Just before his show at Atlanta’s Cotton Club, Matt Nathanson hurries to scribble down his set list. You could even say he looks a little nervous. But what seems like anxiety backstage quickly turns into excitement when he glides onstage, grinning from ear to ear.
Nathanson’s live performances have been the primary reason for his popularity, he happily admits. Thanks to his interactive discussions with the crowd and willingness to talk with everyone who wants to meet him after the show, Nathanson is revered by fans as a people’s artist. And that hasn’t changed since he signed with Universal Records last fall, after independently releasing five studio albums. Instead of being overjoyed by this leap in his career, Nathanson seems indifferent about being on a major label. “While I’m on Universal it’s a different agenda,” he says. “It’s all about singles and radio, which is cool. I make a living no matter what. People still come out, so that’s fantastic. The label thing is totally incidental. Like, if it happens and the radio takes to a single, and all of a sudden it skyrockets, then that’s kick-ass. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Speaking with him, you immediately realize how much he loves playing live. After touring relentlessly for the last 10 years, one would expect he’d take a break soon. But he’ll continue on in the fall and possibly the winter, depending on the success of his new full-length, Beneath These Fireworks. The album is a departure for Nathanson, the main difference being that it features a full band, which is a jump from the acoustic albums he recorded with cellist and long-time friend Matt Fish. The band has also joined him on tour for the first time, and the energy level is elevated significantly, both live and on the album. But Nathanson doesn’t necessarily prefer one to the other.
“It’s fun to vary it up. It’s all about moderation. And touring is not at all about moderation. When you’re on the road you want to record, and when you’re in the studio you want to tour. It just depends on how I’m feeling about it. Sometimes I want to play some really obscure old songs, sometimes covers.” His idea of obscure, old songs aren’t typically that old or obscure, but they do make you ponder his musical influences. Nathanson has been known to cover Cheap Trick, The Bee Gees, R.E.M., James and even Ozzy Osborne on stage. His most popular cover is Prince’s “Starfish and Coffee” which has now become a staple at his shows. But as far as songwriting, Nathanson’s biggest influence and favorite musician is one of rock’s biggest names. “If I could be in the studio and have Bono there, that would be rad. I think Bono is fantastic … [He’s] kind of the creative force behind U2 in the studio, and I’ve always thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have him produce one of my records.”
Nathanson is also heavily influenced by neo-folk champions Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls, but his originals are dark, brooding pieces. In his new single “I Saw,” the lyrics read, “I’ll forget about you long enough / To forget why I need to.” Nathanson’s songs are another way to figure out who he is, as his frank attitude toward love and heartache exude through every track on Fireworks. But armed with his mantra “It’s one thing to be depressed, quite another to be depressing,” he establishes the connection with his audience, to some extent, musically, but more so through a comical bitterness and candor that is at times shocking but mostly hysterical.
Nearing the end of his show at the Cotton Club, Nathanson stands with one hand on the guitar, wishes someone in the audience a happy birthday, makes fun of a girl for snorting, and asks the audience what they want to hear. Many suggestions fly out, and someone yells above the others for one of the few optimistic songs on Fireworks, “Sing Me Sweet.” Nathanson agrees to play it, then starts to teach the band the song onstage. He’s quietly singing the rhythm to the drummer when he turns around, surprised to find the crowd singing along. As the sweat pours from every pore on his head, he smiles genuinely, not depressed or bitter like his songs—just happy.