Q&A with singer-songwriter Matt Bauer, Nov. 5 at Block Street Records

Matt Bauer / Courtesy Riot Act Media

The orchestral indie folk sounds of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Matt Bauer come to town this week as he presents his first ever Fayetteville show, although he’s spent time in the woods along the Buffalo River.

In fact, the banjo parts to his brand new release Dreams End were all recorded there. He’ll be performing a free solo set at Block Street Records beginning at 7 p.m. Nov. 5.

I caught up with him prior to his appearance to discuss what drew him to the banjo, earliest musical memories and similarities between the Arkansas Ozarks and the hills of his Kentucky home, to name a few.

You recorded the banjo parts to the new album in Arkansas. I’d love to hear more about that.

Who: Singer-songwriter Matt Bauer
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015
Where: Block Street Records, 17 N. Block Ave., Fayetteville
Cost: Free

I had the chance to spend a month in a little house in Gilbert, Arkansas, in the winter. It was beautiful and quiet and just a few minutes uphill from the Buffalo National River – right at a bend where hundreds of vultures would return every evening. Starting in the late afternoon they’d begin to stream in from a couple different directions. And then by dusk they would fill a long stretch of trees alone the bank of the river. The one store and the one restaurant in town close up for the winter, and the house didn’t have Internet access. So it was a pretty great place to slow down and record.  I’d stayed in the same house for a few weeks the previous year and knew the upstairs had a large bedroom with nice hardwood floors, so I brought my recording gear so I could capture the sound of the room. So I’d hike and do things in the woods during the day and track banjo at night. 

You’re from Kentucky hills but know the Ozark hills. I’d love to hear your thoughts about place and similarities/differences between these two landscapes.
The part of the Ozarks I’ve had a chance to visit do remind me some of the parts of eastern Kentucky where I grew up – narrow steep winding roads up in the hills. There are so many little creeks and caves. Parts of the Buffalo even remind me of central Kentucky where I grew up when I was a little older – both have some beautiful high palisades along the banks. The low water bridges were something new to me though. And I don’t think I’d ever seen a river as clear as the Buffalo before. 

You’ve chosen banjo as a main instrument to work with. When did you first learn? What drew you in to its sound?
I bought myself banjo in my twenties after years of playing drums and then guitar. I’d thought about it for a long time, but it can be kind of intimidating. It can take a really long time before it even begins to sound like anything if you’re wanting to play 3-finger or Scruggs style. Months in you might still be terrible and playing incredibly slowly. So I’d thought about it for a long time before finally starting.

From when I was little I loved the banjo. Our family has a close friend where I grew up in eastern Kentucky who is an amazing banjo player, Leo Blair. Being able to see and hear him play up close, I think that’s where it started for me.

Let’s go way back. I want to hear about your earliest musical memory / when you first truly engaged with it.
My first memories would probably be my mom singing me to sleep when I was tiny. Barbara Streisand and Nana Mouskouri, and my dad playing Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” on cassette in the car. The earliest I really engaged with it would have been listing to top pop radio in the late seventies and early eighties. My brother and I would listen to the top forty count down and tape songs we liked with a boom box. And I’d get my parents to take me to the mall to buy 45’s. Blondie’s “Rapture” and “Heart of Glass,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” Devo’s “Whip It.” 

The arrangements in the new album are magnificent. I’m curious to know how that all came together.
Thank you! Well, I usually begin to have ideas for the arrangement of the songs as I’m writing them. Small things like thinking that improvised piano lines might sound good in the pauses between my vocal lines. Then as the song is closer to being finished, especially if I think I’m going to add strings or horns or woodwinds, I block it out in a sheet notation program on my laptop so that I can get my head around everything and really dig into it. 

I often arrange with specific players in mind. My friend Jeff Hudgins has such wonderful feel and he plays several reed instruments, so I write 3 and 4-part wind arrangements in mound for him to play all the parts. And my friend Alisa Rose, who has played on all but my first record – she’s so amazing – and I write violin and quartet parts with her specifically in mind because she brings so much feeling to the arrangements.

You’re playing a solo set in Fayetteville and I’m wondering how you choose songs for solo performance vs full band.
I can usually do most of the songs with or without a band and just approach them differently. There are some that lend themselves to a quieter solo setting. And I try to get into the sparseness and quiet of a solo set instead of trying to make up for the lack of other instruments. Since it’s already stripped down, let’s see how far stripped down we can go, I guess. 

You chose to issue on vinyl. Let’s talk about records for a sec.
I love that it’s an actual thing you can hold and that the artwork is big and that it’s kind of a cool object the way a cd or a thumbnail on your phone are not. But I’m also not nostalgic or luddite about digital music. Sound-wise I’ve noticed that the strings sounds more open and airy and alive on the two records I’ve pressed on vinyl. But I have to say the low end sounds more badass on the digital versions. Even with great mastering and lacquer cutting at the vinyl manufacturer, you have to pull back a little on the amount of certain low-end frequencies or the needle will actually jump off the record and out of the groove. So some super low-end pedal bass things sound better to me in the digital version, and some other things sound better to me on vinyl. 

You love interpretation of songs (which is more than simply covering). Why? Tell me about one or two interpretations that particularly draw you in. What is the weirdest song you’ve ever ‘covered’?
I like seeing how someone can make you hear a song a whole new way when they have a really personal or unique take on it. I love Dolly Parton’s cover of Collective Soul’s “Shine.” I mean Dolly could do anything and I’d love it. But to take a song from such a completely different genre and make you hear it such a different way, I love that. And it makes you think about the core of the song, to me the lyrics and melody, and how they could be interpreted any number of ways if they’re really good at that their heart. 

The weirdest cover I’ve done is probably a mash up of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and the Backstreet Boys’ “That Way,” one of my favorite songs and one of my favorite semi-guilty pleasure songs. The recording of “That Way” is so cornball it’s amazing. I actually think the words are great and weird, and the chords are very similar to the verses in “Atlantic City,” so I’ve combined them in this cover version I call Atlantic Back Streets.