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Episode Transcript

Matt Ray: I just believe in making work, and that's how I like to communicate my art and vision to the world. So people come see it. And then it's a little bit ephemeral, and it goes away, and it's super exciting for me.

Kristy Geslain: Hi! I'm Kristy Geslain and welcome to Episode 5 of This is Lincoln Center, a podcast featuring the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's stages.

Matt Ray is best known for his work as music director for such downtown luminaries as Justin Vivian Bond, Bridget Everett, and Taylor Mac. I first became familiar with his work when he collaborated with Taylor Mac for A 24-Decade History of American Popular Music, for which they shared the 2017 Kennedy Prize for Drama. But Matt's also had a long career as a jazz pianist, vocalist, arranger, and solo artist—including three albums, an international tour, and many NYC performances.

In a few days, Matt joins us for this season of Lincoln Center's American Songbook with a new show highlighting the songs of Hoagy Carmichael and featuring Kat Edmonson and Bridget Everett. As he prepared for his concert, I got the chance to sit down with him and chat about the downtown New York music scene, his connection to the Hoagy Carmichael catalogue, and what a successful collaboration means to him.

This is Lincoln Center with Matt Ray.

KG: What does collaborator mean to you? What is that role?

MR: There's obviously different kinds of collaborations. There's true collaborations where you're forming a project with somebody, and you decide to work together to create it. I tend to work a lot with artists that have a pretty clear definition about what they are and what they want to do, and I like to sort of be a couple of things. One would be a sort of organizer of the art. Another would be an instigator of the art—like to say, "Well, we could go in this direction," or, "Did you think about that?"

I love to write songs with people, so a lot of times the nuts and bolts are just getting in a room and just writing songs together. I have a sort of skillset that goes in many different directions, so people call me to arrange for them. They call me to music direct for them, so I get involved where people need something. And it might be more transactional at first, but then it becomes more artistic as we go.

I've played over five thousand shows in my career. So I've met a lot of people through just the nuts and bolts of working as a musician. "Can you play piano for me?" "Sure." "Oh, wait, do you do this other thing?" "Oh, yes." And then you go on from there. I have some abilities and skills that maybe they don't have or that they're needing.

And it starts from there, and then we realize we can actually fuse everything we're doing into a more organic process. And, like with Taylor Mac, I ended up at Sundance for three weeks with him and Nigel Smith and our dramaturge, Jocelyn Clarke. We had already been creating the 24-decade project for five years at that point, but we had this time where we could just be true collaborators and bring it into something larger than what it was, and more developed.

KG: Speaking of Taylor Mac, I was reading an interview that you did in The Score, and he gave you this little piece of advice. He said, "Matt Ray, win by losing." Can you talk a little bit about what he was saying there and how that applies to this artistic process?

MR: Yeah, you know…I think he was in Australia or somewhere on the beach, and he was having an off day from touring. And somebody started harassing him for being gay or something like that, and he said that his initial response was to get angry. But then he said, "Well, you know, I don't want to fight with somebody today." So that was his version of it, but when he told me that story and said that to me, I kind of felt like, wow, I can really stand to apply that to more situations and when I heard him say that I thought, "Okay, that's a great collaborative phrase: win by losing." That's a great thing to say. You don't always have to make a decision or have an opinion about everything. It kind of opened my mind up in a different way to saying, "you know, the best way to win as people in many situations is to just stop and say, 'Okay, I'm having an emotional reaction to this.'" Somebody can say, "I want to do it this way," and you can say, "I want to do it this way." And you could say, "Well, we can't make an agreement." It's not a loss to say, "Let's just move on to something else and come back to it, or not come back to it."

KG: You're very much associated with what's called "the downtown New York scene." How would you describe this downtown New York music scene?

MR: Well, it's—without boxing it in because it has so many facets—I'd say a lot of it is cabaret-based, but it's queer cabaret, or it's alternative cabaret, what people call "alt cabaret." There's some comedy. There's some theater projects, and the lines are often very blurred between those genres. And it's artists who are working from a background in performance art, primarily.

KG: And how did you get into that world?

MR: Well, Rachelle Garniez, she's a downtown personality and performer and songwriter. I met her through another musician named Matt Munisteri, who's a guitar player and songwriter and singer, and she had brought me into the Citizens Band, which was a political cabaret troupe. And she kind of cracked a door open for me, and I went through it and kind of went into this whole other world.

I still work in jazz sometimes, and I still work…I've done a lot of singer-songwriter projects over the years. So it's not that I'm exclusively doing this stuff, but I'd say 95 percent of my time is now in the sort of downtown scene. It's really been a home for me. It's really been the most supportive artistic environment I've ever been a part of.

KG: So let’s talk about your American Songbook show. You are doing the songs of Hoagy Carmichael. What do you think? Do you think that's a natural fit for you?

MR: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think it's the style of the songs.

[Hoagy Carmichael sings "Billy-a-dick," wirtten by Hoagy Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster]

If you don't know my jazz playing because you see me in all these cabaret settings, you'd only have little flashes of the styles that go into what makes a Hoagy Carmichael show. But for those people that have known me longer, it's definitely a good fit. It has an Americana style to it. It's lots of scenes of American life, bucolic.

Now, I'm a city guy in many ways, but I think Hoagy wasn't—you know, Hoagy had never been to many of these places. Like, he's writing songs about valleys in the South and, you know, places he's never been, and I thought, I really like that view that you can just put yourself and put your listener in a place. And they don't have to have been there, either. And they can just say, "It's dripping with this feeling and energy of America and the different scenes." 

I happen to love the micro-cultures in America, and I feel like I'm a student of that. If I go to New Orleans I want to see what's going on in the street, and I want to know every detail of how people play music and how they live their lives. You know, America's a big, fascinating place with a lot of interesting things going on, as we know. And I think he kind of encompasses a lot of that in his songs.

KG: And how did you first encounter Hoagy Carmichael's music?

MR: Well, the first time I heard "Stardust" was probably several decades ago, and I thought, "This is the greatest song I've ever seen in my life. I can't believe how good this song is." And I sort of filed away Hoagy Carmichael in my brain. And I knew, of course, "Georgia on my Mind," and a few other songs.

But I hadn't seen any footage of him, and I think one thing that opened me up was seeing him perform his own songs in films and things like that, which you can watch on YouTube and stuff if you don't want to watch a whole movie.

He just has this plainspoken…he's not much of a singer, but he has this plainspoken vocal delivery that really resonates with people. And it helps the songs he wrote to hear them that way. So that kind of turned me on a little bit. And then realizing how many songs I was already performing as a jazz artist that he had written—"The Nearness of You," and “I Get Along Without You Very Well." I'm like, "I didn't even notice that he wrote these songs. I just learned them from osmosis and being around and listening to records."

There's a reason why people are considered great at what they do, and sometimes it's because you don't even realize how much work they've given the world. So, you know, I just kind of kept going deeper down the rabbit hole.

KG: So how did you come up with the set list?

MR: Some songs I knew I wanted to do, and some songs I really wanted to hear Kat Edmonson sing—who's going to be joining me for the bulk of the show. Some I had never heard, and in the process of researching the show I thought, "Oh, wow, that's a little sort of hidden gem that we can put in." So there's a few of those sprinkled in as well.

KG: And let's talk about Kat. How did you meet her, and what's your relationship?

MR: I was introduced to her by my bass player for this show and many other shows I've done, Danton Boller, who had collaborated with her as an arranger and producer. I auditioned to be in her band, actually, and she ended up using somebody else, but she used me on one song. We developed an artistic and personal friendship from there and it just kind of grew. We have the sort of same approach to music and a lot of the same likes in culture and art. She's kind of a vintage person, in a way. She's sort of timeless, and I like that about her. Yeah, we've had a fairly slow developing, good collaboration. And her album that she has coming out very soon, her newest album, I wrote a bunch of arrangements for, and I played piano on and some organ on as well and wrote some string arrangements. And so that's exciting, and that's coming out soon. Yeah, we're just excited for the show.

KG: So the other major collaborator on this program is Hoagy himself. He's been gone for decades now, but how do you go about approaching material in that way?

MR: That's a good question. Obviously you can't talk to the person, so you don't have that going for you. But, you know, people like Hoagy Carmichael have a body of work, and it gives you a good window into them.

Yeah, with Hoagy I think I like to learn songs, and my process is to then have them live in my body and be running in my head a lot.

Over a period of time I get ideas about different ways that you could frame the lyrics. And a lot of my arranging comes out of that, so I like to put lyrics in different settings. You know, a lot of people approach arranging as, "Oh, I'm going to change this harmony, and I'm going to spice up this chord, and I'm going to…," you know. I like to maybe add an extra bar so that you have to listen to a lyric for a little bit longer—that kind of thing. Put a different texture under it, take sort of subtle approaches to making the song something that the listener hears every word of.

KG: We just finished a series of one-hour cabaret-style shows in The Appel Room for Live From Lincoln Center. And throughout working with those artists I gained a new appreciation for music directors and what they do. You know, I think that a lot of people can go to shows and not even realize how critical the music director role is, and the arranger. Who did you learn that from? Is that a skill that you just crafted along the way? Because music direction is its own art.

MR: Yeah, I mean, you know, you can learn by going to see other shows, for sure. I think just for music directing, you have to develop your own way of doing it, I think. Not everyone is going to approach it the same way. I think I've just developed it over time.

And the first time I was ever asked to music direct a theater project I think I was 19 or something. And I was a little terrified because I didn't know what that even meant, you know. But it's just, you go in the room and you figure out how to make the music come to life in the space that you're in, and it can take, often, a lot of work on your own. But it can also be a situation where you're just trying to pull sounds and ideas out of people.

I have my own way of doing things. It's worked for me, but I don't know that it would work for other people. But I know there's a lot of great music directors in New York, and they probably have other ways of doing things, you know. I think the people that work with me want my style of music directing, whatever that may be.

KG: And what about as an arranger?

MR: My public high school music teacher, Carl Strommen, was a Warner Brothers arranger and jazz pianist. And that was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me. And he pulled me out of class one day and put me in the jazz band.

And then one summer he said, "I want you to go to the…" I'd never heard of any colleges or conservatories. I was really not aware. And he said, "There's this place called Eastman School of Music, and they have a summer jazz program. I'm going to help you do your application. We're going to see if we can get you in." And I got in, and when I got there, there was these arranging teachers there. Bill Dobbins was one of them. These are great arranging people, and I took arranging class.

I was 16 years old, and I thought, "This is the most exciting thing for me." Changing the intervals of horns and listening to them play it backthat's instant gratification. It's the only thing outside of improvising that gives me that feeling. So it started early. I had a teacher named Wendell Logan at Oberlin Conservatory of Music who was a fantastic arranger and overall teacher.

And outside of that, it was all stuff I learned on my own. I read a lot of books about arranging, because you have to learn about different instruments and how they are supposed to be played. I've talked to musicians nonstop, probably driving them crazy. I asked them what works and what doesn't after every session. "Is that working? Is that working?" Because the best music is when they don't have to work too hard and they can really express themselves.

KG: And how much does the voice come into this as wellI mean, Kat, specifically, for this show?

MR: Yeah, you arrange around the singer always. It's good to know how the singer wants to sing the song. So I'll often record the rehearsals with just piano and voice or just rhythm section and voice. And I have something when I go home to work around to say, "Well, if they're going to sing that there then I don't want a clashing horn line under that." And I will say for this Hoagy show, it's a little looser because I wanted to go with a more intimate sound and a smaller instrumentation than we've done on some of the shows.

I don't ever get caught up in the number of instruments. It's more how you create textures with them. But I wanted to leave enough room for Kat's voice to really shine.

KG: So you brought your set list. I'd love just to hear maybe the one that is most on your mind right now and what it's been like to work through it, why you selected it.

MR: Well, let me talk about it this way. I like to group songs together that have some common threads. So we have some sections of the show, and one of the sections of the show is we have songs about places, which I mentioned before, he has a lot of those. We'll do "Memphis in June." People have seen the video that we made of that, and "New Orleans," the song he wrote called "New Orleans."

And another one that we're working on that I'm hoping we'll do is "Baltimore Oriole." So there's these songs that are kind of simultaneously about places and people in those places, and they're super interesting and fun. And then there's this sort of…he has these songs that are kind of a little more cute, maybe.

And Kat and I feel like very cute people. We're cutesy sometimes, so I thought it would be fun for us to do those. Kat's very playful and has a sense of humor as a musician. So songs like "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," they're kind of adorable songs. So those are some things you can expect to see at the show.

KG: All right. We won't ask for any more. We want to keep them guessing, too. But what are you trying to say with the show? What are you trying to offer audiences?

MR: I know how to answer this question because I have thought about it. I'm always thinking about the audience and what people might want or need and then giving them what I think is the right thing. I want this show to be kind of a relief from…and part of this is for myself, I'll be honest. I've been working on all these heavy political shows and shows about revolutionary type stuff.

And those have felt so good to do, and in this age that we're living in right now I also want to be able to just do shows that are just celebrating this beautiful music and feeling like we're in a room togetherin my living room, maybe, is a good sort of frame of referencehaving an intimate time, chatting about songs, playing songs, listening to songs, and enjoying them and building community that way.

Just an openness and a joy around music. And Hoagy kind of provides that sort of simple bucolic, American thing that I think I'm hoping people will all connect to.

KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell and Rob Schulte.

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