Matthew de Heus • A Musical Odyssey of Engagement, Dedication & Detail

Best Country Songwriter • Best Music Video (Gone) • Best New Single Release (Gone) • Best Country Video (Gone)

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, , Review Music Awards,   From Issue 914   By: Robert E Martin

03rd June, 2021     0

If one were to sum the numerous talents of Matthew de Heus up in one word, the best one that pops to my mind is ‘engagement’.

A talented bassist, musician, and songwriter with a remarkably rich and unmistakable baritone timbre to his voice, I was fortunate to meet Matt ten years ago when he reached out to me about writing for The REVIEW on a variety of topics ranging from the environment to politics to the Bay City Music Scene. 

During the expanse of his tenure at this publication, which he put on hold a few years ago - as he did with nearly every aspect of his life in order to pursue his passion for music fulltime - every aspect of Matt’s  work was always well-researched, succinct, yet rendered with a fine eye for detail - whether it was writing a review of a new album by a local artist, refining the complexion of our Bay City distribution route, or addressing the numerous issues confronting Bay County or the State of Michigan on a social and political level.

A former chemical engineer for Castrol and British Petroleum who was stationed in England for many years, Matt was teaching chemistry at Delta College when I first met him and running for State Representative on the Green Party ticket, in addition to playing and performing his music.  So I ask you, can one individual be more engaged on so many levels than this?

A few years ago Matt decided to bow out of the political realm, quit his day job at Delta College, take a hiatus from his routine tasks here at The REVIEW, and bore full-steam ahead with music as the primary focus on his compass. A guitar technician at Bay City’s  Herter Music, Matt has released three albums containing both originals & cover material: Town & Country, Silk Purses, and Mercy Me, all recorded at Reed Recording Company, while also performing with his power-trio, Catfood Sandwich.

At this year’s 35th Annual REVIEW Music Awards, all of Matt’s hard work was honored by the voting public as he secured four trophies for Best Country Songwriter and Best Music Video, Best Single Release, and Best Country Video for his haunting song Gone, which he collaborated with videographer Jason Baker upon.

Throughout the evolution of Matt’s musical odyssey, he has created a diverse collection of original material that refuses to be easily classified by genre and is both purposeful and personal in terms of its lyrical and narrative tone, which pull the listener into a semi-autobiographical mosaic of lyrical insight and tightly crafted musicianship.

Recently I sat down with Matt to discuss his recent RMA wins, the evolution of his career, and the qualities that he feels distinguishes the artistry of songwriting and musicianship in this post-Pandemic age.

REVIEW:  Seeing as you were one of two artists who received the most recognition this year from the voting public at the 35th Music Awards, I’d like to begin by asking you what qualities does it take for a songwriter to distinguish his or her work and take them to that level of recognition?

Matt deHeus:  One of the things that clearly makes me a little bit different from a lot of people who receive these awards is that I also work as a contributing writer with the magazine.  In watching a lot of the other bands and artists and writing about what they are doing, I’m also learning from what they’re doing by paying attention to their songs, listening to their records, seeing how they market themselves, and how they do performances so I can try to gather and apply some of these best practices for myself.  There are some people around here such as Donny Zuzula, Andy Dalton and Andy Reed that have been pretty successful by my standards.

The other thing is how different my set of activities are right now from when we first sat down and I was teaching industrial chemical processing at Delta College and dabbling in politics. Now I focus 100 percent on music and working at Herter Music helps a lot because I work on peoples’ guitars all day and have been able to help other musicians with marketing and promotion and learn effective techniques for doing that.

Regarding my songwriting and receiving the Best Country Songwriter award, one of the benefits I got from working with The REVIEW was an opportunity to interview Jason Isbell, and I learned a lot from his songwriting process. He said there is one time of the day that you need to be intentional and my time of the day is early morning, because I’m an early riser and it isn’t hard sketch out a vocal melody or write some lyrics in the morning while I’m home. Or I'll strum on a guitar and let things incubate. I have stacks of stuff sitting around and its almost habitual in a way.

My songwriting process begins when someone gives me a phrase, or I start writing about something I imagine happening. I’ll usually come up with the vocal melody firs,t in a traditional verse/chorus format.  As soon as I have that I’ll take all these scraps of paper and envelope backs and sort these verse and choruses into something I like. I’ll finish the lyrics on a computer like poetry, making sure the meter is right and I have halfway decent rhymes that have told a story.  This is usually where I also find the "confounded bridge." At that point I’ll figure out how to play it.

My method works for me. I’m not much of a guitar player, I’m a bass player, so if I start with a vocal melody and I can write stuff with more sophistication. Then I need to find right chords myself or find smart guys like J. Blum or Andy Reed, who can tell me what pinky finger do I throw on this chord to make it sound correct. Because I’ve got talented friends who can bail me out on stuff that’s over my head, I can then write everything out and take it to the guys to finish and polish off.

REVIEW: What I enjoy about your songs is they tend to be simple and direct. There’s essentially two different types of songwriting: those that are lyrically direct and aim right for the artery; and those more lyrically involved like some of Dylan’s or Elvis Costello’s work that are like intricate musical novellas.

Matt deHeus: I have a couple thoughts on that. Even if you look at my prose writing I tend to be blunt and use shorter sentences and just get straight to the point. What can I say, I’m an engineer. Plus, this is something advised to me by J. Blum, especially with the low register of my voice fewer syllables are probably better; so I try to keep things down to eight syllables or less with each line of the verse.

Where you can sometimes try to make it fun for yourself is to get into the theory side of the craft and try and do this with ho more than four syllables per line, or use no major chords, or try a different time signature - set yourself little goals so your songs don’t all sound the same.

Before songwriting I wrote poetry for a long time and published some stuff in college. Recently, I had a friend I knew from college send me a book of poems I’d given to her and it reminded me of how far I've come and how many things have stayed consistent for me.

I'm also reminded of some documentaries I’ve seen on Chopin and Beethoven. If you look at songs like ‘Fur Elise’, for example, you realize how even the great Classical composers were writing songs to try and get some girl’s attention and how rarely it worked. That’s where the heartbreak comes in with the Country songs I do; but things don't have to "work out" for songwriting to serve a positive purpose for me.

REVIEW: Even though you won the ‘Best Country Songwriter’ award, you’ve also dabbled in Jazz and different forms of music. Do you think your writing is defined by genre?

Matt deHeus:  I think a lot of the writing I do is consciously or subconsciously derived straight out of my parents' record collection when I was a kid. Because of their age this lays somewhere between the classic Country writing of Ray Price, Charlie Rich and Willie Nelson and then you had Jazz and a little bit of garage Rock. These are the records I grew up on.  As for myself, I don’t drive around listening to Country music and certainly not the New Country. The other thing you have to remember is when I open my mouth this is what comes out, so I have to write for my voice and my range.

REVIEW: Two other awards you won were ‘Best Country Video’ and ‘Best Music Video’ spanning all genres, which unlike the honors for songwriting and Best Single Release, deal with a different side of music that is more visually and promotionally aligned. Do you think these elements are as equally important as the writing and performance of the music itself in terms of getting your songs heard?

Matt deHeus:  What’s interesting with the video for Gone is that we finished that about a week before things clammed up with the Pandemic. When I watch it now one of the many things that run through my mind is how we had no clue about what was going to happen. Having people sitting home when I was pushing this song helped a lot and we probably had some digital luck as well. Every once in a while facebook will throw you a bone and give you the result you want when you sponsor a post.  It got picked up by some Spotify playlists, including one for "Silky Smooth Soul." But that song is pretty good and resonates with a lot of people.

As for whether various forms of video and streaming are here to stay, I’d say components of it are back again. Whether you look back to The Beatles’ doing Magical Mystery Tour, or Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack, those kinds of things have been around forever only, they’ve mutated into what we have today.  As far as I’m concerned, if you’re gonna watch something on a video screen it might as well be Rock ‘n Roll.

The other thing listeners don’t know is that when we put a song out there we can track their behavior, not as an individual but as a group. If you get 150 likes on a song and realized 19 people listened to for an average of 22 seconds a piece, those facebook likes don’t make you feel as good.  But if you put a video out and they watch 90 seconds of it - now you’re on to something.

Nowadays the main thing musical artists are in competition with is scrolling.  Even if you’re performing live now, people are scrolling on their phones, so you’re in competition with this stream of activity, which is where people are getting these videos and songs. It’s hard to get people to stop scrolling, so if you give them a video they can occupy their eyes for a little while for as long as they can hold their thumbs still. It’s the reality of it now and videos hook people longer and give them more reasons to like the song.

Mainly, I let the videographer that I work with listen to the song and tell me what to do, or get the locations if they have an idea; but it’s got to connect with the song in some way. You’ve got to draw people in some way so a visual like a song needs a hook and the goal is to make it compelling.  Jason shot Gone for me and with each of the videographers I’ve worked with they are basically musicians that have some awesome artistic eyes.  Video isn’t my thing so this is another way of collaborating as well.

REVIEW: So what are some of your goals for the next year?

Matt deHeus:  I’d like to put out another album of some sort soon, not necessarily all new material; but I do have another full album of material that I need to start recording and have started to demo some of it.  I've got a list of covers to do at some point.

While I’m firing up my band Catfood Sandwich again, it occurs to me where I might want to start helping other bands out as well. If you want to get blogs and reviewers exposed to your material and see what happens, I can help you do that. I’m also looking at possibly doing a bigger band, without abandoning the Power Trio. I’d like to add a horn section and maybe experiment with an 11-piece band, so I don’t need to play bass and be more out front and try a showcase approach.

The other thing I’d like to say is how much I appreciate all the people involved in this voting process for the Awards. A lot of people that vote actually are musicians, so to me it feels like us recognizing one another.  There’s so few ways to get recognized when you do what we do. When you’re performing original music you usually don’t get even get as many gigs as you’d like, so to me it’s really dedicated people or fans or other musicians that pick these winners and that means a lot to me in terms of where that support is coming from. 



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