It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday, and a groggy-sounding Matt Costa is staring at a pile of dirty dishes and starting to make his morning coffee. For a phone interview that’s about the making of his sophomore full-length album, Unfamiliar Faces, it turns out to be a fitting situation.
“I’d drink a bunch of coffee in the morning, or, uh, around this time,” said Costa, referring to the creative process he undertook at his former house in Sacramento, where he’d moved “for a girl.” Then he’d wander into a roomful of instruments, sit down, and play some songs. During the sessions, “I’d hopefully push Record,” explained the 25-year-old skateboarder-turned-songwriter, whose 2005 debut, Songs We Sing, featured a lovable brand of folk-pop and landed him an opening slot on Jack Johnson’s globe-trotting tours-as well as a deal with Johnson’s Brushfire Records. “Then I would do it again at night and drink a bunch of wine to decompress from all that caffeine, to balance out from that. From there came this group of songs.”
Costa took those songs down south, to his hometown of Huntington Beach, where his bandmates live. (He’s also since moved back there, leaving “the girl” in Sac-town.) “Once I got the creative ball rolling in seclusion,” he explained, “I moved down here and kept it going.” The band, including his producer and friend Tom Dumont (of No Doubt fame), then headed up to a Lake Arrowhead cabin for two weeks of collaboration. There, they spent time “getting ideas out,” said Costa, “and kind of stealing advice from the trees.” Translation: It was a peaceful place to make music, away from L.A. and Orange County’s “craziness in the streets.” When it was time to record, they laid down the tracks during a month in Santa Ana’s Maple Sound Studios.
Originally, the album was supposed to hit stands in fall 2007, but it endured typical record company delays. There were artwork considerations, but Costa made some last-minute musical tweaks, too. “After listening to it, I couldn’t help but go back and add a little bell there or whistle there,” he explained. “But now it has all the bells and whistles and it’s a real record.” He was stoked to receive the finished copies last week, exclaiming, “It’s finally real. I was a dangling man for a while. Now I am no longer stuck within the pages of Saul Bellow.”
For the rest of the world, Unfamiliar Faces will be available for purchase on January 22, more than a week after Costa comes to play The Hub at UCSB. The album is reminiscent of his debut-his distinct voice singing thoughtful lyrics over catchy, popish rhythms, resulting in a pleasant, ’60s-throwback sound that falls somewhere between Donovan, the Beatles, and the current indie folk explosion.
But Unfamiliar Faces, at least after a few listens, seems more serious than Songs We Sing, with a greater focus on slower, even somber songs and less of the sugar-sweet hookiness. That’s not to say the album doesn’t explode into jangly sing-alongs or toe-tapping bursts of Costa pounding on the keys. It certainly does, and fans of the first album won’t be disappointed; but his sophomore effort shows evidence of this musician’s maturation into a serious songwriter.
That evolution is no doubt tied to the input of Dumont, who helped turn Costa’s demo tape into Songs We Sing nearly four years ago and also produced his 2005 EP, The Elasmosaurus EP. “He’s really knowledgeable when it comes to just looking at music-and life in general-in a creative way,” said Costa, “and he’s had so much experience.” Among other influences, Dumont turned Costa onto John Steinbeck, and there’s a palpable melancholy that reflects the author at play in this latest release.
But Dumont is the first to recognize the freedom afforded by Brushfire Records-which is a label run by artists for artists-as a reason for Costa’s creative success. “I’m so glad he’s with a label like Brushfire,” said Dumont in a promotional video for the album, “because I would hate to see him be in the major label machine. I just don’t think he’s that kind of artist. : He’s a great songwriter. He’s a real musician. There’s that honesty.”
Costa also credits Brushfire, explaining, “That’s really been one of the greatest things. : Everyone involved over there has more than 100 percent passion for what they do. Brushfire has that passion for all the artists, so it’s win-win.”
Chalk one up for the fans, too, and make it win-win-win.
Matt Costa plays UCSB’s The Hub on Saturday, January 12. Call 893-2064.