I want a real love to let me in/
I wanna zero out and be born again/
No more false starts and no dead ends…Mercy, mercy/
Both hands/I need less drowning, more land/
Less drowning, more land
—“Mercy”, Modern Love
American songwriter Matt Nathanson has just made his most important statement with his new album, Modern Love. Modern Love is a diverse collection of songs about relationships, sexuality, and intimacy in a rapidly changing world. It may very well be the album of 2011.
While writing the songs, Nathanson cites influences as far ranging as INXS to the Japanese master novelist, Haruki Murakami. The songs are quite good, but perhaps more importantly, they are necessary. In an era when people seem to fear intimacy, punish sincerity, and belittle romance, it’s uplifting and refreshing to listen to the work of a poetic songwriter and talented singer celebrate sensuality, emotionalism, and romanticism. With Modern Love, Nathanson is acting as emotional archivist, preserving the vanishing parts of the emotional dynamo that is love. In July, I spoke with Nathanson about his work, about topics in American culture, and what he calls, “the human collision”.
What inspired a concept album about “modern love”?
I’m a huge fan and believer in the album as a concept – that has an arc like a film. I may be the last one left who believes in the concept of an album as a whole. It all started with this idea of how everything is moving so fast, technologically, and the way that our culture is obsessed with celebrity and obsessed with the surface of things.
It’s a two-fold thing; the subject of the stories in the songs were stories I was telling about people I knew who were in a relationship crises or at a turning point. Everyone I loved was hitting a weird moment at the time that our culture was having its own weird moment. What I saw was that everyone I know was having too much upheaval when our culture wasn’t having enough upheaval.
Our culture has a weird romance with the surface level of everything. So, the album became a weird trip of technology versus heart. That’s how we wanted it to sound, too. The technology would be there, but we would use it to our advantage in order to complement the emotional core and the depth. Then the concepts starting influencing the sonics and the sonics started influencing the concepts.
The idea also came from wanting the album to be like a collection of thematically related short stories, like a Raymond Carver or Haruki Murakami book.
The first thing I noticed with this album is that is has much larger sounds than your earlier work and much more experimentation. You’re using technology in interesting ways. You have a horns section. A few songs are built around huge guitar riffs. How did that happen and what made you decide to stretch yourself out with this record?
Mark Weinberg, my songwriting partner and I begin writing songs with acoustic guitars and basic melodies. That’s always how we start. We sit down, try to impress each other and try to have a good time. We listen to songs that inspire us and talk about chord changes and melodies.
I went in with the idea of wanting to make a sexy, funky, and pop record like Kick by INXS. That didn’t happen in the beginning though, because when we were recording we were trying to find the identity of the songs. The idea then shifted from being an album that sounds like those records to an album that does what those records did to us, makes us feel the same way.
When you listen to Songs From the Big Chair or Violator, they sound like they were beamed in from another planet. All those great records in the ‘80s had an other-worldly feel to them. It was obvious they were songs, but the way the instrumentation and production supported the songs, made them very hard to pin down. Even when I still hear them on the radio, they don’t sound dated. They sound like they came from outer space.
The first song that pulled everything together on Modern Love was “Kiss Quick”. After we had the basic melody and track, we started adding loops and keyboards and I started singing differently. Then that happened with three or four other songs. The lyrics for me come last, not until the soundscape is down. Once the soundscape is down, the song can tell me what it wants and I can write the lyrics. We don’t have a very efficient process, but it seems to work.
I got a love that comes in colors/
I got a voice, comes in screaming/
My old clothes don’t fit me now
– “Drop To Hold You”, Modern Love
Your voice is much bigger, too. You’re singing falsetto on certain parts. It seems that you decided to stretch your voice just as your decided to stretch the melodies. Is that something you did to complement the lyrical themes, or did it just grow out of the organic process of writing and playing?
It became really important to serve the song and it became important to not shackle the song by saying, “This is what is expected of the male singer/songwriter”. I used to have rules like, If I can’t play it alone acoustic, then I’m not going to put it on the record or that everything has to be recorded by a band playing live in a room. All these laws were passed by me.
This time I started opening up, breaking those laws, and asking, “Why can’t we add loops after recording?” “Why does this need acoustic guitar at all?” Then once I started removing the rules, I noticed more of me in this record than ever before.
If you read some of these new age books, which everybody laughs at, they say that the more you get out of your own way, the more of you shows up. That’s what happened once we stripped back some of these pre-conceived notions of what we’re supposed to do and what the record is supposed to sound like.
You also have to have rules long enough to know why you need to break them.
Yes, exactly. This is the problem with the idea that anyone can make a record in their house. I’m in support of that idea, but there’s a craft to it. Producers and engineers crack open songs in ways we don’t understand. They are craftsman. I spent a long time avoiding that, but now I enjoy it and am confident enough to, next time, work with someone who produced a record I respect and admire.
David Foster Wallace had an entire library of self-help, new age style books and took notes in the margins. Just because the term has been demonized and degraded, doesn’t mean that you can’t pull some valuable insights from it.
Yeah, anything associated with the term is perceived as hippie or flighty, but there is real truth and power to the idea of getting rid of your shit, whatever it is, and the baggage. So you can soar.
I wanna watch you undress/
I wanna watch you glow/
Let you hair down all around and cover us both/
You come in waves/We crash and roll/
You surround me, pull me, drown me/
Then swallow me whole
– “Run”, Modern Love
I see what you are doing with your album as having great cultural and social importance for three reasons, and I’ll go through those one at a time. The first thing that you are doing is offering sensuality in an age of vulgarity. Your songs are very sexual, but they aren’t vulgar or demeaning. They don’t degrade sexual connection and intimacy. Instead, they elevate sex and intimacy. How much of that is intentional?
I’ve never heard it put like that before. That’s very flattering. I can be vulgar in my personal interactions and one-on-one conversations. But art is not conversation. It’s funny, because it has to tap into the freedom of conversation, but there is an elevated element to it. So many of songs are so straight forward. now. They don’t have any mystery or intimacy. They’re just, “I wanna have sex on the table.”
I’m down with direct communication. But songs deserve more than that. They deserve poetry and the time taken to make them less direct and more sensual, erotic. As a culture we are incredibly sexually explicit, but also conservative.
Yeah, we have a schizophrenic and oxymoronic sexual identity.
Yeah. In our culture we’ll say “TMI”, but at the same time we want to know what Kardashian ate for lunch. People get bent out of shape when women breast feed in public, but they are okay with seeing people half naked on the cover of popular magazines.
These streets are haunted with ghosts who wait on luck to come/
They sleep with hornets then wonder why they wake up stung
– “Room @ The End of The World”, Modern Love
Well, you’re fighting against that. You’re also fighting against the sterility of our culture. You’re offering emotionalism in an age of coldness. You’re demonstrating a willingness and urgency in expressing the deepest emotional parts of yourself.
That’s just me. If you ask anybody they will tell you that there are emotional things going on all the time. But it’s not emotional, it is just reactionary. We live in hysterical times. People think we’re having emotional experiences when people are actually doing everything they can to avoid real emotional experiences. That’s just me and who I am. I’m a very emotional and wide open person. That goes back to clearing away everything that’s in your way and allowing yourself to become more of you.
I’m on Facebook and I’m sure you are, too. But do you believe that much of the new technology and social media facilitates people manipulating themselves into believing that they are having real emotional experiences when they are actually avoiding it?
Yeah, its a wild experience because people feel like they are having relationships when they’ve never actually met the person or with people they were with in high school by talking with them online in place of the human collision, as I call it. The human collision is such an ugly and weird, misshapen experience. It’s hard to control. It’s hard to predict.
But it’s also what can make life so perfect. The collision of people sexually, emotionally. The collision of people having real conversations about important stuff. Now, what we are doing is cleaning that up and taking it away. Why do I have to go see a band live when I can watch on YouTube? Why should I go meet a friend when I can log on, see what they are doing, and then go back to my own thing?
We’re missing the partnerships that are essential to growth on both sides. It’s making people lazier because it helps them avoid the parts of themselves that don’t make them feel good.
When did we get so careful?/
When did we lose ourselves?/
We fade out
– “Love Comes Tumbling Down”, Modern Love
Norman Mailer said that the danger of technology is that it “gives people greater control, but less pleasure.” I’m 26 years old, and I’m not that far removed from the 18 and 19 year-olds that I teach, but I notice with them that there is much less flirtation, much less playfulness, even less eye contact than I used to experience at their age. There’s certainly less intimacy. Do you see the same thing happening? How much of that made it onto this record?
A lot of that made it into the album. All the lyrics and the themes of the songs come from that problem. That’s what modern love is. Where do the volatile parts of ourselves show up—the molten parts—in a time when everything is surface and cold? The album is this idea of conflict and contract. Modern is cold and angular and it is set against love, which is obtuse and the opposite. The beating heart versus the cold metal.
You’re also offering romanticism in an age of cynicism. Everything is subject to mockery and parody now. But you aren’t afraid to be very romantic and offer a very romantic presentation of sex, love, and life.
I’m just a romantic. That’s who I am. That’s why I love Murakami.
This modern love, it’s a taco truck/
C’mon take the phone calls, baby/
I’ll take the silence, yeah/
This modern love is not enough
– “Modern Love”, Modern Love
You believe that “modern love is a taco truck”, as you say on the song. That may be my favorite line on the album.
I love taco trucks, but it is this idea of dinner coming to you and you stand outside and eat it instead of sitting down and experiencing dinner for real.
In the liner notes of the album you say that the sequencing, notes, and artwork all part of the album experience. Are you concerned about the future of music and the loss of appreciation for the album as a cohesive musical unit?
Oh yeah. Everyday I get more concerned about it. On Facebook I post an album of the day—a full album I’ve listened to in the morning. I’m just trying to remind people of the power of the album.
There isn’t an artform that’s been beaten down worse than music. People see it as worth next to nothing and that they are entitled to have it. People ignore the craft of it. Music saved my life and I feel it is my job to come to its aid. I dig technology, but I don’t want liner notes to go away. I still enjoy turning over a record. I believe in sequence. I believe in all of that and I will until I die.
You know, when we are clicking our teeth together and that’s how we access the clouds and we’ll just have direct downloads to our brains and we’ll just have a chip in our necks, I’m still going to be saying, “Hey you got to listen to The Wall on vinyl.”