You can find all the episodes of Inside the Album on your favorite podcast app.
Matt Maeson’s “Bank On The Funeral” is out now.