'All We Are:' Inside the fervent mind of Matt Nathanson

It was a very surprising answer to a common question, at least for singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson.

When asked Thursday during a phone interview how life has been treating him, he responded: "Everything is really good. I have no complaints at all … which is very strange for me."

Nathanson has developed a name for himself since the 1990s as a self-deprecating, incurable romantic of the alternative Lord Byron variety, releasing a slew of albums on the power and pain of love in its many forms.

With hits like "Run" and "Come on Get Higher," the San Francisco musician has built himself a cult following, from teens to grandparents, who travel around the country to see him perform live.

But after years of publicly sharing his experiences in the dating world, today's Nathanson is happily married, leaving fans wondering what might happen to his inspiration levels.

"It's funny — I still find myself being sort of endlessly the well of inspiration," Nathanson said. "For me, being such a fan of music and a nerd for music, it comes from other musicians and other albums and that kind of stuff. And so being home… well I guess it gives me a little more perspective."

Nathanson is set to headline next weekend's Balboa Beach Fest, where he said he's happy to be able to perform a full set rather than a few numbers, following a tour as an opening act earlier this year in Australia and Europe.

"It's a killer lineup, like the whole day," he said of the festival, which also boasts performers like Joshua Radin and A Fine Frenzy. "Hopefully I can get there early enough to catch some of the other acts. It's going to be awesome."

Nathanson will perform with his guitarist, Aaron Tap, rather than with his full band.


'Sing Me Sweet'

Along with comedic deftness, which he mines for improvised monologues and jokes from stage, Nathanson also is known for the intensely personal partnership he tries to cultivate with each show's audience, via a conversational style and a willingness to take requests.

"Getting onstage for me is a pretty natural act," he said. "A lot of times, a lot of artists that I've worked with in the past will kind of like need 10 minutes before they get onstage, and kind of gather themselves. For me, getting onstage and talking to people, I try to make it as natural an experience as I can, because I don't want there to be any remove from the audience.

"So if anything, my stage presence is one of the few things that's, like, stayed constant-ish, you know, over the course of my career. I guess if anything, I've gotten a little more comfortable being myself onstage, and just sort of having that connection, because that's what really generates the connection for me."

And that connection, Nathanson said, is critical — both for him and for the audience listening.

"It's like, if I get onstage and I'm myself, then I get to sort of connect with these people, and that's what it's all about, because without that kind of connection, there can't be the … transcendent moment," he said. "Like, connecting with the band is one thing, and that's a transcendent moment because it's human beings bouncing off of each other. But once you include the audience in that, and their energy, it's like a limitless potential."

But such empathy also can go the other way around, Nathanson said, whereby if an audience isn't interested, it can have the opposite effect.

"If the crowd's not wanting to do it, if there's an off night in some way, you know, it's like then I have to turn inward and sort of like generate it myself — which is totally cool, but it's like one person versus a team," he said. "It doesn't benefit nearly as much as when everybody's involved."


'Come On Get Higher'

Along with Nathanson's domestic calmness has come a period of career calmness.

After years of scuffling for attention as an unsigned artist, Nathanson secured a deal with a major label, but still found himself dissatisfied.

Now, with a medium-sized label that seems to fit just right and two successful albums in a row, including last year's "Modern Love," Nathanson successfully tours both solo and as an opening act for bands like Train, and his music has received lots of attention from late-night talk shows and even "Dancing with the Stars."

"There's a nice balance that's going on," he said. "Before it felt like work, work, work, work, work — and now … because there's been some success, it kind of affords me a nicer balance between work and sort of decompression. So it's kind of awesome. I feel like I'm working just as hard, but just a little bit smarter, and again the opportunities are better, so it's a little less of a slog.

"And, you know, for years it was, like, rental cars, sleeping on floors, all that kind of fun stuff. … But now it feels, like, opulent — you know? It's not like I'm on some crazy level even. I can't even imagine what it must be like to be like actually famous — for me it's just a low hum of success."

This balance also has yielded an unexpectedly fast production process for Nathanson, who had become accustomed to fitting in songwriting between all of his other efforts to make a name for himself. Since arriving back home earlier this summer, he has found himself squarely back in the creative phase — or, as he refers to it, the "puke phase."

"The idea's to sort of, like, blow [laughs] — and then later I guess we'll do the refinement stage where we sort of look through and see if anything's really good," he said. "Creatively, 'Modern Love' took a long time… The turnaround for me on this next record has been really fast, and it feels good … I've never written this quickly after a record…. And it makes it so creativity feels like a much more natural part of my day, like breakfast ... "


'Little Victories'

For Nathanson, music was the only option.

"Music had always been the thing, ever since I saw Kiss as a kid," Nathanson said. "Ever since my sister and my brother had, like, 'Rock and Roll Over' or 'Destroyer' or one of those records on vinyl. And for me it was just always — it was the only thing I ever committed to, and the only thing I ever believed in.

"I have this lyric on this new song – I don't know if it's going to make the record or not, but ... it says, 'I like music more than I like people.' [laughs]"

Since then, Nathanson said he has spent the rest of his life trying to figure out the best way to make that decision happen.

"You've got to be smart enough to navigate the waters of music, and the industry, and you have to be too stupid to stop," he said.


'More Like This'

Nathanson saw a major hit when he collaborated with Sugarland for his song "Run." When asked about other potential dream collaborations, Nathanson waxed ecstatic about his desire to play with Def Leppard, Journey and Slayer, and to sing with Tracy Chapman.

"I'm consistently amazed at the opportunities to collaborate, so I don't think I'd turn down anything," he said. "I'll start a breakdancing circle with people if that's what they need. I'm in. I'm in!"

Nathanson's favorite band is U2, which he said inspires him because they never repeat themselves in their music.

"It's like their goal in life is never to take any steps backwards, only take steps forwards — even if … sometimes they fail and fall flat on their faces," he said. "They're [expletive] fearless, and there's very few bands that want to compete on a commercial level that are that fearless … To me, what's great about music is when art and commerce kind of bang up against each other — that's when real [expletive] starts to happen… And U2 still wants to play in that arena, and they're one of the few bands with that kind of heft and that kind of pedigree that wanna do it."


'Modern Love'

After all his experiences loving and losing, Nathanson was able to crystallize some advice he wished he was given when he was younger.

"Follow what you're passionate about, and what you believe in, and what resonates with you in your gut," he said. "And you need to not listen to anyone else because — you can take in what they say, if you don't take it as your own. You know? You can sort of listen to it, but people don't [expletive] know anything about you. You know about you. And the only thing we have as currency that's fantastic about us is our own unique individuality. ...

"So that's my bit of wisdom. I wish I had someone that told me to just [expletive] plow on, you know? Even though I was too stupid to stop, when I was doing all that work, I still got pushed around a little by people's opinions. And I feel like you've got to be true to yourself all the way through."


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