Some interesting factoids about Matt Nathanson — he’s sung with the Indigo Girls, went to college with The Mountain Goat’s John Darnielle, and thinks ’80s hair metal band Skid Row are underappreciated songwriters (just like Ryan Adams). We talked to the man behind the hit “Come On Get Higher” about songwriting, the words he loves and hates, and his brand new album, Modern Love.
What’s the secret to writing a successful radio hit?
Oh man, if I knew that I’d have a couple more of them, don’t you think?
What’s the last song you wrote? Tell us about it.
“Drop to Hold You.” It’s on my new record Modern Love. I had the title kicking around for a long time. The rest of the song came quickly, right as we were finishing up the album. That never happens. The whole idea behind the song is that when you finally embrace real love, nothing else matters as much. Once you commit to someone other than yourself, you no longer have room to hold any of the other shit you used to think was so important.
What moves you to write a song?
Other songs! I am a 100% music NERD. I devour music constantly, and nothing turns me on more than other people’s greatness. I’m always in search of it.
Has your songwriting process evolved over the years?
For sure. It’s gotten way better.
What’s a song on your new album you really want people to hear, and why?
That’s a tough question, because I want people to listen to the record as a whole. I know that’s becoming rarer and rarer these days, but I’m still a huge believer in the album… the ebbs and flows, the arc, the story. So I would love people to take the time and digest the whole thing, make it an experience. That would be rad.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
“I watched the flames, slow and strange, lick the walls and fill my eyes. i heard your voice through the noise, but i was cold and it was warm inside.”
Are you good at any other kinds of writing besides songwriting?
I doubt it. Back in the day, I tried poetry and short stories but, like songwriting, those are crafts that take a lifetime to do well. So, I guess the short answer is no although I wish I could write a short story as perfectly as Carver. Or Haruki Murakami.
Are there any words you love, or hate?
I’m not into the word “facial” at all. I feel like the porn industry stole it, and we need to take it back. It’s impossible for me to hear someone say they want to get a “facial,” and not cringe. In the “love” category, I dig sensual words like “swell,” “roll,” “tongue,” “hips.” I’ve always wanted to use “megaphone” as a song title. Came close with this last record, but that song became “Faster.”
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
Most of the time, melodies and chords come first- then the words. and the words are usually a combination of a few key ones I have in notebooks (I try to write everyday) and ones I make out of the sounds/place holder words from the melody. it’s been a long time since i have, like, set my words to a tune. These days, the words that end up sticking seem to come only after everything else is in place.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
Ugh, I constantly revise. It’s really hard for me to just let go and be carried by a song. I’m WAY better at it than I used to be, but it’s still tough to disengage my brain from wanting control. When I read stories about Tom Petty writing an amazing song like “Free Fallin’” in 10 minutes, it’s hard to not resent the shit out of him… you know what I mean?
If you had to pick one song of yours to be remembered by after you were gone, what would it be, and why?
I’ve never really thought about it that way… but I guess if I died, I would love it if someone covered “I Saw.” We didn’t really do that song justice when we recorded it for my Beneath These Fireworks record, and I think it’s a smash. seriously. I would love to see it get a proper shot. That’s a real strong song.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
I went to college with John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) and I think he is the best lyric writer of our time, hands down. I also feel like the first two Skid Row albums have some pretty perfect songs on them, but no one EVER gives props to Rachel or Snake.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
“Photograph,” by Def Leppard, “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes,” by Paul Simon, “99 Problems,” by Jay-Z and “The Temptation of Adam,” by Josh Ritter. To name a few.