You know at least one of his aching, soul-stirring songs from Scrubs, One Tree Hill or Dawson’s Creek. They’re perfect for dark moments of epiphany, when you’re reeling from happy to sad and back again.
It’s easy to hear Nathanson sing and believe the words were written for you alone. They pull at emotions both intimate and universal.
Recently, when Jessica Stone faced an operation that would save her life, but make her deaf, she chose to listen to Nathanson’s “All We Are,” with the refrain, “every day is a start of something beautiful – something real,” before going into surgery. “Good Morning America” chronicled Jessica’s story, including her meeting with Matt at one of his concerts.
The singer-songwriter says he was quite humbled by the experience.
“When you come into contact with someone who is just pretty extraordinary, with such an understanding of the way things are dealt, it puts your life into perspective,” he says. “It shines a light on the stuff you create versus what happens to you. Jessica is a walking example of what you can overcome by shifting your focus.”
But here’s the thing about the impish Nathanson – one moment he’s choking you up, singing about “the violent, sweet, perfect words” of a lover (on his recent hit, “Come On Get Higher”). The next, you’re crying tears of laughter as he tries to explain the racist remarks of “Dog, the Bounty Hunter” with a cockeyed theory about mullets.
“You know how Rastas keep a lot of energy in their dreads? The mullet holds a lot of anger,” he says. “When I had a mullet, back as a kid in Boston, I know I had a lot of anger. Since I cut it, I feel free – like Lenny Kravitz.”
It’s hard to tell where the starry-eyed poet ends and the cut-up begins.
Is he a frustrated comedian?
“Oh, no,” he says. “Stand up comedy – that would be brutal.”
Nathanson honed his split onstage persona through the examples of folksingers like Richard Thompson and Greg Brown.
There’s a clear line between Nathanson’s banter and music, however.
“Songs shouldn’t be funny,” he says. “I like my music to be very emotional. But that’s one aspect of my dynamic.”
So he introduces a song like “Come On Get Higher” by claiming he wrote it for Bret Michaels. He’ll then talk for three minutes of his creepy fascination with the Poison singer’s VH1 reality show, which features the faded rock star and “800 women who fell asleep in 1986, vying for his attention.”
“In the end, one woman emerges,” Matt laughs, “through Jell-O wrestling, punching, stripping and phone sex.”
“That’s the sh*t,” he says. “Not knowing whether to laugh or cry. When I went to college (Pitzer, in Claremont, California), we brought people like Patty Larkin and Greg Brown. They told hilarious stories that draw you in – I adopted that idea,” he says.
“I’d leave feeling like that was a whole evening. I’m not U2. I can’t have these transcendent elevated moments all the time,” he says. “You gotta give people the balance, because as a listener that’s what I’d want.”
Much of Nathanson’s patter centers around pop culture, particularly the 1980s, a decade he considers both immortal and misunderstood.
“The 80’s were impeccable and the production hid that fact,” he said recently. “I so badly wanted to be in Def Leppard. I’d give my right arm to be in Def Leppard.”
“That was my jam, if I was younger I’d be busting out New Kids on the Block,” he continues.
At his shows he delights in leading sing-along renditions of Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” or, swear to God, Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America.”
He also does a few faithful Springsteen covers like “No Surrender,” a song that appears on his most recent release, “Left & Right.”
The live EP is distributed exclusively through independent record stores. Locally, it’s available at Newbury Comics.
Nathanson says he never tires of hearing his songs on prime time shows like “Private Practice” and “NCIS.”
“I’m like a thirteen year old girl when it comes to television,” he says. “Dawson’s Creek played one of my songs and I thought it was the coolest thing – these six characters that I’ve invested all my time in.”
As a kid who grew up in MTV’s heyday, he’s occasionally frustrated with the current state of the industry. He likened his brief affiliation with Universal Records to “a bad date.”
“I had a lot of illusions that a major label was gonna teach to me make a great record. What I realized was they really didn’t know what they were doing,” he says. “I would just pay them money.”
He made his most recent studio record independently (“Some Mad Hope”/Vanguard Records)
“I wanted to get to the bottom of making records the way I want them to sound,” explains Nathanson.
It’s nice to have a modicum of success with the record – AAA radio airplay and a few videos in rotation on what’s left of music television – but that’s not what’s kept Matt Nathanson going for the last 15-plus years.
“I did it for free, and I’d do it for free again,” he says. “I’m a nerd for the music, I’m trying to get my self off, get lost in it.”
“It sounds real hippie, but that’s what it is.”
Matt Nathanson appears Friday, October 10 in Boston (Berklee Performance Center) and Sunday, October 12 in Hartford, CT (Webster Theater)