By Randy MacNeil & Bill Barclay - Facebook | Website
It was decided that the photographs and interviews conducted and captured over many years were much too important not to be out in the public domain. This is the first of many great moments we had the privilege to document in spoken word and on film.
This interview occurred in February of 2010 at Ottawa’s Centerpointe Theater, Canada. This is part one conducted by Bill Barclay accompanied by stills shot by Randy MacNeil during the chat and from Matt's performance.
MATT ANDERSEN INTERVIEW -- UNCUT
Interviewer: Bill Barclay
Photographer: Randy MacNeil
Bill: This is Bill Barclay for Savoir Faire Canadiana and I am here tonight with Matt Andersen, at the Centrepointe Theatre in Ottawa. Matt is the recent winner of the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Matt, you grew up in New Brunswick and it strikes me as being very much like areas of Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, its rural people make music at home, in the local church halls, is that how you got into music?
Matt: Yeah definitely, I came from a musical family, it's part of what we do there. It’s not like you consciously say you’re going to become a musician, you just kind of get up and you are a musician, I guess. Every time my family got together there was always music. It was a big part of the community, that’s the main thing I’d say about that. It’s not something, you don’t just wake up and want to be a guitar player, I guess because you’ve seen it on TV, I really wasn’t thinking like that, but you’re around music.
Bill: Did your parents play?
Matt: Yup! My Mum, my Dad didn’t, my brothers, my grandfather played so that’s where I started out in music, before I ever started out in school, a school program or anything like that.
Bill: Mainly Country influences?
Matt: Country, lots of East Coast fiddle stuff, I grew up on that. My grandfather was a fiddle player, so I played a lot of that, lots of old Baptist hymns, everything really.
Bill: Very similar to Tennessee, Kentucky.
Matt: Yeah, and of course my brothers were into classic rock, all kinds of stuff.
Bill: And then after awhile, did you go the regular route, in a rock band?
Matt: When I first started out we were doing East Coast kind of traditional, Irish, Scottish and English music and then still there was some classic rock stuff in the pubs. I did that for a couple of years and I realized that I wanted to get out of the bar scene, so I started writing. So as far as getting into blues first, I guess I was like a lot of people, getting into Eric Clapton, B.B and Stevie Ray, the guys who were more mainstream, Jeff Healey too, and then...
Bill: And then you went backwards?
Matt: Yup! Pretty much, I just started looking at their albums and listening and learning.
Bill: We (in Canada) didn’t grow up with the blues around us, but the only country that Robert Johnson ever played in other than the States, was Canada. One night up near Windsor, Ontario he and Johnny Shines crossed the border and played a gig. Did you go right back to real traditional blues, or say the Muddy Waters Chicago...?
Matt: Oh, all that stuff, I’ve tried to get myself as open to all the stuff as I can, Texas, Chicago and the Piedmont stuff too, anything; I love all the different aspects of all of it. My style of playing is mostly a Piedmont or Delta style of playing, acoustic, picking, that kind of stuff.
Bill: Do you play slide?
Matt: Yup! Yeah, play a little bit of slide.
Bill: Charley Patten and those really early Delta guys. Do you listen to any of that now?
Matt: Definitely, I still listen to all those guys and that’s where it all originated from. You’ve got to check all that stuff out, if you didn’t you’d be denying yourself quite a bit there.
Bill: Now in your act you still do covers of blues.
Matt: Oh, yeah definitely.
Bill: But you’ve also added a whole singer/songwriter component to your work.
Matt: As I said, I grew up with all different kinds of music, so just doing one kind of thing on stage doesn’t really appeal to me, you know, I think those old blues guys they were the same way too. You know, you see clips of Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee and Pete Seeger sitting side by side and swapping tunes and you realize when they do stuff like that, that they are very close.
Bill: Robert Johnson used to play whatever the people wanted that night, he would even play Mexican music.
Matt: They were working musicians, they weren’t tied up... I’m a blues musician and nothing else, they just wanted to work, so it’s all music in the end, and I just like playing, good songs, different moods and some songs should be blues songs, some songs should be pretty and that kind of thing.
Bill: Fred James, who is a producer down in Nashville, who does a lot of stuff with older blues men told me that for musicians, music is not in categories, it’s a continuum and it is much more the critics and writers who tend to plot it. Musicians just tend to play it.
Matt: It’s always hard, people often ask me what type of music I play. There’s all kinds of different stuff in there, I wouldn’t... people ask me to narrow it down and I never know what to say. I grew up on this....
Bill: I was listening to some of your stuff the other day and something I noticed, is that your harp player is playing what they call in the Delta the keen end of the harp, he’s on the high end of the harp a lot.
Matt: Mike Stevens is playing that and he’s all over the place Mike grew up in Sarnia, so a lot of his influences are the blues from Detroit. He’s also down in Nashville a
lot so he’s on the bluegrass circuit there.
Bill: What made you decide to go down south to try that venue, which is very odd for a musician because music is not competitive.
Matt: Well I didn’t pay any attention to the competition thing, I just went down and treated it like any other show, I didn’t get caught up in that, I just went down and played, I didn’t focus on the whole competition thing. Really the idea of going down was to break into the States a little bit, so we wanted to go down but I didn’t worry too much about competing with other bands. But other (Canadian) bands went down like Monkey Junk and lots of other bands so I just figured I’d go and get to meet lots of people and get the whole thing going.
Bill: I go down quite often to Clarksdale, Mississippi and Helena, Arkansas: its the same sort of scene, its very much a mixing scene, people from all over the world and trade, I mean they are usually people who are in the blues world in some way or another, bookers, agents, writers, musicians, its almost like a convention.
Matt: Yeah, its pretty much what that was in Memphis, a way to meet people, just a networking thing, that’s what I focused on more, going down.
Bill: Did you go further south or did you have time to go further south, into Mississippi and stuff.
Matt: No, didn’t have time. Some of my buddies went down to Clarksdale and hung around and did a bar gig with Watermelon Slim.
Bill: You have a really rich, solid soulful voice, and you do a cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine”, the Bill Withers song and what struck me about it is that you seem to be fluid in what you can do. You have enough vocal gifts that you can go a bunch of places, you can get hard, you can get soft and your guitar playing allows you to go where you want to go as well. You’re not restricted and when you write. I know you write some songs, with the first line, second repeated, then finished, the old classic blues format but on other songs you go all over the place.
Matt: Yeah I just feel the influence of stuff, what I like, I never sit down and think I’m going to write a blues song, a songwriter kind of song, a folksong, a country song, I just write ‘em, the lyrics and the mood musically determines more what the song is going to be like for me.
Bill: There’s a song you did; “When My Angel Gets the Blues” it’s not a blues song in format but it is certainly a blues song in feel.
Matt: Yeah, in feel and also lyrically, its not traditional as far as format goes at all.
Bill: No. But blues is in a process of evolving and in a way...
Matt: According to most people who are hardcore blues nuts, they really think it shouldn’t change and at the same time with me, I agree with that, you’ve got to be in homage to that but you also have to change.
Bill: That song reminds me of a Steve Earle song, “My Old Friend the Blues”. It just has that same sort of feel.
Matt: Yeah, I love that. I do that in my show, a lot.
Bill: You do?
Matt: Yeah. I love that, guys like Steve Earle, they got a good thing going on.
Bill; Now, he’s not a blues singer, essentially. He’s an East Texas country guy, right.
Matt: You can feel the background of the blues in some of his songs, especially when he gets into the lyrics.
Bill: The blues guys talk about that depression thing and say in a way it’s not meant to expression depression but it is an emotion to cope with depression or depressing circumstances.
Matt: Somebody who gave me flak asked me, because they had all these quotes saying blues is best when you are sad and all this kind of stuff, but to me it’s more like a celebration, like an overcoming of adversity kind of thing. That’s all the blues too, people used these tunes to deal with that kind of thing, to get it out in the open.
Bill: And especially in a rural place like the Delta, in a situation where musicians weren’t well educated and didn’t really have outlets, so it came out that way. Another thing, you are a showman. You put on a show. You’re an entertainer, as opposed to just sitting there with your guitar and making contact, I mean you do that as well.
Matt: Well I try to put out what I would like to see or hear.
Bill: You know, that right back in the beginning of the blues, Charley Patten, he’d play with his teeth, behind his back, throw it up in the air, catch it, set it on fire, he did everything that Jimi Hendrix forty years later, you know, in 1928 in the Delta.
Matt: Oh yeah! I had a friend back home who always used to say, if you pay two bits to see the high diving act, you want to see the high diving act. And especially if I’m up there by myself, it’d be a pretty long night just to watch a guy with his head down playing, so you got to give ‘em just a little bit more, its not like I’m putting it on, it’s pretty natural what I’m doing up there.
Bill: Yeah it must be cuz it’s tough to fake that one. Its got to be in you. And you run into all sorts of really gifted musicians who don’t have that particular gift.
Matt: It makes a big difference you know, it’s a big line for a lot of people to cross, people really catch onto that.
Bill: You’re on Busted Flat records, what do you think is your most bluesy album.
Matt: The last alive album, it’s kind of a mixture of all my stuff.
Bill: The way you approach an audience when you come out, you play at different places, you’ve done the Olympics, that must have been a party audience, tonight it’s more a concert audience.
Matt: Yeah, sometimes you have to hit an audience a little bit harder, you sit back and play the prettier songs all the time, I give them some of the high energy stuff, it’s a lot of fun. I grew up in bars so I used to do it every night.
Bill: In the area you grew up, it’s a lot like the rural south, I mean it’s potato country, farming country.
Matt: Farmers and the highway.
Bill: So you would have played all the local bars up and down the Saint John River valley.
Matt: Yeah, I started out in the local public hall and just moved on to bigger scenes and bigger scenes. I play music about four nights a week.
Bill: Playing for ten people and then having word of mouth bring twenty-four next time is a common start and playing in Memphis or a hall like tonight allow you to reach a bigger audience quicker.
Matt: Definitively, we did the Stuart MacLean show recently, for CBC, and that was a really big plus for us. That was really a great way to play for forty-five thousand people in a one month period. It was way better than going after it.
Bill: Did you get festival work after winning in Memphis.
Matt: Yeah we have them set up over the summer. I’m looking forward to Blues Cruise. We have a gig at Ground Zero in Memphis.
Bill: So it’s happened.
Matt: Definitely. It was a really great way to break into that scene down there, give it a jump start, make the going easier.
Bill: That audience doesn’t really recognize the rich blues variety that is up here in Canada.
Matt: There were entries from right across Canada, and they were I think shocked that a Canadian won, that somebody from that far north and even heard the blues.
Bill: Let alone walk in and win.
PART TWO COMING SOON
Recorded October 2009 at the Pearl Theatre, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia