By My Side” and “Exactly Where You Are” written and performed by Crys Matthews
Crys Matthews: Alright, you ready?
Jo Reed: I’m ready.
Crys Matthews: Alright!
<Matthews sings “By My Side”>
Jo Reed: That’s singer/ songwriter Crys Matthews and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
I first heard of Crys Matthews when I was putting together an online story about the NEA Regional Touring Program for NEA Arts. The NEA Regional Touring Program is where the NEA partners with the six regional arts organizations to bring access to diverse and excellent performing arts to all Americans—particularly those in underserved communities. Anyway, Crys Matthews was one the artists who’s participated in the program and after I heard her music, I knew I wanted to speak with her. Her music is multi-faceted—sometimes, Americana, sometimes folk, it can have undercurrents of blues, bluegrass, funk and country soul. Her lyrics are wide-open, bold and embracing—a lot like her performances.
And people are taking notice—in 2017, Crys Matthews was the grand prize winner in NewSong Music and Performance Competition, she’s performed (twice) at the Sundance Film Festival’s ASCAP Music Café and she was showcased at the 2018 Northeast Regional Folk Alliance. And never doing things by halves, Crys simultaneously released both an EP, Battle Hymn For An Army Of Lovers which tackles social justice issues and she also released a full-length album, The Imagineers, which are songs about love, life, and her dog.
Jo Reed: "By My Side" is one of the songs from The Imagineers.
Crys Matthews: <laughs> Yes, it is.
Jo Reed: So, tell me about the dog you wrote about.
Crys Matthews: So that song is about my dog Juice. Her official name is Olive, but she's such a ham. ‘Juice’ is much more her personality. And she's amazing. I've had her since she was eight weeks old. She's 12 now. And she is just the best little sidekick I could have ever hoped for. She has been with me through some of the most intense moments in my life, and hopefully will be there for a couple of other really big ones. And she's just incredible. She just has so much love in her, day-in and day-out.
Jo Reed: What kind of a dog is it?
Crys Matthews: So, she's a rescue. We think she's like a beagle/boxer mix with a little bit of whippet. She is fast as lightning. She has a similar coloring to a boxer overall, but she has her four little white paws and white tip-tailed, and little wrinkly head like a beagle.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I have a rescue that's a cocker spaniel/basset hound mix.
Crys Matthews: Wow. <laughs>
Jo Reed: She's so funny looking. She really is but of course, I adore her!
Jo Reed: Crys, where were you born and raised?
Crys Matthews: Born and raised in Southeastern, North Carolina, a little tiny town called Richlands, North Carolina, the Town of Perfect Water. Lived in North Carolina my entire life until about ten years ago when I became a resident of Herndon, Virginia.
Jo Reed: And what music did you listen to growing up?
Crys Matthews: Oh, my gosh! Well, my mom's a preacher. So, I listened to a lot of gospel music. But I also listened to a lot of really fantastic soul music. I'm a huge Otis Redding fan. Huge Aretha Franklin fan. All kinds. My iPod is a funny thing. It's got kind of an eclectic mix of everything from like the 1812 Overture to like a tiny bit of Marilyn Manson to Otis and Aretha, it's pretty eclectic. <laughter>
Jo Reed: I would imagine if you're growing up a preacher's kid, you're listening to a lot of music, you know, quite deeply.
Crys Matthews: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And I wonder if that sort of made you understand early on the power that music had.
Crys Matthews: Most definitely, yeah, most definitely. That was always my favorite part of church was the music. Always. And it was just so incredible to see people be so moved by the messages in the songs. In a lot of instances, more so than they were moved by the message from the preacher. And so yeah, I think very early on I was able to see often just how incredibly impactful music could be.
Jo Reed: Was there a moment when you thought, "This is what I want."
Crys Matthews: Yeah, so that is a very serendipitous set of steps. So, in sixth grade, I learned how to play clarinet, and pretty much as soon as I started playing clarinet, I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do in this world was be a high school band director. And so, I went to school for music education at Appalachian State University, and my roommate my sophomore year was a percussionist, who was also in this band. And so, this one night they needed a fill-in keyboard player for this gig. And so, as a music education major, you have to have pretty good chops in several different instruments. And because growing up in a church, I could play keys fairly well anyway. So, she asked if I could fill in for the gig. I said I could. And she said, "Okay, and we need you to sing one song, too." And I said, "All right, that's fine, I can do it." And so, we played this one gig. It is literally the only gig this band configuration ever played, and it was truly the night that kind of set me along a completely different course with music. It was incredible the feeling of being on that stage and singing and having people respond to the music, and to me singing. And so, I went and wrote my very first song on the keys, because that's what I could play that wasn't a clarinet, and entered it in the campus talent show at App, and won first place <laughter>, and won 500 bucks, which is like a million college dollars. And the rest is history. I kept, you know, just kept writing and trying to get better and better at it. And then eventually I taught myself guitar and started playing songs and writing songs on guitar, and here, ten/eleven years later, gosh, it's been quite a journey. It's been amazing.
Jo Reed: That is amazing! <laughter> So how would you describe your music? Music that you create?
Crys Matthews: So, it's such an interesting combination of genres. A lot of the music now, the social justice music kind of has a very throwback to traditional folk in that sense, that it's telling stories, the music of the people. Folk music has a beautiful history of justice and music, a marriage of those two things. So, some of the things now are feeling a little bit more folky than they used to, but there is a lot of blues influence in there, a lot of Americana. I lived in Boone, North Carolina for 12 years, so there's a nice little hint of bluegrass in there as well.
Jo Reed: I heard that.
Crys Matthews: Oh, yeah! <laughter>
Jo Reed: I definitely heard that.
Crys Matthews: <laughs> For sure. Yeah, when people ask me like, "Well, who do you sound like? Who do you sound like?" I always joke and say, because I get compared to Tracy Chapman, all the time. I just would love to be getting her royalty checks, but that's fine, there's time for that. But I always say, "It's like Tracy Chapman, but just not quite so sad lyrically." So. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Tell me about your band and the people you play with.
Crys Matthews: Yeah, so my band right now consists of Mark Williams, who's also my producer, he produced my last two projects, Battle Hymn for an Army of Lovers, and The Imagineers. He's my lead guitarist as well. Ben Tufts, who is a staple of the D.C. music scene. He must be in 40 different bands. He is such a phenomenal drummer. Graham Drew is my bassist. And then also Wes Lanich, who actually just recently moved to Colorado, is my keyboard player.
Jo Reed: And how do you choose who to play with? That's a big deal!
Crys Matthews: Yeah! It is! Because it's like, who do you want handling your babies day in and day out? You know? Thankfully, Mark has been just such an amazing partner to me in this music endeavor. He understands my music and what it is I hope to do with my music, so beautifully. Ben, I've known for a long time, so he's an easy choice. He always just treats my songs so perfectly, so he just has such a great intuition with what it is I like, and what I want to convey and how I want the music overall to feel. He just is so good at that, and so between Ben and Mark, you know, they are just always so helpful in finding people who are similar. Similar minds, similar spirits, people who will kind of feel the music in a similar way and be able to just kind of organically translate what it is I'm trying to say into music and into melody. So, it's just so great having those two guys in my corner.
Jo Reed: I'm curious about your writing process. Tell me what inspires you.
Crys Matthews: So, I'm horrible at prompt writing. So most of my music is very, very cathartic. It's usually just that, a case of needing to vent about something, and not being always the best, but just talking about it. It's always easier for me to talk with a guitar in my hand and a song. And so more often than not, it's just me trying to get something out that I'm feeling really strongly Anything from love songs and sweet songs about life and growing to the social justice stuff, they all kind of come about the same way. I kind of just have a moment where something I just can't stop thinking about it, or just need to say something or do something, and sometimes the melody comes first, but most of the time, the lyrics come first. And I'm just writing, writing, writing until I feel better. And then usually by the time I look up, the song is pretty much done. So.
Jo Reed: Do you write on the keyboard or with the guitar?
Crys Matthews: I actually write on guitar. Yeah, I haven't gotten to play keys in a long time. So yeah, almost everything now is written on guitar.
Jo Reed: I'm curious, because you're a singer/songwriter, so there's the more interior part of writing, and then tada you got to perform it! Bam there’s an audience. Tell me about performing and how you feel on a stage.
Crys Matthews: You know, it's, for me, I'm not one of those great showman type performers. You know, I'm very, very reserved and internalized when I'm playing. My mom is always like, "You always have your eyes closed. You're always feeling it so deeply, like we can see it so deeply." And for me, the experience of performing, it's always when I get to the very last chord, the very last note of the song, and you can hear just a subtle sigh, or just this quiet like, they just got it. They just got whatever it was I was just trying to say to them. That's the thing for me that I love about the performance. It's not the applause or any of that. It's literally having a conversation with a group of strangers and finding that they get it. That they get what you're trying to say.
Jo Reed: Do you interact with the audience as you're doing--
Crys Matthews: Yeah!
Jo Reed: And tell me how that works for you.
Crys Matthews: Yeah! So, there are a couple of the songs now that have kind of like sing-alongs built into them, which is very, very fun. And so, I get to kind of teach the audience the lyrics ahead of time, and then we get to sing together, and you can hear them get more and more confident throughout the song and start singing louder and louder and louder. And it's just so fun. You know, music is made to be listened to, but some music is made to be shared. And so, it's really fantastic just kind of watching it an audience feel comfortable enough with one another and safe enough with one another to actually sing out and sing with you. You know, and people get so shy about singing sometimes when it's not their chosen profession. But it's a really powerful thing hearing so many people lift their voices with you collectively. It's really great.
Jo Reed: I just love live performance dynamics. And I'm assuming you can feel literally the energy from the audience.
Crys Matthews: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: It's hard to talk about, but can you talk about the way that can actually shape the performance?
Crys Matthews: Absolutely. So, I hate writing setlists. So, I almost always will avoid writing a setlist, until I can get a chance to be in the room. Until I can be in the space. Until I can feel that energy in the room. And almost every time I play, it's shaped by who is going to be in the room that night. If I try to write a setlist, every time I think, "Okay, this is great. I've got it. I've nailed it! This is the setlist. It's going to be this tonight," and I walk onto that stage, and I feel those beings in that room, and every time, it just deviates, like every time, it deviates. I can write a setlist and say, "I'm definitely going to adhere to this," and the energy that the people bring with them, you know, whether they've had-- loss like unexpectedly, some people have had just really great news unexpectedly. You kind of feel bits of that. You know, on the one hand it sounds very what I like to call just very ‘hippy-esque’, but on the other hand, it's very ‘science-y’, it’s very true that transference of energy. You know, you can feel that joy get taken from somebody else and passed on to others. You can feel some of that sorrow leave somebody else when they're able to just exhale a little bit with other people around them. And so, all of that energy ends up making its way into the set night after night. No matter what I try to do. I still find every single show I end up just randomly for whatever reason, because of what I'm feeling from them, changing a song. And it always ends up being a song that somebody comes up at the end of the night and it's like, "That song really spoke to me." Always.
Jo Reed: That's so interesting to me.
Crys Matthews: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Completely unfair question, you can just say, "Pfft," but do you feel more at home as a songwriter writing the songs, or on the stage giving it out, or is it really the same to you?
Crys Matthews: You know, for me, it's probably the same. I haven't gotten to the point where I'm selling the songs to other people to sing. So pretty much all of my songs are heard through my voice at this point. So, I guess because of that both sides of those things kind of feel the same right now.
Jo Reed: Your album, The Imagineers, your recent album. Tell me first of all the title.
Crys Matthews: Yeah, so "The Imagineers" is kind of the coupling of the left and the right brain. It is like-- I like to say it's for everybody walking that thin line between your daydreams and your day jobs. You know, you find yourself sometimes in life having to do the adult stuff, day-in/day-out, doing the 9 to 5, like you have to do those things, and you know you have to do those things. But you have this other really lovely whimsical side to yourself that just wants to do something fun or freeing, that just makes you feel good. And it's sometimes a difficult thing balancing those two sides of yourself. And so "The Imagineers" is kind of a combination of the imaginative and the engineer. And so, it is kind of the hybrid of those two things of the left and the right brain of the dreamer and the doer.
Jo Reed: Well, The Imagineers also has a title track and I’m just curious, did anything of anyone in particular inspire it?
Crys Matthews: Yeah, that song came about because of these two incredible women, one of whom is my wife, who had just a really interesting dynamic in their careers. They're both these very driven, very focused women, who also have these really beautiful whimsical sides to them. And it can be so hard to make space for that other side when you have to be so serious. When you have to be so driven, when you have to be so focused. And sometimes for women more so. And so, they kind of were the inspiration behind that song. That lyric that's pulled from an Asian proverb that says, "You're like water carving stone." You know, "You wield your power quietly."
<Matthews plays and sings excerpt from The Imagineers>
Crys Matthews: "The Imagineers," I love that song so much. And a lot of people respond to that song, so it's always nice when other people kind of feel like that, and you see, they're like, "Oh, you're speaking to me!" I get it.
Jo Reed: Well, a) it's a wonderful song, and b) it's a fabulous album! Actually, the song, "The Imagineers" leads me to asking you when were you able to start supporting yourself with music? And many congratulations--
Crys Matthews: Thank you.
Jo Reed: An artist who can support herself through her art, this is a rare thing.
Crys Matthews: Yes, it is, yeah. So, I started doing music full time about five years ago. And thankfully, with the support of my wife who has the "grown up" job, as I like to call it. And she's always been so supportive of me and just has always believed in my music and in what it is I try to do with my music. And so, it was kind of a scary conversation, because she's a Virgo, and she does not like the unknown. She likes a plan 20 years out.
Jo Reed: And what are you?
Crys Matthews: I'm an Aries, so hardheaded and just an interesting juxtaposition to her very sensible self. But she's so great, she just believes in me so much, and she just trusted and took the leap with me. And it has truly been just a beautiful, beautiful unfolding of fate doing what it will do. And literally from the time I stopped doing anything but music, it's just been a beautiful uphill wonderful escalation since then. So, I won the "New Song Music and Performance" competition. There were 5,000 entrants into that contest. The finals were at Lincoln Center. I was one of ten finalists out of 5,000 songwriters. I was thinking, I had done pretty well just to get to play at Lincoln Center, and was really excited about that. Went up to Lincoln Center and won the whole thing. And it's just been an amazing trajectory since then, just getting to play so many amazing venues. Getting to meet so many incredible people. I just got back from a riverboat cruise, literally getting to play music on a riverboat cruise from Paris to Normandy.
Jo Reed: Are you kidding me?!
Crys Matthews: I am not! It was-- you know, it's a hard gig. Hard gig! You know? Oh! <laughter> Incredible!
Jo Reed: Oh, my god!
Crys Matthews: And it's just been amazing. You know, it's a scary thing to think that you, doing something that, gosh, there must be 100,000 songwriters in America alone, you know?
Jo Reed: Oh, easily.
Crys Matthews: Yeah, you know, just thinking that you were doing something that so many other people do, and do so very well, are able to reach enough people, are able to inspire and encourage enough people that you have this beautiful support community behind you who believes in your work, and believes in your art, and is willing to make sure you get to keep a roof over your head with your art, it's incredible. I feel so very blessed and fortunate to be able to do that.
Jo Reed: What was your day job?
Crys Matthews: So actually, the most recent day job that I ever had, I actually worked at a paint store. I'm a phenomenal paint mixer, like phenomenal color matcher. The precision is amazing! So good. I miss it some days, but you know, this is better. This is more fun.
Jo Reed: You have to give up something for something. <laughter> Now how do you go about finding work for yourself? Are people reaching out to you? Do have to send things out? It's hard!
Crys Matthews: Yeah, so that's another one of the amazing things that have happened in these past, most recent two years. So, I actually got picked up by Fleming Artists. Jim Fleming has been a booking agent for almost-- well, actually I think more than three decades. He booked Ani DiFranco for 25 years. He represents Holly Near, he represents Jeff Daniels. He has phenomenal artists on this roster, and I am humbled beyond belief to be one of those. And so, it is-- it's amazing. It's amazing to be able to have somebody kind of take care of that part of it. For a while there, as an indie songwriter. You know, I was kind of wearing like five different hats. You know, I'm writing the songs, I'm singing the songs, I'm recording the songs, promoting them, I'm booking the shows, I'm promoting the shows, I'm scheduling!
Jo Reed: "I'm getting the band together, and I'm paying the band!"
Crys Matthews: Exactly! It's so overwhelming! And so, the booking component is such a load off the shoulders to have somebody else doing that in general and to have somebody that's just so amazing at it as Jim to be in my corner, it's been just a godsend.
Jo Reed: Crys, you’ve performed as part of the NEA Regional Touring Program, a few times. And I am curious about the program from your perspective, as a performer.
Crys Matthews: it's been so exciting. I've gotten to go to a couple of regions that I don't get to play very often, because some of the presenters who aren't necessarily able to have it in the budget to bring an artist that's not from closer to home in, are able to do so. And it's just been great.
Jo Reed: Who are the audiences? Is it even possible to generalize?
Crys Matthews: The communities are so different. For example, in West Virginia the community that I was playing to was so diverse in age and background, it was really almost like getting to play for a small swath of America. It was very, very cool. But all there together to experience the music and to enjoy it together. I think that's one of the beautiful things about music is that oftentimes when we're not able to find commonalities any other place, we're so very easily able to find them in music and in the way that certain things speak to us collectively, it's really beautiful to watch.
Jo Reed: We all know art is a two-way street. So, I'm wondering what you've learned as an artist going out into these communities.
Crys Matthews: So, it's been a really gentle reminder to not be presumptuous about who is in those different places to give them a chance. Just like they'll give me and my music a chance, because more often than not, I'm very pleasantly surprised, and I tend to find they are, too. It's been really, really lovely to get a chance to share my work with those different communities and have it be received with them with such open hearts and arms.
Jo Reed: And has it had any impact on the way you write or what you write?
Crys Matthews: Actually yes! My most recent song-- actually my most recent two songs-- are actually just about meeting people where they are, and about just kind of opening yourself up to life and to the experience of life. So, it's been a nice, lovely, just getting glimpses of that humanity, you know, that beautiful, beautiful humanity. Just getting to be reminded of that.
Jo Reed: Why don’t you sing one of those? This might be a good time to play.
Crys Matthews: Yeah, do a little singing. Let's sing it!
Jo Reed: Yeah, do a little singing.
Crys Matthews: So, this song is called "Exactly Where You Are," and I wrote this song after my very first train ride in the United States. And when I was 18, I took a train in Europe, but I had never been on the train here at home, and I was going on the Coast Starlight from San Francisco all the way up to Corvallis, Oregon. And it was just this lovely transformative experience. And when I got where I was going, this song was waiting for me.
<Crys sings "Exactly Where You Are">
Jo Reed: Really nice. Really nice.
Crys Matthews: Thanks a lot. Thanks so much.
Jo Reed: Thank you-- no, thank you!
Jo Reed: Is there a favorite gig that you've had?
Crys Matthews: Oh, definitely. Definitely playing the Kennedy Center was like the gig of a lifetime! <laughs>
Jo Reed: Tell me about that. I want to hear everything!
Crys Matthews: <laughs> So because of the partnership with winning New Song, the competition I was telling you about at Lincoln Center, they have a partnership with the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. And so, as the reigning champion, I got a chance to play on that stage with my band. And it was the most amazing night! I was smiles from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed three days later. Just so amazing. It was incredible to get to play in that space, and such an honor. And to get to sing all original songs, to get to sing my songs. It was just amazing. That is definitely, hands down, without any hesitation, as of right now, the gig that I am most proud of is getting to play that.
Jo Reed: And do you ever cover any other songs?
Crys Matthews: Oh, yeah, yeah. Actually, so I'll be at The Pub and People, which is a local spot in D.C. on Sunday, and I'll be doing some covers for that gig. I play vineyards, sometimes, that's like my bread-and-butter gig. Like my punching the clock, you know, I'll play some vineyard and things like that when I'm close to home and don't have to travel anywhere. And so those gigs are fun. You're just part of the ambience. So, folks when they're sipping on their wine and enjoying the gorgeous views out there, they just like to hear things that they're familiar with. So, I try to do everything from Otis and Aretha to Maroon 5, and contemporary stuff. So, I try to cover the gamut. It's a lot of fun.
Jo Reed: Oh, that would be. What a beautiful place to do it.
Crys Matthews: Oh, yeah, for sure.
Jo Reed: What is next?
Crys Matthews: So, I have an EP coming out called, "These Old Hands." I'm so excited about it. This is such a different project than all of the other ones that I have out. This will be my eighth project. My eighth release. And "These Old Hands" is just a collection of like breakup songs, and just heartbreak songs, but they're so beautiful! And so, I'm interested to see people's response to those songs, because they are such a departure for me, as far as the content.
Jo Reed: And are they original?
Crys Matthews: Oh, yeah!
Jo Reed: Oh, goodness!
Crys Matthews: Yeah, so but they're so beautiful. And so, I'm so excited about it, and the arrangements of some of them are so different from everything I've ever done. So, it's one of those things where it's kind of scary when you're doing something that's not like what your, quote/unquote "usual" sound is, but I never have tried to make myself box into any kind of specific genre. The song just comes out how it comes out. So sometimes it comes out like a blues song. Sometimes it comes out like Americana. Sometimes it comes out like straight country. And so, I never try to predispose myself to having a specific type of song. So that's also another interesting component to "These Old Hands." There's one song, in particular, that's up there that almost feel like old rock! And so, it's going to be so interesting. I'm so excited about it, and I'm so proud of those songs. But I'm really mostly just fascinated to see what the people who have known my music for so long think about it.
Jo Reed: What their reaction is going to be.
Crys Matthews: Yeah, yeah.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I bet, I bet.
Crys Matthews: It's exciting.
Jo Reed: Well, Crys, it was such a pleasure!
Crys Matthews: Thank you so much, Jo, it's been a delight!
Jo Reed: I really enjoyed it! Thank you so much, really!
Crys Matthews: My pleasure. <laughs>
<Matthews sings and plays guitar>
Jo Reed: That’s singer/songwriter Crys Matthews. You can find out what she’s up to at her website crysmatthews.com. And you can find out more about NEA Regional Touring Program in the current issue of NEA Arts. It’s on our website at arts.gov.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so I wish you would. And leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.