Smitty: I’m seriously honored to welcome my next guest to Jazz Monthly.com. He’s one of the most prolific producers in the business. You know him from the work that he’s done with the fantastic Mindi Abair, but trust me, he has a whole, whole lot more in his bag of accomplishments. Please welcome someone that I truly admire a great producer and musician, Mr. Matthew Hager. Matthew, how you doin’?
Matthew Hager (MH): I’m doing great, Smitty. How are you, man?
Smitty: Man, it’s great to talk to ya.
MH: Yeah, you too, you too. I’m a big fan of what you’re doing, so I’m happy to talk to you, happy to be here.
Smitty: Thank you. Now, let’s see, you’re in a relaxed mode now. You’ve just finished this fantastic project with Mindi Abair, Life Less Ordinary…..
MH: Yeah, thank you. Yeah, I think relaxed mode, recovery mode, whatever you wanna call it. (Both laughing.) We spent a lotta time on this one, so I’m just taking it easy these days. Just recuperating.
Smitty: You’re an accomplished musician yourself. But what came first, the chicken or the egg? Was it your musicianship as a player or, you know, did you get into producing back door? How did that work?
MH: Well, you know, it’s funny. I’ve been playing music since I was probably four years old, and I started playing piano and my parents started noticing that I could play. We had a piano downstairs and I just started picking things up by ear basically, and so my mom started sending me to piano lessons and stuff. Then I started singing, and when I was about ten......eight or ten I can’t remember but I joined this choir, this boys choir called the Singing Boys of Houston, which was actually a big thing where I’m from, and we would travel around The States and I ended up…..I think I was ten when we traveled to Europe and I had a chance to sing with the Vienna Boys Choir for a couple weeks. So I was always around music. My father’s actually a really good jazz musician, really good jazz pianist, even though he’s a Presbyterian minister by trade [laughing].
MH: He’s a fantastic musician, and there was always music going around in our house, and I was always writing songs and joining bands and singing, and I always wanted to be a rock star. That was my goal [both laughing], you know, so I was in rock bands growing up and some funk bands, and ended up getting a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and went out there and wanted to study piano and voice so I could be a rock star. I actually wanted to be Billy Joel at the time.
Smitty: Oh wow.
MH: Yeah, somewhere between Billy Joel and Peter Gabriel.
Smitty: Ho, ho, ho. Lofty ambitions!
MH: Yeah, I was really into that at the time. So I went to Berklee and met some great people and studied and came out to L.A. and wanted to make it big and played at a ton of clubs, and that was my goal. I just wanted to be a singer/songwriter, and when I was about 24 I got kinda bored with piano. I had a band, I’d hire people to do my own stuff, and the guitarist in my band kept quitting and then he’d come back and then he’d quit and he’d come back, and I’d get so frustrated that finally I said “Well, I’m just gonna learn how to play the guitar.” So I didn’t even play guitar until I was about 24 years old.
MH: And yeah, so I was playing around and I was playing clubs like The Troubadour and Whiskey-A-Go-Go, and I got some attention from some different labels and some different producers, and I ended up signing a production deal with some producers for about a year, and it wasn’t a good contract. They were actually really good producers, but they weren’t necessarily right for me, and we tried and we tried and we tried, and it just didn’t do much and it didn’t go anywhere and it wasn’t a good fit, and I got really frustrated.
That was kind of the turning point where I went from an aspiring singer/songwriter to actually more of a collaborator and a producer. While I was in this contract, I wasn’t really allowed to play out live, so I was just bored pretty much doing nothing, and so I would get calls from local artists, you know, people that were coming up with me, and they’d ask me if I’d be interested in writing with them or if I’d help them record a demo or something, and I started doing that…not because I wanted to, but mainly because I was just bored.
What I realized is that I actually really liked it. I was feeling kind of negative about my own production deal and I started finding out that I was really passionate about helping artists discover what makes them unique, and it was almost like I took the negative from what I was going through in my own career and then I turned it into a positive with other people, and I really started helping people develop their own sound. And I was adamant about helping people, helping them sound unique, find that inner voice in them that no one else has and amplifying it.
Smitty: You didn’t miss your calling.
MH: Well, thank you. And so I started doing that, and once I started working with other people, it just sort of like organically evolved. I can’t quite explain it. It’s not like I ever put down the guitar and said “I’m never gonna be a singer/songwriter again.” It’s just that it felt so much better to work with other people and help their careers evolve, and people just kept calling me and asking me to work with them and asking me to help them out, and I felt like it was something I was good at, so I just, you know, I kept doing it and eventually I started doing a few artists…..started getting a little bit of success. At one point I was asked to be musical director for Mandy Moore and that was a really exciting time ‘cause I’d never worked with a platinum artist before and I’d never really put together a band or done anything like that, but I figured, sure, you know, I’ll do it, so I hired a band and started doing arrangements live and the next thing I know I was playing the Tonight Show and then next thing I know I was producing her records and writing with her, and it’s been an incredible ride. I’m a very, very lucky person.
Smitty: Man, yes you are, and that’s quite a ride, as you said. But along the way, when you really started to discover this desire to help musicians to discover their inner voice, their own sound, talk about some of the artists, without even naming them, just talk about some of their reactions to your quest to help them to reach that pinnacle of their career.
MH: Well, it’s been my experience that the thing that the artist is most afraid of and the artist is most insecure about is usually the thing that separates them from everyone else. And it’s usually the thing that if they hone in on it and they start to understand it, and you build a musical landscape around that and get them comfortable with it. That’s when it happens, that’s when the magic happens, and, you know, it’s a very….it’s a very scary….how do I put this? It’s a scary road to take for artists because, and I can speak from my own experience, you study your instrument, you study your craft, you hone your craft, maybe you go to college or maybe you just play on the streets or whatever you do, and you always think you’re good enough. You have to. There’s that blind faith you have in yourself. If as artists we didn’t have that blind faith, we’d, you know, we’d be crippled.
Smitty: Yeah, you’d stay home. (Laughs.)
MH: Yeah, we’d stay home. So you always think you’re good enough and being an unsuccessful artist is so freeing because you can always turn on the radio and think you can do better than that person, and why are they signed and I’m not, but there’s actually a lot of freedom there if you don’t let the animosity eat you alive. And everything’s open, you know? You aren’t worried about making it on the radio, you aren’t worried about getting approval from your label or getting the right management, you’re just trying to please yourself. So there comes this point where you feel like you’re ready, and then you get to that point where you sit down with a producer or whoever it is and they start, you know, kinda scrutinizing it. Whether it’s tearing apart your songs and showing you where some of your weaknesses are or explaining to you that you’re singing a lot in your low end but actually the strength in your voice is up in your high end.
MH: And you haven’t written any songs to exploit that, so let’s try and write some songs that are exploiting that part of your range. Whatever it is, all of a sudden you’re going from this thing where you, like, you’ve had this baby, you know? And now it’s like asking you to look at it differently. So I think that there’s a lot of responsibility on the producer’s end to be aware of that and to understand that it’s a very scary time for artists….to get the record deal.