Matt Munhall: The kind of blues-savvy pop you and your parents would like

Sunday 25th May 2014

Tony Cummings quizzed an exceptionally talented singer, songwriter and pianist, MATT MUNHALL

Matt Munhall
Matt Munhall

Ohio-based singer/pianist Matt Munhall has been described as "the kind of pop songwriter you and your parents can agree on." His piano playing is so strong that it was once featured on a nationally syndicated PBS TV show aired on over 200 stations. His latest album '700 Miles' has been described by hugely experienced Nashville producer Brad Jones as "the best record I've been involved in since Bush was president" and his consummate songwriting skill has reminded more than one person of Randy Newman though Matt is a much better singer with rather soulful chops. Cross Rhythms recently caught up with this 32 year old songsmith to get his story.

Matt was born into an old school Irish-American Catholic family in Worthington, Ohio on 4th March 1982. "I was the ninth out of 10 children and a seventh son. The surname Munhall used to be Mulhall and was changed upon arrival of my great-great-grandfather to the Pittsburgh area, where you'll find Munhall, Pennsylvania today. My father was a self-made salesman and former doowop singer and my devoted mother was a nurse by training from New York City."

Learning piano in his youth, he was soon playing every kind of gig like nursing homes, school dances, college parties and bars. In 2003 he recorded his first album, 'Over And Over Again'. Matt commented, "Like Randy Newman says, 'Each record that I'm making is like a record that I've made; just not as good!' But, truthfully, I am very proud of the 21 year old me for making that album. It was an audacious undertaking. I spent every penny I had saved over two years working two jobs and a couple nights a week of piano bar at that point. I paid all the musicians well, it still sounds okay (even if the vocals are quite unseasoned), and some of my fans treasure it the most out of all the albums."

In 2004 Matt went to play on an air force base in Germany for six months and on his arrival back recorded his second album, 'Guinea Pigs On A Scaffold'. Commenting on the title track Matt said, "The title track of the record is referencing our secular geo political/cultural structures and the helplessness one finds in the midst of it. Come to think of it, it kinda describes how so much of religion is too. Where humans are subjected to experiments of the powerful and often unseen, and all the while on temporary, possibly shaky ground. In the song the narrator recalls the garden of Gethsemane and those feelings one feels when the macro cultural, religious and political structures are on shaky ground at best and they do with you what they will."

Matt Munhall: The kind of blues-savvy pop you and your parents would like

Matt spoke about another song on 'Guinea Pigs On A Scaffold', "Lies, Damned Lies And Statistics". " 'Guinea Pigs. . .' was my finger-pointing album. It was written when I lived in Germany for six months in 2004-2005. The geo-political soup at the time was enough to fill you up and give you indigestion bigtime. I was trying to make sense of things. There are 16 both topically and musically diverse songs on that record and truthfully it is my second favourite only to the one I just finished."

In 2007, Munhall put together a cohesive rhythm section that includes Matt Paetsch on bass and Jack Knuttila on drums. Munhall played The Bitter End in New York in April 2008, in the New York City Songwriters Showcase, and played the Living Room on July 8th. Ever since, he's made a habit of making it to the city to play shows. In August 2008, he enrolled at Capital University to study music arranging formally for the first time. That year he released his third album, called, appropriately, 'Three'. The songsmith commented, "'Three' was my transitionary work that coincided with my marriage and birth of my son. I have three favourites - 'Hey Venus' is probably my best heartsick love song. 'When I Was A Kid' is just about the keen awareness of childhood and the desire to grow up too fast. 'Green in The Morning' is reflective and quite descriptive of the back and forth and in and out of love, and the seeming inability to give up on your first true love."

There was a long gap between 'Three' and '700 Miles'. Matt explained why. "I've spent a lot of time raising my son during the day and doing society gigs at night. He is now almost five. He said it was okay to really get back to work. Though it is still quite difficult to juggle it all." Working with producer Brad Jones was for Matt a very positive experience. He said, "It was the most fulfilling project I've ever been able to be a part of. The whole making of the record was free of confusion or complication. We just clicked like a mic clicks into an xlr cable. And all the musicians on the record were great to work with, especially one of my favourite people and musicians alive, Mr. Charlie Sexton. (now with Dylan on the road and off and on for the last 15 years). Brad is dedicated to making truly evocative and real musical art. He facilitated and ornamented 700 Miles magically. He even played bass on a few songs. We'll make another record someday, hopefully sooner than later.

A couple of the many standouts on '700 Miles' are "I'm A Human" and "The Heavenly Hound". Said Matt, "'I'm A Human' is about the 'journey' and its meaning for all of us. The strong belief that we have a soul and that we are connected regardless of any fences in our minds, and that it can be difficult, but we can help each other. It also makes a comment on the reality that evolution and faith can logically coexist, and actually help make sense of one another. It was inspired first by reading about what anthropologists call the Great Leap Forward. I just put that together with what I believe about being human, that's all." He continued, "'The Heavenly Hound' was inspired by a Francis Thompson poem The Hound Of Heaven. Also, it was inspired by the ever-evolving blues tradition passed on to me in particular by Bob Dylan. If you go and listen to 'Rollin' And Tumblin'' you'll see what I mean. Though we're worlds apart, I think he'd dig what I'm saying in this song and actually had Dylan in mind while I was writing it. Wrote it in a monastery too!"

Matt Munhall: The kind of blues-savvy pop you and your parents would like

Cross Rhythms concluded its questioning of Matt by asking him what spiritual lesson he has learned down the years. His answer was succinct: "God is merciful. Beyond reason." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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