There are several cities throughout the Midwest Austin-based Matt Sever especially likes to take his guitar. Louisville is one. Thanks to the frequent radio play on WFPK (he’s the noon live lunch performer this Friday), he’s gained an eager fan base here. Plus, Louisville knows and appreciates brilliant songwriting.
In January, Matt The Electrician, as he’s known on stage, played one of the final Uncle Slayton shows. In this autumn return he wanted a bigger venue, but with a similar intimate feel. The Kentucky Country Day Theatre fit the bill.
Matt will also participate in a workshop with Kentucky Country Day students.
Matt is touring for his latest album “It’s a Beacon It’s a Bell” featuring the songs “Muddy Waters,” the title track, and “Last Ones Left.” An artist known for playing almost every instrument at hand (banjo, trumpet, piano, ukulele), Matt stripped this album down to a simple guitar and his slightly graveled voice.
“It’s a collection of songs,” Matt said, “that have sparse arrangements. And, I was doing a lot of touring alone recently. It was a project I’d wanted work on for a long time.”
His tours since he began playing (this is his eighth album) consist mostly of house concerts, intimate venues like Uncle Slaytons, and the occasional larger venue. In Austin he plays all over the city, in venues large and small, but the night of our interview he was preparing to play a nearly sold-out show at The Studios at Space near Chicago, an upscale listening room, alongside Lucy Wainwright Roche, daughter of Loudon and sister to Rufus.
“I never dreamed of being a rock star or filling 30,000 seat arenas. Forty percent of my road shows are house parties. The idea of the house concert has been around since the barn dance.”
He tells a story of a promoter in San Francisco who for over thirty years has promoted only house concerts. “When you’re out on the road you’re traveling as an itinerant. There have always been musicians playing house concerts. They are not shows promoted by the media. They are nice venues where the fan base comes out to see a specific show. If you are in the audience you aren’t there to look at your iPhone.”
While he does occasionally do the club scene, and understands how many of his friends love to play it, the house party can often be more rewarding. “In San Francisco and around I used to play with three others. By the time the club gets its share, you pay sound, you pay lights. We could have a 150 person packed house and each walk away with only $75.”
When Matt left his day job (yes, as an electrician), he dove into music without much of a safety net. “People used to get a job and keep it for thirty, forty years. It doesn’t work that way anymore. Moving on to something else doesn’t seem as risky.”
His formal education is in music theory and he was well-versed in guitar and trumpet. Everything else he began to play, and that’s almost every known instrument, he admits to not knowing how to play very well.
“I can’t play the piano very well compared to a professional pianist, but I can play enough to pick up patterns. Sometimes when I’m stuck for a song or an idea I will pick something up and just start playing. It’s kind of amazing what you can get out of an instrument you don’t know well. It’s sometimes an advantage not knowing how to play well.”
A couple of songs off this album and his previous album, “Accidental Thief,” he wrote in a 16th century castle in Denmark, a place he goes often to ‘get away.’ “In Austin we have a place called The House of Songs. They bring in artists from around the world to work with locals. I met some artists from Denmark there, a mix of Norwegians and Texans, and ever since we’ve been going to Denmark and working with them in the castle. Working with other cultures sort of takes you out of your comfort zone, in a good way.”
I chose off his latest album the track “Muddy Waters” and asked about his writing process for this song. “My daughter is a new teenager and with that comes a whole lot of new parenting challenges. One particular day we were out after a storm in Austin and I thought the city looked gorgeous. The way the sun looked, the clouds, the rushing water. To my daughter, full of emotions and teenage thoughts, it was gross and destructive. At that age it’s hard to admit you like something.”
He has a challenge with his friends where they each submit a song to one another based on a title or theme each week. That week the title was shatterproof glass. “And I instantly thought of my car and how the glass is shatterproof. I’ve always wanted to use the phrase muddy water in a song, and all of that came together. I don’t always know what a song is about when I start it.”
The connection Matt has with his audience is intense, and seems especially rare for singer-songwriters. Unlike many singer-songwriters who you notice when they stop the music to talk, with Matt you don’t often notice. It’s a continuous flow, riveted to each story he shares whether spoken or sung.
“When I was a kid the thing that turned me on was Arlo Guthrie and how easily he told a story. And I guess it’s part of my personality. I know if I plan to talk it goes all wrong. I play off the audience on that particular night.”
Like Guthrie and Pete Seeger, engaging with an audience is part of the experience, the reward. “That’s why I’m much more comfortable playing for a crowd of a hundred fifty people.”
With weighty songs off the new album like “Last Ones Left,” which could easily be a pub song where the crowd joins in to lyrics easily learned, this solo tour will be particularly special for fans. But touring isn’t always easy for a man who writes so much about the family he has to often leave behind.
“As a family, wife and kids, they are all very supportive. Without them I couldn’t do this. Family is the most important thing and so we do lots of checking in, making sure everyone is alright with how things are. It’s all a constantly changing evolving thing. I am extremely lucky.”
Matt the Electrician, Michael Fracasso opens
Kentucky Country Day Theatre, Fri., Nov. 8
Show at 8 p.m.