Prior to landing at Neon Gold and Atlantic Records, Matt Maeson honed his skills on some daunting stages. As part of his family’s ministry, he played “songs about salvation” at prisons, and “in front of strippers and Hell’s Angels at Sturgis, one of the biggest motorcycle rallies in the world.” There was plenty in between, but eventually, his first songs would go online in 2015 and 2016.
We pick up the story with his 2018 release, “The Hearse,” while Maeson also discusses his admiration for fellow songwriter Andy Hull, his surprising love of Troye Sivan, and how he ended up in Nicaragua, writing some of that EP.
Intro: Hello and welcome to What’d I Say, where Atlantic Records talks with artists about songs they made, songs they like and songs they liked to have made. It’s an inside look into the craft of songs from the artists themselves. Long before Matt Maeson ended up in our Atlantic Podcast Studio, he was already a well-traveled musician playing tour dates at prisons, biker rallies and more, as part of his family’s ministry. Cutting his teeth on these daunting stages not only honed his skills but left a young singer-songwriter with a vast array of life experiences to draw upon.
His story is one of triumph and redemption, recovering from drug use and lost connections, and equipped for this rise with an unwavering, honest voice. He brought that voice to acclaimed summer music festivals Lollapalooza, Bonaroo and BottleRock, while selling out headlining dates in New York City, Chicago and L.A. We spoke with the Atlantic Records and Neon Gold artist fresh off the release of his 2018 EP, “The Hearse,” about breaking away from Christian rock, his unique connection with fellow front man Andy Hull, and about traveling to Nicaragua for songwriting inspiration. “The Hearse” is available everywhere, while hit song “Cringe” recently crossed 28 million worldwide streams.
Jesse Cannon: What was your first favorite song?
Matt Maeson: Well, I mean I was raised on a lot of Christian music because my parents wouldn’t let me listen to secular music.
Jesse Cannon: What was the thing that broke you out of that, then?
Matt Maeson: Linkin Park. That was my shit, man. “Numb” by Linkin Park was like, I had that on repeat for a really long time.
Jesse Cannon: What do you think it was about that song that made it the first one that clicked with you, out at the Christian thing?
Matt Maeson: I don’t know. I just loved that style of music, like screamo, rap kind of stuff.
Jesse Cannon: Yeah, some people get lucky and they hit 13 years old, and its Nirvana and some people get Limp Bizkit.
Matt Maeson: Yeah. And I was just like a little emo kid too.
Jesse Cannon: Nice. What type of emo stuff was it?
Matt Maeson: I mean Linkin Park kind of stuff.
Jesse Cannon: How about the first song you ever memorized?
Matt Maeson: First song I ever memorized. I would probably say it was a Relient K song. Actually, no. It was probably like a worship song at church. But probably, a Relient K song because I was super into them when I was younger.
Jesse Cannon: And they’re kinda Christian too, am I right, if I remember?
Matt Maeson: Yeah. Yeah.
Jesse Cannon: What was the first song mesh album you remember buying?
Matt Maeson: I remember trying to buy AFI’s, whatever “Miss Murder” is on, I can’t remember what that-
Jesse Cannon: “Sing the Sorrow,” or no, no, no. Maybe the one after that.
Matt Maeson: Yeah. I can’t remember the name of it, but I remember begging my dad to let me buy this album, and he was like, “No.” So that’s the first album I remember not buying. I think it was a Pillar album, a band called Pillar.
Note: The AFI album is called “Decemberunderground.”
Jesse Cannon: I don’t know them. What are they like?
Matt Maeson: It’s another Christian band.
Jesse Cannon: Oh, okay.
Matt Maeson: And then once I got out of all the Christian stuff and started finding music that I really liked, I think it was Eminem’s “Relapse.”
Jesse Cannon: Oh, okay. Was there a specific song of yours that you felt like it took your writing to the next level, that when you wrote it you’re like oh, I’m starting to come into being with myself?
Matt Maeson: Yeah, I would probably say I wrote, the first song that I really put out under Matt Maeson was called “Melons.” It’s only on SoundCloud. That was such a different song for me. It was more like jazzy kind of chords, and that’s kinda what broke me away from the kind of emo. I used to write a lot of emo, kinda Linkin Park sounding stuff, and that’s what broke me out of writing in that mindset and realizing that I could write any kind of way that I want. Then the next song I wrote after that was “Gravediggers.”
Jesse Cannon: So, was it a conscious decision, or was it more like you fumbled on the chords one day? What happened with that?
Matt Maeson: I started listening to a lot of King Krule, who I love, and I just started learning a lot of the chords that he was using, and then I was like oh, man I can mess around with this style of stuff, too, and so yeah, just ended up writing a couple songs with that kind of vibe to it, and then, yeah.
Jesse Cannon: What would we be surprised to find out is a musical influence of yours that’s not Linkin Park?
Matt Maeson: There’s a lot of different artists that I look at that I don’t necessarily, that you wouldn’t assume that I would like that. Like the style of music. A big one right now is Troye Sivan. Any of my friends would be like you have no business liking that, like they wouldn’t think I would, but I think he’s just doing a pop music really, really well and authentic.
Jesse Cannon: What was the most recent song you discovered, and had to share with friends, that you were like this is fuckin amazing.
Matt Maeson: Let me take a gander at my library. I’ve been listening to a lot of this guy called Yellow Days.
Jesse Cannon: I don’t know of him.
Matt Maeson: He’s really, really dope. Oh, this guy Hamilton Leithauser.
Jesse Cannon: Oh yeah, the singer with the Walkmen?
Matt Maeson: Yep. And he did this project with Rostam from Vampire Weekend, and there’s a song called “When The Truth Is,” and that song is just, I’ve had that song on repeat for so long. I love that song.
Jesse Cannon: Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs in public? Has that happened yet?
Matt Maeson: I did hear it in a bar in London, which was like, it was super weird. I was playing a show there, but it wasn’t the night that I was playing, so we were just there, and I heard it playing and I was just like oh, shit. That’s my song. But I here it’s plays in the Apple Store, and Abercrombie & Fitch and stuff like that, but I haven’t been in there yet while it’s playing.
Jesse Cannon: Are you one of those people of your generation that has feelings about Abercrombie & Fitch playing that stuff? Is that a good thing or a bad thing to you?
Matt Maeson: Oh, I don’t care, man. Play what you want, man. The more you play my music, the more it gets out there.
Jesse Cannon: What are the elements of other songs that you tend to gravitate to first? Are you more of a lyrics, music, melody? What really usually gets you about stuff? What are you obsessed with lately?
Matt Maeson: I think it’s a mixture of all of it. There’s a lot of songs that I love because the melody just catches me, and the lyrics kinda suck. And then vice versa. But I don’t know, it just depends on the state of mind that I’m in when I’m listening to it, and if it just catches my ear, especially that song I just talked about, “When The Truth Is,” by Hamilton Leithauser. The lyrics are great to that song, but the melody is like, it just brings me right in.
Jesse Cannon: Is there anything you tend to gravitate towards in lyrics that really gets to you? Is there anything you identify with from that?
Matt Maeson: As far as music from my repertoire?
Jesse Cannon: Like yeah, other people, like is there anything that you’re like, I love a turn of phrase like this?
Matt Maeson: I’m big into, my all-time inspiration is Andy Hull, from a band called Manchester Orchestra.
Jesse Cannon: Yeah, I’ve mastered some of that Bad Book stuff.
Matt Maeson: Oh, really? Oh, man.
Jesse Cannon: Yeah. I’m a huge Manchester fan too.
Matt Maeson: Hell yeah, man. They’re awesome. But he also has a side project called Right Away, Great Captain! And that is, I mean I’m sure you have that question on there, but that’s my favorite album of all time, is The Church of the Good Thief. That is such an amazing album. But I’d say considering he was a pastor’s kid and I’m a pastor’s kid, there’s a lot of faith based stuff and a lot of the confusion and struggle with that being raised in it, and then having to realize what it is for yourself. So I’d say a lot of the songs that I gravitate to emotionally, the lyrics are kind of in that realm of-
Jesse Cannon: Biblical allusions?
Matt Maeson: Yeah, yeah.
Jesse Cannon: Has it affected your singing style at all? Is that what you’re saying, I hear that you like Andy Hull, I’m like oh, I hear some similarities in your voice to his.
Matt Maeson: Yeah, I tend to like, when I get really obsessed with the artist, there’ll be different phrases or ways I’ll say words differently, and I won’t even think about it. I’ll just start doing it, and I remember when I started getting really obsessed with them, I started sounding so much like him, like some of the phrases I would say. So I had to kinda pull back, like realize that was happening. But that was also before I was really confident in my voice and how I sing things. So now, it’s just an afterthought, but yeah.
Jesse Cannon: So is that a thing that you go through a lot? Sometimes you’re like, oh, this influence is seeping into you hard, I gotta get away from that?
Matt Maeson: Not anymore, because that’s what music is supposed to do.
Jesse Cannon: So how about when you create, like if you’re writing or you’re in the studio, I know there’s some people who really are like, oh, I gotta listen to stuff to get inspired the whole time, or some people are like I’ve got to do a cleanse of music, and I gotta stay away from it. Does any of that happen for you?
Matt Maeson: No, not really, man. I listen to less music than I used to just because I’m so busy, and also I live in L.A. now, and I don’t own a car, and I would just drive all the time when I was in Virginia and listen to music. And I also don’t follow anybody on Twitter, and I don’t really use social media to look at stuff either, so any music-
Jesse Cannon: So what’s the reason behind that?
Matt Maeson: It’s because people are so fuckin negative and it’s just annoying, man. Everybody thinks they’re the most important person in the world, and their opinion is this, and so it just gets annoying, and I think it’s distracting for anybody for what they want to stay focused on. But answer? Yeah, I don’t see as much of the, like I don’t think I could name one song in the top 50 right now. Everything in my library is just from things that I’ve searched for, which I think is the best way to find music. No, not really, man. I tend to find, rather than listen through whole albums now, I’ll find a song and I’ll just have that song on repeat for a day. But yeah, no real process to that, no.
Jesse Cannon: What’s a song that no matter how many times you’ve heard it, you’ll stop whatever you’re doing just to hear it again?
Matt Maeson: I think it just depends on how often I’ve heard that song, but “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd is a big one. Or just anytime I’m in public and I hear Johnny Cash playing, I’ll just like, stop. Yeah, those are two big ones.
Jesse Cannon: Do you have a guilty pleasure thing, something that you’re a little embarrassed to tell people that you really enjoy?
Matt Maeson: As an artist, or just in-
Jesse Cannon: Yeah, just as an artist, or a song.
Matt Maeson: The new James Bay record, honestly, is very heart throb-ey, but I love, there’s a song on it called “Pink Lemonade” that’s so sick.
Jesse Cannon: What is one of the songs that gives you goosebumps every time you hear it?
Matt Maeson: “Fix You” by Coldplay, obviously. It’s also one of the things that I really love about Andy Hull’s writing and Manchester Orchestra is it’s very, I’ll hear lyric, I still have the album, Simple Math. I still will listen to that and hear new lyrics that I’ll be like, oh, man. Damn, that’s heavy. And I love music like that, that’s got so much packed into it, that every time you listen, you hear something new.
Jesse Cannon: Can you tell me some other records that you feel that way about?
Matt Maeson: Simple Math, obviously, and then Church of the Good Thief, Grace by Jeff Buckley.
Jesse Cannon: Your go-to karaoke song?
Matt Maeson: I can never remember the name of it, but it’s the “I wanna know what love is” (singing). That song is fire.
Jesse Cannon: But that song is like, I listen to a lot of your stuff, but I was like, that doesn’t sound like that’s your key.
Matt Maeson: That song is fire, dude. That song kills at karaoke, too. That one and then the “I’ve been waiting for so long for someone to come along…” (singing).
Jesse Cannon: Yeah. That one as well. Is there any story you can tell me from recording your EP about inside the process?
Matt Maeson: Well, most of it was recorded with my buddy, James Flannigan, who produces all my stuff-
Jesse Cannon: What else has James worked on?
Matt Maeson: James has worked on, his first big record was Kodaline, their big song, and then he’s worked with Andrew McMahon from Jack’s Mannequin, he’s worked with LPX who is from MS MR, who was also the co-owner of Neon Gold Records, who I’m signed with. But yeah, we just record everything in his studio, but we did for Hallucinogenics, I wanted to go out and work with this guy named Simone Felice, and so we went-
Jesse Cannon: Did you go up there, to Upstate?
Matt Maeson: We went to Upstate in the Catskills to record Hallucinogenics, and it was really cool to just get out of L.A. and get out of the studio there, and just go up to the mountains, middle of nowhere, and have a different vibe, a clear head about things. So we recorded that, and then another song that you’ll probably be hearing in the future, but yeah.
Jesse Cannon: Nice. And so going up to the mountains, was that kinda the same thing of how the social media thing is not working for you so you want to-
Matt Maeson: Yeah, just kinda getting away from any distraction, and focusing on what we’re doing.
Jesse Cannon: So is there any cool story of creation or anything fun that happened in the studio? Any story you can tell me from the making of the record?
Matt Maeson: Well, pretty much all the songs I wrote on my own except for, well, “The Hearse” we did, we wrote that in Nicaragua.
Jesse Cannon: Oh, wow.
Matt Maeson: I did a writing camp out there, and James Flannigan was there.
Jesse Cannon: So, we’re at a writer’s camp in Nicaragua.
Matt Maeson: It’s this place called Maderas Village that Neon Gold does a writing camp, a couple writing camps every year, and it’s just a beautiful resort and you just stay in huts, and they have five different makeshift studios that they set up. They bring a bunch of producers along, a bunch of top liners and a bunch of writers, and I wrote “The Hearse” with this guy, Chris Griswold from, or no, Chris Whitehall from the Griswolds, and James Flannigan, and we just wrote it in a little hut in Nicaragua, sweating buckets, but yeah.
Jesse Cannon: That sounds fun, though. What do you see yourself doing in the future? Do you think you’re always going to get away and be reclusive, or does the city sometimes inspire you as well?
Matt Maeson: I think it’s a mixture of both, for sure, because it’s all relative to how much time you’re spending in whatever environment. If I was up in the Catskills for two months, I’d be like, I want to go to the city. But I do really like getting away and just getting away from any kind of entertainment or anything that’s going to cloud my head.
Jesse Cannon: Is there any song that you’ve heard recently that really inspired any song you’ve written?
Matt Maeson: Mondo Cozmos’ record.
Jesse Cannon: I’m not-
Matt Maeson: Oh, you should check it out. It’s really tight. It’s got kinda like a Bob Dylan-ey sounding kind of voice, but it’s more alternative kind of stuff. He did a song called “Hold Onto Me” that definitely inspired some stuff for me. It inspired a song I have called “Straight Razor,” which has a similar vibe and sound to it.
Jesse Cannon: Is there any unknown artist that you could hip the audience to, that you’d say everybody should check out?
Matt Maeson: My buddy, Roswell Fitzroy. He’s been making stuff with me since we were 15. He designed all my artwork, and then all my merch. He designed a couple of my tattoos. He has a project too and it’s just like, it can’t even be classified by genre, it’s so crazy. But he just released an EP called “Zeus,” that I think people should check out. It’s my artist’s pick on Spotify.
Outro: Thanks to Matt Maeson for coming on What’d I Say. Visit mattmaeson.com for more information. That’s M-A-T-T-M-A-E-S-O-N. Our theme music is by Max Frost. Be sure and catch up on all the Atlantic Records podcasts at atlanticpodcasts.com. Thank you for listening.