Houston based Matt Harlan, like many artists in these surreal times, would have been a way into promoting his excellent fifth album, ‘Best Beasts.’ released here in Europe by Continental Record Services., at this point in his career. Instead he is holed up at home contemplating an unknowing future as the world starts to envisage the ‘new normal. Not one to hide from his opinions, ‘Best Beasts’ is a raw and honest account of how Harlan sees the political climate in America, beautifully played and arranged alongside guest artists like Jon Dee Graham, himself never one to hide in the emotional cupboard, and the always excellent Bettysoo. Harlan has always seemed very much his own man both as a songwriter a live performer, his work very much bears the mark of an artist very comfortable in his own skin. A period of lockdown might not be too hard a proposition? Americana-UK caught up with Matt and asked how he was bearing up with being put on hold for a while and what are those albums or songs he was reaching for to ease the stress levels.
Hey Matt, so a very different scenario that what you was probably expecting for 2020, right?
Life has been pretty interesting for us since the virus hit. A little stressful, but good. Lucky even. My wife and I just had a baby in February, so we’d already been “social distancing,” but we were just calling it “raising a newborn” or colloquially, “the end of socializing as we know it.” We already wash our hands a million times a day and keep visitors out. Now we’ve just got a better excuse. And since I’d already been on hiatus from gigging, I didn’t have a whole lot of shows on the books. Still, the few shows I had scheduled to kick things back up are postponed or cancelled. Until things get normal again, I’ve been doing some streaming for local breweries and concert series and learning that my phone works way better than my computer for recording those sorta sessions.
We have been ordering groceries online and going to pick them up, which is totally new. And we even found a nearby wine shop that delivers…I mean, we may never leave the house now. One of the cool things is that we’ve been taking more walks around the neighborhood and actually talking to our neighbors. It’s like everyone is reverting to the 1950s or something because they’re all a lot friendlier than they were before.
Aside from that, I’ve been teaching some music and songwriting lessons online, which has been pretty fun. And I’ve been taking some notes on life that will eventually turn into new songs, which is kind of my process.
I’m sure you have been listening to a lot of music so let us know some albums or tracks that are necessities to help ease the stresses, boredom and general uncertainty you might be feeling?
I’m really skewing positive these days. I’ve always been the kind of person that can listen to depressing or downbeat music and still feel good. But these days I really tend not to skew that direction if I don’t have to.
1. ‘Sweet Relief: Tribute to Victoria Williams’ – Various Artists
I recently did one of those “10 albums that influenced you” lists on Facebook and my wife had never heard this one before. I forgot how upbeat and interesting it was.
2. ‘LP5’ – John Moreland
Wow, I discovered this one on a random break from parenting and I really dug it. I’ve been a long-time John Moreland fan, but he really kicked it up a notch with this one, using some new sounds and sort of expanding what people might typically think of as “Americana”.
3. ‘The River’ – Bruce Springsteen
During one of those late-night / early-morning feedings, I caught this movie about a Pakistani dude growing up in the UK and how inspired he was by Bruce Springsteen. I had recently gotten some of my old records back after my divorce and this one was in the stack. I never really gave it the listen it deserved and now I’m kind of obsessed with it.
4. ‘Rockabye Baby! – Lullaby Renditions of the Flaming Lips’
We recently discovered the “rockabye baby” series and this one is my wife’s favorite. It really does seem to translate well…must be something about the simplicity of the melodies.
5. ‘Does the Fish Feel the Knife?’ – Terry Klein
Terry is an Austin songwriter and friend of mine. I heard him play this tune at a swap we did a few months back and he recently released it as a limited-edition single on vinyl. It’s really a priceless take on the difficulties of parenthood and having to explain tough realities to your kids. But it only cost me ten bucks, so I definitely won on that one.
6. ‘Mercy’ – Sam Baker
This album always makes me smile. So much humanity packed into it. It’s a must-have for any occasion.
7. ‘Reckless Skyline’ – Caitlin Canty
Every once in a while I’ll get an email from Caitlin’s mailing list and it’ll remind me how much I love this album and I’ll put it on. She recently sent a message about a tornado passing thru her area in the middle of all this craziness and it reminded me of her upbeat spirit. The album has this dark, mellowness to it but still has a lot of positivity hiding under the surface. That speaks to me these days.
8. Anything by Karen Dalton
Our electronic devices keep playing Karen Dalton songs for us whenever we let them choose the playlist. I’m not sure what it means, but I’m sure not angry about it.
I can’t remember what song Spotify keeps playing of hers (hello sleep deprivation), but she popped up on one of my “discovery” lists recently while we were laying in the grass in our backyard and I only remembered the name. It might have been “Dream Within a Dream”. Sounds kinda like Jenny Lewis but with a little more edge. I dig it.
10. ‘Automatic for the People’ – R.E.M.
This album has always resonated with me. We searched up “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” the other day sort of as a joke, but then this whole album followed it up and we just listened to the whole thing. Straight through. It still holds up. Plus, I know all the words so it’s fun to bop around the kitchen making dinner to it.
‘Best Beasts’ is out now on Continental Record Services