As we continue our full-time artist series, today we interview one of our favorite singer/songwriters, Matthew Clark. We love it when artists take their marketing just as seriously as their music. But more importantly, we believe that artists who have figured out the “why” behind what they do, are the most purposeful in how they go about creating and sharing their art.
In today’s post, Matthew shares how he entered into the world of music, and how his decision to pursue house concert touring has helped facilitate and cultivate a more genuine relationship with his fans.
1. For readers who have never heard of you or listened to your music, can you give us a quick rundown of who Matthew Clark is?
I grew up in rural Mississippi, and my mom used to sing old folk songs to me on her classical guitar when I was little. Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and so on. When I was about 10 or 11 I got interested in guitar myself. I had a Great Uncle, Dick McCool, who made a living as a doctor in Memphis, but was also a professional-level jazz musician. When Mom called him and said I was curious about music, he said, “I’ll call you back in five minutes,” and hung up the phone. He called back with the name and number of a guitar teacher who was the son of a jazz singer friend of his. My mom said, “But that’s a two hour round trip!” And my uncle said, “That’s ok, make it happen.” She took me to lessons once a week for the next two or three years.
I had a humbling experience though when I went up to Berklee College of Music the Summer before my senior year of high school. I had a big inflated dream of being a flashy guitar player. I got to Boston and there were hundreds of guys that blew me away. I came home very deflated. My Christian faith was important to me and it didn’t make sense that God would want me to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I loved making music, but that gift needed a lot of maturing and still does, but that big letdown was where I first started thinking about songwriting as a way to participate in a more meaningful musical journey than just being impressive.
I hope the songs I write can create little habitats where folks can come into contact with good, beautiful, true things. Songs can be safe places to grieve, laugh, discover, remember, explore, and process experience.
Most of my twenties were just one long tug of war between “this is a stupid waste of time” and “this is what you were made to do”.
2. Over the years we‘ve spotlighted working artists who use music-making as their primary or sole source of income. Can you tell us how you decided to go this route? Was it an easy decision? Have you ever second-guessed your decision?
Honestly, pursuing music full-time or not, has been a long battle for me. I struggled with a lot of internal conflict and insecurity about the legitimacy of being an artist. At times it’s been incredibly confusing. Most of my twenties were just one long tug of war between “this is a stupid waste of time” and “this is what you were made to do”. A lot of fear of failure too, which kept me from taking it seriously. There’s a very practical (or critical) voice in my head that loves to slash at my more hopeful, creative side. Part of my journey has been that battle. A big help in that battle has been to find wise mentors and encouraging people to help me navigate those confusing places. That and my own stubbornness. At some point though, I had to decide if I was going to use cynicism to get through that tangle or gratitude, you know? One of those wise people, a songwriter in his mid-sixties, told me, “Maturity is moving from a thin skin and a hard heart to a thick skin and a tender heart.” But I had to decide.
So I worked on music from within that struggle for ten or twelve years until 2012 when I bit the bullet after a great opportunity opened up to collaborate with Dr. Sandra Richter (an Old Testament Professor at Wheaton) and Mitch Dane (a Grammy Winning Nashville producer) to create the album, “Bright Came the Word from His Mouth”. That’s a narrative concept album that walks through the story of redemption in Scripture. Making that album was a ‘threshold’ moment. I had to be all in or not. So I went for it. An artist’s life is a choice to live differently. I don’t make much money. I live pretty simply. I don’t get to be totally independent. I really need the help of my community.
At times, I do still wonder if I am a complete idiot for pursing music, and I think it’s healthy to always be open to the truth in case some other responsibilities were to trump my dreams, of course. I’d love for everyone to believe I’m as big of a deal as I think I am, but if a kid gets all the candy he wants he pukes. Making music is very important to me, but nothing is more important than loving people well. If music moves love along, great. If it gets in the way, it needs to be re-evaluated. Love is never automatic, it takes a lot of disciplined work. You’re always re-writing.
3. Grassrootsy spends alot of time talking about fan-building and finding ways to authentically connect with your audience. What are some ways you attempt to do this through your music?
I find people naturally interesting. There’s nothing more wonderful and bizarre, frustrating and lovely than people. But our culture is in a weird place. We have more tools to connect to people than ever before, but we also suffer from a lot of confusion about what people really are. The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Modernity and Post-modernity have left us with a deep sense of dislocation and a kind of extreme utilitarianism when it comes to human beings. It’s very unnatural. My brother is a ceramic artist and we have a never-ending conversation about what it means to make art. Someone asked me what conclusions we had reached. I said, “None, it’s just delightful to talk about art, and we leave with more courage to create than before.” People are not merely mechanisms. People are by nature unfathomable. You can’t make this stuff up, Ecclesiastes says, “He has set eternity in their hearts.” I’m trying to learn that people are not problems to solve. Similarly, as a Christian, I’m trying to learn the Jesus is not an equation on a test, but a Person sitting across the table from me. Am I making eye contact or not?
House Concerts are one way I’ve found to recover some of that humanity in music making. I love them. I love feeling like I can sing with and for people, rather than ‘at’ them.
Josh Garrells said he’s been realizing that his listeners are co-laborers. They’re not consumers; they’re participants and he’s serving them by creating art and loving them well. It’s a very different way of thinking about it. It takes a lot of imagination and courage. I appreciate Josh being a pioneer toward a more human way of making music. By ‘more human’ I also mean more like Jesus, since Jesus became a human, died and rose as a one so that humans could get back all the humanness that we’ve lost.
House Concerts are one way I’ve found to recover some of that humanity in music making. I love them. I love feeling like I can sing with and for people, rather than ‘at’ them. Christa Wells is another pioneer songwriter to me. She says she wants to see every performance, big or small, as an opportunity to love her people well – that there’s nothing more beautiful than the moment everyone settles into a song and realizes their collective frailty and the astonishing grace that meets them in that place. The tools of connection will come and go; what’s more important to me is the fundamental question of the rich dignity of human beings. That keeps me coming back to songwriting. You never ‘get finished’ with a person. If people don’t matter, and I mean in a literally endless sense, then what’s the point of doing anything at all, much less writing songs?
Everyone wants to be validated in their existence, that’s natural. But if I try to do that by being impressive, I’ll wear myself out, because you’ve always got to be more impressive next time.
4. House Concerts are a big deal these days. But to be honest, we have never found an artist who takes them as seriously as you do. You have the most excellent and comprehensive House Concert Resource Page. When did you decide to start focusing primarily on house concerts instead of public shows? And why?
A few years ago I started thinking about my music career differently. I started seeing it as a blue collar job, really. Everyone wants to be validated in their existence, that’s natural. But if I try to do that by being impressive, I’ll wear myself out, because you’ve always got to be more impressive next time. I wanted playing music to be something more sustainable emotionally and spiritually. Look up any famous person that’s halfway honest and they’ll tell you how exhausted they get. Steve Martin left stand-up for movies so he could get a good night’s sleep.
House Concerts turned out to be this wonderful way of sharing music and stories that just felt fitting for however it is that I am made. It’s enough challenge to grow and it’s just laid back enough to keep from wearing me out. Part of it too is that it’s a great conversational storytelling environment. I love that kind of space to just be relaxed in telling some of the personal process that’s going on in these songs. House Concerts are perfect for that. And it’s wrapped up in hospitality, which has become a key term for understanding myself as one called to create.
I’m not opposed to playing ‘bigger’ shows, of course, those are a blast when I get the chance, but house shows are a great fit for the musical ‘culture’ I love to cultivate.
5. What are the biggest differences between playing in someones house as opposed to playing a public venue?
In a public venue, there’s typically an organization with a budget so there’s more flexibility with compensation. They might have a larger following to pull from to invite folks. It feels cool to play in a bigger venue. That energy is a blast. If you travel with a larger band, pulling off a house show at a reasonable volume in a smaller space would be a challenge, though not impossible.
It’s good to remember it’s not someone else’s job to do my job for me!
6. A few weeks ago we did a post spotlighting artists who creatively display their merchandise. We used your setup in the post and also noted that you have a house concert sign-up sheet on your merch table, right next to your CDs. Very smart. How significant has that sign-up sheet been to your house-concert booking process?
Mailchimp has been great for me to keep up with a mailing list. I often make little notes about where I met someone or what we talked about and save it in Mailchimp. I don’t always have the House Concert Sign-up on the table, but I do put ‘seat-cards’ out. Seat-cards are 3×5 notecards that I had printed. On the front they have name, email, and city/state fields and a ‘check yes or no’ option to be contacted with more info about hosting a house concert. On the back there’s a lined space for comments about the concert experience. I put one in every seat with a pen before the concert, and I announce that I’ll draw one card at the end of the show from everyone who signs up and give away a free CD. Any time I can remove hoops that people have to jump through to connect, I try to do that.
I do find that getting gigs requires me to get out of self-pity/entitlement mode and be pro-active. Most people would love to host, but they’re also overwhelmed with their own lives. It’s my job to reach out to them and be as hospitable as I can be toward them. It’s good to remember it’s not someone else’s job to do my job for me!
7. Last but not least, what is the most significant lesson you have learned living as a singer/songwriter?
That I need to keep working to be honest with myself. Otherwise, I can’t be honest with anyone else. I want to be true and I want to make true things. Not that I make truth, but I want to keep taking steps to move closer to Home. I can’t create love either, I also can’t maneuver love; but I can learn to receive it and give it. One year ago I played a show for a couple who were trying to adopt. They had had a son, but he had died as a young boy. It was a big deal for them to walk towards parenthood again, considering the incredible pain they’d been through. I don’t want to exploit their experience, but I’m learning from it. So now, a year later I get to play for them again and they have their new adopted baby daughter with them.
This couple’s experience is a little picture of what honest music might mean. They’re hearing music that has kept them alive and able to walk through unbearable sorrow (not around it), and to hear a hopeful lyric that has kept them walking toward (not just through) an impossible-to-imagine new kind of life. If something I write can just get at that Ultimate Song in the tiniest way, that’s a song worth serving.