'‘Subterranean Shut-In Blues’ is an homage to Bob Dylan'
Richard Bowes
11:00 7th March 2022

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Having spent over half a decade winning audiences over with her unique and powerful vocal style, the release of single ‘Jeff Goldblum’ late last year found fans of Mattiel checking their phones to ensure it was still the band they loved. The Atlantan’s fearless vocal acrobatics were nowhere to be heard, instead a smoother, subtler (but no less engaging) delivery filled their ears. Few could deny that the comparatively restrained style was required to suit a more sedate song. 

"When Jonah sent me the ‘Jeff Goldblum’ structure, in my head I couldn't really see it any other way," Mattiel Brown explains to Gigwise. "I wanted to use those sharp syllables and the two-part harmony. That was immediate. I didn't even think about using my ‘normal’ voice, however you describe that. My full voice, I guess. 

"Since then, we've played it for Stephen Colbert on his show. In that live version, I use my full voice and I think it sounds really cool both ways." And what of the subject matter? "That was just because I have a crush on Jeff Goldblum. That was really it! No deep philosophical meaning there really! It's really just about somebody who looks like Jeff Goldblum." Ask a silly question…

"It's fun to explore and see what I can do and not get stuck on one thing and do all kinds of different things," the singer attests, and therein lies the ethos of the new Mattiel album, Georgia Gothic. Although the band (singer/lyricist Mattiel Brown and producer/multi-instrumentalist Jonah Swilley) have never been limited by their influences, the album takes their eclecticism to new heights, with ‘Jeff Goldblum’ the first of many earworms. Funk, soul, pop, swinging rock….all are present on Mattiel’s third offering, partly because the duo were afforded the luxury of time due to you-know-what.

However, Brown is loath to describe Georgia Gothic as a pandemic album. "It would be strange if the pandemic didn't affect everyone in some way or some parts of their lives. It was just a very strange time, from what I can remember. Trying to find meaning during that time was something I felt challenged with, and I think a lot of people felt the same. I wouldn't say it’s a pandemic album centred around that focus, but it's indicative of that time."

"We had a lot more time to do it, obviously because of the pandemic and not having to tour. On the first two records, we both had part or full-time jobs so it was hard to manage everything, but for this one it was a real blessing that we were even able to do it". Swilley, meanwhile, is sanguine about the pandemic and the (relative) benefits of the situation. "It definitely jumpstarted the creative process. We weren’t working on lots of new music before the pandemic. We were gearing up to tour for the rest of 2020 but the fact we had to stop was the start of our deep dive into new music".

The creative process started as the pair decamped to a cabin deep in the north of their home state, Atlanta, a move that informed the album as well as its title. Was this a conscious decision? "Not at the time," says Brown, "We went to this cabin to write this stuff. We didn't go with the intention of coming out with a whole album, necessarily. We wanted to come out with how much work we could do. The title was an idea I came up with months and months later, looking back at it".

Swinney picks up the thread: "I would start playing some chords on either piano or guitar and see what Mattiel was liking. Just flesh out progressions and structure, then take that and go and write lyrics. Then we'd pretty much flesh out the song that way". The process gave birth to much of the album, including new single ‘Blood In The Yolk’, as Brown elaborates: "Jonah was writing this song structure and I really liked it, but I was having a hard time figuring out how to write words to it and the cadence. I was getting frustrated and he kept me going and encourage me to keep trying at it. He had brought this little THC gummy, shaped like a fish, to the cabin. He cut me off a little piece, I ate it and didn't have such a hard time after that! It turned out to be a really great favourite on the record".

The remoteness of their location didn’t mean the duo were isolated from the outside world: some of the album is topical, including ‘Cultural Criminal’, which includes the line, "don't forget to remember that echo chamber you're yelling at" ("for me it's really important to not get too involved In Group Think," says Brown), while ‘Other Plans’ could be construed as being about the climate crisis. Brown refutes the suggestion though, while also refusing to ruin the listener’s experience: "I don't want to give it away. I feel like anyone who listens to it should have their own interpretation. You don't need me to explain this stuff".

‘Other Plans’ also features a French spoken-word sample running in the background. Swinney explains the intention: "It came about because we wanted to use a sample during the breakdown. My wife’s grandfather is a French Algerian and his favourite writer was Albert Camus. That's what we sampled. It's basically him talking about his relationship with his art. One of the lines specifically says ‘I cannot personally live without my art but I will never place my art above everything else’".

‘Subterranean Shut-In Blues’ is very obviously a riff on the similarly-titled Bob Dylan classic, (‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, in case you’re not sure). "It was written remotely. We weren't together when we wrote that one. It was written several months before we did this cabin get together," Brown clarifies. "Lyrically, I'm influenced by many poets and writers which includes Bob Dylan…his sort of nonsensical songs had these strange parallels to the pandemic. So I took those words, jumbled them up, and made something different with them…it’s an homage".

Sadly, the sheer quality of the songs available to them meant there was no room on Georgia Gothic for last year’s brace of superb singles ‘Those Words’ and ‘Freedom Feels’. Swinney is sympathetic to your interviewer’s dismay at this, but unrepentant: "We wrote 'Those Words' at the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019. I think it fits with the other music but I guess we just considered it had a standalone energy. It just didn't work out that way".

Having previously worked in the shadows, Jonah Swinney is more prominent on the album, including appearing on the album’s cover. He shows no reluctance in moving into the light: "I've never had a problem with being behind the scenes, but something about putting this record together and deciding how we wanted to present it…we just made that decision. it's been great so far. It's a new chapter of this band".

Swinney is reluctant to outline his specific contributions to the band, but Brown has no such qualms and her pride is obvious. "Other than three tracks on the album, all the instrumentation is by Jonah; drums, bass, guitar, keys….everything," the singer explains. "I think that's incredible." His hand forced, Swinney sheepishly admits: "Jeff Goldblum is the only song I don't play everything on, besides horns".

Since their last album (2019’s Satis Factory), Mattiel have also released two EPs of covers. Is this a habit they are likely to repeat? "Anything to keep momentum, but touring is the main focus at the moment. That's a long ordeal," Brown sighs. "We like covering songs. We always include covers on the live sets," says Swinney, "we were playing them on the road and we just like them a lot. We came home and cut them and we just wanted everyone to hear what we were doing on the road at the time. It was also a way for us to put music out and not have to wait on our album".

Doing more is something they have thought about, however. "I want to do something that's off-the-cuff and weird," states Brown. "When we were shooting the ‘Lighthouse’ video, we were messing around with the idea of covering Michelle Branch ‘Everywhere’. I don't know if that's gonna work out, but I like the idea of covering the Beastie Boys, then The Clash then Michelle Branch. That's a really funny way of describing how I feel about music, at least for me! I don't really categorise; if it's a good song, it's a good song,"

It's likely Mattiel will offer up some cover versions on their forthcoming UK tour, which will showcase the new era that Swinney speaks of. Previously playing with a full complement of musicians, the tour will see a reduced headcount on stage. "It's just Mattiel and I," Swinney explains. "It's a whole new concept from a live standpoint. We're really excited about it. I don't really want to give too much away about it. You'll hear the songs how they were originally arranged".

"It will be something to come and check out. We're involving a lot more visual aspects to our set. We're both really excited about it and we hope that everyone is on board with it and can ride with us...It was a response to touring during COVID, and also something creatively that Mattiel and I were excited to explore. It's a combination of the current times we’re in and also keeping things exciting for us as performers." Cryptically, Swinney adds: "You’ll hear me, but we’re moving into a new phase of this musical entity. It's the energy we're on right now".

Consider our appetites whetted. Even though the chat takes place over Zoom, the pair’s positivity and natural affinity radiates over the line. Georgia Gothic is a fine collection of songs that deserves a wide audience, but even if that doesn’t happen, nothing can detract from the obvious pleasure the duo took in it’s recording. ‘I’m really excited about it,’ Brown confirms. ‘I love every single track. I'm also proud of what Jonah and I were able to make together.’ As you’ll soon find out, their pride is justified.

Georgia Gothic arrives 18 March via Heavenly Recordings.

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