Matthew Fowler

September 15th, 2021 7pm   Stage 3

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Matthew Fowler

      

“Some people are good at separating themselves from their art,” says Matthew Fowler, “but I’ve never been able to do that. I live and breathe these songs every single day.”

Written over the course of the past several years, The Grief We Gave Our Mother, Fowler’s stunning label debut, is indeed a profoundly personal work of self-discovery and introspection, but more than that, it’s an ode to growing up and chasing dreams. The songs here radiate all the joy and wonder and heartbreak and confusion of young adulthood, wrestling with love and loss in the face of ambition and independence, and the arrangements are captivatingly complex to match, layering dynamic guitars, breathy woodwinds, and lush harmonies into a transcendent soundscape that blurs the lines between traditional roots music and experimental chamber folk. Fowler’s vocal delivery, meanwhile, is raw and direct, hinting at everything from Damien Rice and Glen Hansard to Ray LaMontagne and Ben Howard in its mix of gritty grandeur and vulnerable intimacy. The result is a record that’s at once bold and timid, hopeful and anxious, jaded and naïve, an honest, revelatory collection all about putting one foot in front of the other and forging a life of purpose, passion, and meaning.

“This record is the sound of me finding myself and my place in the world,” Fowler reflects. “It’s about real moments and real stories and real people.”

Born and raised in Florida, Fowler fell in love with music at an early age: at 14, he was already writing and recording his own original material in his parents’ kitchen, and the week he turned 19, he released his debut collection, a stripped-down batch of live performances aptly titled Beginning. Critics were quick to take notice, with American Songwriter praising Fowler’s “earnest, strummy songcraft” and The Bluegrass Situation proclaiming that his “assured, velvety vocals are rivaled only by the intimacy of his lyrics.” Two years later, Fowler headed to Gainesville to begin work on a follow-up, but instead of a three-week trip, as planned, the journey turned into a multi-year odyssey in which he learned to produce and engineer records and began managing a live music venue.

“Living in Gainesville, the album became this thing that I was eternally working towards, but never working on,” says Fowler. “With my job at the venue, I was coordinating all of these great shows and meeting all of these songwriters I really admired, but I was basically just facilitating other people’s dreams. Eventually, I got tired of showing up to work every day and watching somebody else do what I wanted to be doing with my life.”

So Fowler took the skills and insight he’d honed in Gainesville and booked a Hail Mary, open-ended tour with longtime friends and collaborators Tana and Addy Prado joining him on harmonies and woodwinds. Over the course of a year and a half, the trio played roughly 100 shows, fine-tuning all of the twists and turns in Fowler’s elegant, emotionally charged tunes and landing support slots along the way with the likes of Richard Thompson, Damien Jurado, Angel Olsen, and The Weepies.

“Spending all that time on the road, I really fell in love with the feeling of being totally vulnerable in front of a room full of strangers,” says Fowler. “I decided that’s what the next record should sound like, so I went ahead and booked two days at a studio in Orlando, and the three of us just recorded everything live on the floor with a bass player in one or two takes at most.”

Things took an unexpected turn, though, when acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and producer Shane Leonard entered the picture. Leonard, best known for his work with artists like Field Report, Mipso, and Anna Tivel, took a shine to the recordings and invited Fowler to come to Eau Claire, WI, to flesh them out with additional guitars, drums, and keyboards. Staying true to the raw nature of the material, Leonard assembled a small crew of musicians to perform all of the overdubs live together in the studio, channeling the same collaborative energy and humanity that had fueled the original sessions.

“Everything with Shane was just so natural,” says Fowler. “We didn’t go in with a lot of structured ideas or detailed plans. It was all about feeling the music in the moment and letting that guide the songs wherever they needed to go.”

That intuitive approach is clear from the outset on The Grief We Gave Our Mother, with opener “Marianne” steadily blossoming from a sparse a capella arrangement into a dizzying swirl of voices and instruments. Like so much of the album, the track grapples with longing as it walks the line between the familiar and the foreign, offering up warm, inviting melodies that subtly and perpetually shift in ways that never feel fully at peace. The driving “I’m Still Trying” reckons with regret and resolve; the giddy “Been A Lover” revels in the excitement of the chase; the tender “Cassie” finds escape in romantic fantasy; and the slow-building “Going Nowhere” comes to terms with a love that was doomed from the start.

“I wrote most of these songs across my mid and early twenties, which was a time of so much growth and change,” says Fowler. “I moved to Denver. I quit my job. My grandfather died. I fell in and out of love. I toured all over the place. I spent a month living in Mauritius, the island country off Madagascar where my mom grew up. All of those trials and tribulations, everyone I met along the way, they’re all in these songs.”

Fowler’s relationship with music itself is also a huge part of the record, which often finds him meditating on the ways that songwriting and touring have shaped the man he’s become. The serene “Everything I Could,” for instance, reflects on the drive and determination that have propelled him forward all these years, while the breezy “Rest” ponders the life he’s building for himself on the road one night at a time, and the bare bones “Rooftops” raises a glass to the little victories that have brought him this far, while dreaming of still more victories to come.

“After spending so much of my career doing everything on my own, it feels almost unbelievable to be signed to an amazing label like Signature Sounds and to finally be making music full time,” says Fowler. “I still have to pinch myself sometimes.”

Surreal as it all may seem, Matthew Fowler isn’t dreaming his life these days. He’s just living his dream.