Meet Matt Gresham, The Soulful Storyteller With An Acoustic Guitar
Originally published on Slant.
The concentration of talented musicians coming out of Australia is staggering. Although one could argue that Australia's always been where it's at, producing artists like Nick Cave, AC/DC, INXS, Kylie Minogue, and many, many more, the southern continent is currently experiencing something of a renaissance.
Tame Impala, Courtney Barnett, Sia Furler, and The Rubens are just a handful of acts that are making waves well beyond their home country.
Add to that mix Matt Gresham, a humble, down-to-earth surfer who tells stories using his guitar and soulful voice. Gresham has built a following as an acoustic balladeer, with songs that wouldn't be out of place on a playlist featuring artists like Ray LaMontagne, Damien Rice, Jason Mraz, John Butler, and Jose Gonzalez.
Now, he's dressing up that bare sound with a little electronic production, packing his bags, and playing a marathon run of shows in Austin, TX for South by Southwest. I had a chance to speak with Matt about finding his true voice and
SD: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
MG: I grew up in a small coastal town in Perth, Western Australia, which is just kind of a big country town. I was surrounded by my family, who all play guitar and sing as well. I learned most of my things from my brother and mom, singing and growing up around them and close friends with acoustic guitars. That’s basically how it all started. I kept playing concerts and did open mic nights and stuff like that. I just kept going.
Then I met some great songwriters and I came over to America this year and worked with an American songwriter named Jaymes Young [of London Grammar]. That was awesome. We wrote a few new songs together and I’ve just been plodding along, man. Just writing all the time and getting inspired.
SD: What’s your process like when you write songs? What’s typically the beginning point to the end point?
MG: I feel there’s two ways. There’s one way where something happens to me. Either it’s really amazing or really traumatic or whatever it may be. And it’s like, I have to. It’s like self-healing for me.
Then the other way for me is more concept-based. Where I go see a film, or read about a book, or hear about a story and I’ll be like, that’s pretty cool. I think of something that’s really intense and go from there, as far as lyrics go.
As far as music, I guess what I’m listening to will always come through because your subconscious mind is always there. You’ll be like, I’m pretty sure this is my tune and then you’ll be listening to your music and be like, oh actually I already heard that.
I definitely come from an acoustic, surf culture. But meeting Jaymes and listening to more electronic stuff, I'm trying to mix the two a little bit.
SD: Where do you go to get inspired? Who inspires you?
MG: Definitely my family. I’m really close to my mother. We spend a lot of time together. We still live together actually. My family lives in a big house and and she’s been writing poetry for most of her life.
I go to places that are quiet. I like quiet beaches and places I can hear my thoughts and hear my guitar. Also, being in the studio, too, is pretty cool because you don't have any distractions. Even like home setup, where you’re almost OCD about it. You’re like, this is where the door closes. This is creative space. Weird stuff like that is the way it works.
SD: What kind of records were playing in your house growing up?
MG: A lot of Cat Stevens. Early Ben Harper, when he did acoustic stuff like Live From Mars, the live album. Dave Matthews, his solo stuff with Tim Reynolds. That was killer.
My mom's a big blues fan. A lot of Buddy Guy and B.B. King and Son House. Some really old blues like even before Robert Johnson, old dobro records. I guess blues and acoustic were the fundamentals and still my favorite kind of stuff.
SD: I’m sure a lot of people were introduced to you via 'X Factor' in Australia. You walked away from that because you wanted to do something more independent and your own. Take me through that experience. What was that like and how did you make the decision to walk away?
MG: I think the city I’m from is rated the most isolated city in the world. There’s not much going on. It’s on the west coast, everyone’s pretty low key. And then I obviously flew over to Sydney, which is the biggest city in Australia. It was cool, like the style of the show, because it was exciting. At the start, they were letting me call the shots. Like, I wanted to do Bill Withers and they let me do that song.
I wanted to perform songs that still resonated with me because on X Factor, you’re not allowed to do originals. So I was choosing artists that I loved to do their songs. And then as it got further in the show, all that individuality was kind of stolen from me. It was like, no, you can’t choose your songs now. You have to change that, you can’t play guitar when you’re doing these songs.
The show as a platform is amazing because it gives people exposure. You’re not going to get to play in front of a million viewers anywhere else. As far as that, it was awesome. But as far as my heart, it didn’t feel right. I just had to give them a call. I remember the phone call, too. I gave them a call and said, look I’m not coming back. I can’t do it.
SD: That’s pretty courageous though. That takes being sure of yourself and confident in your own identity as a songwriter.
MG: Cheers, bro. It’s one of those things where a lot of people didn’t like it. And then a lot of people were like, oh, that’s kind of cool. He wants to be himself. I feel like if I went further in the show, I would have ended up not liking music and then, I don’t even know what I’d do.
SD: What’s the hardest part about being a professional musician?
MG: I think the hardest part of being a musician and even being a person is finding balance. It’s not just about playing guitar and singing. There’s so many different things to think about. There’s the business side of things, there’s knowing when to switch on and switch off.
SD: What would you say is your favorite part about it? Why do you do what you do?
MG: I love storytelling. I love performing live, even if you do a show and one person comes up to you and says, "Man, that story was killer and that really resonated with me. That reminded me of this."
It’s a pretty cliché thing to say, but I feel like music is an international voice and speaks through everything. I think it’s the most powerful thing that we have as people. That’s my favorite thing about it.
SD: What kind of advice would you give to a young songwriter?
MG: Try to find your inspiration from a lot of different places, especially if they’re from a small town. I’m from a small place. You tend to, in your early songwriting stages, write about topics and stuff that’s happening in your own circle of friends and your own kind of thing. Try to source your inspiration from many different things. I think that’s key.
Also, don’t just write about yourself all the time. That’s a big thing. I was caught up in that for like 10 years. It’s all about me and how I broke up with this girl, you know what I mean? Try to not write about love, I dare you. It’s so hard.
SD: What are you most excited about for SXSW?
MG: I’ve just been constantly told about the energy of the town, the feeling of the town when the festival’s on. I’ve heard about all the parties that go on and, apparently, it’s nuts. Also, my favorite band is NOFX and NOFX are playing!
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo courtesy of Matt Gresham