Artist of the Week: Matt Harlan

Each Wednesday, Rocks Off arbitrarily appoints one lucky local performer or group "Artist of the Week," bestowing upon them all the fame and grandeur such a lofty title implies. Know a band or artist that isn't awful? Email their particulars to introducingliston@gmail.com.

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It's hard to explain why, but we're big fans of folk music. We remember being juniors in high school and there was this senior football player/world-class prick who seemed to follow every really "interesting" anecdote he would tell with the phrase "charge it to the game." (As is usually the case, his grand adventures always involved his Mitsubishi 3000 GT which was pretty slick, but in the douchiest way possible.)

He was always saying stuff like "I got a ticket doing 95 yesterday in my GT. I'll just charge it to the game," but he never could explain exactly what it meant. He'd always say something infuriating like "Charge it to the game means to, like, charge it to the game." The weird thing was, though, that we all knew what it meant. And that's the exact same way we feel about folk music. We like it, we understand it, but we'll never be able to tell you why.

That's why we felt like, among all other things, we need to induct a true folk singer-songwriter into the Artist of the Week roll call. Enter Matt Harlan.

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Harlan is, for our money, basically a young man's James McMurtry. His voice has that sultry, coarse drawl to it that allows him to say things like "Houston's heavy air" without sounding completely obnoxious. And anyone who's followed this space over the last nine months knows that that's more than enough to earn him a spot. We reached out to Harlan and asked him about trying to explain what makes a song "folk," whether or not he accidentally admitted to kissing a guy in a song, and the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. Aces.

Rocks Off: Most pressing issues get addressed first: How many campfires have you performed around? Yours seems the kind of music is just perfect for that sort of thing.

Matt Harlan: Last count I think it was around 419 or 421, but sometimes it gets tough to count that high. And there's so many variations on the whole deal. I mean, sometimes there's not even any camping involved at these so-called campfires. I counted a lot of them out because there was no sleeping involved.

Seriously though, growing up in the Hill Country we spent a lot of time in the woods and cell phones just don't give off enough light. But, yeah, I play campfires. There's really no denying it.

RO: One thing we've always been a little confused about, and hopefully you can clear this up, but what exactly is the difference between acoustic folk and acoustic country? It seems a very subtle one.

MH: If you figure that one out, please tell me so I can properly categorize myself. Honestly, I think it's as simple as whether the audience is drunk on beer or wine. There's a body-hair-to-DWI ratio involved, too.

RO: Of course.

MH: You know another tough one? Americana vs. Texas Country. Seems easy at first, but it turns out there's no geographical basis at all. I tend to claim Americana, but with a folky, acoustic-country feel. From Texas.

RO: You know what we think is most impressive about your music? Your songs seem to have this sort of ungirded flow about them; they cover a lot of ground without feeling like they're meandering, if that makes sense, and that's something that is hard to do without sounding like you're trying to do it. Walk us through how you go about writing a song like, say, "Elizabethtown," which we would guess is particularly meaningful to you.

MH: Wow, thanks a bunch. It seems weird, but the more words there are, the easier it is for the wrong one to stick out - there's just not enough room for the wrong line. Writing for me comes down to dissatisfaction and note-taking. I'll take a line that sounds cool, write it on the back of a receipt or something and stick it in my glove box. I usually lose them, but if I can remember the line it'll make it onto another receipt until I find a song for it.

That whole "slideshows taped up behind my eyes" thing in "Elizabethtown" was a memory from this troubled girl I knew, but then I put it with this story that revolves around another troubled friend and the song almost finished itself. But that line took more than a year to find a home. I've lost tons of songs because I couldn't get the words to fit right.

RO: Oh, there's a section in "Walter" where you're talking about spending your first night in jail and, if we're not mistaken, it sounds an awful lot like you admit to kissing a dude. "Kissed a pretty mouth..." is the line we're thinking of, we believe. Care to explain?

MH: Well, now I know you're paying attention. That line has been a joke among my friends for awhile. I tend write in a stream-of-conscious, word-association kind of way and that one bit me in the ass - just figuratively, though. The whole theme of that song is stuff you remember versus things you don't and how it's not a choice but a sad fact.

So it's more like: Jail stay? Check. First doobie? Check. First time to make out with a girl? Check. Grandpa's dog? Where'd we bury that bastard?" The 'pretty mouth' part was just my own strange sense of humor. But aside from the movies and serious prison, who smokes dope their first day inside? I thought that would give it away, but I'm glad I could clear the air. Thanks.

RO: We heard that you have a new album coming out, is that right? Care to talk a bit about that?

MH: Yeah, it's my first "real" album and it should be out by the summer. I put out a live CD not long after I moved to Houston but it was more of a rough draft. The melodies are more developed on this one and there's full instrumentation. I was stoked to have Rich Brotherton (Robert Earl Keen, Caroline Herring) as a producer. He's got a killer imagination and he brought in some tremendous players.

It might kill my campfire career though - you don't see many steel guitars at campfires. But seriously, there are a few duets with Phoebe Hunt of the Belleville Outfit, Warren Hood plays fiddle, and some local folks play on it as well. I just hope people want to listen to it now that I've spent so much time and money on it. It's called Tips & Compliments because until you sell a few albums, that's pretty much what you get for playing music.

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RO: Ha. Word is that you don't use a pick to play, that you've developed some kind of special hand-plucking technique. Tell us: is that very much like the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique from Kill Bill, except for the guitar?

MH: Strange you should ask. There is a heart involved, but not like you'd think. When I got to college I wanted to start playing old-timey, country-blues music and I figured people like Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb didn't have any real picks to speak of with the Depression on, so I didn't want to use one either. I tried to imitate what I heard old country-blues players doing, but the only finger-style lessons I studied were a couple of banjo rolls from a guitar magazine.

Long story short, I ended up killing a country-blues player and eating his heart. It worked for awhile, but I relapsed and started using a pick again recently. Weirdest damn thing. The technique is just self-taught finger-style, it's the learning process that's the killer.

RO: Sorta took an unexpected turn there. When, where and for how much can people see you perform live?

MH: I usually play a few times every week anywhere from free to $15. I'm also part of a loose-knit group of songwriters called the Front Porch Society. We just started a thirrd season of free music at the Mucky Duck every Friday on the back porch, and we play a smaller showcase every Thursday at Pizzitola's BBQ.

I also play every other Thursday at the Big Top in a more band-oriented fashion. I try to keep most of this up-to-date on the MySpace. Typical venues I play by geographical location: Westside: JP Hops House. South: Bohemeo's. Further South: Joel's Ugly Dawg. Coastal: Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe. North: Corner Pub in Conroe.

Give Harlan a listen at www.myspace.com/mattharlan and hear what it is that helped him land a spot in the upcoming documentary, For the Sake of the Song, and a first-place finish in the Billboard World Song Contest for the Americana/Folk genre.
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