Interview: Matt North on how drumming and screenwriting made him a songwriter

Credit: Angelina Castillo

Get the best, how Matt North got Wilco’s producer, Lucinda Williams’ guitarist, Emmylou Harris’s bassist, and Chris Stapleton’s keyboardist to work with him.

There aren’t many singer-songwriters who get to middle-age before starting their solo recording careers but that is what drummer and producer Matt North has done, and he has just released his second solo album ‘Bullies In The Backyard’. Americana UK caught up with Matt North over Zoom to discuss how his time as a screenwriter has helped his songwriting, how drumming helped him develop a rounded musical knowledge, and why he always likes to work with musicians and producers who are better than he is.  He also explains how his family’s seven-year lawsuit against Nashville Public Schools because of their violations against his son’s special needs provided the inspiration for the songs on the new album but how the album’s mood is anything but depressive or dry. For any readers who are drummers, or potential drummers, Matt North also talks about the challenges and approaches to playing the drums and singing. He shares his view that Nashville provided the nurturing environment for his songwriting to develop, even though he is not part of the middle-of-the-road country music set, which was not available when he was a Los Angeles resident. Finally, he makes his case for being an anglophile.

How do you see yourself primarily, are you a drummer or a singer-songwriter, and you have also been a screenwriter I believe?

That is a good question, haha. If I was to say one word it would be I have always been a musician. Being a musician started as a drummer, and I tried guitar and I tried piano when I was very young but it didn’t click but drums were the instrument I was able to get my head around, and it got me closer to being involved in music. In hindsight now, I think what really attracted me to music is that I just love songs, and playing the drums got me closer to being around songs and understanding how songs are built, the architecture of songs, trying to understand what songwriters do what they do. My years supporting really good songwriters as a drummer, and learning how to elevate their songwriting as a drummer, ultimately became part of the education to allow me to begin writing songs later in life. I guess I always say I started writing songs in my thirties, and I started finishing them in my forties, haha. Here I am now, I’m 52 and just putting out albums so just wait until you see what I’m doing when I’m 69, haha. There is plenty of time left, and yes I’ve done some other things for a five or six year period when I lived in Los Angeles and I was very focused on studying screenwriting and how to tell stories cinematically. I had some success with that and sold a script and that led to doing ghostwriter work, including story analysis. At the same time, I was also playing drums in bands at night in Los Angeles, but in hindsight, I’m shocked myself that over the last ten or twelve years my love of taking a stab at songwriting has somehow crystalised, and I somehow became someone who can finish a song, and there was a long period when I didn’t think that would ever happen, haha. I was strictly doing it out of a curiosity and an honest impulse to want to try and write a song, but now I know the skills I developed studying screenwriting and film and when I piece a song together is very parallel, the techniques are very similar. Somehow, I always just identified myself as a musician who at times backed into playing an interesting character in film or TV at some point in my past. I am a kid who grew up in the 1970s, and I looked at guys like Kris Kristofferson, Glen Campbell, and David Bowie, who also made records and wrote songs and occasionally showed up playing a character in a film or a movie, and I’ve always just perceived it as one big career.

Screenwriting has helped your songwriting, how did you get that particular skill in the first place?

I was finishing my undergraduate degree at Ohio University, and I needed to take a Humanities class and there was a two-semester Introduction To Screenwriting class and I took it. I really enjoyed the assignments, I really enjoyed studying films and I always kept an interest in it, and when I got to California around 1995 it was an exciting time with a lot of independent films being made such as ‘Fargo’ or ‘Sling Blade’, and everyone I knew was trying to write their own script or launch their own project. I threw my hat in that ring, and just deeply invested in learning how to do it and I continued with that. When I write a song now, I guess the skills I learnt doing that, knowing I have to run everything through questions and checks, the whole rewriting process, and knowing it is never really done, haha. An interesting discipline I learnt writing screenplays, and I got some help from actor Bob Odenkirk who was a mentor to me, and I remember he read my script and gave me some notes and the note I never forgot said “Remember when you are writing a screenplay, you only have one destination and that is to look someone in the eye and say, give me $20 or $30 million to make this movie.”, haha. His point was that if every sentence, every word, and every syllable isn’t a bullseye, then a producer or a financier isn’t reading that therefore isn’t buying it, so what have you done this for. I put the same discipline down when I review a set of lyrics or how I’m going to sing a song, I’ve learnt to start asking myself how might this appear to an objective third-party who doesn’t know me, who doesn’t know how I feel or even why I wanted to write the song in the first place.

Screenwriting taught me whatever I write in the end isn’t really about me, it is about the listener and how it makes the listener feel, and my favourite part now about songwriting is getting feedback from listeners who had a reaction to a song is nothing I ever could have predicted, nothing crossed my mind when I was creating it during that little chapter when I allowed for the song to be about me, but once it is done and I publish it, it is not about me or for me anymore. That may be the greatest lesson I learnt from writing scripts, you have to let go and it is not about the songwriter, haha. I try never to be a songwriter who takes four minutes to introduce a three-minute song.

What sort of songwriter are you, how disciplined are you, do you write every day or just wait for the muse to come?

The one discipline I put on myself is to write every day, no matter how I feel. I think some of the best songs and pieces of songs I’ve written I have a clear memory of when I wrote them, and I did it as a result of forcing myself to sit down and write when I didn’t feel like doing it, maybe I wanted to run an errand or maybe just watch a show, but I just make myself do it. I have never finished writing a song after 8:00 AM, haha. I am an early riser, I fell into this habit when I was living in Los Angeles, and I was just finding the real joy of being up at 5 or 6 in the morning when others are still asleep, and everything is quiet and I’m having a cup of coffee or a tea. It is just a really peaceful time, and I’ve learned that if I return to it every day, even if I am only giving it 1 hour of my time then over a year it is 365 hours I’ve given. The point is to keep coming back, there are plenty of days when not much happens, but maybe a week later then something does happen that is a result of the fact that I kept showing up. I am always spinning two or three songs and pretending that I’m in the Brill Building and I try to finish one song a week. I think I would have liked that kind of songwriting career in the ‘50s or ‘60s, and I’m curious to see what it would have been like, and it is fascinating to me as a fan. I put a lot of structure into what I do, and if I don’t come near it for a month and try and return to it, and I think anyone who has written whether it is songs or journalism you can feel a deficit and it takes time to get warmed up again. So, I just try and revisit it every day and keep something going.

Why release ‘Bullies In The Backyard’ now, was it that you simply had enough songs?

Yes, on the one hand, I had enough songs, and I’m old-fashioned enough that if I release an album, I want it to be ten songs, haha. I’m not a big fan of simply letting out singles, or a five-song EP because I think it takes as much energy to promote five songs as it does ten songs, so I’ve always felt why not write ten songs and put it out. These are songs I’ve been working on over time, I’ve lived in Nashville since 2010 and in 2017 I put my first record, ‘Above Ground Fools’, out and this is my second record. All the songs were written under the umbrella of a legal case my family had with Nashville Public Schools over my son’s special needs. It took an enormous amount of our time, our energy, our emotions, our money, and writing songs became more important to me at that time as a refuge, as something to walk into my home studio with and close the door and see what I could make. Anyone who has gone through a lawsuit will know you are constantly living with this cloud over you until it is gone, and I decided I had to get through this and there had to be something I could make lemonade out of with all these levels of stress. Fortunately in the end it came out favourably for my family and we won, but what I’m most excited about is I was sitting there with this batch of songs, and they are not ten songs about my son or about special education explicitly, but each of the ten songs was birthed as a result of whatever pressure that experience was putting on me and whatever was happening on the day I got the germ of the idea for the songs. Another lesson from screenwriting, I try to use whatever is under my nose, good, bad, or ugly. It is that old advice, write what you know, and it is the piece of advice that always calms me down. I can go into periods of feeling like when is the next idea going to come or am I ever going to finish another song, and I chronically live with that neurosis, but to just focus on writing what I know and doing something every day, even if it is horrible, I keep going. My album only represents the stuff I am willing to show you, you don’t want to hear the vocals I threw in the trash, haha.

The album is not depressing musically although it was inspired by a serious subject. How do you compose your music?

I think something that may make me different from most songwriters is my core instrument is not the guitar, it is not the piano, it is the drums. I hear melodies in my head and often that is where a song will start, or I will get an idea for a lyric, or I will hear an interesting line and think that will be a good title for a song. There are multiple lightbulb moments that have gone off that started me writing a song, but after that, I typically focus on the lyrics, and in my imagination, I can hear the chords by virtue of playing music my whole life and loving and studying albums. The hard part after that is I sit down with either a guitar or a piano, and I know guitar and piano well enough to write a song but I’m not a hotshot, I can’t show up at a blues jam and blow an audience away by playing a guitar solo, haha. I can do that as a drummer, but I have to put in a lot of hard work to find the right chords for the right melody. I experiment, there is a lot of trial and error, and I just piece it all together, it is just like a puzzle. I’m a big fan of The Who, and they said they knew they had a good idea for a song when the germ of the idea was good, and I always ask myself when I start writing is the germ of the idea there. If it isn’t, then I don’t think it will be possible to complete a song. That is where I start from, typically with me it is the lyrics, and then what I do is immediately get behind my drums and I play the song, and I imagine the chords in my head that I’m hearing. It may look a lot like Levon Helm with The Band, or Don Henley with The Eagles, and I’ve always appreciated drummers who can sing, and drummers who can write songs. I love Roger Taylor’s voice when he was with Queen, and I always saw the drums as the way to get closer to music and be a part of songs, and I looked to drummers who did a little bit more than just drum, they participated in the singing, or the harmonies or the songwriting.

I am able to explore my music myself as the drummer and see what it is going to sound like. I feel the drums put a frame around the picture of a song, and if the songwriter paints the painting, then the drummer puts a frame around that picture and creates rhythm and structure to elevate the music. When I have worked with songwriters the drummer is the song’s first producer, even when we are not in that role formally. It is the first time a songwriter who doesn’t play drums hears the potential of what this song could sound like with a rhythm section behind it. I’m able to do that much faster, and on a lot of my songs, I experiment with different tempos and different beats. I might try a bossa-nova, or I might try a shuffle, I might try a classic rock type feel, all with the same song, all with the same chords and lyrics. I will then stumble along on what feels the best, and as you mentioned, this record is not a downer of an album, it is not ten sad songs about a lawsuit. I think listeners will appreciate it and they will go along with the writer if the writer is writing about something that comes from a place of fear, or failure, or a sad experience. Something I learnt from screenwriting is that the viewer is always going to have more sympathy for a character who is holding their chin up and presenting grace under pressure, instead of whining. I don’t tend to go near a writing style that one might call confessional, I just don’t presume that people who don’t know me are deeply interested in the way that I am feeling. I have to find a way to take all that and turn it inside out so it is about the listener, what they are thinking and feeling.

How easy was the album to record given the pandemic, and how did you get those great musicians to join you?

I started doing it with the intention of getting everybody in the same room, and I had three or four songs with the drum tracks I had knocked out at my house, and then COVID hit and the whole world went crazy. This album was recorded in what I now call pandemic style. I love talking about the musicians on this album, and I love saying that there is no such thing as a solo album. Yeah, I wrote the songs and I sang them and my names on the album, but in the end, it is a team effort and it is a special record because on every song it is the same guitarist, it is the same keyboardist, it is the same bassist. What you are listening to on this record is a band, and I feel there is an identity and a cohesiveness song to song because of what the individual musicians brought. If I have one talent, I’m really good at hiring the right people, I really think through who I want to work with and I tend to hire someone that I am a fan of, and I make sure I am surrounding myself with people who are way better than me at what they do, haha. I love to say I am the worst musician on this album, and it is exciting for me when there is positive feedback on the songwriting, but I get just as much joy when people love the guitar playing from Stuart Mathis who has been with Lucinda Williams for the last eleven years, Michael Web the keyboardist has recorded with Chris Stapelton and Sturgill Simpson albums and right now he is playing for Hank Williams Jnr and he is one of the most in-demand keyboardists in Nashville, and my bassist Chris Donohue is a regular member of Emmylou Harris’s band The Red Dirt Boys, and he has worked for Elvis Costello and Robert Plant. These are guys who really understand rock’n’roll. They bring everything, and what I write is just the blueprint, and I’m most excited about what other people are going to bring to that blueprint. I don’t want musicians to play what I am hearing in my head, I hire them because I want what they are hearing in their heads.

We recorded remotely and that was a challenge, I did all the drums and vocals here in my home studio, and when you start with the drums it is a great foundation and very safe, I feel, to send music out to more melodic instruments to be layered on top of it, as opposed to the other way around. These kinds of records never sound good when someone sings a vocal, and then a guitar and the last thing added are the drums. There is a disconnection, and it doesn’t sound as if we are all in the same room. I feel we pulled it off and listeners to this album may get the feeling we did it all in the same room. We are very connected, everyone on the record has their own home studio and they have all produced records and written their own songs so my biggest decision producing the album was to give them as much freedom and control as they needed. I wanted to see what it felt like to micro-manage less, to tell people what to play less and I had a rule, no matter what they sent back to me I was going to take it and use it, and I would only speak up about it if it was bugging me in a month. What I love about Stuart Mathis’s guitar is that he would send me guitar parts that went in a completely different direction than I had even imagined, and I didn’t say a word and I thought I am just going to live with it and within three or four days I couldn’t live without it. He is the kind of musician who can change a songwriter’s mind, and that has been very exciting for me to grow as a musician, I just hire the experts and listen to what they do. I heard an Earl Slick interview saying what it was like working with David Bowie, and he said what he always loved about David Bowie was he hired people and let them be themselves. Of course, I’ve never hung out with David Bowie, but I assume if he ever felt he needed to speak up he always did. With that approach, I find I can attract more musicians to participate because they want that in addition to structure. It was a long process, and everyone recorded on their own and sent it back and it took a lot of post-production to pull it together.

I had a joyful experience mixing the album in Los Angeles with Jim Scott who has recorded and produced a lot of the Wilco albums, he won the Grammy for recording Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, he has done The Rolling Stones, Los Lobos. I was very fortunate to have a personal connection and I was able to get in touch with him, and he liked the music and agreed to mix the record and we spent six days together. That was an education, just sitting next to Jim who is the guy who made records that changed my life, that were important to me growing up, and to get to sit by him was a six or seven day education, again because of the hiring the best principle.

Could this album have been made if you weren’t living in Nashville?

Well, we moved to Nashville in 2010, and when we moved here, I had started exploring writing songs but what I had never been part of was a community that is primarily driven by the songwriting element. We have studios and businesses are here and the industry is here, but it is really driven by the songwriters, and I started meeting so many songwriters and there just seems to be something in the water here. I honestly don’t know whether I would have made this record if I never moved to Nashville, there is something about this city and just by the virtue of being here I was inspired and motivated to see if I could write songs as well. I found out I could, and I just kept going at it, I’m meeting songwriters who have done things I hope to do someday, and I learned they get up every day and write, maybe they take one or two days off in the week, but they treat it like a job. The bottom line is to keep doing it and the strict answer is I could have made it in another city, but what is fun about it now in hindsight is that it is a very Nashville album, down to all the talent I was able to find. There is something nice about being a musician in Nashville compared to Los Angeles because Los Angeles is so enormous. I was there for thirteen years and by virtue of the size of the city, it just takes a long time to meet your people and find your tribe of music where there is a consensus and a shared interest of taste. In Nashville it took just two years, there are guys I bump into at the grocery store, it is a smaller community and because it is smaller, though internationally known for its music, we are still very much a small town. I bump into musicians I hope to play with at the grocery store, and you meet musicians in normal casual ways. It has been a wonderful place for that to grow and develop. I would have done something without Nashville, but it wouldn’t have been like this, and it wouldn’t have had these three gentlemen backing me up in this band.

Credit: Angelina Castillo
How do you coordinate your breathing, keep the beat and remember the lyrics when drumming and singing?

There are definitely times when it all trips over itself. With drumming, we are taught to use our four limbs to play the instrument, and the vocals are the fifth limb. For a drummer who sings you are not just having a four-way coordination for the drum set, you have a fifth limb going on here as well. It is challenging but it is surprisingly a natural step. As an example, I think Levon Helm and Don Henley can phrase a lyric better than almost anyone and I’ve always felt it is because they are singing while they are drumming. When your right hand and foot are playing the rhythm and the kick drum, it has a way of pulling your words with those accents and downbeats, so that the vocal can just dance over the drumbeat the song needs that is coming from the same guy who is singing and drumming. It is all very connected, and I’ve always played close attention to how rhythmic Levon Helm is when he sings, and how really in the pocket Don Henley’s voice is with all of the hits from The Eagles. Karen Carpenter, haha, is a really great drummer who doesn’t get the credit, and she understood what the song needed. I’ve studied Ringo Starr very deeply, and it is interesting to realise he was following the vocal, when Ringo plays the drums, you can hear how supportive he is of the vocal John and Paul created. When you listen to Charlie Watts, he is following Keith. Those are two very interesting styles of how drumming supports music, and if you are in a band with Keith Richards playing those riffs how can you not let that be the groove and the rhythm. I try to fuse both of those approaches, always follow the vocal and have the drums deeply connected to the vocal, and when Stuart Mathis does something that is just very moving with the guitar, you have to kind of follow that and find a way to make it all buoyant. It is a challenge and a skill to learn to sing and drum at the same time, but surprisingly, once it starts happening it all becomes one big thing, five limbs all working at the same time.

What do you hope 2022 will bring?

I’m back to the discipline of writing with an overwhelming urge after all the work it has taken to complete an album and go into this phase when it is fun to do some interviews and promote it. I’m trying not to get lazy, and I’ve started on creating a whole new batch of ten to fifteen songs, and I’m right back into that. I’m focused right now on songwriting, and I hope everything for all of us gets better with the virus, I feel I have no crystal ball to know what that holds for all of us. Like a lot of my friends in music, there are no live shows or anything scheduled in the future for myself or for anyone I know. My friends in Lucinda Williams’ band had the whole Spring and Winter tour they had planned postponed and cancelled for now. We are kind of reliving this Winter Spring journey we all did a couple of years ago all over again. It is one of those things, I look at what is in front of me and see what I can control, what can I do, and it is right back to where I started where it doesn’t cost anything and I don’t need anybody’s permission to come into my studio, close the door, and try and write a song. I guess you can say I’m stockpiling, haha.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Right here, right now, I’m back on a big Who kick and can’t stop listening to ‘Quadrophenia’. I love Pete Townsend, I love how he plays the guitar and I love the subjects he writes about. The way ‘Quadrophenia’ captured teenage angst and the songs had unique subjects like ‘Bell Boy’ and Townsend always finds a way to write about something. It is not about meeting a girl or getting your heart broken, it is about something unique. I’m also a huge fan of Ian Hunter and I’ve been listening to a lot of his stuff. He put out an album in 2009, ‘Man Overboard’, and I’ve been listening to that a lot lately. There is a young British artist I’ve become a big fan of Jake Bugg. I think he is very talented, and there is something so special about his first album, 2012’s ‘Jake Bugg’, that captured who he was and the age he was at the time, it was well recorded, and the songs are great. I really get excited when I discover someone who is his age and at his point in his career. I have a funny feeling like I’m an uncle rooting for him, and I hope it turns out OK, haha.

I do tend to lean towards British artists. I also love Graham Parker and The Zombies, I’m heavily influenced by The Kinks. British pub rock is great, I love Nick Lowe, Rockpile, and Dave Edmunds. There is something about how the British musicians were inspired by black American music, and how that grew through the ‘60s and become some of these great albums coming out of England in the 1970s. I’m also a big David Bowie fan. There are some Americans I kind of like too, haha, and I guess I’m a different Nashville songwriter because I don’t lean towards middle-of-the-road American country music that is deliberately manufactured to be commercial. American artists I have really been inspired by are John Prine and Kris Kristofferson, and his albums that came out at the beginning of his career, ‘The Silver Tongued Devil And I’, ‘Jesus Was A Capricorn’. Nashville had no idea what to do with them at the time or that what they were doing was so brilliant.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

The last five or six years have sure been an embarrassing time to be an American. I just want to apologise to the UK and just remind everyone we are not all like that, haha. I hope to get over someday, but I’ve never been over there. Both my parents are Scots Irish, and I would love to get over to Ireland and Scotland just because I have that family history with the UK. That might be what has always pulled me to it as a fan. I do love the BBC and I didn’t think you guys would pull it off when you re-did ‘All Creatures Great & Small’, but you sure did. I grew up as a kid watching that every Sunday night when my family watched PBS. I did grow up on British television and I’m a long-time ‘Dr. Who’ fan, every generation. Also, for me, Monty Python are The Beatles of comedy. All of this deeply influenced me in my writing and worldview, I am an Anglophile, and one of these days I will have to get on a plane and come over, haha.

Matt North’s “Bullies In The Backyard” is released on 11th February by Round Bad Records.

About Martin Johnson 358 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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