When I first lay eyes on Matt Costa, the latest in what seems to be an endless supply of male singer-songwriters to come out of California, he flashes a smile that somewhat throws me off guard. Despite being on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records (as well as opening up for Jack on a leg of his tour last summer and contributing to his Curious George soundtrack earlier in 2006) along with like-minded contemporaries like G. Love and Donovan Frankenreiter, Matt carries himself in a manner that doesn’t tie him to his music’s breezy, sounds or his California-boy voice. It isn’t that he’s not good looking, but rather that he pulls it off with less effort than you would imagine, his youthful optimism showing in his disheveled manner. Dressed in a dark green jacket and tight jeans, Costa looks like he could be a part of the latest indie group from Williamsburg or the bassist for a punk British band. He walks with this sleepy expression on his face, as if he is waiting to feel the pinch that wakes him from this dream. Costa is making the festival circuit rounds this year already playing a slot at Coachella, and now Bonnaroo, and he still has Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, and Bumbershoot to look forward to. He seems as surprised as anyone else about his recent rise to fame but as Cameron Crowe’s famous Penny Lane once said, “This is all really happening,” and Costa knows better than to spoil a moment of it. Especially since today is his 24th birthday.
“It is getting kind of hard to talk about this past year,” he says while he picks at some grass behind the media tent on the Friday morning of Bonnaroo. “This past year a lot of things happened that I could never imagined. I would just like to keep going on the path that I am going, writing songs, and just enjoy the ride. Maybe get some time off because I have been doing so much. I have two weeks off in like three weeks, so I think I am going to go camping, which will be nice.
“I am just kind of shocked and I am just soaking it all in. I am excited about how the music effects people ... Fans give me cards, thank you letters, and pictures, and they put a lot of time into it and they say things to me with such sincerity. I almost feel guilty that I get to do something so fun and so great. I never thought I would be singing these songs to this many people and they would be getting so much enjoyment—more than I could have ever expected—out of my work. Well, that really hits me.”
It hits him so hard because it seems like he never really expected it to get to this point. Touted as one of the best amateur skateboarders in the country before injuring himself a few years back, Costa reinvested himself in his music when No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont took him under his wing and offered to produce him. After the positive reception of Songs We Sing, it’s been a whirlwind. Like many artists I have spoken to, Costa feels that his music is both cathartic for him and an itch that he needs to scratch. Once the recording is done, however, it is up to his fans to reinvent his songs and make them into whatever they want—or need—them to be.
“A song to me even means a bunch of different things. I will write a song and it means one thing at one time and then I go back and it always evolves for me and I could look back a few years later and it could always turn to mean something different. Your environment plays a huge part about the music that you are around and it impacts how you view life. If you live in a rainy place like Seattle or England and it is dreary and you write different songs. It definitely shows. People come from different places and they make different music and their outlooks are a very personal view.”
I am most interested in understanding why Costa believes he finally made it to the big show. He’s already demonstrated how appreciative he is of his position, so I’m more intrigued with what he—and other solo artists out there with only a voice and a guitar—possess that sets them apart from the guy who may have the talent but never gets out of the subway or the coffeehouse to find his big break.
“I think it is your own personal drive to want to create. You want to create music and express and push yourself. Every song I write is me pushing myself that much further. It is learning something in between writing two songs and incorporating that knowledge the next time I sit down to make something new. I am evolving and you learn how to better express yourself. That is what the best artists have and I am still learning it but the best ones have 100% have themselves in their work. That is what people want and respond to.
“There is a difference between what Prince does and what Jack Johnson does. They both are doing something very different but they are very much being who they are and they reach people. There is something pure in both of those things. You cannot fool people for too long before your real self is exposed. People like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith—they didn’t get the recognition they may have deserved while alive but if you are a real artists [recognition] is not what it is all about. For me the excitement when I write a song is that the goal is already achieved. I am already there.”
The other important factor for both Costa’s successes and his humility is that he never ceased from being a fan of music above anything else. In our conversation he glows when he name checks some of his favorite bands including the Zombies, the Kinks, Nick Drake, and Van Morrison. But his insight into musicianship and the borrowing of timeless techniques comes to light when he shares an anecdote about John Lennon that I had never heard.
“I have always enjoyed jazz and how they like to quote other people’s work in the context of their own music as a nod of respect. There is that story about John Lennon, how he took bits and pieces of his favorite songs and then used them to create his own songs. He had this little jukebox he would carry around with records in there whose songs he would borrow from. In this special they interviewed the musicians whose work he would carry around and then they would talk about where they got there ideas from. [Lennon] once heard this chord progression he liked in a song I can’t remember right now, but it was some old Motown song and then he just did it double time and that is how he wrote this one song. Donovan Leach had a song with a fingerpicking technique that he took from the Carter Family. I guess when Donovan was with John and Brian Wilson to see the Maharishi and John really wanted to learn this fingerpicking technique. He then took that and wrote “Dear Prudence”.
We sit there for a few minutes talking about why we love music, and I completely forget that I am speaking with an up-and-coming star on his birthday, the day after he played the opening night of the biggest music festival in the country. This is Matt Costa’s warmth and charm. He is leaving soon for a gig in South Carolina and will not be able to catch any this weekend’s sets. He has been playing pretty much straight through since February. When I ask him to describe life on the road in three words, he pauses before saying, “Fast.” He smiles the same smile I first saw when we shook hands and becomes flustered.
“Come on, Matt, two more words. You’re the singer songwriter!” I tease.
“I know, I know,” he says. “Let’s just say it is always a good time. Always a good time.”
Matt Costa - Cold December