The best singer-songwriter you (likely) haven't heard
Published: February 15, 2012
This tall, bespectacled, Ypsilanti-based singer-songwriter has been warming up hearts around here for a half-dozen years. His songs, often stunning, folkish narratives and image-rich ballads, feature a voice that can croon with heartbreaking sincerity or pull you in like some pucker-lipped carnival barker, stroked by acoustic finger-picking, below-the-belt cellos and purring violins.
After releasing what was one of the best albums of '09, here or anywhere, Matt Jones spent most of 2010 not eating, not sleeping, basically working on drinking, and doing well. He became a writer with no ideas, was headed straight from writer's block to burnout. ("I lost my mind for a year," he says.)
But Jones isn't milking some Lost Weekend cliché: As booze often will lead you from character, Jones stopped focusing on his own work and wound up going electric! So this is about a songwriter falling, getting all loud, stopping, sobering up and then reappearing.
Big deal, songwriters get drunk and give up all the time, right? But this Jones guy is one of those you wind up rooting for, because he's that good and personable, and you know the world is a lesser place without him writing and singing his ass off in it.
Then, of course, there's the disarming delight of his childlike chuckle; his self-deprecation is authentic, earned. And Jones is funny as hell.
And that marvelous album, his debut, The Black Path, is a devastating collection of beautiful baroque-rich folk rags, woozy laments and warm acoustic waltzes, fueled (if not haunted by) a kind of tangible nostalgia, disquieting memories and eerie, airy ambience.
Even Jones' ancestry ties directly to Civil War battlefields and circus freakshows (on his mother's side: her grandfather and his father were circus performers, and the singer's great aunt was a sideshow attraction in the classic horror-show film Freaks, the armless one who played guitar with her feet. Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy was an occasional dinner guest in the family home). Though Jones, like any songwriter worth his salt, has had to work through heady personal problems, his tunes have never slipped into the goofy supernatural or the too sentimental. Jones is not one of those "Midwest beardo-sensitive types"; in fact, if the cello and upright bass creak out stark lullaby basics, it always is given a warm, just-barely jovial gloss by Jones' melodies, words and breathy delivery.
The songwriter talks of his penchant for spooky-sounding music, and that which exists on the ominous side of life, and also his love for the low-end, all are things that cameo on his Black Path follow-up, titled Half Poison/Half Pure. The second album is out March 1, and it's every bit as worthy as its predecessor, if not a bit more rock 'n' roll.
And Jones has been busy lately; On Feb. 1, he performed an intimate acoustic set inside Ann Arbor's Back Seat Studios (where he recorded his debut, with engineer Jim Roll). The concert was filmed by director-producer Scott Allen, along with Doug Coombe, Adam Nelson and Martin Thoburn, and will be released the same day, March 1, as his new album, Half Poison/Half Pure. Here Jones talks about the new album, his tour mates, and coming clean in a new reality that involves sobriety but not record labels (or much money).
Metro Times: When I saw you at the Hamtramck Blowout last year, you had a full band; you were playing electric guitar, electric bass, a drum kit, the whole thing. But you brought it back to the basics for Mittenfest at New Year's ...
Matt Jones: The basics sound best to me. Somehow, somewhere, we started playing electrical instruments, even for acoustic-based stuff from Black Path. But I was out of steam, then, just sort of coasting. ... I spent most of 2010 doing nothing but drinking, not eating, not sleeping and getting laid. I wasn't making any music; I just lost my mind for a year. [He gestures to the mass gathered at the Ugly Mug coffee shop in Ypsilanti. ...]
Ask half of these people here if they know anything they saw me do or have heard a really funny story about me, but I won't remember it.
But, seriously, everyone in that full-band [electric] stint, Misty Lyn Bergeron, Colette Alexander, Chad Pratt, Serge Vandervoo, Greg McIntosh, let's see, Lacy Lake and Carol Grey and [he points out a person sitting] Kendall Babl, all of them are fucking wonderful musicians and people who cared genuinely for the project. I just couldn't muster the strength to voice what was right for me because I was so flattened by what I was doing to myself.
MT: Was this some kind of Lost Weekend? ... What was it like for you?
Jones: My entire immune system broke down nutrition-wise, alcohol-wise, sleep-wise, work hours, stress levels — alright, already! You gotta quit this shit.
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