I woke up this morning with a bottle next to my head upon an old wooden floor … Like the sirens in their mystery on some far distant shore, there’s nobody left to tie me down sings Matthew Check, revisiting one of the most devastating times in his life. “The music I record is written when I’m in the depths of despair,” Check tells American Songwriter. “It’s usually very painful, dark, and depressing.”
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A deep reflection on how the Brooklyn, New York-based singer and songwriter reached sobriety, “Old Wooden Floor” is a frank outpouring of the despair and survival of that moment in time, and one of the shared stories and narratives from Check’s own life that plays out on his second album, Without a Throne.
Check’s book of songs is getting more revelatory as time goes on. Scanning personal and peripheral stories and even the biblical with the old testament tale of King David’s son in “What a Father Would Do (Absalom),” Without a Throne cracks open a time capsule of long-forgotten songs in waiting, some for decades. From the honky tonk sizzle of “Pretty Mama,” originally written and penned several years earlier by Check’s landlord and the more soulful “The Shape It Appears,” one of two tracks contributed by his brother Jonathan Check, who wrote the song when he was in his teens, to the bluegrass tidings of closing “Because You Can,” a song about an ex-girlfriend that sat another several years in his song vault.
Recorded live in Nashville along with producer and multi-instrumentalist Thomas Bryan Eaton with additional vocals provided by Ms. Tess, Without a Throne departs from the softer rock of Checks’s 2020 debut, The Condesa Queen, to capture a bottomless reverence for 1970s folk and Americana roots.
For the Newtown, Pennsylvania native, who moved to New York City in the 2006 to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary and ended up playing banjo in bluegrass jams around the city—and as an early banjo player for Gangstagrass—Without a Throne sonically smooths the perimeters of Check’s spiritual side and musical roots and his own christened genre of “jewgrass.”
Check spoke to American Songwriter about the stories behind Without a Throne, why his best songs come when life is unstable, and how his landlord ended up writing one of the tracks.
American Songwriter: Without a Throne is a mix of old songs and two newer ones—“The Very Beginning” and “Old Wooden Floor.” When did these come about as you were revisiting some of the older tracks for the album?
Matthew Check: I really wanted to do at least one or two brand-new tunes. “The Very Beginning,” I wrote and forgot about. When I decided to do the record, it was in a draft version for a while, and Thomas [Bryan Eaton] helped me figure out how to make it a really great song. I love the way the ending came out with the descending melody.
I usually don’t sit down and say “I’m going to compose something.” If I’m commissioned, I can, but I usually write when inspiration strikes me about the things in my life. I’m super open about my sobriety. I’m not preachy, but I take it very seriously. I’ve been sober for eight years, so I wanted to write a song about my sobriety. What ended up coming out instead was a song [“Old Wooden Floor”] about what my life was like the last month or two of my drinking. I was living on the Upper East Side [Manhattan] at the time. There was this liquor store, and I cannot, not buy something on the way home every single night. I was moving in this cycle. Something shifted in me, and I just did not have a handle on my drinking. I love talking about sobriety in relation to being a musician, because I was raised on classic rock where there’s always been that mythology of the Grateful Dead, of Janis Joplin, and partying.
AS: There’s some history to the other five songs, and several weren’t even written by you. How did these contributed tracks start resurfacing for you around the album?
MC: I haven’t thought about it in this way, but it’s [the album] kind of a variety show because two of the songs are my brothers’ including “The Way That You Are” and “The Shape It Appears,” which he wrote at 17 years old. I’ve never actually spoken to him about who it’s about specifically, but it’s definitely about that last summer he was at home before he went to college.
“Pretty Mama” is about Sunny’s Bar Red Hook [Brooklyn]. Ironically, it’s written by my landlord. My landlord and his wife live in Sunset Park and for a long time, they were a singer-songwriter couple. Now, he’s a hermit and doesn’t really talk to anyone. I spent the hours with him and his wife. We used to have this bluegrass brunch at the Nolita House on Houston Street, which is not open anymore. We played so much music together, and he had a song called “Pretty Mama” that he never finished. I always loved the harmony and it stayed with me. It’s at least 15 years old but I finished it. I added another pre-chorus. I added a bridge. I sent them the track and he was like, “Okay, whatever.” He didn’t care that it was even finished. I was surprised he was not excited.
AS: Why did you land on Without a Throne as the title of the album?
MC: In the song “The Very Beginning,” in the second verse, it says Now I’m just like royalty without a throne / Like a hobo missing home / I’m like starting from the very beginning. That line was written in the middle of a breakup. I had abdicated love. I had given up this amazing relationship, and I was just too much of an idiot to see that. I just thought it was very appropriate for how I felt at the moment, and it was a great album title.
AS: Judaism seeps into some of your music, in the lyrics and your own “Jewgrass.” Are there any songs in particular on Without a Throne that came from this space?
MC: There’s “What a Father Would Do,” which I wrote with Joanie Leeds. She’s a Grammy winner, who won Best Children’s Album [for All the Ladies] in 2020. We did a children’s album, and have a Jewish record together from 2010 called Challah Challah. In 2019, we got together and collaborated on an album about stories from the bible. There was one song about Absalom, who was one of King David’s sons and it’s actually very Game of Thrones if you read that part of the Bible. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of betrayal, and political things going on. That song was very country-bluegrass with mandolin, banjo, and fiddle, but “What a Father Would Do” is a rock song that was originally called “Absalom.”
AS: You decided to record this album live for the first time. How did Thomas Eaton help make the experience as seamless as possible?
MC: I met Thomas through Joanie Leeds. He had done some gigs with her. I thought he sounded like Duane Allman, and I said “I want to play with him.” This was a decade ago, but he stayed on my mind. I was taking a chance because I didn’t know him, but I just decided to take a leap of faith. He ended up being such a great producer. He took all the material we had in meetings. He charted it out. He picked all the band members, except for the drummer—I flew down my drummer [Glenn Grossman] to Nashville. When you’re hearing me sing and play, I’m singing and playing at the same time. It was a challenge, and I feel like when you record live in the studio you’re being your own stunt double.
AS: Do you feel songs typically come to you in the same way now, or has this shifted over time?
MC: If I’ve been commissioned to write music, I can sit down and mechanically write. Then there’s my own music where it’s a strange combination of divine inspiration and this mystical pool of melodies inside of me. Inspiration will strike, and I’ll have a melodic idea or a hook, but the song writes itself. It’s very strange to me. It is a little bit mysterious. A melody will emerge and some lyrics will come, or vice versa, and I’ll sit at a piano or the guitar and it’s usually written within a week or two.
You really bring up a really interesting thing that I have never said out loud, which is, as a musician, when it comes to the craft of songwriting, anyone can make the argument that if you don’t do it on a regular basis, you lose your edge, but I’ve never been that kind of a songwriter. I’ve never written on a continuous basis. I really only write when inspiration strikes. And inspiration only really strikes when things are really unstable for me.
I really would love some stability in my personal life, but I’m worried about where my inspiration is going to come from. Am I going to have to dig a little deeper to continue to be artistic?
I’ve got to find another avenue, but if this is the era of my life that I’m entering it’s actually a really great problem to have.
Main Photo: Shervin Lainez