Matt Harlan recently released his third album, Raven Hotel, on Houston Americana micro-label Berkalin Records. Recorded locally at Ace Recording and produced by Rich Brotherton, with appearances from Austin figures like Bukka Allen, Jon Greene, and bassist Glenn Fukanaga, it’s shot to No. 1 on the EuroAmericanaChart in just two weeks.
This Saturday Harlan headlines the new Folk Alliance International Gaslight Troubadour Series in Austin at Maria’s Taco Xpress on S. Lamar. He attributes much of his success to the Kansas City-based organization.
“About 80 percent of all the music people I know I met through Folk Alliance,” the Houston resident muses when we spoke last week. “The FAI community has answers to every music business question you could imagine. It's where you find the intersection of opportunity and preparation.”
Harlan says Americana music is a some mix of folk, blues, country, jazz, and rock.
“I’m not sure who's in charge of genres, so that could always change,” he jokes. “When I started out I thought I was Texas country, and that was cool with me. But then they said my songs were too complicated and long and I'd fit better in Americana. I just play. I've got glockenspiel and synth pads on this new record and that might just tip me into indie rock territory.”
Harlan grew up vaulting around Houston, Boerne, and Austin, where he came to go to college. When he lived outside Houston he’d drive down I-10 to San Antonio to stay with his grandparents.
“Each area I've lived in has given me something to write about,” he says. “Traveling between them has maybe given me more. I've got lots and lots of highway songs and tunes that talk about the city as if it were made of rolling fields and the claustrophobia of wide-open spaces.”
Harlan often plays accompanied by his wife, Rachel Jones.
Austin Chronicle: Tell me about working with Rich Brotherton on Raven Hotel
Matt Harlan: It was absolutely wonderful working with Brotherton. He's one of those rare people that is incredibly intuitive and imaginative musically, but manages to stay collaborative at the same time. We ended up with a record that I'm really proud of and I think highlights a range of styles without losing its center. Raven Hotel is a thread that emerged along the lines of finding the bright sides of dark places.
AC: What have been your biggest musical influences?
MH: When I was growing up rap was big in Houston, so I got into that early on. There was also a strange mix of R&B and metal that was coming out of San Antonio. And country was everywhere in Texas, so I got that subconsciously. My high school in Boerne was full of Robert Earl Keen fans, but I was rebelling against that at the time. I was in rock bands and we'd play Tool and Smashing Pumpkins-inspired stuff. Eventually, I got into classic rock and mellowed out enough to listen to the music mine and my friends' parents were listening to. That's how I finally fell into the folk thing and realized that Paul Simon and Bob Dylan really did have something there. When I discovered Townes, Guy Clark and modern folkies like Gillian Welch, that was it for me. Folk gave me the foundation that I was looking for.
AC: What have been some of your best nights on stage?
MH: Every night is great for one reason or another, but playing for 10,000 people at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival twice in a weekend was probably the most amazing. Penning for Guy Clark on the weekend before I got married was the other.
AC: What inspires your songwriting?
MH: I'm on the Poetry Foundation website all of the time. Finding interesting ways that people work with words inspires me the most. Well, that and staring out the windshield of a moving car. I think trying to find a way to say something in a way that’s not obvious also inspires me. It’s easy to say something straightforward in a song, like, “You should treat people equally.” But to say that in a way that allows someone to make up their own minds is more challenging, and I think might have a larger impact on people because they reach that conclusion on their own.
If someone can find a message in a song that doesn’t appear on the surface, I think they might be more likely to have it affect them. I’ve got a song on this new album that’s essentially about race relations along the border (“Old Allen Road”). I wrote it because I heard a Tom Russell song that was pretty straightforward about building a wall between Texas and Mexico. I thought the song was a good idea, but that maybe it would only affect people that already agreed with the idea. I thought I could try to say something similar through a fictitious murder ballad. Finding symbolism and something deeper in everyday life, like the way someone walks to the mailbox and back, inspires me I think.
AC What do your days off look like?
MH: I like to cook. It's actually what I'm doing in between answering these questions. We'll fire up the grill on a Sunday and hang out around the house with my wife and neighbors. Houston's always got something happening, so we can just hop on our bikes and join up with our friends somewhere around town. If I'm not writing or playing music, I'm still probably listening to it. There's usually a band playing somewhere, so that makes it pretty easy.
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