Exclusive Interview: Jason Matthews Talks to Roughstock

Passionate about the industry he lives and works in every day, successful songwriter and now recording artist Jason Matthews recently sat down with Roughstock to discuss a variety of topics. His passion flowed through in everything we discussed.

Passionate. That’s the first word that springs to mind when discussing music with Jason Matthews. The songwriter of hits such as Billy Currington's "Must Be Doing Something Right," Julie Roberts' "Break Down Here," Kevin Denney's "That's Just Jesse" and others, Jason loves what he is doing and has strong, passionate opinions about the industry that he works in as both an artist and a songwriter. Read what he had to say about a variety of topics including the internet, TV, radio and being a songwriter.

Matt Bjorke: Your album cover is pretty unique. How did you go about designing the album cover?

Jason Matthews: We were gonna do something to stand out, because nobody knows who I am, I was like I want to come out with something that catches your eye and gets your attention and makes you want to pick it up. That’s half the battle in getting somebody to buy a CD. It’s very much in the widget category, you know, it’s an impulse buy. If you can get somebody to pick it up, they might take a chance on it. That’s what I wanted to do.

It’s funny. This is the first time I’ve ever had a song come out of trying to think about how to market something. It was this (the album cover), I just had this picture in my head with that, with my name on it but I’m not selling cigarettes what am I selling? Then it hit me, “Hicotine.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s kinda cool. That’s too cool to not be a song.” So I wrote the song after, the song kinda came out of trying to market this thing (the CD).

MB: And now it’s your single…

JM: Yeah, it’s really weird how it happened but It’s gotta be a song, I’ve never heard that before.

MB: How did it feel to have “must be doing something right” climb the charts the way it did?

JM: It felt great, just awesome. I got a phone call from Brian Wright at Universal. He called me up, I had had several singles before this, anyway, he called me up and told me which week it was gonna go Number 1. It wasn’t that week but four or five weeks down the road where they can give a ballpark figure of when it was certain to go number one. That’s the first time I’ve ever experienced that. I didn’t even know that was possible to even know something like that. But those guys know stuff like that.

MB: I said something like that on the site but and it turned out to not be exactly true for another week…

JM: Here’s the funny thing about numbers and all that stuff. If people hear a song and heard it on the radio and like it and hear it a lot, they assume it’s a number one record. Period. I play “Break Down Here” out a lot, the Julie Roberts song, That song got to 17 but it was on the radio for 40 something weeks and sold a million records almost. I play that song and it’s just like it’s a number one record. People sing it back to me just like they sing “Doing Something Right.” If people hear it on the radio and hear it quite a bit they assume it’s a number one record.

MB: I’m kind of like that…

JM: The only people keeping up with that stuff are us, the people on (music row). The rest of the world goes by whether they like something or not. (laughs). Y’know?

MB: How did you get your songwriting start?

JM: Well, I’d been working at a plumbing supply warehouse here in town and I started to do writers-nights. I was like I gotta do something for someone to see me and know I’m here. I started at the Boardwalk on Nolensville Road and that was OK. And then my buddy Ray Scott, who’s from North Carolina too, I had known Ray back in Carolina and he’d moved here like a year before I did. Ray and I went out to the Broken Spoke on Trinity Lane one night. I was blown away by this writer’s night. Because the level of talent was great and there were also professionals playing there. I though “You know what, If I came to play here every chance I could, I’d probably stand a good chance of getting discovered, getting somewhere with somebody hearing me. So I did that for a couple years, obviously wrote new songs along with that.

During the day time while working at the Plumbing supply warehouse, on my lunch break, I’d cold-call publishers, and most of them would just flatly reject you, but some of them would say, “Yeah, send me a disc” or “I’d like to meet you.” There some publishers along the way who kind of helped me along and at least took the time to listen to tell me what they thought.

At the spoke, after a year or so of doing that, one of the big writers in there, Reese Wilson came up to me one night, When I started I had this nieve notion of “if I come here and play songs every night, one will knock him off his bar stool and make him want to work with me. And sure-enough, that’s what happen. The second song we wrote together, it was called “Take Me Too,” got me a publishing deal with Hammstein. Billy Joe Walker, Jr. cut it on Tracy Byrd for his Greatest Hits album and then Tony Brown pulled the project out from underneath him and cut “When Momma Ain’t Happy” and Tracy got all pissed off and left the label.

MB: I remember that time…

JM: That was my first cut. It never saw the light of day, but it got me in the door. It got me in.

Because, unfortunately, the reality of the business today, even back then, but it’s worse today than back then, the publishers want you to have something going on already, they don’t want to go build you up from scratch. They want you to have something right now; something that they can make money off of. Basically they want you to write a song, get a cut and then bring it to them. You can make the money off of it.

Basically it means you’ve got to provide the collateral to justify them paying you a draw. At least that’s how it works on the front end. The publishers are doing obscene deals today. I’d be like, no I’m not gonna sign it.

MB: So how long have you been working towards the album? Was it always a goal?

JM: When I came to town, I wanted to do everything. The truth is that I really don’t see songwriting as being in this box or an artist in another box. It’s all the same stuff to me. I sing in a writer’s room every day. I produce and sing all my demos. I do writer’s nights, that’s a show to me. There’s no difference. It’s all the same stuff for me. I just wanted to put out my own record, and have people hear stuff the way I intended it to be heard. I’m not knockin’ anyone who has cut my songs or will cut my stuff in the future, it’s a creative endeavor and they want to put their own vision in the song. It’s some of my vision mixed with their vision. You know what I mean?

MB: Yeah…

JM: I just wanted the audience, for one time, to hear my vision. To hear the songs the way I meant them to be heard. Plus it’s what I do, man. It’s like breathin’. I mean the album’s my demos. Seriously. That’s how good the demos are. They’re records.

MB: Isn’t that what a&r people and labels want nowadays when they get pitched a song? Because a publisher told me, “it’s rare to have a label pick from a guitar/vocal demo…”

JM: Very, very, very few people can even hear a guitar/vocal. It’s so hard for most of these people to hear one because they don’t know what the difference is between a good song and a bad song anyway. So they need to hear all the mumbo-jumbo mixed up in their face to get it. It takes a song person, Like Cris Lacy at Warner Brothers who got me a cut on Randy Travis’ new record. She’s somebody who understands the whole process. Someone that understands songs and songwriters. People like that you can trust.

MB: What do you think about the internet?

JM: The internet is the future. The people at TV are dreaming up crazy ideas to get people to pay attentention because they’re not watching it the way they used to. So many people aren’t watching TV anymore because they’re on the internet, playing video games, etc. there are just so many other things to do besides watching TV. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t want to be on freakin’ TV too. But, those guys are sweating bullets on the TV side because nobody is watching.

MB: There really aren’t any real music channels anymore, either…

JM: You know what I want? I want a music channel that plays actual music videos. How hard is that? And I don’t want it to be buried in the weird part of the dial. You know what I mean? It’s like why can’t VH1, CMT, MTV pay a video anymore. Those guys do not play videos. They play videos like form two am to 9 in the morning.

MB: Yeah, you have to go to “MTV 20” or seething…

JM: Yeah, you have to go weird channels like “CMT Pure” to actually play a video. I mean the rest of it is “trick my truck,” “My Big Fat Redneck Wedding” or whatever else they can do to paint us as a bunch of dumb-ass hillbillies.

MB: What do you think of internet sites and online players?

JM: I think online radio is going to play a huge part in promotion in the future because Terrestrial radio might be in it’s last days. I don’t know Terrestrial radio is going to have to continue to innovate.

MB: I actually think they actually shot themselves in the foot with the short play lists.

JM: Right, the listener wants to hear the music not the commercials and if they like the music enough, they’ll listen to the commercials.

MB: So you started with Pinkard and Bowden?

Well they were the first people I knew in town. It’s funny how that came about. A buddy of mine that Iw as working for while in college, he used to bet on everything and had a buddy that ran WRFX in Charlotte who owed him 900 bucks in golf bets. So he called him up and asked him to play my demo and then the bet would be forgiven. It’s where they tape John Boy and Billy show, They played Sandy some of my stuff and next thing I know, I’m talking to Sandy, who wrote “You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma” among other classic songs before being a comedian, told me I had something. That gave me the faith to move here. I’d do odd jobs for them. It was an adventure.

MB: How do you approach songwriting?

JM: I don’t get the artsty-fartsy stuff that nobody understands what the guys talking about because when you write a song, the whole point is to communicate. You’re trying to make them learn something, feel something, go to bed and have sex. The whole point is to illicit a reaction in the listener, it’s about getting me to communicate with the listener.

It all starts with the song. Without the song you have nothing.

MB: Yeah, for example George Strait knows that if it hits him, it will hit other people too…

JM: That’s how I feel about it. A lot of things are done by committees here in town and I don’t understand that. All I know is “hey, do I dig it? Did it make me feel something? Did it make me want to jump up and say “hell yeah?” if it did, the chances are it will make somebody else do the same thing too.” Nothing good comes out of a committee.

MB: What would you like to say to those that are interested in your music or new to your stuff?

JM: I’m a songwriter at heart and the songs on my album are some of the best song I ever written. The way I went about compiling this album was to go through my catalog and looking at songs and wondering “why wasn’t this song cut?” (lauging) I took personal offence to the fact that nobody had cut these songs. These songs are going on my record, I wanted the world to hear ‘em. I definitely think they’re very worthy songs.

So much of what I do is for the song. I don’t care about being a star or any of that stuff. If it happens, fine, great, groovy. Because that means somebody liked the music and it puts a wider spotlight on the music. That’s great. What I care about is that people care about is people actually hearing the music. Record sales mean to me that people care about the music. I don’t see dollar signs, I see iPod signs. I see people walking around listening to my stuff. That’s what we do this for, so that somebody out there can hear it, not so it can sit on a shelf and collect dust while I wait on somebody to record something. I do this for you to hear it. If somebody buys the record, it means they’re listening to the record. It means the world to me. That’s what this is all about.

I’ve always looked at this business as “if you’re doing the right thing, you’re gonna make money, so don’t worry about making money part, worry about doing the right thing. The music takes care of the money.”