This past July at Hotel Café, I had the great pleasure of seeing Matthew Szlachetka opening for The Dirty Knobs, the side project of Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s lifelong guitarist Mike Campbell. Szlachetka’s set succeeded in delivering all of the things that make a set of music memorable, trenchant, insightful, and fun. But there was something else in Szlachetka’s writing and showmanship that made his music special and his show especially life-affirming. While I wasn’t sure if I could have articulated it at the time, I knew I wanted to spend more time with what Szlachetka offers audiences locally and across America. So I immediately bought his debut solo album, “Waits for a Storm to Find,” and his new single “Heart of My Hometown,” (now available on iTunes), which also serves as his next music video (released later in September 2016), and is also the title track for his upcoming sophomore solo record.
Szlachetka invited me to two full band shows he played at the now defunct Piano Bar in Hollywood and an upcoming show at Hotel Café on Friday, September 9th, where he’s sharing the stage with his occasional co-writer Jeff Silbar, who won a Grammy in 1990 for co-writing “Wind Beneath My Wings.” I was also offered an early opportunity to hear Szlachetka’s forthcoming album, which is both a definitive statement in and reinvention of the sub-genre of “Americana Roots Rock.” Szlachetka was born and raised in New England, is based in Los Angeles, and often works and writes in Nashville. The singular aspect to his forthcoming album and the title track that makes them special might be the extent to which it’s profoundly and equally influenced by all of those locations and the musical lineages associated with them. Because Szlachetka is mused by such an incredible melting pot, it makes sense that he could wear all of those influences proudly and still maintain an entirely original sound and voice. The other thing about the forthcoming album that’s uniquely compelling is the way that Szlachetka is constantly able to imbue his music with the exaltation and resilience of a classic Bruce Springsteen record, while also delivering the humanity and warmth of John Prine’s best songwriting. After appearing in the second season of TV’s “Parenthood” playing with his old band The Northstar Session, Szlachetka’ last single “Come Home for December” and “Heart of My Hometown” have been among his songs added to regular rotation on SIRIUS XM The Pulse’s “Train Tracks,” and these songs and others have been played on radio stations throughout the Northeast including WFUV 90.7 FM in New York City and WRSI 93.9 in Massachusetts, with his music playing in what’s appropriately known as the “Pioneer Valley.”
I was honored to enjoy a spirited chat with Szlachetka before his last gig at Piano Bar, in which his prolific writing, recording, touring, and promoting all gave us an incredible amount to talk about. Here’s some of what Szlachetka generously shared with me about his upcoming show with Jeff Silbar at Hotel Café, making his latest album with Grammy-winning producer and engineer David Bianco, and his forthcoming album and the current single, “Heart of My Hometown.”
Jackson Truax: Before your first solo album, you were the front-man for The Northstar Session. What did you learn in your time with the band that was the most valuable in preparing you to launch a solo career?
Matthew Szlachetka: I think all of us were heading in different directions. I had a lot of material that I was writing and wanted to get out there… I was the guy that established and developed all of the touring routes and everything. I did all of the booking… I did a lot of the PR as well. So it really made the transition easy because I already had relationships intact and tour routes set up, where I could either go out solo acoustic. Or depending on budgets, I could take my backing band with me.
JT: Had you been looking to make an album that was more of a solo expression? Or did you have this group of songs you wanted to get out and that seemed like the best way to release this material?
Szlachetka: I think they were songs that I felt really strongly about, that I just knew that I needed to put out. I think that’s really what it came down to. They were definitely more “me.” And I didn’t really want to compromise that… My solo record started in June of 2013. We recorded much pretty up through October and then started mixing. We released in, I believe April of 2014… It was great. I just surrounded myself with some really dear friends of mine… The two producers, Joe Napolitano and George Johnsen; then I just had a lot of my really good friends assembled for the band on the record. It was such a fun experience. It was like a clubhouse… I remember feeling sad the last day. We had so much fun recording. We did it all live. We did that album without the use of a click. We did it completely live. We had a click as a reference. But we didn’t run a click in the track. It was a really, really amazing experience.
JT: Even though you already had all of your touring infrastructure set up, what was the biggest challenge of going out solo for the first time, and taking your album across the country as a working musician?
Szlachetka: The challenge in being a working musician is that not every gig you do is going to be a theater show [or] a great opening slot, like for Mike Campbell. For every Mike Campbell gig or for every theater gig that I do, usually you have to do like ten to twenty [gigs] where you show up and do a three-hour set in the corner. You put a tip jar out and you get paid at the end of the night by the venue. You’re kind of more of a background amenity… But those gigs are great to test out new material… It’s a great litmus test to engage an audience, where you can really see if they’re listening or not. So it’s nice when a bunch of heads turn around at certain songs.
JT: What in your mind makes for a stellar gig? Is it the existential fulfillment of simply making really great music? Or does it come from an experience of engaging with the audience? Or is it the quality of the audio and general setup where you’re playing?
Szlachetka: I think it all has to come down to the audience. Obviously a really good sounding room helps… Just because it’s inspiring. And when you can really hear what you’re doing, it’s amazing. But it really comes down to the energy of a crowd. When you have a crowd that’s…right there with you, that’s the best. That’s what you always try to shoot and strive for. I did some amazing shows this past tour in the Midwest. The Midwest never fails to blow me away with amazing audiences… All just completely locked in and focused on what you’re doing. And if you’re trying to get them to sing with you, they do. It’s a real pleasure.
JT: House concerts have been the new frontier for a while, as far as being a workable business model for touring musicians going across the country. Is that a setup that appeals to you?
Szlachetka: I love doing house concerts. I usually throw up a Bose L1 system… If you need a little bit of reinforcement you just turn it slightly on. And it just gives you that extra amplification just to reach all of the room. With house concerts…especially if you’re going through a new area, having a room of immediate new fans. They’re there to listen. They’re there to support you. On bigger tours, I always try and do at least two or three… They’re usually some of the best shows of the tour.
JT: As you were getting ready to promote “Waits For a Storm to Find,” how did you pick “Come Home for December” and “Back Into Your Heart” as the singles from the album?
Szlachetka: They’re songs that just resonate with people. People identify with them. There’s such a strong human quality in both of those songs. When you’re recording…you know what two songs are going to be the singles. “Back Into Your Heart” jumped out as the first one… I wrote [“Come Home for December”] with my friend Jaime Wyatt. She had her reasons for the song. I had something from my past that I was touching on. We came together and were able to channel both of our scenarios to fit that song. It was great.
JT: Your two latest singles, “Come Home for December” and “Heart of My Hometown” are musically and emotionally very different. But they’re both bittersweet. And they both deal with similar themes. What is it that draws you to regularly explore these themes in your writing?
Szlachetka: I have a strong connection to the past and where I come from. I feel like that’s really important. It’s important to forge ahead. But you should never lose where you’re from. And never lose track of that or sight of that… I’m not home a lot. I’m in my car…a lot. I’m by myself a lot. It gets really lonely a lot of times. For the tour routes that I’ve established, when you start to revisit them quite a bit, you see fans that come back, and those people become your family. I’ve got some really dear friends across the US that I’ve met from touring. And I feel really fortunate. So it’s nice to have that sentiment in your heart, of a feeling of home… I was playing “Heart of My Hometown” for about a year before we recorded… That’s just a song that always resonated with people.
JT: The best thing about the “Heart of My Hometown” album, which is perfectly captured in the title track, is how exuberant the music feels and how catchy the songs are, while always maintaining a deeply-felt warmth to the record. It’s embracing, it’s inviting. Some of these songs are ready to be chart-topping and arena-filling anthems. All the while, the lyrics and delivery always feel so interpersonal and intimate. Even the greatest albums tend to offer exclusively or heavily one or the other. How did you manage to serve both experiences in equal measure to make a singular-feeling album?
Szlachetka: The thing that [producer] David Bianco and I were striving for was keeping it honest… My previous record was completely honest, almost autobiographical. This one, I just wanted to strip it down even more with even fewer overdubs. And try and get to the core essence of who I am as an artist. I really think that we nailed it. It’s something I’m really proud of. I think choosing the right overdubs versus adding a bunch of other overdubs I think is the right decision to make. Because whatever you do layer in a song, you’ll hear that, versus just having it get muddled down. So I think that’s one of the reasons why it comes off as it does…aside from the fact that we recorded the basic tracking live. A bunch of those songs, I nailed my vocals live. “Algebra” was one of them. I cut my vocals live, with the original guitar that I’d laid down. “Heart of My Hometown” was another one. I kept the original scratch vocals. “A Letter Each Morning” and “Giving Back the Best of Me,” those were both cut live, too… There’s just an honesty that comes out. I felt really strongly with the ten songs that we chose. I came in with thirty-five. We whittled it down to ten. They’re cohesive. I think they take you on a journey.
JT: You mentioned your producer, Grammy-winner David Bianco, who’s worked in various capacities on albums with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Lucinda Williams. What were some of his most meaningful contributions?
Szlachetka: I had an idea in my head, of what I wanted to hear instrumentation-wise. Aside from that, I really kind of deferred to David… [I said], “If there’s anything else that you’re hearing, or you want to try and take it in another direction, that’s why I’m working with you… The album would not have come out the way that it did had David Bianco not been involved… He was an important, important factor in how the arrangements came out… He did some really cool things that I would have never thought of. Which were great. And he listens. And does a really amazing job of not getting in the way of the artist. Whatever he does, it just accentuates what the artist does.
JT: How did you two come to work together?
Szlachetka: I had met him initially through the Lucinda Williams camp, at the Canyon Club, when she was doing her California Residency. I was already friends with [guitarist] Doug Pettibone and went up to see him play because he was sitting in with her that night… I met David there… He was mixing two songs [that were] being produced by David Sutton, Linda’s bass player. And I did some singing on those songs… My other buddy, Austin Hanks, was doing a record where David was producing… I went in one day just to hang out and be a fly on the wall. I ended up recording some acoustic guitar on that record… I was talking to a bunch of producers about the record. I got the best feeling from him. We just really clicked.
JT: So many of the songs on the album are so immediately memorable. When you’re writing “Heart of My Hometown” or “Ready to Run Again” or “Cheated Time,” are you inclined to be thinking of things like hooks, and choruses, and how something plays in the car? Or does that approach to writing come naturally to you?
Szlachetka: A hook is always at the back of mind. Because that’s what I do for a living. I write for other artists, too. I think at the end of the day, you have to have hooks. You have to have stuff that people grab onto. You have to have stuff within a song that people always identify with… Even with that, there’s always a cool part of the song that only you’ll get. Because there’s something that’s so personal when you’re writing.
JT: “Heart of My Hometown” is a perfect single, because it starts and there’s that rush of energy that makes people want to stand up and sing or hit the dance floor. At the same time, the song gives that feeling while starting acapella, which is counter-intuitive. How did you find that approach and know it would work?
Szlachetka: David Bianco. That was another example of something where David [said] “You need to have this completely naked, honest intro to this song.” That’s why we revisited it for the beginning of the last chorus. I would have never thought of that. That was one of the many things that David brought to the table that made those songs better than they already were.
Szlachetka: “Algebra” is the perfect album opener, because the melody line is so stunning, and it’s a great Exhibit A for that handmade warmth so much of the album exhibits. How did that come to be one of the songs on the album, let alone the opener?
Szlachetka: That was a really comfortable song for me, ever since I wrote it. I wrote it with my friend Jamie Kent. He’s one of my main writing partners. He actually wrote “Heart of My Hometown” with me, and “Ready to Run Again.” He, Jeff Silbar, and I did a three-way co-write on “Ladder to the Stars.” Jamie and I have been writing together now for, five years I think. That was actually one of the first two songs we wrote… It’s a song that I always really connected with. Initially, when we wrote it, I thought it was going to be a song that Jamie was going to immediately start playing. We just tucked it away in the catalogue of songs. I just kept playing it when I’d be home. I’d say, “I need to start playing this song. Because this song is too good to just sit on…” People immediately started resonating with it. And I knew it was going to be one of the songs on the record.
JT: The album closes with “Giving Back the Best of Me” which feels like it could be the next classic wedding song. How did that one come to being?
Szlachetka: I wrote that with my friend Jaime Wyatt… She’s another friend of mine. And another pretty big writing partner of mine. That song initially came about, I was at her house one day. We were [being interviewed for] this documentary short…about our songwriting process… In between takes, I was coming up with the guitar line that opens the song and becomes the pre-chorus. And she just came up with the melody… Me and her in a room, within an hour we’ll have something. If not finished, close to it. We just started [working] on that… I got the phone out and we recorded what we had. I took it home and starting flushing out what would be the chorus and then parts of the verse and then we got back together and finished writing it.
JT: It sounds like you have a rotating group of writing partners. Who have you been working with the most regularly, and what influence have they had on your songwriting?
Szlachetka: A lot of times with me, with writing partners, it always comes about through a friendship first… When I first moved to LA, I started writing with Kane McGee, who was my main writing partner in Northstar Session… I was definitely more into straight blues rock. I really didn’t have as much of a strong melodic sense… Kane is the one that I feel really channeled my sense of melody… He was the one that really stressed to me, “You can do the bluesy Rock and Roll thing. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to have songs. You’ve got to have good melodic hooks.” We always used Delaney and Bonnie as an example of that. Because they were great at doing that. Jamie Kent, we’ve written so many songs. There are two songs on his upcoming record that we wrote, four on mine. There are tons of other pitch songs and songs we have in our catalogue… There’s just something with certain people, we just click… Between performing with each other and then writing with each other, we fuel each other and feed off each other really well. I come up with the music usually, in the melodic sense. But he’s equally good with that… I’ll put a line out and then he’ll counter it with a line or two… It’s like that with Jaime Wyatt, too. She’s sharp as a razor. And great with at pulling stuff out that you normally wouldn’t think of. My buddy, Scott Underwood, who was in the band Train… He’s great with song ideas and lyric ideas. And his insight. The guy has his name on every single Train hit up until “Hey, Soul Sister.” So he has this great sense of hooks and where a song should go. Another one of my recent co-writers that I’ve written a fair amount of tunes with is Jeff Silbar… Every time I work with him, I learn something new. He wrote “Wind Beneath My Wings.” It’s one of the most popular songs of all time. And countless other hits for other artists. He’s so sharp. He’ll get an idea in his head and it’s off to the races. It’s amazing to work with him. We just demoed a new song last week, the last song we wrote. I’m so excited about it. The last person that I write a lot with is my buddy Kyle Puccia… We wrote “Back Into Your Heart,” “Threw You Away in Los Angeles,” “Little Things in Life Can Show You Love,” “All These Lines.” Then on the new one, we wrote “Don’t You Think It’s Time.” Wonderful writer. He’s got a musical theater background. So he has those great hooks and a great melodic sense. He comes up with great lyrics… It’s really fun. And efficient too, when I write with all these people.
JT: You’re back at Hotel Café on Friday, September 9th, playing a duo acoustic show with Jeff Silbar. What’s you’re current plan for the evening? What can you tell me about what audiences can expect?
Szlachetka: I’ll obviously be playing my big songs…the singles from the new record coming out. And the singles from the last one… We’re definitely going to do “Ladder to the Stars” together. I think we’re going to do at least one, possibly two, songs that we’ve written that haven’t been put on an album yet. It’s going be an “in the round” format. So we’re going to alternate between songs and tell stories in between. He’s a really fun guy. I’ve known him for about a year-and-a-half now. We’ve gotten to a point where it’s really comfortable. He’s a blast. And such a talent. I really feel so fortunate to work with the people I do. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Ten years ago, if I was to say that I’m going to share the stage with a songwriter that’s written some of the most popular songs of all time…I would have never guessed that. It’s going to be such a treat.
JT: You’re continuing to tour relentlessly, playing “Waits for a Storm to Find,” and promoting the title track to “Heart of My Hometown” while previewing the rest of the album. What are your current plans through the year, and when do you think the new album will be released?
Szlachetka: We’re working hard right now. We’re in the deep, almost final editing stages of the video for “Heart of My Hometown.” We’re planning on trying to release that at the end of September… We’ve got some really cool footage. It’s already looking amazing… We’re going to try and get an official premiere for it… Other than that, I’ve been taking a lot of meetings right now. Just trying to get the proper team intact to release this album the way it needs to be released. That’s why the idea is to slowly release content to build momentum and build a buzz up to the full-length release… It’d be really great to have a label that can do something for it behind it. Or great management. And a publisher and an agent behind it. Just to really give it the push that it needs and deserves. That’s what I’m really working hard for. Ideally, it would be great to have the album released and then hit the road as an opener for a significantly larger act. That would be huge for me. I’ll do it solo acoustic if I have to. But obviously it would be great if there was a budget there where I could take a group of guys with me so I can do the electric and the acoustic thing.
JT: Who are some of the people that you’d most like to open for? I was thinking Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Josh Ritter, or The Punch Brothers could all be good fits.
Szlachetka: Or Tom Petty. Jonathan Wilson. Cory Chisel. People like that. Butch Walker would be great. Mark Knophler. There are a lot of artists that I love. Dawes. Dawes would always be great.
JT: As far as self-branding goes, have you always seen yourself as a sort of “Americana Roots Rock” performer?
Szlachetka: Yeah. Absolutely. But I’ve always had stages of influence. When I was really young, I played a lot of blues. And then it morphed into blues-rock. Then I really, really got way more into songwriting. And I’m glad I did. I’m glad it went in stages. Because earlier on, when I was so guitar-driven, and so focused on guitars, it gave me the tools that I need now, which are great. Just for writing and for putting parts down. Or using that to come up with other hooks. Then, obviously, I’m always a sucker for a guitar solo, but doing it tastefully… It’s got to be a guitar solo that serves the song. I’m over the stage where the overly flashy guitar solo gets me. When I was younger, that would have been the thing that impressed me the most. But now what impresses me the most is how great the song is.
JT: The “Americana Roots Rock” scene really seems to be on the upswing in Los Angeles, mostly because of what people like you and Brian Whelan and Sam Outlaw are doing. How do you feel about that perception of “the scene” and do you ever think about where you fit into it?
Szlachetka: I love it. I’m gone so much. These are all good friends of mine. I never get to see them play because I’m always on the road. I love watching Brian Whelan play. That’s why when I am in town, I try and come to the Piano Bar as much as possible. Because it’s the best bang for your buck. And a lot of my friends hang here. Everybody that plays here is great. Or I’ll try and go to the Echo and go hang out on The Grand Ole Echo Sundays. It’s really inspiring to be in the mix of people like that. It definitely pushes you to be better. And I always love that.
JT: What’s the best way for people to stay up-to-date on your music?
Szlachetka: I always direct them to my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/matthewszlmusic That, or my Instagram which is just matthewszl. Those are the two entities where I do the most post and have the most activity on. Other than that, if you go to my website, www.matthewszlachetka.com, there’s a place you can sign up on my email list. I do one monthly email. Usually the first week of each month.