Though singles-driven streaming platforms and curated playlists continue to dominate the manner in which most people consume their music, the album remains a significant benchmark for artistic achievement. A body of work built to stand the test of time or perhaps fade away into oblivion, only to be rediscovered by a crate-digging record hound decades down the line. An album represents a personal statement, a signifier of emotions and ideas much greater than the individual or group responsible for creating it. It is a timestamp for a series of passing moments that become immortalized in song.
Of particular significance is the debut album. The first chance for an artist to make an impression or say something of substance. What makes a debut album so unique compared to the records someone makes throughout the course of their career, is that the artist has spent their whole life creating it. From their childhood to their adolescence and early adulthood, a summation of their life experiences inevitably manifests onto that first project.
For songwriter Matthew J. Ross, those experiences stretch back across several cities and multiple coastlines. Born near Houston, Texas, Ross cut his teeth as a musician in the thriving scenes around Austin during his college years. Down the road, his endeavors took him to Pittsburgh and eventually, Montreal, where he now resides with his wife and newborn son.
In early 2019, hundreds of miles from his hometown and the network of players and producers he’d formed over his career as a musician, Ross holed up inside the attic of his Pennsylvania home to work on a new batch of songs he had written. As the parts began to fall into place, he soon realized he had the makings of a full-length album. He tracked and tinkered until he knew he had taken each song as far as it could go without the help of other musicians. His next course of action then became building a band.
Over the next several months, Ross retraced his musical routes and linked up with old friends and past collaborators in New York and Texas. Session by session and piece by piece, his songs came to life. With a diverse cast of instrumentalists and recording specialists, Ross watched as the material he first started putting together inside his house blossomed into his first album, All of These Things Go On Without You, which he self-released in December of last year.
Equally indebted to Nashville’s countrypolitan crooners of the ’50s and ’60s and the neotraditionalist wave of the late 20th century, Ross’ debut is a soft and serene helping of heartfelt Americana ballads fueled by personal memories and existential ruminations. In absorbing the record’s quietly twangy aesthetic and simplistic songwriting, it would appear easy to connect the dots between Ross’ musical style and his upbringing in the lone star state. Yet in spite of being surrounded by swaths of country music history and culture throughout his youth, it wasn’t until recent years that he warmed up to the musical values and ideologies of the almighty three chords and truth.
“Growing up in Texas, country music is sort of like a background element. When you’re an angsty teenager or in your early twenties, it doesn’t feel authentic or raw,” he says. “But there’s a directness to it. It wasn’t until recently that I really embraced it. They’re allowed to be kind of corny, that’s part of the art form.”
From cover to cover, Ross’ adoration for the sounds of old and new school country vocalists comes out in full effect. “A Hundred Lifetimes” echoes the infectious allure of George Strait’s signature love songs with a raw and unpolished charm, while “I Can Tell From the Look in Your Eyes” dwells on the despair of a doomed relationship with the strut of a classic George Jones heartbreaker. He injects genuine pathos into somber cuts like “When You Were Around” and presents a philosophical component within the lyrics of contemplative songs like “Wherever You Go, There You Are” and “Go On, Go On.” Ross consistently channels the best of his musical influences with great detail and tunefulness, all while exploring his emotional inventory with thorough sincerity.
Nearly a year after its release, All of These Things Go On Without You is now available on vinyl via Bandcamp. With his first album under his belt, Matt Ross has his eyes set on LP number two, which he says will likely be another country record. As for when his next project will surface, that is yet to be determined. With the pandemic still in effect and touring off the table for the foreseeable future, Ross figures to be at home with his family when the next creative spark strikes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, the last time, it all started in an attic.
Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Matt to talk about recording his first album, giving himself permission to write country songs, singing saws, how his church background influenced his art and more. Read their full conversation below.
You recently announced a vinyl run for your album. How does it feel to hold a physical copy of your first record?
Matt: Oh, man. I love it. I don’t have a fan base and this is my first album. I honestly just made it to see what would happen. I’m a dork about vinyl and that was one of the things I knew I would feel great about. At the end of the day, I just wanted a copy for myself. There’s something about records. It feels like a real product, you know? I’m pretty proud of the way it turned out.
You’re based in Montreal, are from Houston, and have deep ties with Austin and Pittsburgh. Out of those cities, is there one place you identify with the most?
Matt: Growing up in the suburbs of Houston – like the most suburb you can get – I always felt out of step with Texas and that whole thing, but it didn’t take long after I moved away for me to feel like I identify more and more as a Texan. I didn’t see that happening to me but I still feel like Houston is my home in a way. That’s where my family is. That’s where so many of my formative experiences were. Houston and Austin – that was really when I got into playing music and it’s such a music town that everybody you know is in three different bands and is playing every night. It was just such a rich experience.
The songs on this record are indebted to that old school era of country crooners, as well as the neotraditionalist wave of the ’80s and ’90s. What initially drew you to writing country songs? Did being from Texas inform that part of your musical identity?
Matt: Growing up in Texas, country music is sort of like a background element. Even if you’re not a fan you know the words to “Friends in Low Places” and David Allan Coe songs. But I never took it seriously as an art form until years later. It’s kind of hokey, and when you’re an angsty teenager or in your early twenties, it doesn’t feel authentic or raw. In more recent years, even going back to Garth Brooks or Randy Travis, stuff that I really grew up on, you realize a song is a song, and there’s just some fucking great songs. They’re allowed to be kind of corny, that’s part of the art form. It wasn’t until recently that I really embraced it.
Do you think part of it is that you resonate more with the “simple” tropes of country music now that you’re older?
Matt: For sure. The essence of country music is there’s a directness to it. There’s no lyrical ambiguity. The quintessential country lines like ‘I’m so lonesome I could cry’ – it’s such a plain statement, it almost seems mundane. It’s not terribly poetic or anything like that, but then you hear it in a song and you’re like yeah, there’s no mistaking what this guy is going through right now. There’s a dichotomy though, because it’s direct and really straightforward lyrically, but then there’s also artifice to it. Like playing dress up, pretending to be a cowboy. Even people who are on their own wavelength not doing super commercial stuff, it still can have a feeling of getting into a character, which I always felt wasn’t true. But again, I think at some point, I’ve come to appreciate the art form. Getting into character is freeing. It lets you tell stories in a different way than how you would sit and talk to to your friends. You’ll say things in songs that you might not say otherwise.
It’s one thing to be a musician but making your own record is an entirely different endeavor. How did you get to the point where you knew you wanted to make an album?
Matt: I feel like this record was a lot about giving myself permission. Giving myself permission to write songs, country songs at that. Early last year, something switched. I realized no one’s going to tell me that I can be a songwriter. If there are songs you want to hear that don’t exist, you have to make them. That’s sort of where it started. I found myself with eight or nine songs that were pretty well finished. I recorded the guitar, bass, and vocals in my attic in Pittsburgh, sat with those for a while and couldn’t get it out of my head. I sent those tracks to a buddy in Brooklyn who recorded drums and that just got the ball rolling. I wanted it to sound like a band, but it wasn’t very “live.” It was pretty disconnected. So, it was fun to hand it off to different people and say, ‘Okay, there’s going to be a fiddle in here at some point. So if you can pretend it’s there and then you come up here.’ It was a fun process.
What were some of the biggest challenges in trying to build the record piece by piece? Was there a turning point where you felt like it was really coming together?
Matt: To me, it was a blast, because I did what I was able to do and from then on, it was all just getting to hear other people who are much better than me at different instruments. Each time it felt like you were hearing the songs for the first time again. I never even played the songs live with a band. I also think my expectations were somewhat low. I just wanted to see what would happen. There was never a point where I said, ‘Oh, this isn’t working.’ To me, it was just getting to sit back and listen to my songs actually take form. Like, ‘You can call somebody who plays the saw? Let’s do it.’
That’s an instrument I think most people are unfamiliar with. How exactly does one play a singing saw?
Matt: It’s with a bow, like a violin or cello. I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone play one in person. Not necessarily something you would think of as a country instrument, but it’s kind of like a one one string violin in a way. It was kind of on a whim. We were in the studio down in Austin, listening back to something. I thought, ‘You know what would be great here? A saw.’ The friend of mine who runs the studio there was like, ‘I know somebody, I’ll call her.’ 30 minutes later, she shows up. She did it all in one take: stopped by, drank a beer, played saw, and left. It’s such a strange, eerie sound. It’s almost like an analog Theremin, which is the sound I guess I would liken it to.
A lot of the lyrical content throughout the record draws on down to earth themes like home, loss, longing, and intimate relationships. Were there certain points of your life that inspired your writing process?
Matt: I think a lot of it’s drawing on my whole life and romantic relationships, though not necessarily specific instances from my current situation or what I was going through last year. A lot of it is kind of in that storytelling mode of drawing on things that have happened either explicitly or implicitly.
Are there songs from the album written in that vein that stand out to you as personally significant?
Matt: “Reason to Pray” was a pretty direct response to my upbringing in the church. Country music has always had such an overlap with Christianity. There’s so many country artists who end up doing a Jesus record or something at some point in their career, you know? I kind of wanted to do a different take on that and do something personal. I was happy being able to get my thoughts out on my church background through that lens.
There are other moments on the record that have religious elements. Has that part of your upbringing influenced your relationship with music in any way?
Matt: It’s going to come out some way or another. It was such a big part of my upbringing. We went three times a week for all my life until I moved out of my parents’ house. One of the things we didn’t have in church by design was musical instruments in the service. It was all acapella singing and we didn’t have a dedicated choir. It was a very small congregation. A good Sunday turnout was like 30 people, maybe 40. Everybody in the church would be singing and a lot of times it was this sort of cacophonous mess. But I think from an early age, that part of it, noticing the structure of the way a song comes together and picking out harmonies, it did all kind of blend in with whatever else I was doing. So I think the musical part of it it was probably my first experience of noticing how music sort of works.
With this batch of songs under your belt, do you think your next album will be another country record?
Matt: That’s where my head is right now. There is something I perceive to be a gap in what I want to hear versus what’s out there. Not that I’m doing something super unique, but yeah, I do think my head is in that space and I feel like I have at least another country record in me. As I was writing these songs [for the first album], they really started having a country bent to them. At some point, I did consciously say, I’d like for this to be a country record, I want this to fit in there. Which, picking a genre that you want to be a part of, is tricky. Every genre has cultural contexts around it. And I think it’s important to ask yourself if you understand that context and that world that has a lot of background to it.
There’s a lot of grey area in regards to the subject of cultural appropriation. The diversity of modern music and the internet means there are more people making different kinds of music than ever before, but often times, people are simply trying to capitalize on the trendiness of a sub genre or culture without understanding it.
Matt: Yeah. I could spend a lot of time going into what I think the culture around country music is. Do I really fit into it? I don’t know. I don’t have a rural background or something like that, if that’s what we are saying is part of country music. At some point, I guess I just gave myself permission to do it and now here I am.