By Chris White, Contributor, DC Music Live
Life is a brutal struggle. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. The unholy alliance between advertising and the music world can work to hide this everyday element of struggle with its insistent call to relax and just have an orgy already. Some artists have turned their entire career into a victory speech about how the struggle, for them, is over. You listen to Drake and you wonder if there could be any better spokesman for the American delusion of lifting yourself up by your bootstraps and becoming a millionaire. YOLO (You only live once) is a motto for the living dead, people seeking after ludicrous experiences to consume and post about on their various micro-blogging platforms and photo sharing sites. At least some of these mainstream musicians are honest enough assholes to admit that, no, not everyone will achieve quite so much success.
Matt Cranstoun, however, is thoroughly immersed in the struggle. He’s a lifer. Not that his music is political. Much of what was played at Ebenezer’s Coffehouse on the 21st was intimate and conveyed a sense of urgency and longing as Cranstoun’s breathy vocals and gentle guitar work built up to a passionate outcry backed by fierce strumming. When I spoke with him, though, he made it clear that he was on a mission.
It’s been a hard slog. He puts in his time and channels the intensity of his emotion into every second of his performance. Cranstoun has always wanted to be a musician (he played drums with his dad beginning at age 8) but he seemed to exude a sense that time is running out. During our conversation before his set, he told me that you can only keep putting in time as the “struggling artist” for so long. But he’s not done by a damn sight. As the cover of his latest album, “The Last Drop of Color” suggests, he’s still fighting. Pictured as a bruised and haggard boxer perched on the edge of an old tub, he’s still upright. However, you can’t help but notice the radio standing precariously on the edge behind him. It’s always good to know you have options.
He’s putting in his time and doing what he can to break your heart. The comparisons to Bruce Springsteen are apt. He pours all of the money he makes bartending into studio time and touring. His hard scrabble work ethic speaks more to our political and economic situation right now than any of the one-percenters dominating the radio. How out of touch do you have to be to talk about flying to Ibiza just to get some pizza? It sells, though. Matt Cranstoun would like to sell more (and he should), but, as you’ll see below, his first commitment is to honesty and you can’t help but respect that.
Anyway, the music is what we’re here for. The dusky, hushed atmosphere of the venue comes alive as he builds his single, “Tattoo,” into a pulse-pounding, anthemic storm. While singing about a relationship, the plaintive lyric “I thought we were just having fun” conveys how even the simplest games can always change the stakes on you. This is nowhere near YOLO. Life is not something to be entered into carelessly and, as we’re about the same age, a line from his stirring parting shot strikes at me directly: “Am I too old to be happy?” When you take life seriously, as far as I’m concerned, you were probably never going to be happy. You’ll make some good music though.
Your previous album was a bit more intimate and experimental, wasn’t it?
I hadn’t had luck with other recordings with guys. I had a lot of other stuff before that came out. I had people that were backing me a little bit for recordings and demos and EPs and that stuff and we’d go in there and I didn’t realize that I’d have to produce it or somebody was going to have to. That sort of element eluded me. I didn’t know what that was so we’d come out with these flat tracks and I hated the sound of them so I went and bought all the home studio stuff…and I still use some of that stuff on the new record like the sounds of certain beats or drum sounds that I made up. So I did that one at home.
So you were learning as you went?
Yeah, it’s a lot easier now. That one took me a long time to do. It was a big deal because it was going to be my first actual record. I realized that no one’s handing me a record deal and I wanted to put something out there and my EPs…I wasn’t crazy about playing any of those songs anymore, I wasn’t behind those songs anymore. So I had all these songs ready, I had 20 of ‘em and I guess I’ll just pick 10 of ‘em and only, of those, like three made it on there. Seven or eight were written during the process. Most of it’s done live and I just liked the feel of it so I kept it. When it’s new it sounds the best.
…I’m doing a lot at home because certain sounds I can get production-wise at home and then I bring those files to the studio which I did for “Tattoo” on this record…”Tattoo” was recorded quickly, effectively, and it achieved the production that I was going for that I did all essentially at home. I came in with all the tracks and all I did was sing over it and play drums over it…It’s quicker its cheaper. It was an experiment. This is another learning process for me, a total experiment. I spent a lot of time in the studio figuring things out, deconstructing songs, reconstructing them again…
What prompted you to change up your sound for this album?
The Last Drop of Color” that we just put out, I wanted that to be this big sound, you know the “wall of sound” thing but I also wanted it to be very eclectic. Like have the soul stuff, have the gospel feel, have the folk stuff, have the rock stuff and make sure that each track is individually its own single off of its own record almost…The first record is really intimate. I already have a catalogue of that stuff written so let’s do a bigger sound.
How did the album cover come about?
The boxer? [laughs] I needed an element to go for and that’s just what I thought of. Just being beaten up, that sort of thing. I had some makeup done. I just wanted it to be its own thing, its own art piece, as opposed to just a run of the mill picture of yourself…I wanted to have an element of…fighting. Everything is a fight. Really. Everyday. For me. [laughs] I don’t say that to people.
How’s the tour going so far?
This is all new to me as far as doing, like, these little runs…I have a booking agent. Didn’t have that before. I used to book my own gigs but I couldn’t even do that anymore. To do just like a quick hit and then out and go back to work, that’s new to me. Feeling it out right now.
Is tonight’s show going to have a band presence or will this be more of a solo performance?
Just me. That big band thing costs money…I do love playing solo so I look forward to going and doing that again. It’s just more intimate. It feels really good for me; I can get completely lost. There’s a lot to pay attention to when you’re playing with a band.
Speaking of intimacy, how do you feel about ironic acoustic/folk covers of pop tunes?
I’ve definitely heard that. I think if there’s feeling in it. A friend of mine, I don’t think he does it ironically…he does a real somber cover of “Dancing in the Dark” and it kind of changes the meaning, you know?…There’s something to be said for that. I couldn’t imagine doing something like…isn’t there a Brittney Spears one out there?…Yeah, if it doesn’t mean anything then I can’t…if the lyrics are just crap and you can’t get behind them, then I wouldn’t do it and I wouldn’t condone anyone doing it. But any ploy to get anybody to listen to you is fine with me. If you’re a solo struggling artist, then do what you’ve gotta do. If someone told me to dress differently, I’d hate it but I’d probably do it. Just because, at this point, it’s more important to be heard. Now when I was 24, I’d say “Fuck him! Down with all that shit!” but now it’s very much what I am and what I’m going to do until I die and it’s just a matter of how obscure will I be when I die [we share this laugh]…If I look like an idiot, whatever. As long as I get to sound the way I want to sound.
What would you try to cover if you did?
I’d love to do “Purple Rain.” I’d do it with my singers, the backup singers I have. But it costs money to get a video.
That would be a pretty unique cover.
That song is amazing. I love Prince though. I’d feel silly singing songs where it’s like…everything he has is a sexual euphemism [laughs]. I can’t write like that but Prince can. I honestly can’t sing that stuff and get away with it but that song doesn’t have any of that really.
Prince was a multi-instrumentalist too. Was he one of your influences?
He’s one of the biggest influences. What I went after in this record specifically…I’m looking to get sounds like… [puts one hand out] Dylan, [puts other hand out] Prince, and I wanna be right here [frames a big space and laughs]… You could be anything at that point but those are basically two of my biggest influences and they don’t make any sense together, but I can’t have one without the other in myself.
[These are not the only sources of inspiration he draws from. After talking briefly about the longevity and the surprises of the career of one of Cranstoun’s biggest influences, Paul Simon, he told me: “That’s what I hope to be. I don’t see why I would ever stop making tunes or at least wanting to reinvent. Why would I want to do the same thing on the next record?”]
What direction do you think you’re going to move in with your next album?
I’m hoping that the next record will be more one idea than kind of all over the board like [“The Last Drop of Color”] was. Not so much one idea. I guess the same thing but I don’t want to be like ‘Hey, this is the punk track and hey this is the folk track…’ I want it to kind of cohesively come together…The next one…I’m gonna have it mainly done at home and laying the crucial instrumentation that needs to be done in the studio like guitars, bass, drums. All that stuff can be…should be done in the studio. In my [home] studio all I should do is map out the rhythms and then do everything else in the studio.
…I have so many good musician contacts too and I want to involve them all. There’s a great drummer I’ve been playing with; a great bassist; a saxophone player who played on this and played on my first record and played with me in my old, old band. He’s just going to be on everything I ever do. I want them to be all involved and it just sucks that you run out of money.
I would imagine being a bartender in New York would be a good place to make musician contacts.
If you’re good at talking, but I’m not the…There’s people that are hustlers and want to talk all the time and most of the time they’re full of shit anyway so whatever they’re trying to peddle is going to be crap, typically, or it isn’t going to have real substance to it. So I, unfortunately, don’t ever talk about myself to these people.
Where I work is…a high end place and these people are basically pretty snooty. The first song on [“The Last Drop of Color”] is actually absolutely about that place and those people…The refrain is basically “they’ve got all the money.” It’s just basically about how it sucks to be around these people that mistreat everything and definitely the people that are serving them drinks [laughs]. It’s awful but it would astonish you to hear some of the things these people say and I don’t take it so well. I shoot it back at them hard and luckily I work at a place where I can get away with that…
I’m pretty terrible with this whole networking thing. It’s crippling in DC!
If someone pulls it out of me, I have no problem telling them this is what I do. ‘What do you do?’ ‘Oh, I’m a musician.’ Oh wow, you’ve just met the only other musician in New York City bartending. Let’s hear that story again. You don’t want to sound redundant. I don’t feel…anything that I do is redundant, but the story, in a paper sense, is just plain boring as anything. ‘No, but I’m different. Seriously, I’m different. Here, take this.’ [laughs]
It sounds pretty much like you’re a workhorse. You really like to put your time in.
I don’t like it. [laughs] I don’t like working but I work at this job and I kill myself there so I can afford to pay the band for these gigs and lose money…I’m not in any debt. I don’t have any credit card debt, I don’t have any school debt. I didn’t go to school, I didn’t go to college. All I have is this so it’s like I’m on my last leg as far as the New York City struggling musician goes because it’s like eight years now and it’s pretty dark there…So yeah I’m getting on my last leg of the struggle, the hustle, that sort of thing. I would like to live life only as a musician…But the record’s out there and…that’s at least something to sell…cause you know, everyone’s buying records these days. [laughs].