If there’s a performer today that can best be called a “songwriter’s songwriter” it’s Houston favorite, Matt Harlan (www.mattharlan.com). A travelling troubadour, Matt has been bringing his songs of bus-stops, coffee-shops and lives overlooked to stages across his home-state of Texas, the USA and Europe. He was recently selected to open the Kerrville Folk Festival, a great honor for this fairly unknown songwriter. His new album recently charted at number 1 on the Euro-Americana chart, ahead of names like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Bonnie Raitt. “Bow and Be Simple” was recorded in Denmark with backing band The Sentimentals, and is starting to get radio airplay across the US as well. Harlan is a winner of multiple songwriting awards, from outfits like American Songwriter and Billboard. Most recently he won the 2011 Troubadour contest at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and was featured alongside a stellar cast of characters (Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark) in the documentary, “For the Sake of the Song.” He is surely a writer that you need to look up if you haven’t heard him yet. Matt played often during SXSW, and conssistently plays shows around Austin. His next show in Austin is on May 15 at Mangia Pizza with James Pizzitola and HalleyAnna Finlay as part of their Tuesday Tunes put on by Austinsongz. We spoke recently, and he answered 10 questions for me.
Who are your songwriting influences?
Man, there’s so many…I guess the top 5 could be something like Bob Dylan, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett and James McMurtry – folks that have a real literary or poetic quality to their songs. There’s so many in the other genres that I love, too. I used to mimic Evan Dando (Lemmonheads) and Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) when I first learned to play guitar…it might sound a little different, but those Alternative Nation-era guys really played with language, too…weird metaphors and symbols. Remember Bush? Those songs didn’t even make sense…but then neither do some Dylan songs. Gillian Welch should be in there for sure…she gets a lot of credit for her overall sound, but she’s a very cool writer.
When and where was your first public performance?
Musically it was probably doing talent shows in school. Back then it was more alternative-rock type stuff. My first club gig was in high-school with a band called Diffusion. We played at the White Rabbit in San Antonio and had to sneak beers in the parking lot. But before I got in to that band, I was playing folk-Americana stuff at a steakhouse in Boerne where I used to cook and wash dishes. It’s gone now, but it was called Stagecoach Station Steakhouse. The owner drank a case of Schlitz a day, but somehow he managed to build a stage out back one summer. I’d go out during my break and play some of the songs I was learning. Very few originals then…lots of Dylan, John Prine and Neil Young songs.
What was the first record or cd you purchased with your own money?
I bought a Guns N’ Roses cassette (Appetite for Destruction) but the tape was twisted so I had to take it back. They didn’t have any replacements so I had to get the latest Bobby Brown…I blame Ghostbusters II.
What was the first live concert you attended?
The first big one was Primus, Helmet and either The Reverend Horton Heat or the Butthole Surfers, I think. It was at Sunken Gardens in San Antonio…mosh pits, secret cigarettes and my mom waiting up in the stands. It was excellent. I busted the hell outta my knee in the pit and I still love all those bands today.
Which venue would you most like to play that you haven’t yet/ and which is your favorite venue to play?
I’d love to play one of those old theatres, like the Majestic in San Antonio, or the Opera House in Galveston. I got to do a short set outside the Crighton Theatre before Marty Stewart and Connie Smith recently…that’s about as close as I’ve gotten to that. For now I really like playing listening rooms like Anderson Fair.
What is the best career advice you’ve been given, and by whom?
Whoever it was that told me to go to Folk Alliance…not sure who that was. Hayes Carll said something about sticking to it, but I always have to reintroduce myself when I run into him, so maybe he thought I was someone else.
Who are you listening to now?
We’ll go with 5 again: First Aid Kit, John Fullbright, Justin Townes Earle, Eilen Jewell and Grant Peeples.
What is your best story about life on the road?
Those are confidential…
What recordings are available to the public and where can they be purchased?
Tips and Compliments is available pretty much everywhere. But the new one, Bow and Be Simple, is still in micro-distribution…only really available at shows and on Bandcamp for download. It should be up on iTunes and Amazon and the major places in the first few weeks of May.
When and where are you playing next?
The next big shows are the Wildflower! Arts & Music Festival and opening the Kerrville Folk Festival. Aside from those I’ll be kickin’ around Texas with a few out of state gigs in the summer. I’ll be heading back to Europe in early October. I’m booking now to really ramp up when I get back in the Fall.