Californian Matt Costa has delighted audiences and critics alike with folk-pop songs that seem at once personal and innocent. "Matt Costa's debut album, Songs We Sing, is like an eclectic, ethereal dance on thin tree branches of melody and wordplay," wrote Steve Pick of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Costa drew on the music of Donovan Leitch as well as on other catchy folk melodies that dominated the pop scene in the mid-1960s, and he added a subtle depth to his music by acquainting himself with the traditional musicians who had inspired those pop stars. With songs that seemed the embodiment of light California fun, Costa proved adept at finding his personal and musical roots.
Born in Huntington Beach, California, in 1982, and raised next door to a cemetery, Costa found himself divided between twin pleasures during his teen years. When he was 12 he received a guitar and a skateboard as gifts. Music was important to him; he also played trumpet and piano, participated in his school band and, he told Pick, "learned the beginnings to a lot of songs." But until 2003, skateboarding came first. Costa even thought about a career as a pro skateboarder, but his plans were permanently sidelined by a leg injury that left him hospitalized and in rehab for 18 months.
Costa picked up his guitar once again and started writing songs. At first it was just a way to pass the time. "In the beginning it was something I focused on only for the mere purpose of focus," he told Sarah Wilson of Interview. But "the more songs I wrote, the more I could get off my chest." Previously he had enjoyed alternative rock bands such as the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr., but now his musical explorations began to encompass a wider range. "I started getting into things like Donovan, the band Travis, Van Morrison, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones," he told Pick. "I went back to hear what inspired those people and started listening to early folk recordings and blues."
The budding songwriter made some demo recordings using a four-track tape recorder, and he got a break when he met guitarist Tom Dumont of the group No Doubt, quite by accident in a clothing store. Dumont turned out to be a mentor who advised Costa to pay attention to feeling rather than technique, shepherded him through the first stages of breaking into the Southern California music industry, and produced two Costa EP releases, Matt Costa and The Elasmosaurus. The pair also worked together on the album that became Costa's full-length debut, Songs We Sing.
An early version of that album caught the ear of Hawaiian-born singer-songwriter-surfer Jack Johnson, who signed Costa to his Brushfire label and brought him along as an opening act on his 2005 tour. Interest in Costa began to build among Los Angeles talent spotters, especially after a reworked and expanded version of Songs We Sing was officially released in 2006. Costa himself toured the United States with his band in a van (driving through a tornado at one point, unsure of exactly what was happening), making stops that year at many of the summer music festivals that were burgeoning across the American landscape: Coachella, Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, and Bonnaroo, among others. He also appeared on the Austin City Limits television program. He also opened for the L.A. rock acts The 88 and Elvis Perkins.
As he contemplated the direction of his all-important sophomore release, Costa relocated to the California capital of Sacramento "for a girl," he told Matt Kettmann of the Santa Barbara Independent. Romance wasn't always a creative boon to Costa; one of his girlfriends, annoyed by his heavy touring schedule, buried his beloved four-track recorder in their backyard while he was gone. But he found other sources of inspiration. He took some of his favorite belongings, including books, a big wooden pipe, and some old 45 rpm records, lined them up on a shelf, and contemplated them. "That way I could see everything that I loved," he explained in his Brushfire Records biography. "I let my imagination wander. Regular life isn't as exciting as an imaginary life."
The album took shape in stages as Costa worked out songs using his tape recorder in Sacramento, returned to Huntington Beach to flesh them out with Dumont and other band members, and then assembled the entire group at a cabin near California's Lake Arrowhead. There, he told Kettmann, the group worked at "getting ideas out" and "kind of stealing advice from the trees." The album was slated for release in the fall of 2007 but various delays, many of them connected with last-minute tweaking on Costa's part, pushed the date back to January 22, 2008.
Songs We Sing drew on Costa's 1960s and American-roots influences in clever, inventive ways, mixing country, blues, rock 'n' roll, and classic folk sounds in unexpected combinations. But Unfamiliar Faces was more ambitious, with sharp portraits such as the hit "Mr. Pitiful" and a more serious tone overall. When asked by Rob Williams of the Winnipeg Free Press about his knack for combining upbeat, happy tunes with darker, more probing lyrics, Costa responded, "That's a conscious decision I make. Most of the time I don't feel like writing a song because I'm so happy; I write a song because something is tearing me in two different ways."
Costa played piano and harmonica as well as guitar on the album, which reflected his immersion in folk music, 1960s psychedelia, country music, and styles dating as far back as ragtime. "The album is reminiscent of his debut—his distinct voice singing thoughtful lyrics over catchy, popish rhythms, resulting in a pleasant, '60s-throwback sound that falls somewhere between Donovan, the Beatles, and the current indie folk explosion," wrote Kettmann. Adrienne Day of Entertainment Weekly offered a more mixed but still positive evaluation: "Costa knows how to work gospel's euphoric uplift into secular music, though he follows the blueprints of his idol (a "Hurdy Gurdy Man"-era Donovan) a tad too closely. Thankfully, his old-timey charms don't overwhelm; it's more a reminder that in the Age of iPod, crackly vinyl is still worth cherishing." Costa, who still rode a skateboard on occasion, wasn't given to agonizing over his creative endeavors. Songwriting remained "the easiest thing in my whole life," he told Wilson. "I wish everything were that easy."
For the Record …
Born 1982 in Huntington Beach, CA.
Began writing songs in 2003 during rehab after skateboarding accident; released independent EPs Matt Costa and The Elasmosaurus; Songs We Sing, produced by Tom Dumont, released as independent album; signed to Brushfire label, toured with Jack Johnson, 2005; new version of Songs We Sing released on Brushfire, 2006; toured U.S., 2006; Unfamiliar Faces released, 2008.
Addresses: Agent—Press Here Publicist, 138 W. 25th St., 7th Fl., New York, NY 10001. Web site—Matt Costa Official Web site, http://www.mattcosta.com.
Songs We Sing, Brushfire, 2006.
Unfamiliar Faces, Brushfire, 2008.
Entertainment Weekly, January 18, 2008, p. 83.
Interview, February 2008, p. 79.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 4, 2006, p. 9.
Winnipeg Free Press, February 14, 2008, p. E13.
"Matt Costa," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 25, 2008).
"Matt Costa," Brushfire Records, http://www.brushfirerecords.com/artists/mattcosta (June 25, 2008).
"Matt Costa Looks at Unfamiliar Faces, His Second Full-Length Album of Folk-Pop," Santa Barbara Independent, http://independent.com/news/2008/jan/10/matt-costa-looks-unfamiliar-faces-his-second-full-/ (June 25, 2008).
—James M. Manheim
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