Seven years ago, Matt Jaffe was living a double life. Splitting his time between Yale University and touring with his buddies back home in San Francisco, the young musician began to feel the pressure. Such a grueling schedule took its toll, and he needed to make a choice. His new song “Cut Me Down the Middle,” premiering today, chronicles that time of his life with high-octane electric guitars nestled around some of his most thought-provoking lyrics to-date.
Cut me down the middle / You can take whichever half you like, he wails on the chorus. Cut me down the middle / You can take whichever half is right / ‘Cause tonight, I see you shining / But you are not so blinding as moonlight.
Thematically, the song had been a long time coming. Feelings of angst and uncertainty percolated since Jaffe was in high school. Early on, Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads took great interest in his work after watching him perform in an open mic showcase. Harrison invited Jaffe out to his Sausalito, California-based studio to hammer out 50 demos. Jaffe then took those to shop around labels and publishing houses, unfortunately hitting a series of brick walls.
“I sort of thought it’d be easy, really. I thought, ‘Jerry Harrison is talking a liking, and I guess it’s a matter of time now.’ Obviously, anyone who’s been in the entertainment industry knows that it’s very unlikely to be that easy or quick,” Jaffe reflects. “I held on to that delusion through the end of high school, and it prevented me from being as enthusiastic about heading off to college. It continued to be something I wrestled with until I left school to do music full-time.”
The song’s rumbling opening riff came to him first. Still living in his college dorm, the resident assistant wasn’t too happy, and he was “quickly shut down.” But Jaffe didn’t let that deter him. He let the riff marinate in his head for several months before returning to finish the song. “The way I write is sort of like going out and collecting all these jigsaw pieces but not knowing what picture you’re trying to make,” he tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “I collect lyric tidbits into the notes app on my phone and melody snippets into my memos.”
“I wish I could say it’s more romantic than that,” he laughs. “Then, I sit down with all those things and try to put together components that work. Sometimes, it’s a lot of trial and error. That riff that starts the song probably preceded the lyrics by about four or five months. It all ties into being creative during the pandemic. Usually, I would go and come up with all these little bits, and then maybe a month later, I’d actually have the time to sit down. But right now, I do it later the same day.”
“Cut Me Down the Middle,” produced with James DePrato, anchors a forthcoming album titled Kintsugi, Jaffe’s second project of 2021.
Initially, he never intended to release two records, but “we kept adding songs,” he says. “I’ve been writing songs for a long time, but songs from the first seven years are relatively unusable.” A song like “Cut Me Down the Middle,” of course, is the exception, one of many he maintains in his repertoire for eventual release. “And to be clear, there are plenty I hope nobody hears, including myself. I don’t need to be reminded that they exist,” he says with a chuckle.
Kintsugi, a Japanese term referencing a particular style of pottery repair, seems to exemplify Jaffe’s entire journey. “This was a really potent symbol, because I had a big medical snafu about six years ago involving medical malpractice. I had a cerebral hemorrhage, and they had to cut my skull open and then put it back together. I do have two big aluminum pieces in my head.”
He continues, “I developed epilepsy because of that surgery. Then, I had a seizure while I was onstage in 2019. I landed on my acoustic guitar, and it was totally decimated. The way they put it back together looks exactly like this Japanese technique. It’s stunning.”
Jaffe then takes a moment to detail what this technique actually looks like. “The most common example is when a ceramic or piece of pottery breaks. Instead of throwing it out, you piece the broken parts back together, and as an adhesive, you use a lacquer that is mixed with either golden powder or silver. What ends up happening is it’s this very beautiful new creation but in making this new thing, it acknowledges and even brings to the forefront the fact that it had been broken. It’s broken is central to its recreation.”
Jaffe embraces brokenness, not only in his music but in everyday life. “I’m really fortunate I have a pretty mild form of epilepsy. I have seizures about once every 18 months, which is rare enough that I can kind of just live my life. There are people who have multiple a day. I’m lucky I’m able to drive. It’s a reality I have to face.”
With the forthcoming release of his fifth studio album, Kintsugi, it’s evident Jaffe has grown “more intentional about lyrics than I used to be,” he says. And he traces such an evolutionary moment back to hearing Talking Heads for the first time and intensely studying their work. “David Byrne has written and spoken about how his lyric writing style is not really stream of consciousness but is based on the sounds of words. They would have a backing track,” he says, “and he would have a notebook of phrases of things that sounded interesting.”
“With the track, he’d walk around singing these different phrases into a voice recorder and determine the lyrics based on the sonic element, rather than the semantic element. Even though the songs have this crude logic, they’re definitely not trying to say something in the same way the classic singer-songwriter would.”
Recently, Jaffe returned to the stage for the first time in over a year, performing one of many low scale backyard concerts. It was both a thrill and a little surreal. “You have to get your legs under you again. They’ve been really low key things in backyards. It’s been a gradual way to get back into the swing of it. In a house concert, where the audience has been curated by the homeowner, they’re predisposed to at least kind of care what you’re doing. It’s really easy compared to competing IPAs and cheeseburgers.”
Truth be told, Jaffe has felt a creative electricity coursing through his body since the pandemic started. “I attribute that to a bunch of things. Songwriting is a really solitary act to begin with. I have more time because I hardly drive anywhere. Used to be, I’d probably spend upwards of 12-15 hours a week just getting to gigs. I don’t do that anymore. I love live music, and that goes without saying, and the truth is I’m a songwriter before I’m a performer. I’d always be writing songs even if I wasn’t playing, but I’m not sure I’d be performing if I wasn’t writing my own songs.”
In addition to his songwriting, Jaffe is also busy helming an experimental theatre production with Chuck Prophet, most known for his work in rock group Green on Red in the 1980s. “At one of his shows, he spontaneously called me up to the stage to perform a song of his called ‘Summertime Thing’ with him. I didn’t know he knew who I was,” recalls Jaffe.
That soon led to a strong co-writing relationship. “He has this great album called ‘Temple Beautiful,’ which is sort of an ode to and celebration of San Francisco before Silicon Valley,” he continues. The record, released in 2012 on Yep Roc, depicts various oddball characters “who thought they were the emperors of California wandering the streets of the Mission District. He was working to turn that into a theatre production.” And Jeffe was hired to be band leader.
More than anything, Matt Jaffe is a tenacious creative creature, unbeholden to any physical ailments and genre boxes. His forthcoming album will surely catch a few eyes and ears.
Listen to “Cut Me Down the Middle” below.