I witnessed Matthew Mayfield live for the first time last October during CMJ when I stumbled into Rockwood Music Hall in between a few band interviews. Alone on acoustic guitar, his deep, rustic vocals and emotion-fueled lyrics echoed throughout the silent room and blew me away.
After the show, he said his debut solo album would be released in a few months and I scoured the Web to find out more about this artist who I was certain I heard before. His former band, Moses Mayfield, was signed to Epic Records in 2005, released an album and toured with major acts. A few years later, though, they broke up and Mayfield found himself questioning his next steps.
“When the band broke up there was a six month period where I debated whether or not I was going to keep doing it. You have to pick up the pieces and start all over, write all new songs, a new band, a new everything. It’s been a hell of a lot of work, but if I wasn’t doing it I’d be super unhappy,” Mayfield said.
Mayfield’s solo album, Now You’re Free, was released earlier this year and encompasses 11 tracks of impeccable songwriting, standout musical accompaniment, and impressive collaborations. Singing of love and heartache, the listener can relate to every track. Songs like the powerful “Fire Escape,” written with John Paul White of The Civil Wars, and the poignant “Element” showcase his remarkable talent. A track he originally wrote 10 years ago and has appeared on numerous records, at a recent concert at The Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, Mayfield said, “I put this song out a few times but the best version to date is on this new record.” A longtime fan favorite, the song was received with much excitement at the packed venue.
I chatted with Matthew earlier this month while in California right before his intimate performance at The Hotel Cafe. He filled me in on many of the stories behind his songs as well as the struggles he has faced as a musician and collaborating with friends The Civil Wars and NEEDTOBREATHE. Read the complete interview below and be sure to check him out on tour this August.
Now You’re Free is your first solo LP. Was the recording process any different than with your previous band, Moses Mayfield?
Yeah, it was different. This time around, I think the songs are stronger and the players I was playing with in Nashville were some good friends and also super pro guys. We tried to make it a band thing. We were in a room, in a circle, and we wanted it to feel alive and have that energy that a big, anthemic rock record would have. The process was similar in terms of going through the motions and making a record, but at the same time, we tried so many new things which was cool. I’m excited about people hearing us in a studio where there were bells on a song or there’s cello or weird toy piano. Whatever it is, that kind of stuff is fun for us.
Why did you decide to use Pledge Music to fund your album?
At the time, my manager suggested it to me. It was cool. I looked at it, but I was kind of hesitant because I really didn’t want to ask people for money but then I realized it was a win-win. They get things that they want, whether it was handwritten lyrics or a house party, or we’ll play at the wedding. There were all kinds of weird stuff; microphones and gear. Everybody gets something which is really cool. We raised $14 grand for the record.
“Element” is my favorite track of yours and you wrote it a decade ago. Why did you decide to add it to this album?
We had the album down to 10 songs and I just felt like there was something missing. I feel like it’s one of those songs that I keep wanting to put onto a record because every time you take a step forward, that’s one I want to bring with me. The guy that produced the record and my management said, ‘This song is so strong, I really feel like it should come with you.’ I thought about it for a long time and I thought it was a great idea.
What’s the story behind “Element?”
I wrote that song when I was 18 and I was in this long distance relationship with a girl. I was just a kid. I think it’s very honest. It doesn’t feel particularly young, but it was very honest, from a very honest place. I feel like a song like that, that just comes from the heart, there was nothing about it that was forced. I sat down with a guitar and wrote it. It wasn’t in pieces. It all came at once.
Do you get tired of playing it?
Sometimes. I feel like with anything, sometimes there are songs that are going to be a little bit of a chore to play. It depends. If the crowd is great and they love it and you can see it in their eyes that they’re enjoying you play it, then it’s great.
What is your typical songwriting process like?
It usually starts with a guitar and a melody and I bring the lyrics in when I feel like I got the vibe down. There are times where the lyric is the inspiration. It changes quite a bit. I’d say 90% of the time it’s me and my guitar singing, humming things. It’s a strange thing, chasing songs.
Do you feel a song comes out better when it actually happened to you? Do you always write from firsthand experience?
Pretty much. I think everything on the record is firsthand. There are a couple that are hypothetical I guess, but I certainly can relate to the things that I’m singing about. “Can’t Change My Mind” is hypothetical in a sense to me. I wrote it from the perspective of that person who’s sold. I know that feeling; to be sold. You write it from the perspective of somebody that’s found something that you want to find.
Are you ever nervous to reveal too much in a song, like “Fire Escape?”
Yeah. Honestly, that’s probably the hardest one. I’m never scared because it’s like therapy for me. I need to do it, to get it out. I don’t know. I feel like there’s a release that you get from putting it on paper and singing it in a song that’s healthy. It’s always been an outlet for me since I was a little kid.
Are there nights you don’t want to play a certain song because it’s too personal and brings back a specific relationship or memory?
It can be. It depends on the night and it depends where my head’s at and if I was thinking about it before a show or not. Sometimes it can sting a little more than others. Sometimes you just do it because it feels good to know that you’re helping somebody else out. I think that’s the reason why the sad songs resonate more with people. I’ve noticed that. People love the upbeat stuff, but when it’s real heartache people are like, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean.’ More so than, ‘I’m really happy, everything’s great.’ That’s pretty rare. It’s good to write a song about it when it happens.
Isn’t that depressing though? When everyone’s like, ‘Yeah! That’s real heartbreak. We love that you’re depressed.’
It’s a weird world. I just write it from wherever I can find it. So if it’s sad, it’s sad. If it’s happy, it’s happy. If it’s confusing, it’s confusing.
Is there a song that means more to you now then when you first wrote it?
Yeah, there are a couple. I really like a song called “Her Name Was December.” That song, we don’t play it a lot live, but when I hear it on the record I’m like, ‘Man, we’ve got to get that one back because I love that song.’ I feel like the lyric and the melody, everything about it is special to me and came from a really real place.
You collaborated with NEEDTOBREATHE and The Civil Wars on a few tracks. How did that come about?
I co-wrote “Fire Escape” with John Paul [White] of The Civil Wars. He’s fantastic. And Joy [Williams] sang on “Can’t Change My Mind.” They’re some of the sweetest people in the world and certainly in this business it’s so hard to come by people who are so kind and just easygoing. There are no egos. They’re just great people and I’m super happy for them that all the stuff’s happening. It’s good to see that happen with good friends. Same thing with NEEDTOBREATHE. Those guys are coming to the show tonight, they’re in town. I’m super happy for them. They’re so good. Their live show is killer. It’s good to see good things happen to good people that you’re friends with.
Is co-writing an entirely different process for you than writing by yourself?
Usually with me, if I co-write it’s like I have a chorus that I love or a verse that I love but I just can’t find a chorus or I can’t find another verse. Or I’ll have a melody that I really like. Usually it has to be someone I really trust like John Paul or Paul Moak, the guy that produced the record. There has to be that feeling of trust where you’re like, ‘I can let you in on this secret.’ “Fire Escape” was a touchy subject, but John Paul was so cool about talking to me and hearing me out; kind of getting inside my head. We wrote the song really quickly, in a couple of hours and it’s one of my favorites on the record.
Your music has been featured on “Teen Mom” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Have you noticed more fans from different music placement?
I have. Those “Grey’s” placements were really big. I feel like I noticed a big spike in sales but also noticed it helped put me on the map which was funny because I made that record for under $1,000 in a basement for myself. I wasn’t doing it in hopes to get a sync or get on TV and it ended up being a huge thing for me. Those little things are special because you have so many slaps in the face as you’re coming up and it’s cool. When you get a win in a world full of losses it’s something to be celebrated.
What has kept you motivated all these years to keep pursuing music?
I don’t know. I think it’s just that underlying passion for writing songs and playing rock & roll. I’ve always just loved it since I was a little kid. When the band broke up there was a six month period where I debated whether or not I was going to keep doing it. You have to pick up the pieces and start all over, write all new songs. A new band, a new everything. It’s been a hell of a lot of work, but if I wasn’t doing it I’d be super unhappy. It isn’t easy. We push ourselves in every aspect so I feel like it’s hard work, but it’s really rewarding. When the rewards come around, which is not that often, they’re sweet when they do.
Do you think a band needs a record label today to survive?
I don’t. There are some labels that are doing some cool things, some indies that are really smart with their money. But no, I don’t think you need the big machine until you are at a certain level. If you can get to a certain level and you need that monster, mainstream push then you get it when the time’s right. Getting a record deal is definitely not what any band’s goal should be, especially with a major. You may be their favorite band one day and literally the next week they don’t remember who you are ’cause they had a change of regime, they fired everybody and brought on new people. I definitely don’t think you need a label in 2011. At the end of the day, you have to do it all yourself.
What’s the best and worst thing about being a musician?
The best thing is seeing people sing your songs at shows, for me. If I see two or three people, or 30 people or 100 people singing the lyrics to a song, that’s as good as it gets. The worst part I think is a lot of times not feeling like your hard work is being rewarded. You really have to keep on even if you’re not getting any affirmation that what you’re doing is working. But, it’s always like that in music. When you do get those placements or whatever it is, your song is on a TV show or commercial, you play a great show and have a big turn out; those little things add up.
Do you have any advice for other singer-songwriters trying to make it in the industry?
One thing I have to say is don’t expect anyone to do anything for you starting out. You have to hustle and do it yourself. I made that record in my basement just because I wanted to for me. I didn’t have a manager or an agent. I just put it up on iTunes and it got a couple lucky moments and placements. It was fresh enough too, where people knew about the band. You just have to be persistent. As lame of a word as it is, you have to persevere. I started doing this when I was 18 and now I’m 28. I’m not some big, famous rock star. You want to play arenas, but you have to start somewhere. Tonight, if I play for 200 people that’s a huge deal. You just can’t expect it to be fast. That would be my advice.