UTG INTERVIEW: Matthew Morgan Talks ‘Empathy For Inanimate Objects’

“Honestly, I don’t ever remember a time that I didn’t feel like I was a musician and I’ve never imagined a different focus for my life.”

Matthew Morgan has been making music for many years, but his newest effort, an EP titled Empathy For Inanimate Objects, is arguably his best work yet. Layered with varied instrumentation, beautiful vocal harmonies and Morgan’s lyrical storytelling, Empathy is folky Americana done right and serves as one of this year’s strongest undiscovered releases.

We recently had the chance to chat with Matthew to discuss his musical upbringing and how it led to where he’s at now with his current project. He also touches on the themes of the record and what he’s been working on since its release. Follow through below to read our full conversation and to stream Empathy For Inanimate Objects in full.

Hi, Matthew. First off, can you tell me about your first memories with music and what led you to want to become a musician?

Music, for me, was there before I was even born. My mother was sitting at the piano teaching students to sing and play and I was right there with her. It’s in my blood and genes, so to me music doesn’t seem like something that’s peripheral to everyday life. It’s more like the guiding force in my life and it has been from day one. There was always music in my household whether it was people rehearsing, students learning lessons, or blasting from the stereo; it was always there. Honestly, I don’t ever remember a time that I didn’t feel like I was a musician and I’ve never imagined a different focus for my life. I started performing when I was seven years old. For me the far greater struggle has been the difficulty in just being who I am and doing what I want to do because the world is very programmed for achieving finite results and music doesn’t quite work that way, especially not with songwriting. It’s a process that builds upon itself and it’s very hard to define its relevancy. It’s taken me a while to understand that and accept that it’s a gradual thing, but I can say with certainty that most people who know me at this point in my life would recognize me as a musician.

You play several instruments from what I can tell. Where did that all begin?

Well, I started out on piano, but I wasn’t the best student. I’ve always been very impatient and relied on my ears, so the theory was hard for me. It didn’t help that I could learn to play everything by ear, so I was able to fake out a lot of my teachers until I got to college. I studied classical voice at a conservatory for a while and everyone in music school is required to learn keyboard skills. That’s when I actually began to learn the science behind music. Guitar is my primary instrument, but I also play piano and organ (by ear) and harmonica. A lot of what I do is learn enough of a particular instrument to supplement the recordings, but I wouldn’t really consider myself proficient at anything other than guitar.

Your old project, Matthew Morgan and the Lost Brigade, had a similar style and sound to what you’re doing now so clearly it’s something you’ve been interested in for some time. Are there any bands or artists who you feel have been a key inspiration for you in wanting to create this folk-type music?

I think the most obvious answer would be Neil Young and certainly his music has had a profound impact on me. But, it was never a conscious decision to sound a certain way. I would have to say that REM was probably my biggest influence because they made it clear that you could play these old style instruments in a way that sounds fresh and modern, but still incorporate the simplicity and sincerity of folk music. Although I like a lot of straight-up rock-n-roll, I was never able to relate to the pomp and swagger of it; I’m not that macho…so, all of my heroes have been the sensitive, quirky types. You know, people who would be silly enough to figure out how to play a dulcimer just for one song.

In regards to Empathy For Inanimate Objects, first, can you tell me where the name comes from and how you feel it relates to the material on the album? And how did you choose the album image?

The idea was floating around in my mind for some time, but it all came together when I found this old tin dollhouse of my mom’s from the 1950s, which is also the cover of the album. I found it in my parents’ basement with a box of old dollhouse furniture and just spent an entire afternoon assembling it on the back porch. At first glance I saw the sadness of a discarded object, but after spending time with it and noticing all the little nooks and crannies, the painted wall paper and rugs, the rust stains, and dents, I started to notice its strength. So, much of what we have now is temporary and disposable, but in the past the things we made were very thoughtfully constructed and designed with the intention of lasting for a long time.

Matthew Morgan album

Something in your delivery makes these songs feel really personal, yet still relatable in many ways. Where do those qualities come from? How much of this EP is you on the page, so to speak?

I think it’s a culmination of years of living, successes and failures; over time your exterior ego gets broken down and it becomes more important to just be true to yourself. I guess for some people that happens earlier, but for me it took some hard beatings from life, overcoming illness, and the need for acceptance to stop caring so much about how others perceive me. In my mid-thirties I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome with severe on-set and I had a good five years where I couldn’t leave the house. Something like that, the inherent loneliness of it, gives you time to really evaluate your psyche and you realize the importance of time and how fleeting it is. You only get so much time to leave your imprint on the world, so pretty much everything I do now is intentionally from the heart, or gut and I’m not interested in proving my worth through artificial means.

I feel like maybe there’s also a lot of sadness here. If that’s true, is that something that fuels your music even more? A therapy of some sort maybe?

I’m not really a sad sack. But, I have had my moments. Like most creative people I’m very moody and songwriting is definitely a way of getting my feelings out. That said, the best way to get your feelings out is to actually get them out and learn how to confront people and situations before they get the best of you. I highly recommend actual therapy to anyone; it’s certainly helped me when I needed it. Mostly, I just really like music that presents complex, or juxtaposed emotions. I love it when songs sound happy though the words are melancholy, or the other way around. Something about that really appeals to me.

As far as the instrumentation, I know you tackled the majority of it but you also have some really talented people who contributed as well. How did you get involved with this team?

I’m extremely lucky to be surrounded by some of the best musicians in the Windy City and Ohio where I recorded the album. or some reason they’ve all been willing to help me out. They’re all my friends, so that goes a long way. Right now, I’m part of a collective in Chicago called “The Family Band” and most of us came together through CAUDog Records and an extended network of artists through Chicago Acoustic Underground. We all kind of support each other and it’s amazing! For anyone starting out, or just consciously doing the DIY route I highly recommend organizing and combining forces within your local community. In this current music economy it’s really the only way we as independent artists can survive, supporting and encouraging each other. If nothing else, your life will be filled with incredible live music.

As a collector, I was happy to see that you’re releasing this on vinyl later this year (which I’ll definitely be picking up). Are you a collector or was this just a format you felt this EP had to be released on?

I’ve been collecting records for most of my life and it’s still one of the biggest thrills to break open the plastic on a new album and hold it in your hands. I like to take my time with it and read the liner notes and lyrics while I’m listening. It’s been a dream of mine to make my own record and I’m really grateful that vinyl is making a comeback and I’ve had this opportunity to justify it. Empathy will be available on vinyl in early September and the Family Band and I are planning a big party at Chicago’s SubT Lounge on September 26. This has not been announced yet, but I’m pressing a limited run of 100 EPs on 12-inch, translucent green vinyl. So, there you go.

I see you have a few shows lined up through the Fall, including a release show as mentioned. Do you have any full touring plans lined up or in the works?

I’m doing things a little backwards. I’ll be on tour in September for a week prior to the vinyl release party playing shows in Kansas City, Oklahoma and Texas. Then, after that my plan is to do out of town gigs at least once a month for the next year. Right now, I’m working on taking the band to Ohio in November for a second vinyl release (that’s where I’m from, originally). and we’ll also be making stops around the Midwest, Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis… I really want to go to the East Coast this year as I have family and friends in Vermont and NYC.

And beyond that, do you have any specific plans or goals laid out for the rest of the year? Anything you’d like to discuss that we haven’t covered?

I’m already demoing songs for the next solo album and I’m planning to work with some really amazing guys from Chicago who go by the name Frances Luke Accord. They’re blowing up right now and if everything goes as planned they’ll be producing and engineering the next solo record. Also, I’d love to do a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to cut a debut EP with The Family Band and I hope to work with Nate Lockwood, who produced Empathy on some other projects because he’s an incredible producer. Incidentally, Nate gets credit for most of the sound on this record. I gave him some ideas, but this is as much his project as it is mine.

Brian Leak
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One Response to “UTG INTERVIEW: Matthew Morgan Talks ‘Empathy For Inanimate Objects’”

  1. lisa.woodbur says: