Boston-based musician, producer and composer Matthew Connor has been described as an old-fashioned crooner with a dark, modern twist who “writes heart-wrenching songs that combine the windswept ideals of classic American balladry with stark depictions of modern-day alienation”. With a sound that’s been described as a blend of Portishead, Daughn Gibson, Frank Sinatra and Elvis, Connor sings emotive lyrics in his smooth baritone voice. Having been dubbed a true artist, he has been compared to the other great iconoclasts and risk-takers, such as David Bowie, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and the late, great Scott Walker. Born in Alabama, Connor left home at the age of 16 to study voice and composition at North Carolina School of the Arts, training to be an opera singer. He later moved to Boston and spent time as the frontman for the electronic synth-pop group Provocateur before embarking on a solo career in 2011. A film buff at heart, he went in a more cinematic direction with his solo material in which he allows the listeners to create their own atmosphere. He released his debut full-length album Farewell Motel in 2014, an album that established Connor as an old-fashioned crooner with his own modern sounds. Following the success of the album, Connor decided to take his music in a different direction with his following EP Night After Night that was darker, deeper and more raw. The EP allowed him to focus more on being a producer and to essentially re-introduce himself to the world. With plenty of self-described musical wanderlust, Connor has a constant desire to try new things with his music. With a desire to have more control over every element of his visual presentation, the music video for the title track from the EP was his directorial debut, with Connor directing many of his own videos since. He also scored his first feature film, ‘Jack & Yaya’ last year. His latest single entitled “Only Physical”, which you can check out below, was released in June. With more singles and music videos, a new album in the works and some yet-to-be-named collaborative projects in the works, Matthew Connor is definitely an artist to watch! Staff writer Emily May recently spoke to Connor by email regarding his new single, his musical growth and what’s next for him. You can follow him and stay up-to-date on all upcoming artist, music and tour news, as well as stream and purchase his music, via the following links.
You were born in Alabama but moved to Boston at the age of 16 to study to be an opera singer. What attracted you to that style of singing? How long did you study opera and what do you appreciate most about the art of opera?
There were several stops along the way between Birmingham and Boston (I actually studied opera at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for two years before heading north). I still love singing the classical repertoire, but I decided pretty early on that it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue professionally. I always knew that ultimately I wanted to be composing and performing my own work. Singing opera is a lot of fun, though, and it’s great for establishing proper technique and learning how to really get your breath under you and care for your voice, no matter what style you end up singing.
I read that before studying opera, you were a church organist and afterwards you joined the dance/synth pop group Provocateur. What can you tell me about your musical background? Did you always have a love for music from an early age?
We had an old upright piano in the basement of the house where I grew up, and I remember banging away on it when I was very little. I started taking proper lessons around age six, and began composing a few years after. Around the same time my mother went to seminary and ultimately became an Episcopal reverend, so I spent a lot of time in churches, singing in choirs and learning to play the organ. Music has just been a constant my whole life.
I interviewed an opera singer who transitioned to a pop band who said that she had to work to change her style of singing, as an opera singer has to learn how to maximize resonance to be heard over an orchestra without amplification. Did you find that to be true for yourself?
I was very self-conscious for years after leaving the opera world that my voice was too “pretty” for the types of things I was singing. I even foolishly took up smoking cigarettes for a time just to roughen it up a bit (I’ve since quit!). Being able to project is still very useful though, especially having a fairly deep voice that tends to get muddied up with drums and electric bass.
Your solo material is much more cinematic than the music of Provocateur. You’ve said that you approach songwriting in a way that drops listeners into a new world, telling a story out of sequence and leaving things unclear rather than having a beginning, middle and end. How did you develop your interest in this process and cinematic approach to writing?
I’ve always been a big film buff, so that’s definitely informed my work as a musician. I find myself really drawn to art that is mysterious and opaque and elliptical, so over time my own work started moving in that direction. My goal when I’m writing is to come up with images and atmosphere that allow the listener to create their own associations, rather than spelling out to them exactly how I want them to think or feel at any particular moment.
You’ve stated that while you don’t tend to evolve as a singer, since your voice is constant, you have evolved as a producer. What led you to want to become a producer? What kinds of things inspire you to continuously change your persona and visual presentation with each new album/EP? Do you have certain sounds in mind when transitioning from one album to the next or do you just experiment and go from there?
I realized at a certain point that if I really wanted to create the music that I heard in my head it was time to learn my way around Pro Tools and start taking over that end of things. I have a bit of musical wanderlust; whenever I fall in love with a song or record I inevitably think, “I want to make something like that,” and all those ideas get filed away until the time is right. When I start working on a new project I usually have a pretty clear idea of what the sound will be, but of course there are always a lot of happy accidents and diversions along the way.
You’ve said that with your album ‘Farewell Motel’, your old timey crooner phase that you started out with had run it’s course. What was it about that album that made you decide it was time to grow your sound?
That probably goes back to what I was saying about wanderlust—I get restless easily and want to try new things. I loved the look and feel of that album, but didn’t want to just be thought of as the old-timey guy with the bowties (which was always just a persona to begin with).
Your music video for “Night After Night” from your ‘Night After Night’ EP was your directorial debut! What was that experience like for you and what inspired you to start directing? You have since been filming and directing your own music videos. What do you enjoy about the directing process?
Directing is a lot of fun! Similar to learning Pro Tools, I reached a point where I just wanted to have control over every element of my visual presentation. I had been on enough sets and worked with enough other directors that I’d picked up a lot of tips and tricks along the way, and I have a great group of collaborators (Karla Clute, Jen Bagley, Alicia Dane, among others) who are game for anything. The creative challenge is finding a way to complement the song without literalizing it, still allowing for that sense of mystery and open-endedness.
I saw on your Instagram page that you do photography! How did your interest in photography develop, especially film photography? Do you have a favorite camera you like to take photos with? What kinds of things do you like to photograph?
I’m really a hobbyist when it comes to photography, though I do quite enjoy it. I’m not sure exactly how it came about, I’ve just always loved taking photos. I have a DSLR and couple of old 1970s Canons, but when I’m on the go I especially like shooting with my 35mm Holga. It’s a silly little plastic toy camera, but there’s something almost expressionistic about the images it produces (though it’s a much more subtle effect than that of the classic medium-format Holga). I love it for abstracted nature shots, especially.
You also compose music/scores for film. How did your interest in composing begin? How does composing music for film differ for you from writing music for yourself?
I’ve always wanted to get into film composing, and have done some shorts and ads and things over the years. Just last year I scored my first feature (a beautiful documentary called Jack & Yaya). Composing for film is very different because I’m really just trying to realize the vision of the director or client. It’s a good exercise in that you have to leave your ego out of it and not allow yourself to be too precious about your work—the director might listen to a cue you’ve written and say “I don’t like that at all,” and you just need to scrap it and move on to the next idea. There’s always a deadline looming, so you don’t have the luxury of endlessly tinkering the way you can with your own material. And again, I never want to be too obvious or literal, or dictate exactly what emotion the audience should be feeling, so it’s fun to try to create atmospheres and suggestions without showing your hand too directly.
In 2015, you did your first remix of “Bugbear” by your friend/artist Wickerbird. What led to the remix and what do you enjoy about doing remixes of other artist’s songs? Have you done any remixes since then or have any planned in the future?
More than anything, I wanted to see if it was something I could do. I’m always trying to push myself and expand into new areas. I really enjoyed the experience, especially getting to try out some techniques in the studio I hadn’t had a chance to use in my own work. I haven’t had the opportunity to do any other remixes since that one, though I have worked with Wickerbird again on an upcoming project…
When you wrote your ‘Night After Night’ EP, you said that you knew you wanted to build an EP around the title track and knew the vibe/sound you wanted the EP to have. Do you tend to start your albums that way, with a single song that you build off of?
I tend to think in terms of full albums when I’m writing songs; I know that this song is going to be track one, or that that song is going to sit next to this one on the tracklist. I have a very clear arc in my head of how the album is going to flow from song to song from very early on in the process, and there usually is one song that serves as a catalyst for all of that.
What can you tell me about your latest single “Only Physical”, as well as the idea behind and filming of the video?
“Only Physical” is the first song I’ve co-produced with my friend Jeremy Page. It’s an older song of mine that hadn’t quite fit into any of my other releases so far, and we decided it would be a fun jumping off point when we started working on an album together. I knew I wanted the video to be very still and seductive, and landed on the idea of a Caravaggio-inspired figure drawing session with my friend Anthony Grassetti, who’s been shooting a lot of my promo photos for a long time. The shoot itself was more physically demanding than I anticipated, as I had to sit very still and hold somewhat awkward poses for long periods of time. And I was in my skivvies, so it was cold!
What’s next for you?
My next single, “Housewarming Party,” will be released on August 30th, with a music video following soon after. There’s another single and video coming in the fall, and then a full album hopefully next spring. I’ve been working on it for about two years now, and it’s nearly done! There are a few other collaborative projects in the works, but I’m going to keep mum about those for the time being…