Matt Cusson: Going Along
When Matt Cusson was barely three years old something was already starting to unfold within the little corners of his young heart. Genius usually visits early in life, and never leaves those who have been pampered by its delicate spell. It watches them grow. It teaches them how to walk, and laugh and create pure magic out of thin air, always leading their way. It allows them to chase their dreams as if they were stubborn butterflies daring the Sun, catching them when they fall, only to lift them up that much higher and stronger. Cusson was not about to be an exception.
The son of a piano teacher, there was something different about him, his mother recalls. Looking back, his life was probably supposed to happen the way it is happening today: musician, songwriter, vocalist, and producer. His debut, Matt Cusson (Cuesound Records, 2008), is everything but an ordinary collection of original songs written by this young man. No wonder Brian McKnight chose to invite him to join his band, recently sharing the stage with none other than Stevie Wonder. James Taylor absolutely adores him ("You can just tell when he starts playing, that he is the real thing."). His poetic songwriting, delicate vocals, the way he softly caresses those piano keys and a certain predisposition to innovate and stretch the boundaries of jazz, R&B and even pop music, make him an extraordinary artist. If you are looking to be amazed by some unexpected tenderness, chances are he is your man.
John Coltrane,Nat "King" Cole, Miles Davis, Djavan, Michael Jackson, Thelonious Monk and quite a few other great ones left an undeniable mark in his sensitivity as a creative human being. Today, Cusson is embracing and looking at the world with the eyes of an artist that knows where he is going and how he is going to get there. Jazz is his lawful territory. Everything else is no more than an exquisite add-on, that Cusson seems more than ready to shape and blend with beautiful perfection.
It's easy to believe that the future belongs to the winner of Song of the Year 2009 John Lennon Songwriting Contest.
All About Jazz: Where are you today, musically speaking?
Matt Cusson: [I'm] just a dude that eats, sleeps and breathes music. I'm not sure who I am; I change musically day to day. I like to just do what I, and let other people decide who I am musically. I'm always expanding on my craft and experimenting. I learn from everything I listen to, and I listen to everything. I never hold back or limit myself, if anything, I'll shoot for something that challenges me and won't rest until I've exceeded my expectations. The sky is too low of a limit musically and lyrically so I'll never rest.
AAJ: Who are you at home?
MC: Son, brother, uncle, who watches any basketball and/or football game I can find on TV. However, music is always somewhere around me, usually in my head. It's all I do, whether I'm at home or not. I'm extremely close to my family; they are my best friends and biggest supporters. I tend to be lazy sometimes, love the television. I'm like a dog who needs the TV on sometimes when I'm at home so I don't feel alone [laughs]. But I constantly have a guitar or keyboard around, even in the bathroom!
AAJ: How did everything start for you?
MC: I'm not even sure it has started [laughs]. I'm still starting it, from birth on. My mother swore I kicked to a beat in her womb. I wrote what I wanted, sang and played how I felt, and networked when I could, and slowly but surely, my name started getting out there more and more. One of the most defining moments was when I was at Berklee [College of Music, in Boston] and Brian McKnight heard me play and sing, and flew me to his house the next day to work. From there, I was very driven to get my music heard, whether it was playing at open mic nights or opening for McKnight. I think we all create our own destinies so it's important to never stop working, never stop learning and getting better, and believe.
AAJ: Tell me about your songwriting.
MC: I believe I can write a song about anything really, in any style. I listen to everything, dissect it, and take a bit of everything I hear, whether I like it or not. I don't hold back for the sake of writing a "hit," I write what I hear and feel, and I write by the words of Quincy Jones when he said "let the song write itself." As corny as it sounds my fingers and vocal chords play and sing what my heart tells them too, always with interruptions from my head but all together, it's like having a band of musical directors inside my body, and what I play and sing is a result from how they wanted the music to sound. I'm very descriptive, I love words, I love twisting them and finding new ways to say things. The English language is so much fun, especially when it's paired up with music in a melodic way, one never knows what words can actually say or mean.
AAJ: You as a musician.
MC: Willing to do and try anything. Experiment constantly. And everyday expand my craft. There is always more to learn and more to do; I don't know that I will ever stop creating. Sometimes it's almost to a fault because I'm almost never satisfied with what I do. I always find a way to expand upon an idea, branch something out into something else. I love jazz. I love the free spirit of it; I love the honesty and heart involved in performing it. I love how it's never the same. To this day I haven't played any song the same way twice. I love complex music, I love simple music. It's very tough to say who I am as a musician because music is a never ending journey. Who I am today may not necessarily be who I am tomorrow as a musician.
AAJ: The vocalist.
MC: Natural and from the heart. Simple or acrobatic if needed. A lot of times I enjoy singing as if I'm talking. Just open my mouth and let it happen itself. I'm a tenor but can sing any part in a six-part arrangement, from bass to the highest soprano. I always tell people, if you sing from the heart with feeling, someone will understand you.
AAJ: Your biggest influences, and why.
MC: I have a different answer to this question every time it's asked. Today, Miles is one of my biggest. The way he phrased, used space, his tone, his mind, his arrangements. I always thought that Miles should also be an adjective because he creates such a unique mood with his playing. Stevie [Wonder] will always be one of my biggest influences. I recently had the chance to play with him and to this minute my feet haven't touched ground. It was an extremely surreal moment in my life. The list is never ending though; Take 6, James Taylor, Djavan, Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Jackson, John Williams, The Beatles, Kim Burrell, Brian McKnight, Nat "King" Cole, Michael Franks, John Mayer, Roy Hargrove, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Dave Matthews, The Roots, Mos Def, Q-Tip, David Foster, etc.
AAJ: Tell me about the Berklee College of Music.
MC: It was an amazing place for me to meet, study and perform with people who grew up the way I did in music. Growing up in a small town there weren't many artists around, so to be surrounded by them and interact with them was amazing. The things that were offered to us from studios to instruments, ensembles and courses, were really incredible. I was only there for three semesters, but it was an amazing year-and-a-half for me. It helped mold me into a more mature musician and performer. It got a lot of kinks out for me; I was always performing, practicing, rehearsing, writing, and learning. It helped dot the Is and cross the Ts in music, and the friends I made there, are still my best friends today. I can't go anywhere without running into someone that went to Berklee.
AAJ: Music and you.
MC: To me jazz is one of the freest and most natural forms of music, where there is no boundaries, no restrictions, you play or don't play what your heart and head want to. It's truly a beautiful thing. It can be simple, beautiful; it can be Bitches Brew [laughs]. There are so many forms of this one style and it seems to be invented over and over again by different artists. Jazz has taught me mostly about chords, voicings, harmonic structure, phrasing, chord progressions. It always keeps me thinking and I love how each artist is able to interpret a song they way they hear it, whether it's through the song itself or while taking a solo. It's a language, an art. Jazz is jazz, a word that the same word can be used to define it.
Music means everything to me, really. It's my heart, mind, body and soul. It's the air I inhale and exhale; it's the steps my feet make. It's what I smell, taste and wear. It's my relationships, my vision, my words, my cleanliness and my dirtiness. It's me. Matt the musician doesn't even recognize Matt the person. There's hasn't been words made yet to describe music to me.
AAJ: Tell me about the John Lennon Songwriting Contest.
MC: It was an amazing moment in my life. I submitted two songs, and one of them, "Every Step," was a finalist for the Best R&B Song, and the song "One of Those Nights" won grand prize for Best Jazz Song, and then went on to win the Maxell Song of the Year. [An] amazing honor. I was so surprised and am still overwhelmed by this amazing honor. I don't think it's even fully hit me yet. I have been an indie musician for about seven years now, straying away from those who wanted to change everything I was in order to fulfill their expectations. As a solo artist, I have struggled in ways you can't even imagine, packed up my car with clothes and a keyboard and driven across the country numerous times, never having enough money to pay for a meal sometimes. The changes in the music industry have challenged me to find new ways to move my project forward while always staying true to the music. Everyone always wanted me to be the next "somebody" instead of being the first me. Winning the Maxell Song of the Year award is proof to me that you can stay true to your heart and craft, and still get recognized on a major scale. I am forever indebted to those who helped me get to this point, as this is a moment in my life that will live with me forever.
AAJ: The most important thing we need to know about your album, Matt Cusson.
MC: It's real and from the heart. No restrictions. I recorded most of it myself, with some studio work here and there for certain artists involved with it, and the mastering. It's raw; a lot of the songs are stripped down arrangement wise and almost naked. I guess the point of this album was to just get who I am across to the listeners. And of course, that has all changed today, so the next album will reflect the more recent me.
AAJ: Tell me about the journey to record Matt Cusson.
MC: It was long, short, difficult, easy, miserable, happy, dead, alive, everything. Not to get too artsy but it really was a long and winding road. Very overdue. I started most of the songs out in my house, or apartment, I seemed to be living someplace new almost every few months. Then as each song slowly came to life, I brought in other players and singers who I thought could take the song and bring it to where I wanted it to go. Although I didn't go all the way there with this record, I'm almost glad because it really shows who I am as a musician. I think the first song I wrote was "Heaven," which I wrote about five or six years ago. Then all the stuff in between, and ending the recording by doing the "A cappella Interlude" literally a day or two before getting it all mastered. It was a fun journey at the end of the day.
AAJ: Tell me about the songs.
MC: Each song has a story to it. There are a lot of slow songs on this record but they really reflected what I was going through up until the release. "Every Step" was the last full song we recorded for the album, I had just gotten out of a heart-wrenching break up, and that song literally was finished in a few days, outside of the horns and guitars. Each line in that song is significant in that the person I wrote it for will understand each word. So be careful what you say to me, I may just throw it in a song. "Here's To You and Me" is a song I wrote for my parents, it's basically about having gone through the years and years of ups and downs and struggles of a relationship based on true love, and then looking back on it all. "One of Those Nights" I wrote at a very difficult time in my life. It took me a really long time to write, but it was worth the wait, I think. "Once Upon A Time" was a song I wrote for my three nieces, Carla, Kaitlyn and Kristina. As I said though, each song has a story to it, I write about my experiences, things that happen around me, or whatever I'm feeling at the moment.
AAJ: The collaborations, why them?
MC: Bill Myers is one of the most amazing musicians I've ever met. To have him arrange "Could" was an honor and dream come true. When I heard he was interested in helping out, I jumped right on it. He was amazing to work with. Shoshana Bean, easily one of my favorite singers in the industry and also one of my best friends. Having her sing on "Could" just made a lot of sense. That song was recorded by Brian McKnight on his Anytime (Mercury, 1997) album, and Shoshana and I met because we were both working with Brian awhile back. Javier is one of my best friends and one of my favorite artists out there now. I had to get him on a song somewhere on the CD. Not only is he singing "Same Old Song" with me, but he also helped out on the hand claps in "Every Step" [laughs].
AAJ: Working with Brian McKnight.
MC: [A] dream come true and an everyday music lesson. I never stop learning from him or being amazed by his ability. We're currently now doing The Brian McKnight Show, which has me playing with artists such as Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. Brian has made a lot of my dreams come true, and I've gotten to see the world because of him. He is, to this day, one of the most talented artists I've ever heard, having him as a musical mentor has been an experience I wouldn't trade for anything.
AAJ: Tell me about performing live. And Europe, Asia, everything...
MC: There's nothing like going to a strange land and performing. I've been very blessed to have had the opportunity to travel the world for music's sake. Live, I try to make the audience feel at home, it's almost as if they're in my living room with me sitting at the piano, and we're just hanging and playing music together. The fans in Europe and Asia are incredibly loyal and supportive. Not that the American audience isn't, but traveling to those other places for the first time, I didn't know what to expect. It was a beautiful thing to hear the audiences all across the world singing the lyrics.
AAJ: Something important to you.
MC: Everyone and everything along the way that made me who I am. Most of all my family, who has given me endless support and life lessons.
Matt Cusson, Matt Cusson (Cuesound Records, 2008)
Shoshana Bean, Superhero (Shotime, 2008)
Donavon, Pass It Around (Universal Australia, 2008)
Brian McKnight, I'll Be Home for Christmas (Razor & Tie, 2008)
Cupid, Time for a Change (Atlantic, 2007)