From Trip Shakespeare to his Orchestra, Matt Wilson is as important to the fabric of Twin Cities pop as Paul Westerberg, Dave Pirner and Bob Mould combined
Matt Wilson has been driving around Minneapolis, his hometown, but he pulls over so he can chat about his new band, Matt Wilson & His Orchestra.
Their debut album, When I Was a Writer, is set for release on March 20 on Pravda Records, an event he’s greatly anticipating. “I am aflutter with excitement,” he says. “It’s funny, because it reminds me of how I used to feel a long time ago, in a way.”
Wilson is referencing Trip Shakespeare, the quirky rock band he led in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Fans who remember that group will be glad to know that his latest music is just as idiosyncratic: Wilson’s unique singing style is intact (his warm tenor occasionally soaring into an angelic falsetto), while his “Orchestra” features the decidedly unorthodox combination of harp and banjo as the lead instruments.
VIDEO: Trip Shakespeare Live 5/18/91
Whatever you’re imagining a harp and banjo band to sound like, Matt Wilson & His Orchestra probably doesn’t sound anything like it. The vibe is neither heavenly nor hillbilly. Combining those instruments with bass, guitar and piano results in a surprisingly warm and wistful sound, and – as with all of Wilson’s music – it is instantly melodically memorable.
“I was experiencing some frustrations in the rock band format,” Wilson says of the decision to form a decidedly different type of group. “I have a gentle, kind of foggy voice. I love my voice, it’s fine, but it’s hard for me to make it cut over guitars that are fighting in the same frequency. I was longing for a group where I could sing without yelling, use the best part of my voice, and really get my ideas across. I always felt like something about the rock format was impeding that.”
Wilson hired musicians he’d known for years from the Minneapolis music scene: Quillan Roe (banjo, backing vocals), Phala Tracy (harp, backing vocals), Jacques Wait (bass), and Wilson himself on lead vocals, guitar, and piano. But even with such skilled and trusted members, Wilson admits that it was something of a leap of faith to put together such an unusual combination. “I wasn’t sure how it would sound, but I felt that those people were worth a try.”
The gamble paid off.
“When we played together it was immediately something new and totally different,” said Wilson. “We had a real sound. It just magically came together.”
Wilson recalls that he’d originally envisioned this band would play songs from the various bands that each member came from, as well as a selection of covers, but it wasn’t long before he felt inspired to write more original material.
The resulting songs contrast soothing, laid-back instrumentation with darker lyrics that examine the frustrations and failures that life can bring. “For some reason, where there’s sad words and happy music, it’s really moving for some reason. It’s kind of like life, in a funny way. It’s all this joy but maybe underlying it there’s this feeling of doom. Uplifting beauty going against the lyrics. I think that that’s a really cool thing and it’s nothing that I really try to do intentionally but, yeah, it’s definitely there.”
This kind of happy/sad push and pull is also apparent when Wilson talks about the upcoming album release. While he’s rightfully proud of When I Was a Writer, he also seems wary of the process of releasing it into the world, which has “suddenly reminded me of the dangers of any sort of success and how important it is to keep your head on straight and not get swept away in getting approval – just not letting it mean too much. I feel like I need to watch this, but I don’t exactly know how to get a handle on it.
“Right now, I’m thrilled – that’s the word I’d use, is I’m experiencing a thrill. But I actually don’t think it’s good for my music. I remember when I was younger and I got swept away in that sort of thrill and approval, and I associate that with being too wrapped up in being a musician.”
Wilson is referencing his years with Trip Shakespeare, who, after becoming the darlings of the famed Minneapolis music scene thanks to their complex, unapologetically epic melodic sensibilities and memorably offbeat lyrics. They released their debut album, Applehead Man, in 1986, and things seemed promising. But even after releasing two albums on a major label (1990’s Across the Universe and 1991’s Lulu), exhaustive cross-country touring, and consistently positive reviews, the band couldn’t quite make the leap from cult favorite status to superstardom.
“You don’t imagine what a fight it is,” Wilson says of being a professional musician, though he adds, “Anything in life is a fight. Whatever you want to do, you really have to fight to keep at it – either fight your mental demons or fight to find the time or fight past a temporary lack of inspiration, whatever it is. I wouldn’t want to have to do any other struggle, but it is a struggle.”
VIDEO: Matt Wilson & His Orchestra “Decent Guy”
Wilson first felt this compulsion to play music when he was growing up in Minneapolis. “When I was in fifth grade, you got to choose an instrument and I became a drummer because it seemed like the most rockin’ of the band instruments,” he says with a laugh. “I was attracted to that. I played a solo in the little band concert in elementary school and people praised me, and that was the key in my life, as stupid as that is,” he says wryly. “I’ve followed it ever since.”
Years later, Wilson says that he appreciates the support and pure encouragement that he still receives in his hometown, where he expects he will stay for the rest of his life. “I’ve got this base of people that always will come to my shows. It’s not huge but it’s nice. Where else am I going to have that? And I’ve got family here: I’m raising three kids. I find players that I like to play with. I don’t know what else I’d want that I don’t have here. I really love stability, I cherish it. I want to have my studio in the basement and all the things so that I can just be a musician. I want it to be as easy as possible.”
Judging by When I Was a Writer, Wilson certainly seems to have finally found the perfect setup for himself. Despite the obstacles he’s faced in getting here, he still admits it was worth it. “There’s only one or two things, for any given person, that actually gives life meaning,” he says, For him, “Life without music is not really worth living.”
VIDEO: Matt Wilson & His Orchestra When I Was A Writer Record Release Show 3/20/20