Although Matt Costa‘s self-titled fourth album is on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, the Orange County singer/songwriter’s soft-pedaled vocal delivery is probably the only element of the recording that might meet with people’s expectations from that label. Instead of Pacific waves and sun-flecked L.A. afternoons, the record is redolent of autumnal evenings and misty moors. Far removed from laconic, beach-bum folk-pop, Costa’s new release is a full-blown orchestral-pop affair, with strings and horns urging the songs to grand heights and dramatic dynamic shifts. To accomplish this, Costa ventured far afield, engaging Glasgow producer Tony Doogan (Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai) and a crafty cast of Scots including Belle and Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson, Chris Geddes, and Bobby Kildea. The ravishing result: an aural triangulation somewhere between Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, B&S’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, and some elusive third element we’ll simply have to be content to label “Matt Costa” for now. Fortunately, the latter was available to shed some light on this Scotland-SoCal summit meeting.
How did you end up going to Glasgow to make this record?
I’d always been a fan of a lot of artists from Scotland and from Glasgow in particular, from the ’60s and ’90s — Bert Jansch and Donovan and folks like that, even leading up to some of the folks that played on the record from Belle and Sebastian — Stevie and Chris and those guys. Tony Doogan, the producer, when he mentioned having those guys play on it, it just seemed like a perfect choice. I got excited to do the record over there. He had offered to come to the States, but I said, “No, no, we’ll do it over there.”
Was part of the idea to avoid making a distinctly American-sounding album?
That was an intention of mine; being a fan of roots music and folk music, the more I got into that, you start to realize a lot of it came from the immigrants from all sorts of countries, a lot are English ballads. The constant relationship between the two cultures has always been really intriguing to me. I liked the idea of going over there…having that twist on it really sealed the deal.
Do you think some Belle and Sebastian sensibility seeped in too?
Of course, yeah. With Tony being involved, and Chris did one of the arrangements, it’s definitely on there. I’ve always respected what they’ve done, before I knew those guys. So to have them be a part of it, it was really exciting. I had worked up arrangements of the songs on my own, but it did take on a new life over there. That was kind of the point, too, to have them really put their feel on it, rather than some studio musicians. I wanted to have their character on it.
There were a few ambitiously produced tracks on your last album, but this really takes this to another level.
The last record I did myself, I produced and recorded it myself, and I did a lot more of the instrumentation, there are certain songs I played every instrument on. I didn’t have the accessibility of having string arrangements and those things. This one, part of the process was creating songs that could facilitate that in a way where it made sense. You can’t just write any song and put that stuff on it. You have to think of it that way. I always liked those big productions that you can really be swept away with, those Phil Spector kinds of ideas.
Speaking of Phil Spector, “Good Times” kind of sounds like a cross between ’70s U.K. glam and George Harrison’s Spector-produced All Things Must Pass.
Those are two things I like to listen to. I don’t think I was going into it with that idea as far as the production goes. As funny as it sounds, I think I was trying to go for…on the Fairport Convention record Unhalfbricking, there’s a Bob Dylan song they cover, but they do it in French, “If You Gotta Go, Go Know.” It sounds like a cajun song the way they do it. Every time, before the chorus comes in, they stop, and then it kicks off. I had originally written the song as a slow ballad in the vein of “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out,” that kind of idea. Then I went, “This might work as a jubilant rejoicing, shedding all of these materialistic things, and how much you loved it at the time, but once it’s all gone you’ve gotta deal with it.” And the instrumentation, those horns and all that, I think we told the horn players to go for it like they were in Dr. John’s band or something.
The strings and horns on these tracks don’t feel grafted on, as they can on some people’s records; the whole thing seems very cohesive.
One thing I did on this record which I hadn’t done, in the past couple of years I started going to local symphonies. It’s one thing when you hear something that transports you…it’s another to be there in person and really break down what’s going on, and see how the double bass works in that section or when the strings are arpeggiating or when they’re doing pads, and what the horns are doing, and how everything works together. There are a couple of Bach and Mozart tunes I sat down and learned on guitar to see what sort of phrasing was used with the strings. Especially a song like “Early November,” it’s mostly two chords, and then in the bridge it takes off with the arrangement, it explodes into the strings and horns.
How will you handle reinterpreting these large-scale arrangements live on your next tour?
Probably just minus the string section and horns and things, probably just do a pared-down version of it with bass, drums, piano. I think I’m gonna end up with a pedal steel to maybe mimic some of those string lines. It’s kind of the closest thing you can do that has a similar quality. But if I could have a string section come out on every show, I would.
Matt Costa’s new album is out February 12 on Brushfire Records. Stream it below: