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Interview: Matt Urmy discusses upcoming album, South of the Sky

Matt Urmy is a singer/songwriter, poet, author, and entrepreneur. Born in New York City and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Urmy gradually became immersed in his hometown’s potent, diverse scene, having since collaborated with some of its most distinguished players in country-folk music. His 2017 debut album, Out of the Ashes, would prove a profound career catalyst, both in its pertinent backstory, and in its featuring two late greats – Cowboy Jack Clement (who passed away in 2013), and John Prine (as of April 2020). The combination of Urmy’s rhythmic, personable songwriting, and two iconic guest spots, ultimately earned the album coverage in Rolling Stone, and Urmy the distinction as an Artist to Watch.

For nearly a decade, Urmy has run Artist Growth, a tech company that provides independent artists with software designed to help manage their businesses, as well as their well-being. He will also release his latest full-length, South of the Sky, on January 15, 2021, which draws influence from Willie Nelson’s critically-acclaimed 1974 album, Phases and Stages. I caught up with Urmy to discuss his formative days in Nashville’s music scene, the contrasts between Out of the Ashes and South of the Sky, and how the mission of Artist Growth continues to bring him clarity in life.

When you were growing up, which artists inspired your musicianship?

It was mostly a lot of alternative rock that was around when I was a kid. U2 was a huge influence on me, and so was REM. From a writing perspective, in high school, I was also a big fan of Adam Duntz’s stuff with Counting Crows. Then, as I got older, I became aware of the songwriters who were right in my area, like John Prine, Cowboy Jack Clement, Johnny Cash, and all these guys from Texas who moved up here, like Rodney Crowell, and Guy Clark. Storytelling became a big thing for me, and I’d spent years and years studying their craft, and how they’d fashioned songs. So, I’d gone deep into what they call Americana now. When I revisit some of the stuff I’d written as a young man, I think it’s still awesome.

From what I gather, you were previously focused on bands from other parts of the world, while there has always been such a rich music scene right in your hometown that you otherwise would have missed out on.

No doubt! It wasn’t just those big, marquee names that everyone knows about, but on even more of a local level – guys like R.B. Morris, David Onley, and Tom House. These guys never really got to the point of recognition on a global level but are incredible storytellers in their own right, and around town, they’re local legends. Just being able to ask them questions, talk with them on a personal level over a beer, or listen to an album together with them means a lot. There’s a whole lot to be said about learning from those who work right in your hometown, because you get the chance to really sit down with them.

Your first album got a lot of attention, particularly for your collaboration with John Prine. What was it like working with him?

He was amazing! I got to know him in the early 2000s through R.B. Morris, who was signed to his label, Oh Boy Records. He ended up singing on the first album, and that was directly related to the producer, Cowboy Jack Clement, who was one of his close friends. John told me that Cowboy was actually one of his reasons for moving to Nashville. They’d spend a lot of time in the studio and work on albums together, though I’m not sure how many of them got released. He’s an awesome guy, and it was an honor to have him lend his voice to the title track.

Essentially, it was down to being in the right place at the right time.

That’s right, and that’s what makes Nashville different from a place like New York, Los Angeles, London, or any of those big musical cities. As much as it’s grown within the last couple decades since I met those guys, Nashville still has a small-town feel. Everyone here is very accessible, and I’ve definitely benefitted from that since I grew up here, so I’ve known Nashville all my life. I’ve been very fortunate to have met some of the talented people that live and work here.

It’s interesting you mention how Nashville is, compared to those other, larger cities. You might feel more of a pretentious, distant vibe from people elsewhere, but in Nashville, it seems like a lot of its people maintain their humility regardless of these changes and challenges.

I think that’s how it is on the whole. There’s also this sense of respect. When you see well-known musicians hanging out in coffee shops or cafes, everyone seems to keep their distance from them, but the moment you’re introduced to them through a friend of a friend, they’re willing to get to know you and work with you, even when you’re nowhere near the level that they are.

Right, so even though they have more experience than you, they not only took you in but saw you as an equal.

Yeah, that kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time. I was certainly extremely lucky to have met Cowboy Jack, and especially for him to have spent so much time working with me over the last few years of his life. I absorbed a lot from him about that very thing, and it was a great friendship that I found my way into.

When it comes to your new album, South of the Sky, does Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages album inspire a lot of it?

Yeah, in a big way. I’ve always wanted to write a concept album, and thread themes through multiple songs together into one bigger project. Willie Nelson is one of the pioneers of that modern era and many of his albums are great, but Phases and Stages is about two sides of a relationship, and I thought that was such a cool way to tell a story. It became a challenge for me to build something like that album, that was very thematically large. I don’t know if I’d try it again any time soon, but I had a blast chasing it down.

The concept covers multiple perspectives, from the ethereal and spiritual side to the personal and introspective. While coming up with it, did you draw upon some of your own experiences as well?

Oh, for sure! I like to say that any song I’d ever written is based on something in my life. The way I try to approach it is, even though it may have been a personal experience of mine that initially inspired a song, I filter those ideas and emotions through stories friends have told me about their lives, or even something I read about in the news. I haven’t been able to wall off my own experiences from things happening around me and the people I know. All those lines kind of blur together, so the goal is essentially to write one giant song with one broad theme.

The equipment you used for the album is another noteworthy factor. You went to Zac Brown’s studio using an original Juno, SH-101, a Vibraphone, Hammond B3 organ, and then you did the vocals in a construction site. Did you intentionally aim to use that specific equipment and those settings, or were they things that were just sitting there, that you gravitated to by coincidence?

It’s interesting because, when I did Out of the Ashes with Jack Clement, that was just based off songs I’d written on acoustic guitar, and then getting a well-respected local band to play along with me. Whereas with South of the Sky, that came from a whole bunch of demo tapes I made in my home studio for fun. Throughout that process, I was really discovering the importance of synthesis. I’m a late bloomer with electronic music but became fascinated with sculpting those types of sounds. I started with software synthesizers and then got some hardware. Truck Roley, who produced the album, was in a similar situation of discovering synthesis by this point. He and I grew up together, so when we decided to collaborate on a project, we went all in. Yeah, we used the SH-101, a bunch of Moog stuff, and then, once we were in Zac’s studio, we were like, “Holy shit, look at that – there’s a vibraphone; there’s a Hammond B3; let’s mic that up!” Some of it was intentional, but the rest of it was exactly as you said – just sitting there. We’d spend every day of the week just experimenting with different sounds and layering things, without thinking too much about arranging, but we’d lay down this big sonic palette. It was so different, and probably one of the most exciting parts of making the album.

You’re aware of how big electronic music is, and how it nowadays seems like the furthest thing from rock, Americana, country, or anything on that spectrum, but it’s cool how you’d been able to blend these genres together.

No doubt. It was an eye-opening experience for me from a genre standpoint, and I’m never going to slow down in that direction. I love playing acoustic guitar, telling stories, and that whole thing, and country and Americana is what I grew up on, but I also love blending that with those kinds of sonics. For my vocals, I think I’ve always had a talk/sing aspect to them, and with this album, I leaned into that heavily, and some of the tracks are completely spoken word, using slam poetry. I enjoyed the experience of laying down vocals in that way. I wouldn’t call myself a rapper (laughs), but they’re very rhythmically-charged. I felt like I was in new territory, and I’m excited to see where this takes me.

As I understand, all these concepts became clearer to you once you ran your first marathon, is that right?

Well, actually, I was supposed to run it a few weeks ago, but it got cancelled due to Covid; the last few years, I’ve been training for it. That became a part of my process where I was just going on these longer and longer runs of endurance. It became an allegory for how I approach this album – just building layers upon layers of sounds and ideas. Now, running has become a part of my life. It requires you to be consistent. If you’re not consistent with running, it will mess up your heart rate and your joints, so you have to keep it up. Each time I run, I spend a few minutes here and there cultivating ideas. Eventually, there will come a time where those ideas will possibly be used in an EP, and then, an album again.

One of the things I noticed about getting older, other than your joints weakening, is that you lose a lot of moisture in your body. It’s important to stay hydrated; you don’t want your vocals sounding dusty and frail.

Yeah, you’re right. I drink so much water, it’s crazy (laughs). Running has also made me aware of what I’m putting in my body as far as protein and carbohydrates; that’s how your muscles prepare themselves. On the spiritual side, its similar in the way of micro-training – from the layering of ideas to meditation. Just meditating for 10 to 20 seconds, five times a day, and then dropping and doing 20 pushups every couple of hours, it really adds up. By the end of the day, you realize that you’d basically spent an hour doing some form of meditation, broken up into all these different types of pieces – singing, songwriting, and running. I love the process of doing little things every single day, instead of big chunks every several days.

Factoring in the aspect of staying in shape, another part of your journey involves getting your Master’s degree in poetry at Spalding University. From there, you started your company, Artist Growth. What do you take away from this experience?

Starting Artist Growth has been one of the hardest, but also one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life. It’s really transformed me as a human being, whether it’s related to building a product for customers, building that team, leading that team, or selling products to customers. At my height of touring around the southeast in my 20s, I was doing about 120 shows every year. But once I became a father, touring just became less and less appealing. I just wanted to be present in my child’s life. That was right around the time I was making Out of the Ashes with Cowboy, in 2010. In 2011, a fire happened, his studio burnt down, and we originally thought the album was lost, so for the second half of that year, I put all my energy into developing a business plan for Artist Growth. Then, we launched the company in 2012, and that’s what I’ve been focusing on for eight years. The idea was to build software that would help artists and their teams be more efficient in running their businesses and to help artists understand the infrastructure to actually manage a business, which is something I struggled with big time while I was out on my own. It’s been a hell of a journey.

A few years after starting the company, I found out that the recordings for Out of the Ashes were all salvaged. The album actually got the name once it was recovered from all those melted computer hard drives (laughs). I didn’t release the album until 2017, only because I was so focused on Artist Growth, and I still haven’t toured since then. I’ve done this full-time and I love it, but I’m never going to stop writing songs and making albums. I’m trying to find a new way to do it from the traditional model, which is to release an album and then promote it with a tour.

In the same way, by understanding the shared concepts in both your music and software businesses, you’re not only focusing on Artist Growth, but your own personal growth.

Yeah, that’s right, and as I experience my journey, that informs us how we build a product for other artists. Part of my job is interacting with different kinds of artists, industry executives, and promotions and marketing people, and learning about their jobs and what they struggle with. We take all that information, and then put it into our product roadmap. You know, I’ve learned so much and I’m so grateful for all of that. Despite all the bad things that are said about the music industry, and despite artists still getting fucked over pretty heavily these days, there are still a lot of great people working in the industry who aim to create a sustainable situation. I’m on that team, and I believe it’s possible for us to build a model where artists can make a great living in the digital era. I think we’re moving toward that, bit by bit.

Ideally, everyone should be involved – radio stations, DJs, publicists, labels, and journalists, like myself. With the saturation of technology nowadays, there’s been a level of indifference, and a lack of openness, where even people in the same industries are hesitant – or sometimes, even forget – to help each other out. But given the extent of the pandemic, it’s really pushed us to remember the value of our members within the industry.

I agree. Yeah, I’m hopeful for the future of creativity in the world. It’s needed now, more than ever. One thing I can’t say enough is that most of the problems in our world seem to be the result of human consciousness not evolving as quickly as our technological capabilities. I don’t think looking to our lawmakers and politicians serves as much of a catalyst for this awakening; it’s largely due to the efforts of artists. I believe that the more awake we become as a people, then the sky’s the limit on what we could accomplish. Our abilities are off the charts, and the technology we have in place allows us to produce some really incredible shit. That excites me, you know? That makes me want to stay in the game and do everything I can to be a positive voice in this space.

With the time we’ve had now, it’s also allowed a lot of us to get back into the habit of listening to full albums, rather than simply hearing certain songs.

You’re right. I’m a big believer in albums as a form of music; I love them. Singles are cool, and they’re a powerful way to say hi to somebody, but there’s just something so cool about making albums, digging into a large body of work, then being able to hand it to people and say, “Hey, check this out!” I also love listening to albums of artists I respect and going cover to cover with them.

Aside from music, at one point, you were also an assistant at a children’s center, and you called that the next best job to Artist Growth. Can you expand on that?

Yeah, man. So, back when I graduated high school in 1996, I had a job that summer as a teacher’s assistant in a toddler class at Vanderbilt University Child Care Center. It was the children of the doctors and nurses who I looked after while they were on their shifts in the hospital. There were 10 12-to-20-month-old kids in a room with me and this one other woman. I worked there all summer, did that again the next summer, then the summer after that, and the summer after that. Then, I decided to drop out of college and work there full-time for two years. So, from 1996 to 2004, during that eight-year period, I was either working during the summer, or full-time at the daycare center. I took care of hundreds of kids – from preschoolers to first graders – and learned all about children, how to raise them, and the humanity from spending so many hours with them in their natural state, before the world had a chance to be cruel to them. It was mind-blowing, and as a result of that job, when all these kids had grown up, I could imagine them still in their toddler state (laughs). But that allowed me to have a massive amount of empathy for the people I’d meet because with many of them, when I’d talk to them and look in their eyes, I could also visualize them as toddlers. I noticed that we all still have that innocence inside of us, and that beauty, excitement, and curiosity for life. It’s certainly made me an immensely better parent, having had all that experience with children, and learning from all the women who worked at the daycare center. As an artist, I now see the world through that lens of that childlike periscope.

You mention this job teaching you to especially empathize with many people you meet. These days, I notice that my generation seems to be lacking in that area. We seem to be all about self-help, self-care, and self-trust, which is understandable in the sense of facing trauma. But in doing so, we forget to care about others. As we mature, we’d still need to keep our hearts and minds open, and I can tell that when you worked with those children, you didn’t take any of that for granted.

For sure; 100 percent. I’m very lucky to have grown up in safe environment, with two amazing parents who I have learned so much from. They were always there for me and shaped me into who I am today, and that job at the daycare center was fundamental to my learning what you could achieve with an open heart and mind. It was in the most unlikely of places; I never expected to have a class of 15-month-olds become my spiritual gurus. But they affected me just as much as the Maori people did when I studied natural healing in New Zealand, you know? Learning from them changed my perspective, but equally so did these toddlers. In certain countries, when you turn 18, you’re required to do mandatory service in the military for two years, but I joke that from the age of, say, 15 to 17, serving as an assistant in a toddler room should also be mandatory for every human being (laughs). It can really teach you so many things, and even alter the course of your life because of how differently you’ll begin looking at the world.

Putting this all together, what have you learned about yourself, both as a musician, and as a person?

Well, I know that the human experience is an incredibly magical thing. I think our planet is extremely wonderous. You know, the word ‘magical’ gets used so much in marketing these days; I even hesitated to say it (laughs). But I really feel that way about the world. What I’ve learned about myself is that I’m somebody who wants to experience, in the most enriching way possible, everything that this world, and my body, and my mind, can possibly experience. I crave adventure, whether I’d find it in a book, or a trip off the planet. I want to be someone who soaks up the richness of an experience. I want to sing about it, tell stories about it, and build things that will help other people on their journey through products and services. The choice I’ve made as a human being is as a witness to anything happening around me and within me, someone who sings about it, writes about it, and shares it with the world. Whether people care about it or not doesn’t matter to me, but I’m putting it out there. Then, I want to make things with other smart people who influence other people’s journeys. I always remind myself that if there’s one person out there who hears a song of mine and gets that shortness of breath from excitement, then all the work that went into writing and recording it is worth it. That’s who I’ve chosen to be for the rest of my time on earth. When I was young and running around, I certainly had phases where I was selfish, and mainly focused on what people can do for me, but now, as an older man, I’m focusing on what I can do for people. I want to be a conduit of that inspiration that comes to me, then put it back out there, and hopefully, people will find themselves on a similar path to mine and pick up some pieces I’ve left behind that inspire them.

Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?

I love you, and I will never stop writing, making things, and putting them out. As long as I’m able to do it, I’ll do it! I love getting messages and hearing from people, whether it’s through email or social media. I know we don’t see each other much in person anymore but don’t hesitate to reach out; I love connecting with people and talking about art.

Matt Urmy Socials:

Official Website|Facebook|Twitter|Instagram|Spotify

Check out Matt’s new single, “Family”:

About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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