How many 18-year-olds possess the talent of a Matt Jaffe? I would guess not many. Jaffe, an 18-year-old singer, songwriter and Yale University student from the San Francisco Bay Area, impresses a lot of people, including Jerry Harrison, of the legendary Talking Heads, who discovered Matt at an open mic and was compelled to produce some of Matt’s music.
Matt Jaffe of Matt Jaffe & The Distractions (Alex Coltharp and Sammie Fischer) performs award-winning new wave rock songs, including one of my favorites, “Backs Of Our Eyelids.” I caught up with Matt as he prepares for an upcoming performance at the CBGB Festival in New York City.
Jolie du Pre: Honestly, after looking at some of your videos and listening to your music, I’m pretty much blown away by your arsenal of talent at such a young age. (I’m sure you get tired of people commenting on your age, but most 18-year-olds lack the singing and songwriting talent you have.) Is it difficult for you to write your songs, or does it come easy for you?
Matt Jaffe: In general, writing songs is a very natural form of expression for me. There are only a few other activities that feel as worthwhile to me, largely due to songwriting’s evolution as an integral part of my identity. I do not think of writing songs as an arduous task, but I still try to make it a challenge, a challenge to never write the same thing twice, a challenge to tackle new subject matter or new sonic realms. Nonetheless, some songs transcend overthinking , and their creation is so intuitive that it’s impossible to call their songwriting easy or difficult. These tunes that emerge organically are often the best since they lack the hyperawareness that plagues a lot of writing.
Jolie du Pre: You’re currently a student at Yale. How in the world do you manage schoolwork with your interest in writing, producing and performing music?
Matt Jaffe: Perhaps my priorities are scrambled, but I truly see my music as much more central to my life than schooling. Only maintaining meaningful relationships and survival rival music. That being said, I think schooling complements my music, and I try to view my education as a songwriting muse, an opportunity to expand what I think about, information that I can later digest in song. I’ve already missed classes and spent too little time on assignments because of musical pursuits, and honestly, I hope that music will soon develop into a viable path that can lead me away from institutionalized learning, but I hope that my education (embodied in a more abstract form than the textbook) will forever continue, as it is critical to making thoughtful music.
Jolie du Pre: How did you find Alex Coltharp and Sammie Fischer, aka, The Distractions?
Matt Jaffe: While recording a few years ago, Jerry Harrison and I developed a sound that would not have been replicable with one voice and one acoustic guitar. While I would have adored playing live with the studio musicians, Steve Ferrone and Nathan East, I decided that it made the most sense to find musicians my own age for the most cohesive live show. As a result, I started seeking out a rhythm section, asking various friends if they knew drummers or bassists. A mentor, Narada Michael Walden, suggested reaching out to our drummer Alex, who in turn recommended our bassist Sammie. While they were not the first musicians I tried, this particular group clicked immediately, and we were quickly doing gigs throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, and along the West Coast. Tensions form in ensembles for so many different reasons, so I feel very fortunate that this group gels so well, musically and socially.
Jolie du Pre: It is more than a little bizarre that you grew up listening to David Byrne and the Talking Heads, and then, years later, Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads discovered you at an open mic. Do you see this as a sign you’re on the right track?
Matt Jaffe: I think Jerry and I working together was a combination of chance and fate. On one hand, the opportunity to work with a producer and musician as talented and venerated as Jerry would have been beyond my wildest dreams several years ago. Anybody at any age with any level of talent would be lucky to do so. On the other hand, my stylistic and geographic proximity to Jerry lent a certain inevitability to our collaboration. I had met many producers who didn’t quite match my musical attitude, so it was not surprising that, given the precondition of having met Jerry, he would be a great fit for a collaboration.
Talking Heads have had a tremendous impact on my music and their influence guided my music toward Jerry. With regard to being on the right track, the simple answer is yes-I view Jerry’s involvement as a definite indicator of forward motion. The more complicated answer is that I try to avoid seeing my musical journey as a track, in that I could never have anticipated the curveballs that have come my way, before and after my working with Jerry. For me, it is important to have goals and ambitions, but only so much as they can compel me to try my best to achieve them; I have learned that I should not feel derailed should my path not intersect exactly with those predetermined milestones.
Jolie du Pre: Tell us a bit about your debut album, produced by Jerry Harrison, with contributions from Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty) on drums and Nathan East on bass.
Matt Jaffe: Right now, the debut record is in flux. Until we find the right venue for its release, it will continue to be that way. The first set of songs was recorded with Steve Ferrone and Nathan East, both of whom are unbelievably agile musicians and incredibly gracious people. We recorded basic tracks in four days in Nathan’s Tarzana studio and spent the next six months doing vocal, guitar, and violin overdubs . The most recent set of songs was recorded this past summer with my band mates, Sammie and Alex. These two experiences in the studio contrast in interesting ways, with the first epitomizing my studio naiveté and the steep learning curve associated with the process.
Additionally, the first set of songs was recorded under pressure, as we had limited time, and Steve and Nathan had limited availability. Furthermore, those earlier tunes were not as tailored for a full band and required more imaginative production to transfer them into that setting. This summer, I entered the studio with a band sharp from months of frequent gigging, with songs written with a full band in mind, and with prior recording experience to allow for a more thoughtful approach to the process. I think the yields from the sessions accentuate different elements of my music, and I imagine that both will find their way onto the debut record.
Jolie du Pre: Your next show is on October 11, 2013 at the CBGB Festival. How are you mentally preparing yourself for the gig?
Matt Jaffe: I’m preparing like I always do, whether I have gigs on the horizon or not: by writing and performing as much as possible. I’m not too superstitious yet, so it’s simply a matter of ‘give it all you got or forget it,’ as Joe Strummer put it. I don’t want to forget it, so I’m giving it all I got.
Matt Jaffe & The Distractions:
Matt Jaffe & The Distractions
October 11, 2013
112 Rivington St., New York, N.Y. 10002