After years at a major label left him creatively unfulfilled and without the success he’d hoped for when first signing a contract, Matt Hires could easily have given up on music. Instead, he began writing his most honest collection of songs yet, gradually accumulating the material that would form his just-released new album American Wilderness. Now based in Nashville, Hires, a Tampa native, found inspiration in change – a new city, a split with his label, a new lease on life – and it shows in his new music, which is filled with personal lyrics and experiments with new sounds.
Hires spoke with us about leaving Atlantic Records, bad bad names and how American Wilderness came to be.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? If so, what was it about?
The first song I ever wrote was a love song to the state of Florida. I think I was 17 or 18 when I wrote it. I graduated high school in 2003, and my plan was to be an officer in the Army. I just barely missed the cut for West Point, so I was planning on going to a military prep school in Alabama for a year and then going to West Point after that. As it turns out, military life was definitely not for me. Part of it was that I was a little too much of a non-conformist, and part of it was because I just really, really hate to run. I returned to Florida completely unsure of what I was going to do next but grateful to be home. “Sunshine State Serenade” was the first song I ever completed. In the song, I personified Florida as a woman and asked for her to have me back. It was actually pretty good. I just didn’t really have a grasp on song structure yet, so it was a bit of a mess. I’ll still play it every once in a while just for fun.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue songwriting/music professionally?
I think it was soon after my band played our very first show at a “coffee house” at the church where my dad was a pastor (we were called “Brer,” which was a pretty awful name). It probably wasn’t very great, but in our minds we were hot shit and probably just a few weeks away from a record deal. At the time, I was majoring in mass communications at the local community college, and I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When I told my parents that I was going to drop out of school and pursue music, they weren’t pumped about it. Probably because they knew my band wasn’t as good as we thought we were, but they supported me anyways.
What was the songwriting process like for American Wilderness?
This is the first full-length album that I’ve made as an independent artist. I was on Atlantic Records for 6 years. I signed with them back in 2008, after Brer broke up and I started playing solo. Someone from Atlantic found me on Myspace and liked what they heard. I’m very grateful for my years with Atlantic for a lot of reasons, but one would be that it helped me find out what kind of artist I didn’t want to be. American Wilderness is the first album that I wrote 100% on my own. I didn’t have anyone from the label weighing in on the songs. I didn’t co-write with strangers that had gold records hanging on their walls. I didn’t have the expectations of my parents or family or friends lurking in the back of my mind. I just wrote for me. With every song, I would just ask, “If you could put a Matt Hires album in your stereo right now, what would you want to hear?”
What sort of things inspire you to write?
With American Wilderness, I mostly wrote every song out of necessity. I’m not a very prolific songwriter. I usually only write a handful of songs every year. That’s probably why there have been three years between each release of my full-length albums. In the year leading up to recording American Wilderness, I had just moved from my hometown of Tampa, FL to Nashville, TN. There was something about moving to a new city that inspired this fresh group of songs. A big part of that was a group that some other songwriter friends and I started called “Scotch and Songs,” it’s pretty self-explanatory. Every other week, we would get together, share a bottle of scotch (or bourbon), and share new songs with each other. The group was a safe space for exploring our craft, taking risks, and trying new things with our songs. The thing is, I usually don’t write a song every other week, so being a part of that group pushed me to write even when I wasn’t feeling “inspired.” Usually a day or two before we were supposed to get together I would sit down and force myself to write a song so that I would have something to bring to the group. It turns out that forcing myself to write helped me to dig down into a level of honesty that I hadn’t reached before.
How did moving to Nashville affect your songwriting?
I guess I partly answered this in the previous question. I definitely think that moving to Nashville played a large role in these new songs, but I’m not sure if it was Nashville itself or just moving away from my hometown. It might have been the same if I had moved to Pittsburgh or Omaha or wherever. I think the freedom of starting fresh in a new city also gave me the freedom to approach my songwriting in a new and fresh way.
How has your religious upbringing impacted your songwriting?
I grew up in a conservative evangelical church. My dad was the pastor, so in my younger years, church was life. When I started making music I was often questioned by people at church about why I didn’t make Christian music. Instead of saying that it was because I really don’t like most Christian music, I probably said something about faith encompassing all of life, so really anything that I write could be called Christian. I’m not really sure if I believed that or not. I just knew I didn’t want the content of my songs to be limited to a certain subject. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become someone who is neither a conservative nor an evangelical, but I guess I accidentally made my first Christian album. But it’s one that encompasses all of life. When my wife and I moved to Nashville, we didn’t go to church for a whole year, which was the first time I hadn’t been in church in my entire life. I think it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I was able to take a step back and look at religion in America and look at myself from a different perspective. It was a period of reorganizing my thoughts on God and faith. Since it was during the months I was writing for American Wilderness, all of it came out in the songs. It’s pretty much a concept album, even though I didn’t intend it to be. The Jewish scriptures tell a story about Jacob wrestling with an “angel” in the wilderness. American Wilderness is an album about wrestling with faith, culture, myself, and the American dream.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m proud of all of them in different ways, but if I have to choose one it’s “Don’t Let Your Heart Grow Cold.” For some reason, I usually put my favorite song at the end of an album. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe most listeners don’t usually get that far into the album and miss out on it. This song felt like it definitely had to be at the end. After all of the wrestling and questioning and a little bit of axe grinding on the album, it needed a place to land. “Don’t Let Your Heart Grow Cold” is about focusing on beauty and meaning in life. It’s a reminder to myself that winter always turns into spring.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
When I started writing songs for the new album, I was listening to Brandon Flowers’ The Desired Effect a whole lot. I love how he can craft a great pop song without sacrificing lyrical content. That’s what I tried my best to do with American Wilderness. It would be great to write with Brandon someday.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
Just one song?! That’s tough. One that immediately popped into my head is “Penny On The Train Track” by Ben Kweller. That whole album is great, but especially that song. My friend Randall Kent (he produced American Wilderness) and I were listening to that album the other day, and we were talking about how great that song is. It’s so melodically exciting and lyrically brilliant. I could probably listen to it every day of my life and never get tired of it. Probably.