Matt Costa’s never been an easy one to pin down. Born in England and raised in Huntington Beach, California, Costa’s approach to songwriting is both ambitious and nostalgia imbued. As a member of Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records family, he operates well in folksy acoustic mode, but he’s also no stranger to sumptuous arrangements. While discussing his new, self-titled release for Brushfire, he cites players like Donovan and Bert Jansch as inspiration.
Like past Costa outputs, the album provides a warm and welcoming mix of folk and ’60s-inspired Brit pop. Here, though, it takes the form of lush, string- and horn-filled orchestrations. Recorded in Glasgow with producer Tony Doogan (Teenage Fanclub, Mojave 3, Super Furry Animals), the album features guest appearances by baroque pop act Belle and Sebastian, as well as the ethereal-voiced Spanish songstress Russian Red, and provides some seriously sunny sonic highlights (“Good Times,” “Shotgun”). The result is a record that feels at once adventurous and familiar, much like Costa himself. This Thursday, May 16, Matt Costa heads to Santa Barbara for a show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club. I recently caught up with the singer/songwriter to talk about new songs, Scotland, and finding inspiration in Ennio Morricone.
You recorded your new album in Glasgow. What led you to Scotland? It was mostly my producer, Tony Doogan. He brought up where we would record, and it was either L.A. or his place in Glasgow. He knew a bunch of people over there, like Russian Red and the Belle and Sebastian folks, and he knew they could come contribute parts, so I decided to rent a flat and go for it. I knew I wanted to be around like-minded people, and I have a lot of respect for everyone who ended up working on this album.
Was there a certain feel or vibe that you were hoping to capture? I knew I wanted to do string arrangements. I’d also written a lot of songs — maybe around 100. Going through them all, there were prettier songs and then there’d be some upbeat ones that have more movement, or more of a get-up feel to them. Because of that it was hard to narrow it down, but it also allowed it to become a more well-rounded record. I’ll go through phases where I’ll write 10 songs that are all kind of one vibe, and since I had so many songs to begin with, I think I was able to spread it out a little bit.
Were the songs mostly done before you went over to Scotland? Lyrically, they were written. As far as the arrangements go, I had worked out a lot of them, but when I got there, I kind of handed it over to the other guys. I had demoed out the drums and horn parts and harmonies and all that stuff, but once I got there, I just showed them and let them go in the studio and do their own thing.
As a listener, what draws you to music? I think, song by song, the lyrics and the imagery should take you someplace. When a song does that, I feel like it’s worthwhile. The music that I put out, the stuff that I really like, and the stuff that throughout my whole life has continued to move me as a fan is stuff that’s folk based. I’m attracted to deep-rooted melodies that can stand the test of time and can move people throughout generations. That’s the kind of stuff I’ve always paid attention to. I tried my best to make a record that sounded like those kind of things that move me.
Is there a theme or concept that you’d attach to the album? As far as the conceptual idea, there wasn’t any real concrete one, except for this idea of Ennio Morricone and the way he thought about strings and sounds. He talked a lot about what a landscape, or a beach at night, or children singing at cathedral would sound like. Some of them are blatantly obvious, but it came from one reference to Ennio Morricone and the way he talked about his film scores. That’s the one subtle underlying theme of the album.
You recorded a track-by-track commentary for this record, too. How was that experience? It was a little strange, to be honest. One of the reasons I write songs is because I can refine things down and have a moment of a feeling, or something really powerful that just comes out and you can’t help it. When I record something, I try to capture that, and the further along you get in the process of ideas — by the time it comes to be the full song with all these things — I’ve done a million versions of it, and yet I’m still trying to get to that original fire that was in there. When I’m talking about the songs, it’s hard because I have to refine my thoughts into a couple of words in regard to where the song takes me and what it reminds me of. I try to make the songs tell stories, so to tell a story about a story, that can be a challenge.
How important is it for you to leave your songs up to interpretation? I think it depends on the day. Sometimes someone will ask me what a song’s about, and I’ll tell them exactly what it means, and other times I just won’t tell them, and other times I make up a whole new story. Between those three, it’s still questionable; if you give enough different answers, it’s still a question.
Can you tell me a bit about the cover art? Oh, I can’t take credit for that. [Laughs.] This guy Jacob made it. We had a conversation after he listened to the record, and he told me he had some ideas, so we sat down on the phone and talked. In my brain I’d had a visual for how I wanted the album art to look, but I didn’t tell him that. I just said, “Listen to the songs and do your thing. I don’t want to hire you to make art and then tell you what to do.” That seemed counterintuitive. So I sat back and listened to him and liked the conversation. He came back a week later with the artwork, and in my brain I couldn’t have thought of anything closer to the original vision that I had. It was perfect.
You just wrapped up a pretty lengthy tour. How did it go? It was wild. We got to see the country all over again. It was the perfect time, actually. It was the beginning of spring, so we caught a little bit of snow, the last big storms, but then we got to see trees start to blossom again and some flowers here and there. It was nice to see a season as it was kind of unfolding. There were also some places that I hadn’t been to that we stopped at on this trip. There was this little shepherd’s town in West Virginia that was cool. And Austin is always nice. But I’m excited for Santa Barbara. Every time I’m away for a long time, I crave driving up the coast of California because you get to see all these great things. I think I just always look forward to coming home.
Matt Costa plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Thursday, May 16, at 9 p.m; doors at 7 p.m. Call (805) 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets.