Analogue Music | Matt Costa

Matt Costa

By Matt Conner

You were never intended to hear these songs.

When Matt Costa first sat down to write and even record the songs that turned into Yellow Coat, his listening audience was the furthest thing from his mind. In fact, the singer-songwriter wasn't even sure he wanted to make music anymore.

In the midst of a series of major life changes, Costa tells us that he turned to songwriting as a way to deal with the emotional upheaval of his experiences of that time and nothing more. They were personal songs from personal moments to process personal experiences. The idea of any marketplace intervention would only ruin the moment.

Therein lies the power of Costa's latest full-length album—his first since Santa Rosa Fangs. Vulnerability breeds connectivity here, and the bonds formed with fans are already happening. Yellow Coat was meant for just one and yet all of us.

Analogue: I want to start with your intention here, because I read a quote saying you weren't sure whether you'd release these songs. That's interesting to me since you're used to writing to release. Do you normally hold quite a few things back? Or was that a new thing? What's behind that?

Matt Costa: It was sort of a return to when I'd written the first songs I'd ever written. I wrote them not intending to have a career in music. I just wrote them because I liked writing songs. It was a world I could create. Then over time, gradually more and more people started listening, and I was more aware of that, knowing when I'd write that I'd put it out. I was pushing myself and the sound and understanding the live setting and all of that, growing and developing in that way.

When it came time to sit down and I started to write these songs, it was definitely an isolated thing. My wife and I had split up, so I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't know if I wanted to do music. I was rethinking my whole point and purpose in life. So when I started recording, I moved into a little studio space—a little 12 by 12 space—and brought only my necessary things. The only things I had that were my prized possessions, besides the things I was selling, was my bed and my books and then my instruments. They were there and I was just staring at them.

I decided to write and record things that were basically mantras to myself—mantras of healing and perspective. I sat down to write those myself just with the guitar. There were no other arrangements to them. Also, I wasn't sending them to my bandmates or my label or the people who help me put my music out there. I didn't want to do anything with the songs. It was more for myself. It felt good to have that as an outlet.

You'd think, 'Oh, you're a songwriter. It's what you do.' It is like that most of the time, but I didn't really feel like the songwriting was a career move. Maybe this was the end of the all. Everything in my life had just shifted, so I thought I'd just do these and that was it. Over time, I didn't even realize how many songs I'd collected. People asked if I had anything and I said, 'No, I really don't have anything.' Eventually they said, 'Well, can we hear what you have?'

'What do I want to do? Is it important to me to write songs and put them out that way?' That's where I was at with these songs.

I was actually sitting with Jim Fairchild, from the band Grandaddy, and Pete [Bauer], my manager, who was also in The Walkmen, and they were listening to my songs. I hadn't really felt that vulnerable in a long time. I said, 'I don't know. I don't really want to put these songs out there.' They were like, 'Well, let's listen and see if there's anything good there.' So I sat there and pushed myself to do that because I was like, 'Well, I guess.' [Laughs] They said, 'This is great. Do you want to make a record with it?'

It was hard for me to listen back to the songs, too. It's hard to listen back to them. It's not that they're all literal. A lot of them are emotive. But they all take me to the headspace of the time I was in. That was tough. I was having to confront that isolation and those feelings I was going through. I think of putting them out like letters, famous letters that are put out. Van Gogh's letters were never intended to be put out. It wasn't intended for their own body of work, but they stand on their own. That gave me perspective on the songs. I thought maybe these do have a place like that. They're pure in that way. So that's what compelled me to release them.

Analogue: I want to go back to a few things you said there. First, it sounded as if that 12 by 12 space was one in which you were untethered. You didn't say it that way, but if that's true, when was the last time you had made music in a space like that?

Matt: Well, I did a score for a documentary called Orange Sunshine. I think that was an epiphany for me, because I was able to just write. I could step outside of myself. I didn't have to be the lead singer for that. I could let the film do it and create a lot of space around it. That was really freeing to me, and that was in a five-year hiatus when I didn't put out any full-length records. So I did that and that was freeing in a sense, but it wasn't a definitive Matt Costa record.

'Yellow Coat' cover art
'Yellow Coat' cover art

On the heels of that, I did Santa Rosa Fangs, which I was like, 'Okay I'm going to make a record.' With all the stuff I'd been building up, I felt there was a lot of energy in that. That was long overdue. But I was also gonna make songs and really bust through and make something I thought would show where I'd been. I was definitely excited for people to hear that.

Right as that record and touring cycle finished up, everything started changing in my personal life. I thought I'd worked so hard to get that record and to do these things, but now I was just reflecting on my life in general. What do I want to do? Is it important to me to write songs and put them out that way? That's where I was at with these songs. They were just emotions on their own and it didn't matter the context of whether they would relate to a film or a definitive Matt Costa record, to speak of myself in third person. It's interesting when my name is the band name as well, I associate it with that as well. So this was back to where I'd come from. I was just an emotional human and that was stripping back all those things.

Analogue: Can you take me into that room? You described just sitting there playing songs that you didn't want anyone to really hear or at least release. That just sounds so vulnerable.

Matt: These were people I respected as artists in their own right, so I trusted them in that sense. I trust their art. At the same time, I also felt laid bare. I did feel really vulnerable, but I do trust them as artists and friends so I think that's what propelled me through. I thought, 'Okay, well I respect them and if they believe there's something there and they think I should push through, then I will.' I couldn't have done it without them actually believing in it and then saying that I should. I wasn't going to, so I'm happy to have them push me through that time.

Analogue: I know you can't tour these songs, but you have a release show tonight. It makes me curious about having to play these songs and the emotions that might come up in the moment. Are you nervous there?

Matt: First and foremost, there's so much logistical things I have to tackle that it distracts me enough, like is my ethernet connection actually good enough or functioning properly so it's not a fragmented session. [Laughs] Emotionally, yeah, every time I've sat down to play the songs, there's definitely feelings that come in waves and I think that's something I haven't really had to face until tonight when it's all out there. I don't know. I guess it will show tonight how I actually feel sharing these.

The other thing that is comforting in it is that I think one of the other things that compelled me to release it as well is a hope that others will find comfort in it, too. Everyone is going through their own challenges besides the pandemic and whatever social things people are going through. We all have our own personal challenges to overcome. When I started releasing some of the singles, people responded and said they'd connected to the songs in that way and responded with personal trials they were going through. That gave me some hope that these songs would have a place in people's lives, just like they have in mine. The connectedness there is what helps me push through the emotion of the performances.

VISIT: Matt Costa