Photo: Paul Irmiter / Courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media

Matt Wilson and His Orchestra Consider Memory, Mortality With “When I Was a Writer” (premiere + interview)

Former Trip Shakespeare member, Matt Wilson returns with album focused on life's final act. "Because I live so much in my mind and because so much of my joy is in thinking and writing, the idea of the window shutting on that part of my life started to terrify me."

Matt Wilson & His Orchestra will release their debut album, When I Was a Writer via Chicago’s Pravda Records on 20 March. The former Trip Shakespeare leader recorded the album at his home studio in Minneapolis. In addition to producing the affair, Wilson mixed the record with John Fields (Soul Asylum, Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers, Switchfoot, Rooney) at Creation Audio.

Anchored by Wilson’s masterful songwriting, vocals, piano, and acoustic guitar, the album features harp from Phala Tracey, banjo from Quillan Roe, who is best known for his work with the Roe Family Singers, winners of a prestigious McKnight Fellowship, and Jacques Wait’s electric bass. A masterclass in songwriting, arrangement, and performance, When I Was a Writer speaks to life’s final act when we are left with few assurances but an inescapable destination. The Minnesota native handles this delicate topic with equal parts acceptance and defiance over a series of tunes that render us alternately tearful and triumphant.

That is perhaps nowhere as evident as on the title piece. There, Wilson traverses the distance between the young artist who finds inspiration in virtually everything to the elder statesman who comes to question how much time and inspiration they have left. The veteran singer-songwriter addresses these delicate moments and questions with equal parts resignation and bravery, allowing us to recognize the narrator’s fears of his narrowing future.

“When you’re young, there’s so much glory,” Wilson says, speaking from his Minneapolis home on an early January afternoon. “As a rule, life ends with difficulty. You’re losing your powers. For me, as a musician, because I had a brush with a small amount of fame but enough to fill my ego and make life extra effervescent, it’s colored the path of my life. The course led off with a lot of fireworks. Since then, it’s been more ordinary. This song tells that story and tries to capture those feelings.”

Wilson shared further thoughts on the process of creating When I Was a Writer with PopMatters in a conversation filled with reflection, laughter and honesty.

I understand that the material on this album was inspired in part by a fear of mortality.

There’s some dementia in our family. Because I live so much in my mind and because so much of my joy is in thinking and writing, the idea of the window shutting on that part of my life started to terrify me. I went through this period, maybe partly due to those feelings, where I was cranking out a lot of songs all of a sudden. I wanted to get through before my time was up.

As a writer, I have that anxiety when I finish something. “Where’s the next one coming from? Will it come?”

It’s a little bit like fishing. You can’t see what’s under the surface. Maybe there’s nothing there. You can’t tell what life exists beyond what you can see. When you catch some inspiration and words come to you and ideas that don’t seem trite, it feels like you’re receiving a gift. If you depend on it, it’s easy to think, “Wow, I’ll never see that again.”

Sources of inspiration change as we get older too.

When I was young, I was just awash in hormones like any kid. My greatest inspiration was girls. I don’t write about that anymore for the most part. I think a little bit more about life. Trying to be a good person. What does life mean?

Some themes emerge on the album. When you’re writing songs, do you see those threads, or do you think, “This is just a natural reflection of where I am right now?”

A little more the latter. I’ll be chasing down a nugget of meaning or a great phrase that seems like it’s not trite. I’ll look up after I’ve made a bunch of songs and realize that it’s a bouquet of related flowers that fit nicely together because they’re all from the same mind at the same time.

Despite the apparent weightiness of the material, there’s still humor there.

I couldn’t do it without humor. A lot of times, a book or a song can be very dark in terms of what it expresses on the surface, but then the form can have light in it that points in the other direction. It might be saying that reality is bleak but, at the same time, it’s beautiful or it’s funny. I think a lot of people work that way. I feel like, “There’s another depressing song. Great. Good job bringing that into the world!” Then I think, “But it is beautiful. It redeems itself.”

Was there a song in this batch that said to you, “We can move forward?”

There was a period where I wasn’t writing a lot of songs. I was working too hard trying to make the second Twilight Hours record. I was trying to produce something really cool, and it just kind of ate me up for way too long. I’m proud of the results, but I was doing it wrong. As we were putting that record out, we did a Kickstarter kind of thing to raise money for the album’s release. One thing that we offered was that I would write a song with a person.

A guy from Omaha, Tim Guthrie, bought that. He came to Minneapolis and told me that, in the end, he didn’t really want to write a song. He just wanted me to tell his story. His story was about his wife, who had passed away too young. It was very moving. We spent a whole day together. We went for walks. He inspired me, and then he went away. I wrote “I Can’t Return” after that.

It was an avalanche. I started doing everything I could to catch the inspiration and not screw it up. Several times, my wife booked me a hotel in the suburbs where I could stay the whole weekend. I’d bring my keyboard and guitar and write the entire time. It was really a blessed time.

Within that time you also assembled the band that appears on the album.

While Twilight Hours was still going strong, I started thinking about maybe creating a group that could play a revue of all my music and cover songs that I wanted to do. Because I have an inherently quiet, gravelly voice, it’s always been a struggle to get it over a rock band. My voice comes out in a cloud. I thought, “Maybe I’ll have a group where you can hear stuff on the top, stuff on the bottom, and there’ll be this midrange hole where my voice can finally come through, and people can hear my songs.”

I had known this harp player for a while, and I started to think about how cool that instrument is. It’s got a tinkle on the top, but it also goes way down low. Its range is huge. In a way, the same goes for the banjo. The banjo isn’t clogging up that center spot. I was with John Munson up north and Phala, the harp player and Quillan, the banjo player, were both there. Seeing them led me to think, “Wow, what if I had them in the same group?”

It started going really well. The first time we started singing together, it was just like, “OK, this is kind of special.” I started bringing the songs into the group. That became an ideal vehicle for my songs. We had a whole album worth of singles, we did them one-by-one and released videos. My manager said, “Matt, quit doing the videos. Go make an album.” So that’s what we did.