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Matt Gold: A Guitarist in Songwriter's Disguise

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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I never felt like I had to decide what lane my music goes into. The question was always about how I could try and tie all of these concepts and influences together to form a coherent whole. —Matt Gold, Guitarist, Composer & Songwriter
Combining improvisational concepts with Americana aesthetics is one thing, but enveloping this blend in a songwriter approach is another story entirely. The first concept is common practice these days, the second however represents the unique character which the up and coming Chicago-based guitarist Matt Gold has to offer on his compelling debut effort, Imagined Sky (Whirlwind Recordings, 2020). Midwestern soundscapes meet art rock sensibilities featuring twangy guitar lines and a light acoustic touch on an album that doesn't shy away from relying on the simple powers of instrumental music with the occasional vocal performance sprinkled on top. Originally from New York, Gold relocated to Chicago in 2013 where he found a vibrant scene creating new work, building on the city's deep history of experimentation. While Imagined Sky represents his first album as a solo artist, the guitarist and songwriter has been releasing music in different formations for almost a decade now. In 2019, his instrumental duo with drummer Nate Friedman, called Sun Speak, released their fourth album Moon Preach as a follow-up to their collaborative effort with the singer Sara Serpa, who also guests on and contributes lyrics to the song "Petrichor" off of Imagined Sky. On top of Sun Speak, Gold is also part of Storm Jameson, the songwriter duo made up of himself and Jim Tashjian. Their debut recording The Year of Orbison is an exciting take on modern Americana songwriting and was released in 2018 on Flood Music, an artist-run label native to Chicago that Gold co-curates. His involvement with Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven's band as well as contributions to Greg Ward's album Stomping Off From Greendwood (Greenleaf Music, 2019) shouldn't go unmentioned either. In light of his new album and Gold's move to London-based label Whirlwind Recordings for its release, All About Jazz chatted with him about his longstanding trio, fingerstyle picking, guitar rigs and much more.

All About Jazz: Your new album opens with "Augusta Fairgrounds," an instrumental piece performed by your core trio, comprised of Bryan Doherty on electric bass and Jeremy Cunningham on drums. You've been a fixed trio for a long time now. How did you guys start out together and how has your musical relationship to one another developed over time?

Matt Gold: One of the really interesting things about this trio is that we've all played each other's music over some years now. Bryan and Jeremy have their own projects that we've been a part of in the past and so we've been able to interpret each other's compositional ideas before. And that's pretty huge. Just being able to get further inside someone's complete musical philosophy. Not just Jeremy as a drummer, not just Bryan as a bassist, but to intimately experience how each of them operate as composers and bandleaders.

Shortly after I moved to Chicago, I think it was in 2014, we started playing free improvised gigs around the city. So for a couple of years we were just doing that. When the three of us would play it would be very open for any ideas that came in the moment, none of us would bring in any written material in for a while. I believe that in doing that, we developed a certain level of aesthetic sensibility as well as improvisational instinct and most of all a trust between us three. And this trust is really crucial, not only for this improvised setting, but composed music, too. It would be at least a year or two before I brought any music in for the guys to read. But when I took it to them, I knew that it was sitting on this bed of trust and a deepened relationship. So even though there might be fairly little improvisation on this record (Imagined Sky), I still feel that it is based on this notion of trust and a wide range of reference points that we share.

AAJ: You seem very comfortable with one another and seamlessly drift off into different musical directions on this album. Between art-rock, indie and Americana, you demonstrate a lot of different musical influences. Where do you and your trio partners come from musically and what other music do your colleagues venture in, resulting in this eclectic blend?

MG: Jeremy and Bryan are a little bit older than me, but I think we all grew up listening to and trying to play a lot of different music, looking for a through-line; part of what's so fun about improvising with and writing for them is knowing that I can pull in some far-off reference or detail in the music and they'll respond in an intuitive way, in a way that says "I hear you, I feel where this is coming from." And that was especially exciting when we were playing more improvised gigs, laying the foundation of the trio's sensibility...how we could abstract things from all the music we love and push each other towards something that felt fresh and real. Trusting that anything could inform the collective vocabulary—Jimi Hendrix, Ornette Coleman, Phineas Newborn, Jr., Gillian Welch, Debussy... from a perspective of musical "style," that's fun but not ultimately very deep— to me, what's really powerful is how all those years of deep listening result in an openness to exploration, their interest in getting beyond the written material and down to the essential feeling of the music, always trying to approach the music with honesty and without ego. I never felt like I had to decide what lane my music goes into. The question was always about how I could try and tie all of these concepts and influences together to form a coherent whole.

AAJ: This album could be regarded as representative of that point exactly. While clearly influenced by a wide array of styles, it is enveloped by a sense of homogeneousness.

MG : Exactly, I go very different places on the record but try to add some focus to it. That focus might be summarized in a song-forwardness, trying to make concise music that gets to the point.

AAJ: While not sonically through-designed pop or alternative music with polished production values, nor purely improvised jazz recorded live off the floor, a certain liveliness runs through Imagined Sky like a thread. Can this be tied to the recording situation? Did you record the core trio live off the floor and then add overdubs?

MG: Yeah, that's pretty much how we did it. When we started out recording this, I hadn't yet fully conceptualized what it was supposed to sound like at the end, but just had this various trio material. I did want to leave some room for adding things, knowing that I would want to bring in some vocalists etc. So yes, we tried to capture the liveliness of the three of us playing together and then using the production not as a substitute for substance, but really just as a way to augment the songs and travel a little bit further.

Basically, we cut the trio material in one stretch of time, and then over the next year or so I did a few sessions of tracking from my place, doing some vocals and keyboard stuff. That's when Dan Pierson, a very close friend of mine, came in to play some synth on the record. He also engineered some of the other overdub sessions for the record with me. We brought in the strings and upright bass on "Truehearted" and cut Macie Stewart's vocals on "Queen Anne." For Sara Serpa I ended up going to New York, where she is based, to record her vocals for "Petrichor."

AAJ: Then collaborating with vocalists Macie Stewart and Sara Serpa was part of the plan from the start?

MG: I was definitely trying to find ways to weave the instrumental material together with the vocal pieces in a way that felt seamless. I've known Sara now for a few years, since I'd collaborated with her before, on the Sun Speak album Sun Speak with Sara Serpa (Flood Music, 2018). After making that album, I'd been thinking of ways to continue collaborating with her. Her sound is very special; don't know if I wrote "Petrichor" with her in mind specifically, but as soon as I had written it, I knew her voice would suit the piece perfectly

I've long been a fan of Macie's music, both through her band Ohmme as well as various improvised gigs around Chicago; she is not only a great singer but a super thoughtful instrumentalist and songwriter. I thought her voice could work well on "Queen Anne" and her ability to get inside the words and the phrasing really elevated the song.

AAJ: "Truehearted" features your own vocals. You have a crispy baritone with a unique and warm character which goes very well with your music. Why don't more tracks feature your vocals? Or did you save your vocal-driven compositions for a more suitable project?

MG: I like to have my little Ringo Starr moment (laughs)! In my mind the guitar functions in the same way that my own singing voice does. That's something I wanted to access through this record. There's lyricism and a sense of melody throughout, whether a vocal track or not, and it all comes from one place. But yes, now during quarantine with all this time at home I've been building a nice set of music on which I sing a lot more. That will be one of the next projects to come out, I think.

AAJ: In light of the many different influences that find their way into your music, could you boil them down to an essential few that have guided your musical pursuit more prominently?

MG: That's a big question! As far as things go for my influences as a guitarist and in developing a lyrical sense, Jim Hall and Lenny Breau have played an important part in teaching me about orchestration on the guitar -their approach definitely informed my thinking in the early days of Sun Speak, when I was figuring out how to make the music feel full and complete without a bassist. But also, folks like James Blood Ulmer, Marc Ribot and Sonny Sharrock have been big influences, when it comes to the more explosive and ecstatic side of guitar playing.

I've always loved songwriters who could bring an imaginative approach to such a deep tradition of storytelling -Joni Mitchell's 70's records are important for me in this way. Beyond that I listen to a lot of fingerstyle guitarists like Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt. They all allow the guitar to come through in a really beautiful way. I like it when artists find a way of balancing their voice and instrument. Especially Cotten and Hurt have the guitar pull equal weight to the voice. They're tangled together in a beautiful way. I could go on and on!

AAJ: To close things off, could you say a few words about your guitar set up?

MG: I think it's relatively minimal in the grand scheme of guitar set-ups (laughs). I play a Gibson ES-446 which is fully hollow, small-bodied guitar. That's the instrument on which pretty much the entire record was played. I use a couple of boost pedals to push the amp a little further, then I add the MXR carbon-copy analogue delay pedal which I've had since I was young. I use the Eelectro Harmonix freeze pedal and feed that into the delay to modulate a sort of drone-sound. And for reverb and tremolo I have the Strymon Flint. Amp-wise I'm usually set-up with Fender tube amps. For "Bottom of The Barrel" I additionally sent out the stereo output of the Flint pedal to a little 5-Watt Fender Pro Junior amp and turned it all the way up. So most of what you hear on that song is that cheap little amp. Otherwise I'm playing through a Deluxe Reverb for the most part.

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