There aren’t very many singers like Matt Patershuk around anymore. There probably weren’t very many to begin with. It’s true that, if you look at it in a certain way, there’s not a heckuva lot new about listening to a man accompanying himself on a guitar and singing his heart out. Well, it may not be anything new, but in today’s music it’s definitely something rare.
You’d have to go a long way back to find another singer and performer that reminded you of Matt Patershuk. You’d have to go past all the singer songwriters you’ve heard in the last few decades, through Jason Isobel, Mac Demarco, past acoustic, moody Beck where you’d sidle up along some old rough diamonds from Waylon Jennings or Kris Kristofferson. That’d bring you pretty close.
What’s different about Matt Patershuk is that when most singers sing about the kind of subjects and experiences he does, as good as they may be, they’re interpreting, their music creating a subtle distance between them and what they sing about. When you hear Patershuk, you’re not immediately amazed by the rhyme, melody and metaphor in his work. Instead, you feel the raw humanity, the reserve, the dirt of the land from the hands that wrote the lyrics down.
It’s hard to describe Matt Patershuk’s music accurately or in a way that does it justice; comparisons rarely work, but to take a stab, there’s a vibe that runs through the songs on ‘I Was So Fond Of You’ that is reminiscent of the music Ian Tyson made when he left the city to go back to live in rural Alberta. Patershuk’s music shines with that kind of authenticity, but his music is rougher, less smoothed over than Tyson’s. Nothing watered down. Patershuk’s music has a sound that you can only communicate when you never left the land to begin with.
Matt Patershuk is a rural singer, a prairie philosopher, and a rough-shod poet. If he were a builder, his constructions would be blessed with strong foundations and clean, simple lines. Nothing fancy and no unnecessary frills. Patershuk has lived on a sprawling rural property near La Glace, Alberta for the past decade or so. The property, with its original buildings and vintage weathered horse barns, perfectly reflects the atmosphere that he shares in his music. As if to prove that there’s no easy ride in life – especially if you want to play the kind of music that he does – Matt spends his days working for a local bridge building company. When I caught up with him recently to talk about his new album, he was on a lunch break and construction sounds could be heard through our entire conversation. We laughed, as the crashing, banging and hammering sounds in the background made my planned first question, ‘Are you a fulltime musician?’ redundant. One quickly gets the sense that as much as he might wish that were true, Patershuk has no feelings of regret about the life he’s chosen. He admits, ‘I love to sing and play and I love to go on tour. I never get to do either of those things as much as I’d like. I play lots of weekend gigs, mostly to Edmonton or Calgary, but I try to get out further when I can. In total, I guess I get out about a month a year. It’s what I love to do, so I have always made ways to fit in music, somehow. I have to burn the candle at both ends to do it, but, like I said, I have to make time to do this kind of thing. Nothing feels right if I don’t. I’m not a fulltime artist, but I take what I do as seriously as anyone else does.”
‘I Was So Fond Of You’ is Matt Patershuk’s second full length album, and like his debut, ‘Lights Of This Town’, it was produced by Steve Dawson, the Canadian guitarist and roots music legend, this time at his newly refurbished Black Hen studio in Nashville. Patershuk remembers the experience fondly. “Going to Nashville was amazing. And, to go and work with Steve down there was my dream scenario. The first album we recorded in Vancouver and that was great, but to be in Nashville with world-class musicians sitting two tables away at the tiny club you just walked into. To have the access to some of those great musicians and to have the experience of playing with them was just so amazing. I can’t believe how fortunate I was to play with all of those folks. And, best of all was Steve. He’s got such a wonderful ear and such interesting musical ideas that always fit in with what’s going on. On top of that he’s a very generous guy and very easy to get along with – which was essential on a project like this.”
The results speak for themselves, and it shouldn’t take anyone very long to hear the huge musical growth between Pattershuk’s first and second albums. As promising as ‘Lights Of This Town’ was, ‘I Was So Fond Of You’ is in another league, and is that rare kind of record whose songs transform personal experience into something vital and universal that goes far beyond the particular experiences they describe.
Most of the songs on ‘I Was So Fond Of You’ are a tribute to Matt’s sister, Clare who was killed by a drunk driver in a road accident a few years ago. Like Matt, Clare loved music, and for the album he set out to record songs that were both about her and also reflected the type of music she loved. He gave an example. “Clare and I both really loved Ana Egge’s music, and it was such a thrill that she came in and sang backups on a few of the songs. Clare would have loved that. I can remember her listening in rapture to Ana’s music. And, it’s funny. You know, I don’t usually think of who’s listening to my songs. If I thought about that, I would be paralyzed.’ I asked him if not thinking about his listeners made it easier for him to compose such raw and personal music. He replied, “Songs really affect you in a way that an actual event wouldn’t. I think it’s because they poke you somewhere in your hindbrain that isn’t behind a wall of rational thought. For me, the beauty of a song is that it’s always partly truth and partly fiction. You can take certain liberties with the stories you’re telling. My little shield if things get too close to the bone is that I can say that what I write is not real life.’
I remarked that the songs about Clare came from real life, and I wondered if the process of writing them helped to come to terms with her passing. Matt was silent for a moment and then offered, ‘to do art properly, you have to expose yourself. In real life, I’m not a great emotional sharer. These songs have a lot of stuff that I would never say or tell people, even people that are close to me. When I started this project, I really wanted to write a song as a tribute to Clare. I had a few false starts. You know, I delivered her eulogy at her funeral and I had planned to have a song ready for that, but I wasn’t ready. It was too close. I had to wait for that. For me, the best stuff has always come when I don’t work for it. When I try really hard, sometimes nothing happens. When ideas come to me, they often seem as if they come from out of the blue. I respect that and try to get down as much as I can while the inspiration allows. Then, when I have an idea, I go to a quiet place to write and work on it.”
Over time, and with less conscious effort, ideas for songs began to come to Matt, often while he was involved with other things. “I couldn’t think of anything else after Clare died. It seemed so wrong. I went through everything from anger to resignation. In the end, nearly all the songs on the album are about her. Of course there’s the title – ‘I Was So Fond Of You’, but a lot of the songs come back to her. The character in ‘Little Guitar’ has lost her brother and is trying to recover from that. At that time, I don’t think I could have written about anything else and made it any good.’
And, ‘I Was So Fond Of You’ is good. Really, really good. But, be ready and be warned. You’d have to be made of stone not to choke up a little as you listen. And, more to the point, you’d also have to be made of stone not to appreciate such honest, true and bighearted music. You’re not going to hear anything more real anywhere in 2016 as ‘I Was So Fond Of you.’ Guaranteed.