Matt Maeson: ‘I was either going to be a musician, a skateboarder or a stuntman’

Matt Maeson’s background as an artists is unconventional, to say the least, having grown up in Virginia with parents who forbid him to listen to anything outside the realm of Christian music. We caught up with the singer-songwriter at his first gig in the UK in six years to discuss touring in prisons, performing with Lana Del Ray and the challenges and distractions in the world of music.

Matt Maeson

Matt, what was your upbringing in Virginia like, and the musical world you grew up in?

Until I was 15, I wasn’t allowed to listen to non-Christian music. So I deep dived into looking for any good Christian rock. I later became obsessed with bands like Linkin Park, and AFI, but I couldn’t listen to them, so I tried to find whatever Christian off-brand version I could. Most of it sucks, so that was my only knowledge of music at that point until I did the whole ‘You don’t tell me what to do dad!’

By that point, I was finding bands like Brand New and Manchester Orchestra. I’m a pastor’s kid so anything that has to do with any kind of religion and doubt, I’m really attracted to – especially at that time, because I hadn’t heard anything like it before. When we moved from this small town into a bigger city, I started to listen to a lot of alternative rock stuff and got more into hip hop like Kayne and Lil Wayne and that whole scene.

Matt Maeson

Photo: Freddie Pearson

When you rebelled against your parents, being exposed to all that music at once must have been overwhelming…?

It was fucking mind-blowing, it was awesome. It was such a new world, the world got so much bigger. I was suddenly saying ‘Oh, everybody’s not a Christian that listens to this.’ And there’s so much crazy stuff. Even just seeing the kind of creativity I hadn’t seen before, like visuals, was amazing. I remember watching MTV for the first time and just thinking, ‘Wow!’

After being exposed to that, did you then think music was the thing for you?

I was either going to be a musician, a skateboarder or a stuntman. And skateboarding didn’t work out because I would just get so fucked up; then the stuntman obviously didn’t work out because that’s just not a career. My dad’s been a guitar player all my life, and although our relationship was okay, I didn’t want to like anything he was into, so I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 15. Then I was like, ‘Dad, show me some chords’; then I went on Youtube and taught myself.

What was the first moment you realised you could do this?

I posted my first YouTube cover of ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’ by Death Cab for Cutie. My friends were saying the nicest things about it and I was getting awesome feedback. That’s when I started writing my own songs. It’s such a therapeutic thing for me because I could write like these guys in a similar way that connects with me.

Matt Maeson

Photo: Freddie Pearson

I would use the chords I knew, and the melodies that I could think of; when it came to lyrics, I felt I knew how to write because those bands I looked up to are such great lyricists so, subconsciously, I knew cool ways to phrase things. And being in church and listening to sermons made it easy for me to word-vomit things in a way for sure. It was great because it was also being able to talk about how I feel, which I didn’t do with anybody.

I heard you also spent some time touring prisons?

My dad was a pastor until I was about 17. And he started his prison ministry. Him and my mum basically linked up this guy that already did a prison ministry, and they would play blues. So they started touring with him to learn the ropes, and then started their own nondenominational entity. (They still do it to this day). Once I was 18, I’d gotten into a bunch of trouble with the law myself and my dad said, ‘You’re going on this prison tour’. And so I did.

It was amazing. It was definitely the root of the purpose of why I do what I do now because it was playing songs for these people that have been here for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years – broken people, in such a dark place. Seeing the effect that just the songs that I’d written had on them, made me realise how powerful music really is. I realised how it changes people’s lives and their emotions, so I was inspired by that. I knew I wanted to do this for everybody outside of prison.

Matt Maeson

Photo: Freddie Pearson

On that feeling of the effect you have on people, how do you react now to fan’s feedback of your songs?

It happens so often, where people will say the nicest things about how one of my songs has helped through really dark times. It’s a hard thing to respond to because you almost feel like a dick; you can’t just say ‘Thank you so much’ as it’s sterile. And it means so much more than that to me. When someone will tell me this insane story about how a song changed their life, I’m so grateful and astounded by it, but I don’t know what to say.

You collaborated with Lana Del Ray in 2020 on a reworked version of your 2018 track ‘Hallucinogenics’. How did that come about?

Lana Del Ray reached out to me when I was sound-checking at a show in Milwaukee. We’d ended a song and I picked up my phone. I was looking at my message requests on Instagram, and one was from Lana Del Rey. I couldn’t believe it. She said she liked the song ‘Cringe’, and she would love to fly me to one of her shows to play it with her. I thought, ‘What the fuck is happening right now?’ because at that time I was pretty small.

And then, at the last second, right before the show, she said actually ‘I want to do ‘Hallucinogenics; and then I want you to play ‘Cringe’ with my band, by yourself’. She had a swing on-set and she just sat there as I played to all these people. It was really cool, man.

Matt Maeson

Photo: Freddie Pearson

You released your second album Never Had To Leave a few months ago. How was the experience putting the record together in Nashville, L.A. and Austin?

I think the album came out very eclectic, because I was all over the place – both mentally and geographically. We would record two songs, then three months later, we’d do another two, then we’d say we didn’t like those two anymore and would do another two. The content was very up and down and quite manic. But finally, after a while, it started to come together and gain momentum and we were really happy with it.

How does it feel to be performing here in London?

I find it really exciting, especially acoustic shows like this – they’re thrilling because if you fuck up, everybody notices. I haven’t played here since 2017 so I’m buzzing. The UK has such a cool music scene, and I was obsessed with the Britpop era.

[True to his word about his love of Britpop, Maeson jokingly kept teasing the opening chords for ‘Wonderwall’ at any opportunity].

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