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Matt Nathanson Is Working on Being "Honest All the Time"

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.

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Lee Zimmerman

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