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Jewish Journal

The romanticism of Matt Nathanson

by Ryan Torok

September 7, 2011 | 9:46 am

Matt Nathanson. Photos by Myriam Santos

Matt Nathanson. Photos by Myriam Santos

Pop-folkie Matt Nathanson had just returned from hanging in Hawaii, but it was a vacation he only enjoyed “50 percent,” he said.

“I don’t really do it well,” the 38-year-old said of vacationing. “My time off is really spent digesting things for the music.”

Still, for the San Francisco musician, it was a short and well-deserved break. He recently released “Modern Love,” his seventh studio album, and he’s been on the late-night talk-show circuit to promote it. At the time of our interview, he was about to start a brief tour with Maroon 5 and Train (the tour began on Aug. 28), and on Sept. 25, he kicks off the All Night Noise Tour 2011, a headlining trek of North America, including a stop at The Wiltern in Los Angeles, on Oct. 29.

“It’s like a hootenanny,” Nathanson, 38, said of his live shows. “It’s like throwing a house party, and everybody shows up.”

“Modern Love” takes Nathanson beyond the singer-songwriter genre that made his name. The album features horns, electric guitar, percussion and more, on tracks like the lead single, “Faster”; as well as “Run,” a collaboration with country duo Sugarland; and “Kept,” on which finger-picking and atmospherics lead to a climactic electric guitar solo.

Born in 1973 in Massachusetts to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, Nathanson grew up celebrating “Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and Christmas and Easter,” he said. “It was really weird.”

He’s able to trace back to when he first became interested in pursuing music — when he was 6 or 7 years old and saw a poster of Gene Simmons’ band KISS.

“I remember thinking, ‘I need to be in a band that does something like that, sounds like this,’ ” he said.

After high school, Nathanson enrolled at Pitzer College in Claremont, where he played music on the side. He released his first album, “Please,” in 1993. Over the next 10 years, he put out four more studio albums, steadily building a cult fan base while working with longtime collaborator Mark Weinberg, a producer and writer whom he met in college.

His music has tended toward acoustic folk and gentle rock, and has been featured on TV shows such as “Scrubs” and “One Tree Hill.” It doesn’t sound anything like the hard rock work of KISS, although Nathanson’s look — goatee, spiky hair and sideburns — suggests heavy metal.

In 2002, he scored a contract with Universal Records. But his real breakout success came after he opted out from Universal and signed with Vanguard Records, an independent label. It was for Vanguard that he released “Some Mad Hope” (2007), which featured the platinum-selling single “Come Get Me Higher.” The emotional, catchy song caught on on radio and, seemingly, everywhere.

The success of “Come on Get Higher” was his validation, Nathanson said. “It was this moment of, ‘Oh all right, I can just be me.’ And being me, I’ve never felt that powerful.”

In a description of “Modern Love” online, Nathanson said that the desire to expand his sound drove the new album.

“I had done the singer-songwriter thing — eight albums of it! I didn’t want to be defined by only that,” he wrote on Vanguard’s Web site.

In the same discussion, Nathanson explained the meaning, for him, of “modern love”: “Two opposing ideas banging against each other.”

“Everyone I know was going through personal relationship crisis,” he writes. “Divorce. Affairs. Being alone. Being newly in love. I was watching the people around me struggle and transition. The songs are about them. About me. The struggle to actually love and find love” in a modern world.

Nathanson’s romanticism might come from his obsession with music, where everything stems from emotions. He concedes that his love of music has had its costs.

“I’ve pretty much committed to music my entire life, and that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve dedicated my life to, much to the chagrin of relationships I’ve had, much to the chagrin of family,” Nathanson said. “Music has taken over my life.”

It’s for the same reason that he isn’t religious, he said.

“Judaism doesn’t play a huge role in my life these days; neither does Catholicism ... I’m pretty spiritual, but I’m not anywhere when it comes to either one of those religions,” he said. “I’ve never been able to dedicate time to do it correctly.”

This indifference to religion might change, however.

“I long for something in my life that is outside of myself, and I just haven’t quite figured out where to look,” he said. “That’s something that’s happening now that I’m getting closer to 40,” Nathanson said.

But he isn’t likely to become too serious — at least not any time soon. In fact, the name of his upcoming tour draws from a perfectly juvenile lyric from “Modern Love’s” single “Faster”: “You’re all night noise, you’re a siren’s howl.”

Nathanson confirmed that there’s this type of loose sexuality throughout the album.

“They’re all bedroom references,” he said. “I’ve decided that most of my songs are carnal in some ways.”

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