Matt's ability to verbalize the world inside his head is formidable, and he can be so driven to write that his relationships suffer. His songs can be a bit cryptic, but here, Matt taps into those considerable teaching skills to explain them. He teaches us that there is a separate face for every aspect in life, that sometimes it's OK to embrace the darkness, and maybe most importantly, that you should stay far away from the crazy hairbrush lady on picture day.
Vertical Horizon, known for their monster hit "Everything You Want" (which Matt explains in detail), is back at it. A new CD, Burning The Days, with the unmistakable VH sound, is planned for September 22nd, and the first single "Save Me From Myself" is out now.
As far as we're concerned, it was music's lucky day when Matt chose the proverbial rock and roll highway.
Matt Scannell: Oh, good. Otherwise this conversation would go a little bit more like, "Why? Why are you calling?" (laughs)
Songfacts: (laughing) Before I get into those, though, I have something that has to do with nothing, really.
Matt: Good. I prefer that. (laughs)
Songfacts: In all the photos that I have seen of you with the band, and just of you in general, really, you guys always are so serious. And then I watch videos of you, and you've got this thousand-watt smile. And I have to wonder, why the serious persona?
Matt: Yeah, I just hate photo shoots.(laughs) No, it's interesting, you're not the first person who's asked me that. I think my mom was the first. She says, "Why are you always so grumpy?" I don't know. I think there's probably two sides to the music, and part of it is that people who are making big smiles in pictures sometimes look dorky.
Songfacts: Really? (laughing)
Matt: I don't know. I really don't know. (laughing) I haven't thought it through. But I do know it's like during performances it's probably like half smiles and half "we're playing rock right now, so it's appropriate to have a rock face." (laughs) Are you casting your vote for more smiles? Is that what you're saying?
Songfacts: (laughs) No - please don't take this the wrong way - I was surprised to see you when you were smiling. And I thought, "Wow! He looks like a completely different guy!"
Matt: Yeah, it's interesting. People have come up to me and said, "I thought you were really scary, but you're actually really nice." And then I say, "Thank you?"
Songfacts: Yeah, "Now, what do I do with that?"
Matt: Yeah, "thanks, um" (laughing) I don't know. I think all I can really say is there are two sides to my relationship with the music, two facets that are both true and real. And one is that I love what I do, and I am completely honored and have a blast doing it, and when we play live and when I'm singing in a live situation, I look out in the audience and it's like they're all singing along and having fun. It's like, man, that's an incredible honor, so I tend to get happy and smiley. But then there's also a side of me that's like, man, this music really comes from a place inside of me that's so real for me, I guess I probably tap into that more when we're doing things like photo shoots. But it is an interesting question, though. I'll have to sort of have a think on it.
Songfacts: Oh my goodness, I've caused you to think.
Matt: God forbid.
Songfacts: Don't get a headache on that.
Matt: Hold everything, I'm actually thinking. Wasn't sure if it was ever gonna happen! Ohhhh nooo.
Songfacts: I'll send you some aspirin. All right, let's talk songs. "Everything You Want." This is the one that has haunted me for years. I love the song, I cannot figure it out. I just want to know your side of it.
Songfacts: I've never seen a religious aspect to it. I mean, you mention angels, but otherwise...
Matt: Well, it's fascinating to me. The song's been out there for a long time, and if you take a step back - and I love doing this - take a step back from a kind of really strong through-line in a song, it basically says I opened this door, and I went into this room, and I opened that chest, and in that chest was this thing. And then here the thing is the chorus, and the thing about the thing... There's a whole instruction manual that goes along with the song. Then you have an almost one dimensional perspective on what it can be. One of the things I love about that song is it's almost like a pastiche, all these different photographs. It's almost more like you're looking at a photo album, and in between the pictures you have to connect the dots. I've written a lot now with people from Nashville, and other people who prefer very strong through-lines, and they don't want to make many leaps. And it's not a slight against that style of writing, because a finely crafted story that is easy to follow is incredibly difficult - if not more difficult - to do than what I did with "Everything You Want." But I think there's a real beauty to it. I think it can feel very artistically freeing to just change pictures. I love the mystery of those lines, and I know where I was writing them. So I embrace the fact that someone else could hear it being about one thing that's totally different than the thing that I heard it being about. I think the thing that rings true is that sense of absolute desperation, there is a kind of jeopardy to that song. And I don't think any interpretation is more or less valid. In fact, it's one of the reasons I hesitate to wrap it up too neatly in one particular meaning.
But that's where I was when I wrote it.
Songfacts: I respect that a lot of songwriters don't want to deconstruct lyrics and lay it right out there naked like that, because you want to leave it open.
Matt: I think that as long as it's clear that the writer intended to leave it somewhat open to interpretation for that very reason, and for the beauty of that, that's great. I mean, the song was a huge song. People all over the world latched onto it. And everybody feels differently about that song. And that's incredible, you know?
Songfacts: You brought up how you have been doing a lot of writing with folks in Nashville. And I read that you really dug in your heels about co-writing. I wonder if you can tell me what your first co-writing experience was like?
Matt: When you say "dug in my heels," what do you mean about that?
Songfacts: What I read - and I think it was on your Web site - was that you never really liked the idea of co-writing.
Matt: Okay. I can sort of elaborate. Yeah, I've done a fairly severe about-face on the concept of collaboration. And my hesitancy to do co-writes initially came out of a place of insecurity, but it was more than just that. I viewed my creative juices as being a finite source. For years and years and years and years I felt this is my precious gift that's been given to me, and I don't want to waste it, dilute it, by working with other people. It was a very naive viewpoint - you don't know what you're gonna get if you don't try it. You don't know what a roller coaster's like until you get on it. I really hadn't done it, and I was hesitant to do it. And now what I've realized over the years of doing more and more collaboration - I've been writing a lot with my friend Richard Marx, and I wrote with Neil Peart for the new Vertical Horizon record, and all these Nashville collaborations that have happened - I've learned that you walk into the room with one set of skills and you wind up walking out with more. And whether or not the song is the greatest song in the world is almost immaterial, because you're furthering yourself. I've talked to Richard about this, because sometimes a collaboration isn't the best. Even if you go in and you don't really wind up connecting with the person, you don't wind up writing the greatest song, you're able to benefit from that experience by knowing to say the right things, and to try to finesse it and move it along. That comes from writing with people who are vastly less experienced than I am, but also writing with people who are master craftsmen and women who have years and years more experience than I do. And I just view it as a very different thing.
Songfacts: You have a great way of teaching. I watched a couple of YouTube videos where you were describing how to play the guitar, and you did it so well. And just like now, you used visual metaphors, I just thought, wow, if he wasn't a rock star, he could be a good teacher.
Songfacts: Back to the same CD, Everything You Want, what's the inspiration for "You're A God"?
Matt: Well, "You're A God" was written about when we give people in our lives power over us. It can be anything, whether it's a romantic thing or not - this one wasn't. Let me step back... So, in every relationship that we have in our lives, there are certain dynamics that exist. On the one hand, some people may be more giving towards us and we're a little bit more taking from them, and the balance is constantly ebbing and flowing and changing over time. But there are some relationships that are nurturing, and there are some relationships where, by and large, we do the nurturing for the other person. Then there are some relationships that are largely positive. And there are others that are largely negative. Once I had a relationship in my life that was largely negative. And it was a person who had power over me, seemed to be in a position that was above me, a place that was beyond my grasp. Whether it's a boss, or someone that you look up to... And I realized all I had to do was stop looking up at them, and start looking down on them. And it was like I took that power away. The power was just gone. I had this really negative relationship that was a big source of angst and friction in my life. And it was the most amazing thing to just say, "No, I don't prescribe to your power over me anymore, and I'm gonna let you go." And it was gone. And that's why that song starts off, "I gotta be honest, we're covered in lies and that's okay." It's all okay, but I'm saying it's never gonna happen to me again. You are done, you're not a god. Really, the title is ironic: you're a god and I am not - well, that's actually not true anymore, because now you're not a god.
Matt: Exactly, good. I'm happy to hear you say that. Because so many people - and I don't mean this as a slight - but so many people come up to me and they're very concerned, "Why are you letting God go?" And it's like, "Let's not do this. It can be metaphor, it can be ironic, we can use devices other than the words." I was amazed, and I think I continue to be. It's just one of those things. "Everything You Want" and "You're A God," those were songs that people took to be religious songs.
Songfacts: I wonder why it always seems to be the religious aspect that gets the people really worked up, and that's what people tend to want to put onto songs.
Matt: Yeah, yeah, I know. There are plenty of people who would be able to speak more eloquently to it than I can, but I think one of the things about religion is it causes a certain fervor, and you want your belief to be constantly renewed or reinforced, have them made to seem true. I was raised Catholic. I don't go to church every Sunday, but I go to church on Sundays. And there are things about religion to me that are beautiful. But it's a very personal thing for me. And I'm just not someone who's interested in projecting that outward through my music. I just don't come from that place at all. And I'm amazed how many people try and put it there. But that's fine. If they want it to be there, that's fine. I just would hate for someone to listen to "You're A God" and think that it's a song about letting go of religion.
Songfacts: It's more like, "I'm getting back my power."
Matt: Yeah. "I'm taking it away from you, 'cause you're a frickin' jerk." (laughs)
Songfacts: I'm glad you learned that lesson! Good for you! (laughs)
Matt: Thank you, thank you. I'm very proud of myself. (laughing)
Songfacts: Okay, can you talk to me about "Forever"?
Songfacts: I'll bet you get religious inferences on this, too.
Matt: You know, it's interesting, I don't. I couldn't tell you why, but I don't. I get way more people saying, "I lost my dad, and I listened to that song and it makes me remember something he said to me," or "it makes me think of him. And I love that song." One of my dear friends whose father passed away, she told me that that's her song for her father. And that's the song that she uses to keep him in her life. What an honor. It's a stunning, stunning feeling. I just got chills. I'm so grateful, because that's one of the most amazing things about songs. We were talking about it earlier with "Everything You Want." To me, it's one thing to be in my room late at night when I'm trying to exorcize my demons and get some of the stuff out that I need to get out. But it's another thing entirely when it gets out there in the world and resonates with people, and it can become something that is beneficial, or even just a little whimsy, but something that they can attach to and hold as a positive thing. Generally, I try to write songs that are a little bit more positive than negative. Maybe that's because I'm trying to talk myself up a little bit, but I also know now at this point that they're not just my songs. They're also everybody's songs.
Songfacts: One of the things that appeals to me about your writing is that you make me think about it. I have to listen to it, hear the words, really hear them. I don't like it when it's just handed to me.
Matt: Yeah, I don't either. It's not condescending, but it's just a little bit too straight. Would you rather drive down the highway? Or would you rather drive down the twisty back roads up to the magical view? I want the twisty roads, thank you. And if my songs reflect that, then that's just fine.
I've been trying to create characters, because my songs tend to be first person. And it's ironic that I would be talking about a song title such as "Save Me From Myself" as having elements of third person narrative in it. But the characters and the verses in it are an attempt for me to illustrate these precarious situations. One of the things that's hard for me is I can see problems. I can see things inside of myself that are broken. I can see things inside of myself that are dangerous. I can see things inside of myself that desperately need help. And so I was trying to use characters in precarious situations to illustrate that jeopardy. I grew up going to Cape Cod in the summer, and the ocean has always been a big part of my life, and it's also a big part of my songwriting. And I think there's a real beauty to it, but there's such a danger to it. The sailors in the first verse of the song, it's really knowing that, man, that boat should be there. But they're out and the storm's coming, and if they're out in that, then they're not alive. Then they didn't make it. So I hope they're swimming. I hope they're trying to get through. And the little boy in the woods, it's the same kind of thing. And yet I'm just sort of sitting there looking at it. "Seems to me I'm always miles away looking for my own face." It's so detached. Instead of doing the work, instead of going out there and finding them, I'm off thinking thoughts. For me, instead of doing the work and trying to put the pieces back together and fix myself, I'm out there... for me, looking for my own face was just really a lyric that, it's right in front of your eyes, and you can't see it.
Songfacts: While everyone in the song seems to come out okay, though, you're still out there looking for yourself.
Matt: Yeah, well, that's the classic thing, the "happy endings all around, and still they haunt me." I aspire to be a glass-is-half-full guy, and largely I'm in a much better place towards being that guy, but by nature, I'm someone who tends to see a lot of negatives.
Songfacts: You're very complex. I would love to get inside your head.
Matt: (laughing) I don't think you would. That's the reason I started writing songs: I needed to get it out. And for me, the lyric and the chorus that I'm most proud of is, "Save me from myself, I can't relate, we're mouth to mouth and still I suffocate." It's like you have the beauty, you have the love right in front of your face. It's almost the flip image for me of "Everything You Want," being on the outside on "Everything You Want," but here being on the inside in "Save Me From Myself." You've got that person who's there for you, who's breathing life into your body and you're rejecting it. And whether that's coming from within or without is almost immaterial. And the second verse is in some ways more of the same. The key for me about that is it's all in my backyard. "The bullet in the yard is slowly rusting, the bottle's cracked, the kid's come back, and I'm just looking." It's my backyard, and it's all in disrepair and disarray, and there are dangerous things back there, and I'm just watching. The same thing with the relationship. "The wine is on the floor, the candles flicker, your eyes fall and I'm appalled, it's all just cinder." It's like, you could do something about it, but you don't. It's a really dark song. And you know when I say I try to put some hope into songs? This is a pretty dark song. And I don't want to. But sometimes, you know what? Sometimes it's dark outside.
Songfacts: Sometimes it's dark inside.
Matt: Yeah, sometimes it's very dark inside.
Songfacts: You made a comment just now about a particular lyric you were very proud of in this song. And I'm wondering if you have another whole song somewhere that you are particularly proud of, that you'd like to share.
Matt: That's a very, very good question. I'll need to see if I come with something. I haven't thought about it that way. I just kind of write 'em and move on. Funny to think about it that way. There's a song on the new record called "All Is Said And Done" that's the first song on the record. I just really like the words and the chorus. You know when you've got somebody who works so hard to do things that just happen on their own anyways? I don't know if you know people like this, but the lyric is, "Are you tired of holding up the sky? Teaching birds to fly? You've done it all your life. Are you sad when you see the sun?, 'Cause then you're not the brightest one when all is said and done. And all is said and done." It's kind of a funny lyric in a way. But I know people who think that they're holding up the sky. They think that if they stop trying to hold up the sky the whole world's going to fall down. They think that they have to teach every bird how to fly. It's like, "Dude, we know. The birds know. The sky's there. It's okay, it's gonna be okay." This incredible frenetic endless mind-numbingly... it's like they're always in a triathlon. And I'm not that kind of person. I fall on the other side of it, like "Save Me From Myself" where I kind of retreat back, and can be a little bit reclusive. But some people in my life, I can just see them wasting their energy on things that they can't do anything about, or on things that they're not doing anything about. I've never been able to write a lyric that meant so much by saying so little. I was really proud of being able to paint that picture so completely in such few words. I like that one.
Matt: Yeah, very much so. In fact, we can just say that I should have subtitled this song, "All Is Said And Done: For Type A's Everywhere." Like the Type A anthem. (laughing)
Songfacts: Okay! (laughing) Did you want to tell me about another song off the new CD?
Matt: Yeah, there's a song called "The Middle Ground." It's basically about relationships, like when a relationship is at a turning point, and you either need to move forward or walk away. And in that sense, the title is very literal. But the lyric in the chorus... well, the lyric I just think is nice. It's "you illuminate me, you're the color I see, you're all that shines above, through the dark and disrupt. All the doubt in your eyes" - this is where some of the gray comes in - "All the doubt in your eyes, all the stars in mine, is it the distance you need, or is it just me?" I really like this lyric. "I know you're awake, 'cause you shake when you cry. As long as I wait, I've got nothing but time." And the chorus goes - and this is what I like - "Take me in, or just take me out. Put me on if you must, or just put me down. 'Cause I'm done. I'm all worn out. We're either alive, or a lie. I'm done with the middle ground." And I just feel like it says that thing well. And the second pre-chorus is, "Your touch is the water that gives and takes away, so I wait in the gutter for another rainy day." And to me, it's just right, that feeling of I love you, and I'm putting myself in this shitty situation, and I'm letting all the dregs and the crap run all over me at the hope of just one little bit.
Songfacts: And was that one that you wrote recently?
Songfacts: So that was something that you just went through recently.
Songfacts: Is that still going on?
Matt: (laughing) Well, do things ever entirely stop going on?
Songfacts: Good point. So the women that are the muses behind these songs, and these songs that are written, like the one that you just described to me, is very, very dark. I don't know that I would be able to stay in a relationship with somebody who wrote a song like that and I knew it was about me. And I wonder what these women think.
Matt: (laughing) I don't know. That's a good point. Part of it is, if you live with a filmmaker, he's gonna make films. You live with a painter, he's gonna paint paintings. And part of it is, there might be a beauty to it, but there's also a darkness to it, some ugly stuff. You gotta take your good with your bad, I guess. It's probably better that you're not in a relationship with a songwriter. (laughs) If that's the way you feel, I think something positive will come out of this moment: that songwriters are verboten to you. (laughs) But, no, I think that's a really valid point. I don't really know, because I've never been in a relationship with a songwriter. And I've never been aware of songs that were written about me. But there's another part of me that's just like, I don't care. Because I don't. This is how I deal with things. This is what I do. Many times in my life I've had to deal with the fact that this is how I process those difficult emotions. In some of my relationships, the woman that I was with would say, "Can you not go out on the road? Can you not play guitar right now? I know you're saying you have to write a song, but we have to talk about something." And there's a part of me that says, "Well, yeah, I want to talk to you." But there's another part of me that says, "Well, this is who I am." It's like another appendage. And I cannot deny that I have another arm. (laughs) And to suggest that I not do this right now would be like saying, "Well, would you just cut off your arm?" Well, clearly the answer is no. And I don't think that's an exaggeration. I think that's really the way it feels. I can't stop it, nor do I choose to, or desire to. In fact, if anything, I want to encourage it and continue it. Because it means every bit as much to me today as it did when I started writing songs when I was 14 years old. It's just who I am.
Songfacts: Do any of those songs from 14 years old exist on any recordings?
Matt: Yeah. And there's no frickin' way that you're ever gonna hear them. They are awful. My God. They are awful. It's so cute, you think about pictures of yourself when you're young, and you have zits and your teeth stick out weird, pre-braces, and your haircut's awful. I have this one picture of me back when I had hair, and on the day that the kids get their picture taken, there's this one woman with a hairbrush and she just goes mental and brushes the hair the way she decides to brush the hair, and that's the only day of your life that you've ever looked that way, because every other day your mom brushed your hair. And so I have this picture of me, it's like, "What the hell is that!?!" And that's the picture that's representative of me for that whole year! (laughing) But some of these songs are very much like that kid. You're looking back at that kid and you're like, Wow, what a dork. That's the truth.
Songfacts: You realize that this whole interview is gonna be posted, right?
Matt: Dammit, baby, go for it.
Songfacts: So anything else embarrassing you want to confess?
Matt: Yeah, I'm sure there is. It'll happen if we just hang out a little longer.
Songfacts: I know, right? Do you have a date for when the album is gonna be released?
Matt: Yes. September (2009) is the record release date, and July 21st is the date the single - "Save Me From Myself" - will be up on iTunes and stuff.
Songfacts: That's already out on some airplay, isn't it?
Matt: Yeah, it is. It's on the radio now. We went to Hot AC with that, so it's on certain stations around the country. But it'll be available for sale on July 21st.
Songfacts: Great, okay. Well, thank you so much, Matt, I really appreciate your time.
Matt: My pleasure. Thanks for the great questions. I appreciate you taking the time and wanting to talk music.
Matt's 3rd degree happened on July 7, 2009. Get more at www.verticalhorizon.com.
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