In a strange yet very real way, Last Of The Great Pretenders could just as easily be called Meet Matt Nathanson.
Sure, Matt Nathanson has been making his good name as a recording artist and live performer for years now. Yet with Last Of The Great Pretenders -- Nathanson’s latest and greatest effort to date -- he has made a very conscious artistic decision to open up and offer far and away the most personal, deeply felt music of his life. The many fans who Nathanson gained with his last two popular studio albums, 2007’s Some Mad Hope -- which featured his breakthrough hit “Come On Get Higher” -- and 2011’s Modern Love can finally now get to know and love this gifted singer-songwriter in a whole new way. In other words, there’s some real blood on these tracks.
“I feel as if when I was making records before, I extracted anything that made me self-conscious -- the parts that might make me feel vulnerable,” Nathanson confesses. “It’s almost as if I were trying to make an air-tight argument for my songs, so I would remove specifics about my life from the music. But then I realized all of the albums I most love would never do that. I’m such a nerd for music. There are no guilty pleasures for me -- only pleasure. But all of the albums I love most in my life did the opposite of what I was doing. They put the specifics in and made you see and feel the people and the places that inspired the music.
Last Of The Great Pretenders is an album of great intimacy, immediacy and in songs like “Mission Bells” and “Last Days Of Summer In San Francisco” to name just a few, a true sense of place. In this case, that place is Nathanson’s adopted home of San Francisco where he’s lived in for years after growing up in Boston. He first came to California to attend Pitzer College in Claremont, California. While a student there in 1993, Nathanson released his first album Please, and soon hit the road as a tireless touring performer.
“I’ve never been a big fan of setting down roots,” Nathanson says with a laugh. “But growing up a little over the past few years has opened my eyes -- like this is my wife, this is my child, and this is my home. I’ve never felt that way before and it’s powerful to feel a real connection to other people and your community when you’ve never felt connected to anything but yourself. In the last four years, I’ve come to accept that I want to live, raise my kids, and die here too. This is my town now. For so long I’ve resisted writing about it or talking about it because I wanted to be slippery. I didn’t want to be brushed off or pigeonholed. But in the end, if I want to try and be more like my heroes, like the old song says, I’ve got to be me.”
Of course, Nathanson points out that he had some help being more himself on Last Of The Great Pretenders. “We had a real small, but winning team starting with Mike Viola from the Candy Butchers, and Jake Sinclair who works with Butch Walker a lot, along with my touring guitar player Aaron Tap who’s been my friend since we grew up in Boston together, and Chris Reynolds on drums. Having Mike and Jake at the helm was super helpful with the production – I couldn’t always Alpha Male my way until I got my way.”
For Nathanson, that newfound freedom made his writing process for Last Of The Great Pretenders far more spontaneous. “I really tried to let the songs be what they were, so the lyrics got more specific, and chord-changes got more natural,” he says. “For example, I was talking to my manager Jonathan about Elvis Costello and how his songs seem to explode spontaneously on an album like This Year’s Model. Right after that, I wrote “Annie’s Always Waiting (For the Next One to Leave)” in a flash. That song became my wink and a nod to Elvis.”
Thanks to the continuing presence of his songs like “Come On Get Higher,” “Car Crash,” “Falling Apart” and “All We Are” on the airwaves, Matt Nathanson’s name, voice and face have become more and more familiar in recent years. In 2011, he even enjoyed major exposure by recording “Run” with country superstars Sugarland for Modern Love and performing the song with the group on the CMA Awards. Yet Nathanson is now driven first and foremost to be true to himself.
“To me, it’s an amazing privilege to get to write songs, so they damn well should be honest.” Nathanson says, “I’ve gotten tired of being misunderstood. I found myself in a lane as a male singer-songwriter I didn’t necessarily even want to be in. I don’t want to be lumped in or misconstrued on a mass level. I love the edges and too much of my work has involved sanding off the edges when our edges are what make us most interesting.”
The album title Last Of The Great Pretenders -- a twist on a lyric from the album’s first single “Mission Bells” -- is itself a loving nod to another artist Nathanson admires. “I saw Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders in a train station in London. To me, she’s one of the most honest writers because the attitude in those songs is hers. You cannot squelch her individuality -- it’s in her marrow and it comes through in everything she does. Music changed my life growing up and it still does. So I’ve decided that if I want to be truly worthy of doing this, I have to be as open as I can be and not worry about fitting in or saving face. That’s what I intend to do now -- tell my truth, my whole truth and nothing but my truth.”