Matt Urmy is dropping a musical bomb in the form of his forthcoming album, South of the Sky.
This concept album boldly dives headfirst into the multi-dimensionality of human nature in a striking combination of spoken-word poetry and powerful melodies. Urmy sings to life issues of the present and ghosts of the past over the album’s 12 tracks. Each song also participates in the rise and fall of the album’s journey through sound and the metaphysical. Consequently creating a cycle similar to that of the hero’s journey, Urmy’s voice emboldens his listeners and drums up a call to action for social and political change.
Today, Urmy releases his single “Ghost of an Old Revolution” ahead of South of the Sky’s full release next year. This premiere sets the stage in which Urmy stands on to bring soulful tunes. And in an exclusive Q&A with American Songwriter, Matt Urmy describes the genesis of this album and newest single.
Tell us about your upcoming album South of the Sky and the inspirations behind its songs.
Each song really has its own inspirations. For example, Raging Hearts was initially inspired by what I saw happening to our culture around the time of the financial crisis of 2008, and was written purely as a spoken word piece, but it feels even more relevant today than it did then. South of the Sky (the song) was inspired by several events and people in my life, as well as events that happened in the lives of people that I know. But, the album as a whole came together over a period of years when I began to see a thread that I could pull through each song by tweaking the lyrics here and there, that allowed me to pull them under the umbrella concept, South of the Sky, that I had been wanting to do for 10 years.
Each song seems perfectly connected to the others while simultaneously being able to stand alone. What was the songwriting process like for this album?
I’m so pleased that comes across. It was painstaking at times. Each song was initially written and inspired individually, but as the bigger picture came into focus and I realized that I now had several songs that I could pull together under this concept, an entirely new phase of the writing began. I had to rework several of them to reference the other tracks and carry over important imagery and themes. At least three of the songs, I ended up completely rewriting the entire thing from entirely different points of view before it was all over. I was actually still tweaking lyrics during mastering, and having to ask the mix engineer to fly in new vocals I would send him, or delete words from lines, then redeliver the track to the mastering engineer. I’ve never gotten that deep into chasing down a large, interconnected, singular piece of work like this. It was important to me that each song, listened to on its own would stand up as a complete idea, but when zoomed out and considered in the context of the rest of the album, fit beautifully into a broader tapestry. It was a trip.
How would you describe this album’s sound? Where does South of the Sky’s sound fit in your evolution as an artist?
This is an interesting thing for me to think about. It’s not something that I really spent a lot of time measuring during the process. I knew the kind of sonics that I was really into at the time, electronic music had really grown in me since I cut Out of the Ashes with Cowboy [Jack Clement]. Back then I was really just interested in having a southern band twang away on their instruments while I performed my song style.
This album, there certainly was an intentional reach to bring in the new soundscapes that I was exploring in my home studio with various kinds of gear. I also really wanted to pick the electric guitar back up, which guarantees that a certain sound will be present because I have so many constraints when it comes to playing electric guitar. It’s more about atmosphere, tone and feeling than about my chops and solos, etc. Roley and I were synched with each other on the electronic music aspect, so we just dove in and explored. What I think we ended up with is an album that sounds earnest and inspired, and is also much more deeply layered sonically. It’s the difference between setting up a bunch of instruments in a room and cutting everything in real-time, versus taking months to really experiment and layer in sounds that create a certain kind of feeling. I certainly think the process of this album will inform how I make albums moving forward for the long term. But at the end of the day, if you strip away all the tracks down to vocals and guitar or piano, the songwriting style doesn’t change much from Out of the Ashes to South of the Sky. Everything always has to revolve around the song, and from there you get creative and see where it will allow you to go with it.
With “Ghost of an Old Revolution” being released today, tell us a little more about this song in particular. What influenced its sound and lyrics? And what is your background in, or relationship with, poetry?
Ghost came about with my utter frustration with where our society is. It haunts me. As I write this I am still sick to my stomach about what I saw happen on the Presidential debate stage Tuesday night.
I was drawn to music as a kid because I heard songs and saw artists that were trying to change the world, and those songs and those artists changed my world. My eyes were opened and I learned things about the world, and how I felt about the world, how I felt about myself as I listened to them.
For example, as a kid the first time I heard the song and saw the music video for, “Man In The Mirror,” by Michael Jackson, my world-view exploded. Same thing when I heard “Imagine,” by John Lennon. So, when I see our society and culture spinning out of control with hatred and oppression and so much chaos, I look around to see what artists I can look to for inspiration…to see who is taking the bull by the horns and shaking the world with their music. I found myself frustrated. I experienced it as feeling haunted by the ghost of music that was behind what happened in the sixties, and was now furious and raging, wanting to raise that revolutionary energy back from the dead. So I started writing from that point of view, and the song grew out of that feeling.
Robert Bly wrote a really powerful book called, Leaping Poetry, that talks about making psychic leaps in the language through wild association of imagery…how it flies the reader through the universe. I was aspiring to that as I wrote Ghost. It’s all these images strung together in a fast-moving recitation intended to pull the listener through a lightning tour of our cultural chaos. The choruses are just the rage of that spirit that I felt haunting me, telling us to get up off our asses and write some real songs that deal with everything that is going on.
People are really suffering, all over the world. We have to sing about that. We have to find our way through these problems with Art, awakening and enlightening our collective consciousness. We can’t legislate our way out of these troubles because our laws can only reflect the consciousness of those who write them. The Arts are what moves human beings to new levels of understanding and enlightenment. That’s my relationship to poetry. Language and music are key ingredients in the cauldron of human consciousness. They are so powerful. Used with intention by a super talented person, they can alter the course of history by inspiring people to wake up and move forward. I just hope that my songs can help to inspire people who are more talented than I am to get intentional and make the art that will lead us out of these awful cycles we are stuck in. The world is choking right now, and I think it’s about time rock and roll stepped up and gave society a big goddamn Heimlich maneuver.
What do you want listeners to take away from this album?
When I look into the themes that emerged as the album came together as a whole, Defiance is a big one. Every single song has a flavor of defiance in it. And defiance doesn’t have to be aggressive, it can actually be broken and humble, like it is in “Helpless Fool.” We have to be defiant right now. We have to defy our fear. We have to defy hopelessness. We have to defy our apathy and confusion and get active. More than anything I hope listeners of this album feel inspired, that there is at least one moment, in at least one song, that makes them inhale deeply and feel moved. If that happens to someone, then it was worth all the effort of making it.
What’s next for Matt Urmy?
Oh my….what a question. I keep working. I keep building Artist Growth into a platform that helps artists have a stronger foothold in the business side of music, no matter where they are in their careers, so they can keep making art. I keep writing poetry and music. I keep getting more and more civically engaged. I keep learning how to be a better father, partner, friend. The only thing I care about is that my time on this planet is dedicated to worthwhile enterprises. That goes for my role in business, the arts, parenthood, everything. I’m on a journey looking for ways to contribute through my talents, chasing my potential. It’s exciting to reflect on where the road has taken me thus far, and to think about what is to come. I’m a student for life, and my commitment is to be honest and relentless in applying what I learn in meaningful ways.