Singer-songwriters Matt Nathanson and Phillip Phillips Talk About Their Co-Headlining Tour

click to enlarge Phillip Phillips - Nick Walker
Nick Walker
Phillip Phillips
It’s a summer of co-headlining tours and singer-songwriters Phillip Phillips and Matt Nathanson represent the latest such endeavor. They’ve teamed up for a 40-plus city U.S. co-headline tour that includes a Northeast Ohio stop at Hard Rock Live.

Phillips broke into the scene in 2012 upon winning the 11th season of American Idol and delivering the rootsy smash hit “Home.” His last release, Behind the Light, features the shimmering mid-tempo anthem “Raging Fire.”
Nathanson’s latest release, Show Me Your Fangs, displays his range as it veers from piano ballads (“Bill Murray”) to exuberant pop anthems (“Gold in the Summertime”). We recently phoned Phillips, who was in Seattle recording his new album, and Nathanson, who was rehearsing in San Francisco, to discuss the upcoming tour.

click to enlarge Matt Nathanson - Concord Music Group
Concord Music Group
Matt Nathanson
Talk about how the concept for the co-headlining tour came about?
My agent just asked me about doing a co-headlining tour with Matt Nathanson. I thought it was cool. I heard so many good things about him as a person. Anytime, I can go on tour, it’s always a good time. I love being on the road. I have not met him. If I did, it might be really quick. I know we did a few radio shows four or five years ago. But we’re always behind or in front of each other.
Nathanson: We were knocking ideas around for a summer tour and my friends in O.A.R. had toured with Phillip a couple of summers ago. Marc [Roberge], the singer from O.A.R., whom I respect immensely, raved about him. When we started knocking names around, I reached out to them to see what he was doing this summer. I’m psyched to spend the summer with nice people who make music that’s great. The American Idol thing usually leans into the pop world so hard, but I feel like he puts on a show, and he plays acoustic, and he’s a storyteller at heart. It felt like a good match.

What do you consider to be your musical influences?
So much. Angus Young from AC/DC is my first guitar hero and all the guitar gods. Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I would get on the Internet and watch videos and try to learn as much as I could from them. When I would play a solo, I would turn the gain up to make it seem like I was playing something I wasn’t. Then, I got into the singer songwriters like the Beatles and Dave Matthews and Jon Butler Trio and Neil Young. The list goes on and on. Led Zeppelin was a huge influence as well. 
Nathanson: I grew up listening to metal — Van Halen and Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. I was super into bands like Skid Row and Pantera. I listened to that stuff growing up and I still love it now. There was a thing that emerged in the late ’80s with the singer-songwriter thing that started happening, specifically female singer-songwriters. All of a sudden, I was straddling this line of listening to really heavy music and these songs that were really naked and heartfelt and go-for-the-gut emotional things. That was how it started. Musically, the ideal record for me would be if Bob Dylan wrote lyrics for Def Leppard. It would be the perfect combination of “Desolation Row”-style lyrics sung to “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

What made you first pick up the guitar and start writing songs?
I stated playing when I was 14 or 15. I might have been singing the whole time I was playing guitar. I didn’t think I could sing. I started writing my music when I was 18. I played one of my first songs to my best friend who thought it was awesome. We went to another friend’s house, and he was having party, and he’d had a few. He wanted me to play the song. I played the song four or five times in a row. I think that song was “Hazel.” It’s a bonus track on my first album.
Nathanson: The first guitar I bought was a k-shaped candy apple red Ibanez in the shape of the one that Phil Collen from Def Leppard plays. When I started hearing Suzanne Vega and Indigo Girls, I realized that songs could be heavy and autobiographical on some level and maybe a little more dynamic than the lyrics of a Van Halen song. You could write songs that didn’t have lyrics like, “Like gasoline, you want to pump me.” That doesn’t have to be the main thrust of the lyrics. I started playing acoustic guitar because I wanted to be Amy Ray from the Indigo Girls. I thought she was the coolest. I started writing more confessional songwriter songs. I was never into the democracy of the band, so it was hard for me to find people to play, and it was an easy way to deliver these songs with just an acoustic guitar.

Talk about the making of your first record. What was that experience like?
I had about three weeks to make that record. That’s how quickly we did that one. Looking back on it, we were all exhausted. We spent a lot of time in the studio. We were all just beat. It was long, long days and nights. Looking back on it now, it was some of the greatest memories of my life.
Nathanson: I made that in a house in Van Nuys, Calif. This kid I went to college with, his dad was super rich. He was like the CEO of Toys R Us. He wanted to get into recording. I just went to his studio and made a record. That was 1993. I was still in college. It was super fun. It was the only thing I had ever committed to in my life. Playing music was the only commitment I had ever made. Even if that situation had sucked, I would have found a way to keep doing it.

How different was the experience of making of your new album?
We did it in six weeks. I like to work fast on albums, even the new ones. Ryan Hadlock, who I’m working with now, is amazing at getting sounds out of instruments, the drums and guitars. This new one is slower, but it sounds incredible. It’s kind of a darker album, but I love it.
Nathanson: The process of making a record is so much better. It used to be an elitist thing. You had to find the resources and spend the money and time. I love finding the engineers and studios, and I used to spend so long nerding out on that. It’s very exclusive. The way they’re made now is so different. We recorded half the vocals in hotel rooms on tour during the summer before the last album came out. It’s so rad. I think it’s badass to go into a hotel room in Atlanta and sing the vocals into the curtain with the mic and have that be the vocals on one of the main songs on the album.

You’ve had a number of hit songs. Do you have some sense that it’s a hit when you’ve written it?
Oh heck no. I’m always terrified when I’m writing for singles. I hate writing for them. You get into that mentality that can’t get too creative with it. You can put the cool creative stuff around it later. When you’re writing the song it has to be simple and all that stuff. I feel like the potential singles for this new record will feature some cool contenders. There’s some really cool stuff.
Nathanson: I wish. Sometimes I think I know. I’ve been off more than I’ve been on. Even worse, I’ve been so far off that I’ve just given up. I’ve been so far off that the song nobody talks about on the record is the song I thought was the single. I have no idea. If I had some idea, we’d be having this conversation on my jet. I have no idea. It’s a fucking mystery.

Thanks to reality shows such as American Idol and The Voice, we live in a world where we’re obsessed with singers. Do you think songwriters don’t get their due?
Phillips: The only reason I go on those shows was because my family and friends said I should do it. I couldn’t say no. I just went for it expecting a no. Somehow, I got lucky. I would say no to a lot of things. I’m not a great singer compared to all of the other people on the show. There are some of the singers in the world who try out for the shows and don’t get through. That’s not my main deal, being a singer. I’m more a musical guy. That kind of gets lost. Every now and then you see interesting and cool artist out there but on a TV show you have to stick up for yourself. You don’t want to get off the show but you don’t want to do something that makes you uncomfortable. If it’s not you, there’s no point in doing it. You have to stand strong for what you believe in. Even the biggest artists out there work harder than anyone out there. Everyone thinks it’s given to you but you have to work hard.
Nathanson: Because my favorite period of time as a kid was metal and some of my favorite people in pop metal were employing songwriters, it makes me think it’s all cyclical. When the ’90s happened, Pearl Jam or Soundgarden would never bring in an outside songwriter to ruin this pure expression of who they were. We’re in this cycle where people want to be entertained more than they want to feel parts of themselves that they’re afraid of. It’s just a cycle. It’s a place in time. Radio is full of people who have succeeded on the Disney channel and who have been aligned with someone who can write. I’m not hating on The Voice. So many of the people on these shows sing rings around with me. It’s a phase and it will swing around again.

I know you just put out a new album but are you always writing new songs?
Half of last year I took off because I was on the road for four years straight. I needed some time off. Last year, I started writing and got together with a couple of other writers and they got me back into that creative mindset. I’m constantly writing.
Nathanson: Yeah. I never had this problem where I’m getting ready to go on tour and neck deep with new songs and so excited about the new songs. I want to play them for people but they’re not in playable shape. I have a verse and a part of a chorus. I would love to play a song and bust into half-baked new song that’s not done yet. We rehearsed the other day, and it was great, and then I went home and started writing new songs on my acoustic guitar.

Matt Nathanson, Phillip Phillips, 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 6, Hard Live, 330-908-7625, Northfield Park, 10777 Northfield Park, . Tickets: $44.50-$65,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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