When you've made ten albums over the course of 20 years and your songs have been featured on countless network television shows, you can feel pretty assured that you've hit on a successful formula. Yet if you're singer/songwriter Matt Nathanson, you might feel there's some reason to tweak your trajectory, make music from a more personal point of view. With his latest album -- the tellingly titled Last of the Great Pretenders, released this past July -- Nathanson courts a more personal narrative, drawing on real life, everyday encounters in his adopted hometown of San Francisco. In a way, it serves as an intimate view of the city itself, a typical day in the life, with Nathanson serving as guide.
"On this record especially, there are more specifics in the lyrics," Nathanson agrees, speaking from a stop in New Orleans in the midst of his current tour. "I didn't want to round off the edges of the narrative at all. In the past, I sort of edited out the specifics in the lyrics, because I felt like nobody wants to hear about these little moments in my life. I'd make the songs a little more broad and a little more easily misunderstood. With this record, I left all those specific streets and those specific places and times and experiences in. And the songs feel a little more like stories. I'm still in every one of them, so it's hard to extricate myself and just kind of be someone who's trying to explain the situation. I'm still pretty invested."
A self-proclaimed music nerd, one who claims to frequent local record stores on a weekly basis, Nathanson attributes some of his change in perspective to the influences of musical heroes like Tom Waits and Counting Crows. "I realized that all my main favorite kinds of music kept those descriptors in the songs," he explains. "If you listen to great records, great songwriters, they keep all the descriptions in and don't round the edges off. So I said, 'Fuck, I gotta stop doing this, because this is not what my heroes do.' As a writer, you sometimes have what I call 'the creativity assassin.' It kind of shows up and judges everything before its time. I pretty much duct-taped that guy's mouth shut and stuck him in the trunk of the car. I took him out of the loop as much as I could."
That's no small feat, as far as Nathanson is concerned. In some ways, he says, it marks a new beginning in his songwriting trajectory. "Subconsciously, I tried hard to be viewed in a certain light in the past," he reflects. "I was trying to be this other version of myself. And that's not what my favorite records do. My favorite records are honest all the time, seemingly at the expense of the artist."
Not that Nathanson hasn't always been a superb storyteller. Over the course of his career -- the past six years in particular -- his songs have been tapped for such high-profile shows as NCIS, One Tree Hill, Scrubs, The Vampire Diaries,, and The Bachelor. It's a distinction he doesn't take lightly.
"I always felt a little like I didn't know why people used them, but it was really rad," Nathanson admits. "When people use your music against their pictures, it adds a depth to the song that wasn't there before. It's really cool. I don't know if by leaving these sorts of nooks and crannies in the songs that's going to benefit or not benefit somebody marrying that image to their own idea. But now, the songs feel very incapable of being misunderstood, so it sort of drops me right in the song."
This year, Nathanson marked some auspicious milestones, although he insists he hadn't really kept track. Even though he released his first album, Please, 20 years ago and turned 40 this year, the Massachusetts-bred musician, husband, and father of a 3-year-old daughter admits he was never completely sure of himself until he began recording Last of the Great Pretenders.
"For me, having a kid and taking stock of what was really important were the things that really came into focus with this record," he says. "That has nothing to do with success or fame or anything like that. It has to do with stretching creatively and being around a long time. I've always been lumped in with this certain niche of musician. I listen to all kinds of music, but the only kind of music I don't listen to was the kind I was being compared to. It made me take stock and think, 'Fuck, how did I end up in this room at this particular party.' So it began to be about pushing even harder and further, pushing myself to be less judgmental of my own music and be more in touch with what it is. Trying to remove the brain from the experience."
Nathanson also credits performing with gaining confidence too. "I think I took to playing live more than I took to making records," he says. "I was never one to ask advice, so the learning curve was very much me banging my head against the wall. I feel like I've gotten a bit better at making records in the studio, and I've gotten a lot better at knowing how records are supposed to work. It's about making the record a more enjoyable process, and consequently the record sounds more enjoyable when I hear it."
Nathanson, who's also set to perform in the first VH1 "You Oughta Know in Concert" event in New York City on November 21, says he feels for the first time that his career is on an even keel, a sentiment he also attributes to the mindset he adopted when making the new album.
"It kind of became my confidence level," Nathanson confides. "I switched management, which meant kind of an end of the previous record cycle, and I felt real confident -- not necessarily that I earned being here, but that it wasn't going to be taken away from me, and I wasn't going to slip back into being a non-music person. It became like, 'Oh, I get this. I'm safe here.' People are going to come to the shows to varying degrees, and people are going to buy the records to varying degrees. My job is to kind remain in this club. So that freed me up. People come to these shows and have a great time, and my job is to not have anxiety about whether they're going to come and if they're going to like it. It's the first time in my life I've felt that way, and consequently the tour and the making of the record weren't burdened down by this anxious shit that filled most of my life up until this point."
In the end, Nathanson's goal boils down to one thing: "I just want the songs to be true and as honest as they can be. That's really it, and as basic as it can be."
Matt Nathanson with special guest Joshua Radin performs on Friday, October 18, at the Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are currently unavailable. Visit ticketmaster.com.
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