Matt Stevens: “Into the Sea” (Ghost, self-released, 6/6/10)
“Obscurity is the enemy, not piracy,” says guitarist and songwriter Matt Stevens. The British musician, currently living in North London, is a poster child for the digital revolution that has taken over his country and much of the world in the past 10 years. Utilizing social networks and streaming video, Stevens plays for a world stage, connecting with people across the globe, offering his music for download, and supporting the sharing of his work.
Twenty years ago, life was very different for Stevens, a kid who grew up relatively isolated and found his own ways of passing time. Before there was the World Wide Web, there was just a close group of friends and musicians supporting each other at the lone venue in Stevens’ hometown. “I had no musical people in my family, really,” he says. “I learned guitar through jazz lessons and playing in punk and indie and metal bands — bands that very few people ever heard of, [playing] to not many people. We played thrash metal to people in restaurants.”
As Stevens developed as a guitarist, he found more and more inspiration, taking England’s rich musical history in day after day. Originally a metal-head, Stevens grew into an appreciation for bands like The Smiths, crediting Johnny Marr specifically as a huge influence. He also discovered Portishead and King Crimson and counts himself as a fan of everything from Johann Sebastian Bach to Squarepusher.
Over the past few years, the guitarist has moved into a new and invigorating direction, focusing on instrumental compositions after the dissolution of his previous band. Utilizing the guitar’s expressive and lyrical quality, Stevens prefers to explore rhythms and chords rather than over-complicate his songs with too much pomp and flash. “I wanted to be a songwriter and an arranger initially,” Stevens says. “I never set out to be a solo artist, but I’m really pleased with the way things turned out.”
Stepping into the solo spotlight was, for Stevens, a move that seemed as natural as starting up a new collaborative project. Though playing in a band was, and still is, a favorite outlet (he currently plays in post-rock outfit The Fierce and the Dead), it’s his solo material that ultimately has caught the attention of the world at large.
“Since I’ve been doing the online thing, I’ve been lucky enough to build an audience through Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, and blogs,” Steven says. “I’ve been really surprised and pleased. People have shared my stuff on torrents and by burning CDs, and it’s just grown from there.”
None of this necessarily has put money into Stevens’ pockets, but the attention he receives from the file sharing has opened up avenues for him that were previously unthinkable. Now the musician can sit at home in England, log on, and play a show for folks in Uruguay, South Africa, and New Zealand. And that’s just what he does. Stevens frequently performs on the innovative website Cafenoodle, offers guitar lessons on Skype, and plays for free on Ustream.
But what about the actual music? Luckily, Stevens’ passion for music creates a poignant and moving expression in every composition that he delivers. Originally, his solo material began as many bedroom recordings do: sleepy lo-fi exercises layered with pedals and effects.
Now, on Stevens’ latest release, Ghost, the artist has come full circle, incorporating a full band and expanding his already dynamic sound. Showing a propensity for traditional songwriting in an instrumental format, the songs often take on recognizable structures while being unique and individualistic.
In the imaginary soundtrack of Stevens’ head, each song on Ghost carries its own narrative and weight, yet he’s slow to reveal too much detail. For Stevens, these arrangements are personal, taking him to dark recesses in his own psyche. “If I am thinking when I’m playing, I’m doing it wrong,” he says. “To be honest, I am trying to hit a flow where I’m not thinking and just hitting [for] an instant composition.”
It’s this experimental, almost subconscious style of writing that makes Stevens’ work so alluring. For the musician, each song on Ghost invokes a personal memory and takes on a significance beyond its individual features. The album works not as a supernatural entity but as an analogy to Stevens’ own feelings of isolation and the distance that once dominated his life. And though the album remains fairly upbeat, Stevens simultaneously achieves an eerie, autumnal feel.
The best part of listening to Ghost in all its live capacities — online and in person — is that no two performances are the same. Stevens tends to improvise in ways that can turn the songs into long ambient tomes or insanely layered live versions that barely resemble their studio counterparts. “I want to progress and keep things moving,” he says.
With a dedication to innovation and a thoughtful approach to music, Matt Stevens is an artist testing his own boundaries. In a world that finds many artists pushing back against the perceived threat of online abundance, Stevens can’t get his music to the masses fast enough. For the songwriter, the support and attention that he has already received — previously not possible without a major label and worldwide tour — justifies all of his effort.