Matthew Perryman Jones grew up immersed in the music of the '80s Athens, Georgia scene, when R.E.M. reigned supreme and underground college music pervaded the culture.
"It wasn't your mainstream kind of pop music," he says. "I just loved that it had a lot of raw feeling to it and wasn't so bubblegum and slick. That was the music I was around, and I loved it."
It wasn't long before he took that love and turned it into music. As Echo & the Bunnymen, the Pixies and early U2 pulsed though his head, Jones played in a high-school band called This Island Earth. He gives his friends "a lot of credit for having a name like that back in '88. We actually had some help with our friends in college bands, so that's probably why it was kind of a cool name for us little high-school kids."
This Island Earth didn't last long, but Jones' passion for earnest, emotional music lived on — although not in the "emo" style of Fall Out Boy, Dashboard Confessional or the Get Up Kids. The songs that matter to him stir up emotions, bring the heart to a boil and induce chills. His gentle tenor could hypnotize you into a stupor. Jones' songs are structured like mountains and cliffs; they reach momentous peaks and valleys, taking listeners through quiet moments and cathartic releases.
"I'm a sucker for sad songs," he says. "I don't mean self-indulgent, like woe-is-me, but songs that touch on the sadness of the human condition. You need those songwriters that are the bleeding-heart poets who sing about heartache and loss and questions and all those things, because that's truly human."
While his most recent album, Swallow the Sea, is a meditation on despair, Jones isn't a one-mood songwriter. Laced with languid string arrangements and ever-so-delicate guitar picking, "A Song for Canaan" is a stunning ballad written for his year-old daughter. Jones opens "Save You" with the couplet, "I wanna rock 'n' roll/I wanna give my soul," and ends it with a heart-wrenching vocal breakdown.
Despite the popularity of the lo-fi indie records released by today's singer-songwriters, Jones aims for a bigger sound. So it's not surprising when he gushes about one of his favorite bands, U2.
"For me, the trinity of U2 albums is The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby," he says. "Those are the records that really inspired me to want to make music, because I just thought there was such a visceral, open transcendence about their music. That's what I think music is about, and that's what I wanna be about when I'm making music. So those records really shaped me in terms of how I shape my own music."
The Nashville resident doesn't have an Edge yet. But he's put out three full-length albums and has been touring since 2000, when he started pursuing music full-time. He's currently opening for Ingrid Michaelson. It's the second time Jones has toured with her, but this time they're sharing a van with her band instead of squeezing into her mom's minivan.
Expect to hear a handful of new songs that Jones will release early next year. "I don't know if that's kosher to do, but I'm doing it," he says. "It's just me and a guitar, so it's gonna be up close and personal."
That might take some adjustment for Jones. He spent the past year or so as part of the Ten out of Tenn tour with nine other Nashville-based singer-songwriters.
"It's a different vibe," he says. "When you're with 10 artists, you're all the show. It's not just like I'm the opening act and there's another person. Everyone is contributing to the whole show equally.
"It's cool to see it getting back to this communal sense of people making music and wanting to support each other. There's a spirit in which it can be done that's out of a community. That's what it's all about."
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