Why Matt Stell is enjoying his ‘Year of the Mule’
RECORDS Nashville/Arista Nashville artist and platinum selling singer-songwriter Matt Stell is one of only seven debut country artists in the last five years to have their first two singles top the charts. Among many other plaudits, he is one of only five performers selected to Country Radio Seminar’s 2021 New Faces of Country Music class.
In March, he released That Ain’t Me No More, his first new music since last October’s Better Than That EP, complete with a cinematically-styled video that took him back to his pre-Nashville days working on construction sites, telling the tale of a guy who’s had his heart broken, but has changed his ways and is looking to turn over a new leaf.
Now touring again, he talks to Alison Dewar about new music, dodgy moustaches, inappropriate memes and having a crush on Dua Lipa. Oh…and why he can’t wait to enjoy a pint in an English pub.
Matt, thank you for catching up with us at Six Shooter. Busy times right now?
Yeah, my typical day is starting to look a lot like it did in 2019. We’re on the road, a lot of the shows are still socially distanced and things like that, but in terms of dates on the books, we’ve been pretty busy for the last month or two. So we’re either travelling and playing some live shows or if not, I’m probably writing a song or doing things like the video shoots. If I get a spare minute, I try to hit some golf balls.
Now you’re touring again, do you have to physically take time out for writing?
I don’t write well on the road, so I do have to carve out some time because for me they’re two different tracts. In the pandemic I was able to get a bunch of songs written because it was one of the only things we could do, we did a lot just like we’re doing right here, talking on Zoom.
Do Zoom writes get your vote?
They have been feast or famine because they’re a different dynamic and I’m glad that we have them, they have a place, so you can write with LA folks or I have a buddy in Canada that I love. But definitely when you can be in a room, you want to be in the room.
For a while in the pandemic, when I was writing every day – and especially a lot of writing by myself – I was getting pretty drained. It was great but I exhausted a lot of the ideas.
Now things are picking back up, with my team we’re just embracing working as much as we possibly can because we had so much time off last year. We call it the “Year of the Mule”, so any time we can get busy and work anywhere, that’s what we do.
Are you the sort of person who wakes up in the middle of the night and has to jot things down or do you always have your phone with you to record something?
I do, most of my songs start from a lyric hook, a title, and I’ll jump up – it might be in the middle of the night or the middle of a ballgame – when I have an idea. Sometimes, I will have a melody idea that I will just sing into my phone, or something like that.
I always keep my antenna up to fill the bucket back up with ideas, even when I’m not in a writers’ room. At this point I’ve put the time in and I’m confident to say that I understand the craft of writing a song, it’s sort of like building a house. The carpenter kind of knows how to do it, but then the plans that come in may be different every time. I’ve put in the time where I feel good about the craft part but obviously I’m always learning. Now it’s like getting the ideas to apply it, so I’m always listening to something and trying to find an angle on it for sure.
What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever had your antenna go ‘A-ha, got it!’?
Oh man, that’s a great question. I’m sure there’s been a weird place. I mentioned earlier I like to play golf, and I like to play golf by myself, it doesn’t bother me because I can get in that headspace and be out there listening to music, I’ve had ideas as I’m going through my day. I’ve had ideas on dates before where I’ve said ‘can you excuse me for just one second…’ and I get back to the date.
I hope the song Shut The Truck Up wasn’t on one of those dates…
(laughter) Right, no I tell you what though. That particular morning, it was the first time I had ever met Chase McGill and Jessie Jo Dillon and it was just on a Zoom like we’re doing right now.
Chase goes ‘my baby woke me up early this morning, I got this idea and it might be stupid’; as soon as I hear that I get excited because it’s either going to be really shitty or it’s going to be unbelievable in terms of an idea for a song. He said it’s something like ‘I wish I could shut the truck up’ and I was like bro’….let’s do it. We sat there and I bet you the three of us wrote that song in about an hour and a half, we punched it out because it was such a concrete idea. He had that great lyric and we figured out how to turn it.
Stepping back on stage after a long time without gigs, did you think what if they don’t like me any more or something daft like that?
You know, there are those feelings, it’s like riding a bike. You can get back on it but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be as good at it as you ever were. There definitely was that, when we first got back out on it, but those feelings are just subsumed by the gratitude of being able to be out there regardless of if there’s any hiccups or stuff. I get to be on stage with my band and the crew and riding up and down the roads doing it again. I won’t ever say we took that stuff for granted but you kind of just do…you never think you’re not going to be able to tour, so when we got back out on the road it was mainly we were just so glad to be there, that there wasn’t a lot of room for apprehension or anything like that.
How did you keep the camaraderie going with the band over the pandemic?
A lot of it was the group text and sending inappropriate memes to each other (laughter), that kind of stuff really does matter, it’s clichéd to say family, but it kind of is because we spend all this time together and then you don’t, you start drifting and things, so it really does matter to keep in touch. Whether that was grabbing porch beers when we could, or the random show here and there that was livestreamed, any of those excuses that we could find to get together, we took them.
You made your acting debut last year in the video for If I Was A Bar, when you played 13 different versions of yourself as comedy characters. It was truly hilarious – which of them was the closest to the real Matt?
That video was so much fun, we shot it right at the start of the pandemic and we had to follow all the guidelines and stuff, we couldn’t have people, so it was like a creative way to try and do it. It turned out really cool.
There were a few dodgy moustaches…
Definitely, basically that’s the order we shot the scenes in because I would shave and then we’d shoot another person, and then we’d do it again. I don’t know, there was probably me in a lot of those guys. We named a few of them, the redneck truck driver, there’s some of me in his game for sure (laughter).
Talking of music and videos, Over Yonder, your collaboration with Lathan Warlick, was brilliant and really mixed the genres of country and rap. Do you enjoy experimenting on projects like that?
For sure, I grew up on all kinds of different music and I still listen to that now. That was great fun to be a part of, Lathan is a great guy and his message of unity, whether that be musical genre, or race, class, political affiliation or whatever, I just feel like it was an important thing that he was doing and I am glad to be a part of that.
In terms of collaborations, who would be on your dream team list?
Oh man, there are so many. I would love to get outside the genre, there are some rappers I would love to collaborate with like 2 Chainz, or J. Cole, all those guys would be great. I don’t know what I would bring to the table but we could figure something out.
Also, I’m a huge Dua Lipa fan, I have a huge crush on her so I would love to collab with her, I think she’s great. I could go on and on…
We must talk about your new music plans, you’re planning a new album in the Fall, what can you tell us?
I’m going to round out the EP as it is right now into a whole record.
So Better Than That (released October 2020) will become a full album?
Yes, the lines get blurred, the way we score with an EP and what’s a record harkens back to when releasing music was a physical endeavour. It’s not now, things get repackaged very easily. The Better Than That EP is a 5 song EP, but it has 3 previously released tracks on it so there’s 8 songs, it’s close enough.
We went back in the studio, I had some stuff done already and I’ve got one more song that I wrote about my Dad that I’m going to play acoustic on and add that to what we have just tracked, then package that together with the EP and turn it into a record. Another by-product of releasing new music is that some of the songs on Better Than That might not have a chance to shine, and there are some songs I don’t want to give up.
It’s recently been announced you’re going to be supporting Old Dominion on their US tour.
Yeah, I’m so excited, it’s going to be so much fun. I know Brad Tursi pretty good, we write songs together and played golf together, so look forward to that and I know the rest of the guys now. I’m a fan of what they do and I get to play these huge stadiums, it’s such a dream come true.
You’ve had many ‘Ones to Watch’ shout-outs from multiple outlets and I was listening to a podcast interview recently when Russell Dickerson named you as an artist to look out for.
He’s a really great guy who has a real knack for writing interesting, positive music, whereas I’m the photo-negative of that. Prayed For You (a love song) was like the song that changed my life, but most songs I write are about getting my heart broken.
I noticed in videos and photos you often wear a key on a chain round your neck, does that have some special significance?
There is, it’s actually a St Anthony’s medal, which belonged to my stepmother’s mother. She was always great to me and when she passed away, my stepmother gave it to me. Actually, the original one flew off in New York City but my tour manager got me a replacement for it.
You have your “Give A Damn” charity, is what you do less about the bright lights and more about giving back?
To me, I feel like I’m about as lucky a person as there is. I get to live my dream and you know, when I have days with problems, they’re not really problems. And part of wanting to be successful is I want to write and sing songs that people care about and use that to affect some kind of positive change. And that’s where the ‘give a damn’ thing comes from, it’s me trying to give back and support some causes that I care about. I get a lot out of being able to do that and I count myself lucky to be able to do so.
Do you have plans to come over the pond at some stage?
I would love to, we had some stuff scheduled last year that didn’t pan out. I’ve never been to Europe and I really want to go. It’s something that’s been a dream of mine to play and see the world from your perspective and I really look forward to being able to do that.
Well, we very much hope you can make it before too long. Matt thank you again for your time and good luck with the new music.
Awesome, you’ll have to take me for a pint somewhere…
Will do – and a round of golf.
Web site www.mattstell.com
(Photo credits – Midtown Motion, Dustin Haney)