The first time that San Francisco-based musician Matt Jaffe performed in the Hamptons, it was an impromptu gig that involved a borrowed guitar. He’s come a long way since then, as for his second East End experience, he’ll be headlining at Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett.
In anticipation of Jaffe’s show on Tuesday, June 18, we caught up with the singer/songwriter about open mics, his serendipitous meeting with Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads, and more.
Will this be your Talkhouse debut?
And what about in the Hamptons?
MJ: I played an open mic in Montauk before at a place I think called the Fiddler’s Elbow, or Fiddler’s Cove, or Fiddler’s something for sure. And it was way back before I was really doing this in earnest. And I think they were very kind to let me borrow a guitar and do a handful of tunes.
Speaking of open mics, like most musicians, your early days included a lot of open mics, but that changed when Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads offered his assistance. Can you speak about how he has influenced your career?
MJ: A lot of times, it seems like folks want to point to a very specific moment that changed everything, and the truth is, it’s always felt like a very organic transition from sort of a random extracurricular to doing this as a career, But, thinking about it, retroactively, I think Jerry choosing to work with me really became a defining moment, in not only trying to more proactively pursue this as a career, but also recognizing how to write and perform with a band, and also just write with the studio in mind, and not just an open mic in mind, which is a very different dynamic, as I’m sure you know.
And how did you two meet?
MJ: Well, we met because I literally stalked him for a school project. I wanted to interview him for something and I wrote him a letter. He lives in my hometown, and I wrote him a letter because I think he was in the phone book. And stalking, of course, is never to be condoned. But it’s a little different when you’re in fifth grade, I hope. Anyways, I didn’t hear back from him because of the letter. But my dad and I were driving and we saw him in the car next to us. So we followed him to the parking lot outside of a hardware store and connected there. And, I did get to interview him. Over the years, as I grew musically, our friendship grew as well until the point when we got to work together.
So it was kind of fate.
MJ: Yeah, man. It was weird because I was just getting into Talking Heads. And we had gotten a DVD of Stop Making Sense from the local video rental store. I think you got them for a week, the DVD rentals, and I probably watched that like four out of the seven nights we had it. And very serendipitously he happened to live in that town. It was not was not the other way around at all.
At 24-years-old, you’ve already toured with Mavis Staples, Wilco, Jackie Greene, Melissa Etheridge, and Blues Traveler and collaborated with Chuck Prophet and Tom Higgenson of the Plain White T’s. What did you learn from the time you spent with these music industry veterans?
MJ: Well, I think that the co-writing opportunities and the touring opportunities have been somewhat different, like the co-writing has just been a wonderful exercise in not getting imprisoned by a particular chain of thought. I think there’s a sort of paradox of creativity that I found, where it’s sort of the ultimate freedom getting to write a song, or whatever your medium is. But it’s also very easy to feel constrained by my own understanding of that process. So, seeing Chuck write, having an intimate window into that, seeing Tom write, has really empowered me to not only find my own voice, but sort of get outside of my own head while writing. And they’re great, because they’re really different ends of a spectrum, with Tom being a pop song writer, and Chuck being more of an indie rock icon. So seeing those two sort of polar extremes. And then as far as touring with people goes, I think the real lesson has been showmanship and stepping outside of one’s own. Treating it like a job, which I think most artists don’t want to think – that’s not why we get into this sort of thing. And that’s great. But seeing that, having your night in, night out repertoire, and interaction with the audience that is practiced and perfected, has been a real eye opener – that even the best performer, especially the best performers, have every line down to an art.
I once heard that Nick Lowe, who has mostly done solo touring lately, that even when he’s on a solo songwriter tour, he’ll rent out the soundstage and just practice the entire set, including the in between song banter. That’s so cool, because you think like, oh, he’s just solo, he probably knows the songs, and probably doesn’t even really have to think about it. It’s very inspiring to hear that not only does he think about it, but he actually practices every line that’s going to be uttered. I think that’s pretty special.
Who are some of the musicians that have influenced your sound and who do you hope to work with in the future?
MJ: Well, lately, some big ones for me have been The Magnetic Fields, Tom Petty – he’s always a big one – Lucinda Williams. Yeah, those are just a few lately. In terms of people I hope to work with, well, I guess there’s no reason to say anyone but the big goals: Daniel Lanois or Brian Eno, why not? Steve Lillywhite, these are just a few people. Nick Lowe, I love his songs, but his production work with Elvis Costello, he’s a big, big hero of mine.
And you recently released your third LP. Tell me a little bit about The Spirit Catches You?
MJ: This one was produced by James DePrato, he did a really fantastic job, I think. I’d say the big change for this record over the first two records is that we approached it looking more at a real studio production. The first two were, for the most part, just a band bringing a live act into the studio and trying to recreate the energy of a live performance on tape. I’m happy with some of the results. But listening back, I more often than not think, wow, it would be great if we had taken a little more time with that, and thought of it a bit more as a studio work. That’s where I think this new record is a real step up. James, the producer, did such a thoughtful job of finding the marriage of our live energy with something that would speak as engaging with the art form of the studio. So yeah, that’s the thing I’m most excited about. And I’m really proud of the work the band did with James to sort of capitalize on the flexibility of the studio space itself.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
MJ: I can’t wait to be out there. I know at least I’m bringing my own guitar as opposed to the one open mic I’ve done on Long Island. So hopefully that familiarity with an instrument will be an improvement.
Tickets to Matt Jaffe at the Talkhouse are $10. The concert begins at 8 p.m.
Stephen Talkhouse is located at 161 Main Street in Amagansett. For tickets, visit stephentalkhouse.com.