Matt Heckler: After the Flood
Matt Heckler’s passion for sharing his music goes well beyond his musicianship, lyrics and composition. He has a history that has given fire to his life’s purpose, and he wants to help change the world for the better through his music and actions. Speaking to Matt for over an hour one Saturday afternoon, I learned about his journey to where he is now, and just what a phenomenal gift he is to the music community.
Heavily influenced both artistically and personally by the Pogues’ front man Shane MacGowan, he mentioned “The Young Ned of the Hill” as the song that inspired him most in their catalogue, and was a favorite to listen to as he was developing as a musician. One of the lesser known songs by the band, he shared that its traditional Irish sound infused with Celtic folk punk, combined with historical storytelling, has informed his own songwriting and performance style. Matt also related to Shane’s personal struggle with substance abuse, and then his sobriety, because he has taken a similar path in the past year. Many of those themes are included throughout his lyrics.
Matt decided fairly recently to make sharing his own stories as a solo artist a full time pursuit. Having begun the process of leaving music as a full-time musician after fifteen years, four of which were with his former band, to pursue a career with an arbor company, he was invited out on the road with the amazing Lost Dog Street Band. Touring with them helped to refuel his passion, and Matt showed up night after night happy that people knew his songs and were relating to his narrative. He saw so much strength in people who had similar life stories. He found that his audience was connecting to his music, and it was helping them identify and deal with their own personal physical and mental health struggles. It was evident that people were listening and applying his message to their own healing. Feeling the response to his songs, which were also therapeutic for him to write, was so moving...and he found a greater purpose for writing and performing his music.
Matt found positive inspiration in another artist who has the same first name, Matt Hensley, a world renowned skateboarder and accordion player for the fantastic Celtic punk group, Flogging Molly. While touring with Flogging Molly, he learned of different ways that Hensley was using his influence to put good back out into the world by teaching skateboarding and providing literacy opportunities to girls in Pakistan. That struck Matt in a way that helped him envision his own ways he could use proceeds from album sales to support causes that are important to him, such as providing for women’s shelters, supporting no-kill animal shelters, and raising awareness about mental health organizations, to name a few. He said using what he loves to do for a career to help people makes him feel good, keeps him going, and strengthens his own recovery.
Growing up in the beautiful Catskills area of upstate New York and later moving to the equally beautiful Carolina Appalachians, Matt was exposed to many styles of music, and started to develop his distinctive sound. Completely self-taught on the banjo and fiddle, his influences range from European style gypsy, which has harmonic and rhythmic variations from each region, to Appalachian mountain traditional, which often centers in ballads accompanied by banjo, fiddle and guitar, to sean-nos (old-style) an unaccompanied a cappella style of singing originating in Ireland. Blending these styles masterfully with his uniquely personal storytelling produced a fantastic debut album, After the Flood, released in February, which I’ve had on repeat since receiving it!
With variations in instrumentation, tempo and tone, every song caught my attention in a different way. When Matt starts singing, and he and Jeff Loops (backing vocals, guitar, bass) start playing and they harmonize perfectly, I just feel like I’m sitting on the cool side of a mountain, listening to this powerful voice tell me tales that are both familiar and brand new. Knowing some of the inspiration behind the songs and the relatable reasons why they were written, that gives me an even greater connection and deeper appreciation for their inclusion and order placement on this album.
Starting with the first tune on the album, “Haw River Ballad,” Matt described it as the one that truly changed his writing vibe. Having written many other songs before it that delve into darker issues, he asserted that this song was the first one that changed his lyrical output, and transformed his direction to writing about beautiful things in life that he could see more clearly. He stated that it is “all about Central Piedmont, all around Chapel HilI, North Carolina... I don’t drink anymore, so I don’t want to write a song about dying, digging a grave, drinking whiskey, falling in love and breaking up. I just wanted to have a song that was geographically relevant with some good, positive reinforcement.” While there are many interpretations, he was inspired to write it as he turned a new perspective on life, and through his lyrics, his message from this story is that you can still get a positive lesson from hard times. “Do you miss all those days gone by...and long for those better times? I wish I could ease your mind...like the wind blowing wild through the longleaf pine.”
Matt and I connected over the time he spends in the land of the Midnight Sun. I spent part of my formative years growing up in Alaska, and it is a destination he chooses often because of the land, the people, and the outdoor lifestyle. Reflective of his time in Alaska, I got a greater understanding of “Midnight Sun,” “Morning Breaks,” and “Old November” as he shared familiar stories of places I had been, and people I felt like I knew, who embodied the great spirit of the stunning land so far north. Moved by the truly amazing hard-working Alaskans he encountered, he also found calmness through the land and his time there during the winters, as the darkness and the coldness both affect him physiologically in a soul shifting way. The theme of darkness runs through the lyrics in these songs, as well. In “Midnight Sun,” the gorgeous guitar melody accompanies strong imagery addressing someone in a horribly difficult time, and features the refrain “Too late to rise, you’ve been down for so damn long this time. Dark days, long nights...Midnight sun take the light from out my eyes.” Next in line, darkness continues in the more up-tempo guitar lead tune “Morning Breaks” when he sings, “It’s not the songs or when the lights turn off and on or the screaming in my head that never ends… It’s not your ghost that haunts me the most, but the fact that we may never meet again.” Finally, deep within the somber, but hopeful song “Old November,” there is a lyrical movement from darkness to light that is used to bring peace, “I found peace through the darkness, it's so cold that it burns… northern lights are dancing tonight to a tune I’ve never heard. So lay back your head and forget all your pain, the nightingale croons to the west… and breaks free from her chains.”
The next two songs have similar themes of overcoming circumstances and finding strength. “The Lantern Song,” is Matt telling a relatable and transferable tale of tenacity in the face of hardship. With its Celtic influence notably present on his accompanying fiddle, he seems to address not giving up when life is challenging, “Down on your luck, but not down on your knees… getting by when the world is so hard to please.” Matt’s stellar guitar playing is highlighted on “The Great Divide” while he tells a story of overcoming a rough start in life through another heartbreak from leaving, and the protagonist still thinks about it later on after he has split town. He takes the lessons learned and moves forward in a formidable way. “Souls are bound by blood and fire until the very end. A heart that’s bound by wild desire will not give in… so lay yourself down easy in the bitter root and pine, let the trials of this world make you stronger or pass you by…”
With a change in focus, but with a similar lyrical style,“Blue Eyes Dancing” just makes me want to flat foot all over the place as soon as that fiddle and guitar start. As someone with blue eyes, and who loves to dance, my favorite lyrics in the song, “with your blue eyes dancing, drawing me in, and sideways glancing… honey where’ve you been?” just makes me smile and sing along loudly. Then when Matt starts belting out, “I know it’s hard when the sun goes down, to be alone on shaking grounds… Go get some matches, and kerosene, we’ll burn it down, honey… burn out and leave.” I feel like his fiddle is going to combust right there as he bears down, and like all of the other songs, the melody and lyrics are an amazing reflection of his unique influences… The Appalachian is heavy here!
Matt’s cathartic writing is absolutely evident on the last four tracks on the album where he explores mental health struggles, particularly depression, feelings of low self-worth, and suicide. “Leaving Heaven,” “I Tried,” “One More Down,” All mention trying times and feeling devastating pain in some way, and looking for relief or redemption. Obviously, the lyrics will hit and mean something different to each listener. Reflecting on my own struggles at different points in my life, I know that I was captured by the beginning lines of “I Tried” when he vocalizes “For a day, for a night, if I could only set things right, and leave out of town… part ways with the darkness and step into the light, from the silence to the sound.” Those words, combined with the up tempo fiddle and banjo, gets me in the heart every time I hear it played.
The final song on the album, “5150” is a sean-nos song, with Matt singing only accompanied by the beat of his foot tapping on the floor. The reference of 5150 is a nod to the mental health code about being a danger to oneself or others due to mental illness. Matt sings, “5150 and nowhere to go, lost in a struggle and losing control. I’ll lend you a hand, brother, but I’ve severed the tendon… 5150 and no way to heaven.” I feel Matt is describing the true hopelessness people can feel when struggling. It fits as the last song on the album, and can serve as a reminder to all of us about the challenges of the mental health system and people who are sometimes lost within it.
The combination of darkness and light on “After the Flood” demonstrates the wide range a single album can cover and still be connected completely throughout. Again, very personal to Matt and his transformation over the years, I’m thankful he shared his story with me, and genuinely look forward to hearing much more through his music in the future. Talking to him while he was planning a trip out to the mountains for a while, he just struck me as a kick-ass person that I can’t say enough good things about in the space I’ve been given. He is a totally down to earth artist who just knows that he is meant to use his talent to put out positive energy and help people. Further demonstrating that unassuming trait, he recorded his album in his friend’s living room. It was mixed and produced by Dan Emery of Black Matter Mastering and co-founder of Anti-Corp Records. They will be pressing Matt’s album on vinyl, which will be released on July 17, 2019.
Matt will be touring again at the end of June with Casper Allen, a singer and songwriter from Texas. If you are on the east coast, make sure you check him out in Virginia at the Golden Pony (Harrisonburg, 6/26), in North Carolina at the Mothlight (Asheville, 6/27), Evening Muse (Charlotte, 6/28), and The Pour House (Raleigh, 6/30) before he heads down to Georgia and plays Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta on 7/1. Later in the summer, keep an eye out for an Omaha, Nebraska date on July 24th- and a West Coast run starting in August. Put it on your calendar, music lovers… You don’t want to miss the opportunity to see him burn down the house live!
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