Just in time for National Coffee Day, the world gets to hear Matt Cook’s dynamic new single, “Caffeine,” premiered right here at YDKJ. It’s the first new material he’s released since the dissolution of his piano rock trio, Matt Cook Seventy-Five (aka ‘MC75’), and their lone 2015 LP, Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside. A few days ahead of this new release, Matt – a music teacher by trade – invited me over to his Spring Lake home. It’s comfortable in there – dark wood, good lighting, an upright piano, and an old dog name Apollo who doesn’t leave his master’s side. We talk geography, Brian Wilson, and how a near-death experience made Matt rethink how he makes his records in the first place.
You’ve spent time in and around a couple different cities since you started making records. What are some highlights?
I grew up in Middletown, NJ where I began writing my earliest songs. It was a pretty standard family/suburban town; I had a mostly happy childhood. I started playing shows when I was 16 and recorded my first album “Coast To Coast” [in Middletown] with my friend Pete Andrews at his studio, all the while knowing I was headed to Southern California.
I didn’t feel like I hit my stride professionally until I moved to California in 2004. There, I split my time being based out of south Orange County and Los Angeles. While in the OC, I met one of my closest musician friends, Rob Thompson, who became the bassist in my live band. We promoted my first record from 2005 – 2008 and played out extensively. Probably the most notable shows were playing the March of Dimes Christmas Walk in Newport Beach two years in a row.
What was it like as a singer/songwriter hanging around LA back then? Because with people like Jenny Lewis or Haim or Tobias Jesso Jr, there’s a lot of that happening around LA these days.
LA was a real musical melting pot but folk-rock singer/songwriters didn’t have a place in the city at that time. There was much more emphasis on electronic and hip-hop music. That said, I did get the opportunity to play alongside one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Bob Lind, who had a top five hit called “Elusive Butterfly” in 1966.
I led his backing band and played piano for an in-studio concert in West Hollywood which was filmed for a documentary on his career. I got the opportunity to sing “Unlock the Door,” a song from his first record Don’t Be Concerned; I was only 21 so it was not only an overwhelming experience, but a real lesson in how the music business works. Then I moved back to the NJ Shore in 2009 and have called it home ever since.
How has geography affected your songwriting?
My first record “Coast To Coast” has one of my ‘fan favorite’ songs on it called “Pittsburgh, PA.” It’s a city I’ve spent a lot of time in over the years; my brother lives there, and I wrote that song for him.
Lots of California imagery made its way onto my second record, Live, Laugh, Love! Most of the songs were composed at my house in Orange County, where my piano faced the window with a clear view of the California hills and western skyline. “Camping Out” references the Santa Ana winds, and “West 8th Street” was inspired by a painting of Bayonne’s West 8th Street Station which hung on my wall. I’d look at that and imagine making the journey all the way from NJ to the “California coastline.” “Landline” was another song I wrote while in California, but I was longing for the days back in Jersey. The lyrics make reference to the waves crashing in the ocean, and even though the Pacific was right there in front of me, I was definitely thinking of the Atlantic!
And a few of the songs on the MC75 record [Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside] are set against the backdrop of New York City while the Girasole songs reference Philadelphia, another place I spent quite a bit of time in in recent years. I think where you are definitely becomes a part of who you are.
Now that you’re back in New Jersey and living in Spring Lake, tell me about how you feel you fit in with the Asbury Park music community?
I can appreciate the Asbury Park scene for what it is. There’s no denying the history of some of the venues. When MC75 played at The Saint back in 2015, we were in awe knowing had been on the same stage as one of our biggest influences – Ben Folds Five – 19 years earlier.
I’ve met lots of friends/musicians who perform in the community regularly and I enjoy when I get a chance to play around there, but I consider myself to be more on the outside of the scene. Sometimes it feels like more emphasis gets placed on being cool. Meanwhile I’m just trying to make good music and work hard. I don’t really care about the other stuff.
How has your admitted disconnect from that community affected your ability to move your music around? What I mean is, since you don’t necessarily feel beholden to a particular locale, what do you feel that affords you in terms of freedom to roam?
In order to get your music out there, I think the responsibility falls on the artist to travel around as much as possible. And I enjoy travelling to perform. Although I’ve played a lot in Southern California and Pennsylvania, that doesn’t mean I even have to leave the state necessarily.
New Jersey is pretty big and there are all kinds of pockets. I’m proud to call the shore my home, but I love playing up in New Brunswick with all the Rutgers kids around. This past summer I played Dragonfly Music and Coffee Cafe in Somerville, another great town with an indie music scene of its own. There are talented musicians and music lovers everywhere so I think it’s important not to get stuck in one place.
But I do consider Belmar to be my home base, musically, because I have a monthly residency at Stay Gold Café. It’s not only one of my favorite places to perform, but it’s a great spot just to hang out! The staff and ownership have been so nice to me!
Where do you see the most turn out to your shows?
Because I play in the town every month, Belmar seems to be the area I get the biggest turnouts for my shows. It’s a pretty cool feeling knowing that people look forward to my shows at Stay Gold and make an effort to show up. Of course I’m blessed to have had many friends and family come to see me play there, but I’ve also met a lot of great people who have come for the sole purpose of seeing me perform. I’ve also had a lot of support every time I’ve played the Belmar Arts Center, and Beach Haus Brewery.
The new album is called Girasole; Italian for ‘sunflower,’ right? What inspired that title?
There are several inspirations. Being an English major, I’ve always been drawn to interesting words. Girasole looked and sounded cool to me, and it literally means “a fiery red sunflower.” I’ve always loved sunflowers, and red is my favorite color. And I love Vincent Van Gogh and his sunflower paintings.
The album has somewhat of a Philadelphia vibe to it anyway, so it further inspired the title when I visited Van Gogh’s exhibits inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Being the huge Beach Boys fan I am, they recorded an album in 1970 titled Sunflower which many fans consider as good as Pet Sounds. I have another reason too, but that one sticks with me. [Laughs]
How do you decide upon which songs go where? Do you write from a conceptual state of mind, or is it more along the lines of ‘Well, this is my latest dozen songs, so it’s time to make a new record’?
I spend a lot of time thinking of album themes and sequencing. My first record Coast To Coast was really the only one that was a collection of current songs. I was still learning who I was as a songwriter and artist.
Live, Laugh, Love! was a fairly heavy project all about coming to terms with my father being a huge disappointment, and also dealing with struggles of depression after my near-death diabetic coma and subsequent diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes.
The MC75 songs were more about the musical theme of being a piano-rock trio while Girasole is an observation album. I’m fascinated by how people act and interact with each other, and ultimately how people treat one another.
I paid attention to little details while writing these songs; not in a judgmental way, but simply by observing certain people’s behaviors. My approach to songwriting has changed drastically over the years. During Coast to Coast, I would write a song all the way through and not change anything. Now I get a melody and arrangement down, but mess with the lyrics until they’re as perfect as can be. I was very particular with word choice and syllables in this batch of songs.
Tell us about the first single, “Caffeine.” How’d that one come about?
“Caffeine” is a pretty straightforward metaphor of how someone can turn you on and energize you, almost like drinking a cup of coffee in the morning. A new relationship can wake you up, but if you don’t choose wisely who to love, it will burn you up. Again I used the city of Philadelphia as a backdrop to real life events that inspired the song. Musically, it’s also pretty straightforward piano-rock.
I always put a lot of thought into what fans have last heard from my recordings and what they’re about to hear. I thought this would be a good first single because it’s the perfect stepping stone from my MC75 material into the next phase of my career.
There’s a clear Brian Wilson influence in your music. How many times have you seen him (or The Beach Boys, or both) in concert?
Brian Wilson is definitely my biggest influence. Since I was about 12 years old I basically wanted to be him. I was obsessed with The Beach Boys and I first saw Brian Wilson perform when I was 15, when he was doing the Pet Sounds Live tour for the first time. I met him a year later when he was on tour with Paul Simon. All I could muster up was, “Thank you, Brian.” He didn’t say anything, though he did sign my Pet Sounds CD.
When I lived in California, I was fortunate to see him perform Smile for the first time too! I saw The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary reunion tour which was also a great show. They even performed “Forever” and “God Only Knows” with pre-recorded vocal tracks of Dennis and Carl Wilson, so it was as close as seeing the real Beach Boys as I’d ever get.
I’ve seen Mike Love’s version of the touring Beach Boys, but it’s nowhere near as good a show as Brian’s. You can’t have The Beach Boys without a Wilson, in my opinion. But all in all, I’ve probably seen Brian Wilson/The Beach Boys about 9 or 10 times.
You’ve been releasing records for the last 12 years. I’d say the most remarkable, surprising thing is the consistency of your body of work. How do you maintain that consistency while also trying to grow as a writer and arranger of your material? How do you keep things interesting from one album to the next?
First of all, thank you for the compliment! I’ve always worked hard to write good songs and make quality recordings, and I take a lot of pride in that. I’ve never been afraid to change stylistically. I went from acoustic/folksy singer/songwriter on Coast To Coast to indie/alternative/electro on Live, Laugh, Love! to piano-rock with MC75 and the Laughing On the Outside, Crying On the Inside record. Now I’ve hit upon a combination of all those styles on Girasole. Each album has come about organically though, and I feel very humbled and blessed by that.
One of the more positive things about getting older is the more experience I’ve gained and the harder I’ve worked, the better musician I’ve become. I couldn’t even sing falsetto at all on my first record, and now it’s become such a big part of my style. I have a much clearer musical identity at 32 than I did starting out at 19. My strength comes from God and I’ve always felt for that reason, I can’t fully take credit for the songs I write. It’s all been so divinely inspired and I feel blessed and thankful to still be making the best music I possibly can.
What do you hope to accomplish with Girasole that has perhaps posed more of a challenge with albums past?
Music as a business is so tough; I can only hope to reach a greater audience with Girasole than I have with my past albums. It’s so hard to sell music these days, but that is not my number one goal. I’m more touched by people genuinely enjoying the music, listening to it, and coming to see me perform. That’s where my focus is. I know what I’ve written my songs about, but I always find it more interesting to hear how someone has a song affect them in context of their own lives. I really just want to move people emotionally with Girasole.
What’s your goal as a performing songwriter?
I want to keep getting better at trying to write great songs that people can relate to. Music is a powerful, healing thing and I hope to affect as many people with my music and performances as I can. I’m passionate about working with kids especially and enjoy playing music for them and teaching them. Kids more than anyone make me feel like the rock-star I’m not!
You can catch Matt tonight in Belmar at Beach Haus Brewery at 7:00 PM to celebrate the release of “Caffeine.”
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