Matt Andersen - small town boy makes big time
Matt Andersen didn’t have the most auspicious of starts to his music career, having been given the tuba to play in the school band because he was the only one in his class who could carry it, but he’s more than made up for that since the tuba gave way to the guitar.
The burly 6’ 2” Canadian, who achieved an honour beyond his wildest dreams when he won the Best Solo Performer prize at the Memphis Blues Challenge in 2010, can measure his success simply by contrasting the population of his home town, Perth-Andover in New Brunswick, with the capacity of the Massey Hall in Toronto where, not for the first time, he recently played a sold-out solo concert.
To jazz fans, Massey Hall became synonymous with what has been dubbed the greatest jazz concert ever, when Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach – billed as The Quintet – played there in 1953. Some have even said it’s jazz music’s equivalent of a church.
“Yeah, it’s pretty special to people back home too, irrespective of what kind of music they like,” says Andersen who, as we speak, has just arrived in London for the UK tour that brings him back to Scotland to play at the Glasgow Americana festival. “Perth-Andover has a population of fifteen hundred and Massey Hall holds two thousand, three hundred, so that’s quite a culture shock. But more of a thrill, for me, has been when I’ve played there and the advertisements have had my name alongside B.B. King, Buddy Guy and people like that. Not that I rate myself in their league but it feels good to be doing the same kind of business in the same venue as them.”
Andersen took up the guitar at the age of fourteen and quickly became obsessed with it. He practised at every opportunity and when his older brother played him Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album, it opened a door onto a world of music that fascinated him then and absorbs him still.
“I liked a lot of southern rock in my teens, people like Creedence Clearwater Revival and especially John Fogerty’s solo work, and there were a lot of blues influences in there,” he says. “Then when I heard Eric Clapton I started doing all the stuff that obsessives do, reading liner notes, seeing who’d written the songs and following that up to find out more about where it all came from, and the more I got into it, the deeper I went into it. Some people say that the blues is depressing, down music, but I don’t hear it that way. For me, it’s honest; that’s what attracted me. It’s doesn’t have to be sad and there’s an optimism in these songs where the singers are talking about stuff they’ve had to get through but they’ve got through it and they’re coming out the other side.”
From practising at home the young Andersen gravitated towards little pockets of other guitar players at school and formed bands that played in the local bars. His ambition back then was to work in a recording studio and he took a course at college that would further that aim. Then with a student loan to pay off he took a job in a factory that made cakes and pizza bases until his night job in bar bands started making him sleep in for his day job and he decided to try and make it in music.
Coming from a blue collar community, he says, kept his feet on the ground and made him aware that he’d have to work for a living. So he applied himself and has put in the miles, as well as the hours, building up a schedule that sees him playing two hundred gigs a year solidly and developing an onstage presence that ensures audiences are entertained as much as moved by his songs.
“I’m a great believer in the convention that says, the more you do something the better you get at it and if people come out to see you, you owe it to them to give them value for money,” says the man who was named Entertainer of the Year at the Maple Blues Awards in Canada in 2011 and who has the kind of personality that can fill large scale theatres as well as more modestly apportioned venues.
“I’ve done a lot of band work, both live and in the studio, and I love it,” he says. “But I also feel really comfortable doing solo gigs. It’s actually the way I prefer to listen to music because you get more sense of what’s going on with the performer, more of a personal impression. Plus playing smaller venues, you can actually see people and that’s always nice.”
From The Herald, October 2, 2014.