Matthew Perryman Jones will release his fifth album, The Waking Hours, on Friday, Sept. 21, and Sounds Like Nashville has the exclusive premiere today. The Nashville-based singer/songwriter took a different approach to the creation of his latest project and decided to explore the spirit of place, known as genius loci. As he explains, he wanted to see how a new environment could inform and inspire a song.
“Oftentimes, when I’m touring we go into a different city and that opens up something different in you and so I wondered how that would serve the songwriting process,” he tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I set off early last year to find different locations and just go and write and see what they opened up.”
Jones spent much of 2017 traveling the U.S. in hopes of finding song inspiration. While he visited Santa Fe, NM.; Sophia, NC and Cape San Blas, FL, it was a trip to a ghost town in Tehuacana, Texas, that sparked several ideas that he brought home to develop. These concepts eventually became The Waking Hours.
As Jones explains, a professor bought much of the property in the town of Tehuacana, including a missionary college where the songwriter would set up each day to write. He’d visit the school’s dilapidated auditorium where owls would frequently fly across the room as he wrote. Each day, he’d sit and sing in the abandoned location and carve away at a new song.
“I was literally just feeding off the environment and got some ideas pulled out of the air there, that I took with me along the process. It was a really cool place to go and write and just be,” he says.
Jones is well known for his heartfelt lyrics and vivid storylines, and The Waking Hours is no exception. He penned eight of the albums nine tracks, all except a stirring cover of Tom Waits’ “Take It with Me” done in one take. Many of the songs on the project detail the ups and downs of love. One of the most vulnerable moments on the album is the poignant ballad “Half Hearted Love” where he sings, “I’m afraid to love what I could lose.”
“I think everybody who’s ever lived can identify with that thought. We’re afraid to love because we have an inherent sense that this isn’t forever. And so, I think in that song I deal with my own fear of fully being in because I’m afraid to feel as much [about] something that I fear I could lose, or I know I will at some point in time,” he admits. “That’s the confession: I’m afraid to love what I could lose. That’s it, that’s the heart of it.”
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“Half-hearted Love” was one of the more challenging songs for me to write on this record. It’s certainly the most vulnerable. I had the melody and structure for a while as well as the tag line, “I should have never started this half-hearted love”. I rewrote the lyrics 2 or 3 times before recording it. I had one lyric I tried to record and it was not right. I couldn’t sing it because it wasn’t true and I was probably leaning on trying to be clever. I was forcing something onto the song that did not belong. Early on when traveling to write this record I wrote a note to myself, “don’t worry if it’s any good, just tell the truth”. I took my own advice and wrote the final lyrics. This song is a confession laid bare.
He calls “Half Hearted Love” the most truthful track on the record. In fact, Jones wrote the lyrics three times before he had a grasp on the song and admits that the earlier versions didn’t connect with him because they weren’t entirely truthful.
“I had written a little note to myself and one of the first places I went to write is Sophia, NC. I was getting frustrated because I felt like I wasn’t getting any songs. I felt like I was tripping myself up somehow, and I just wrote this little note to myself, a reminder that says, ‘Don’t worry if it’s any good, just tell the truth,'” he recalls. “I just felt like, ‘Okay, that’s how one should make art period.’ Don’t worry if it’s any good, just tell the truth. If it’s any good, it’ll just be good. And if it’s not, then it’s not. But just tell the truth.”
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The opening track, “Happy,” is another truth teller. While reading the title, one might think it’d be a more hopeful tune but upon diving into the lyrics the song holds deeper meaning. At one point Jones asks, “why can’t I let myself be happy?”
“The question I’m asking in the chorus is not, ‘Why can’t I be happy?’ but ‘Why can’t I let myself be happy?’ There’s a difference. I’m happy, but I can’t let myself be happy,” he explains. “I have all these wonderful things, but I know that they are not permanent. And so, there’s something in me that can have the tendency to sabotage something ahead of time, preemptively sabotage something, instead of letting it be lost in its own time.”
He continues, “I know that sounds so depressing, but that’s the reality that we all live in. We all know it, but we don’t want to deal with it, and so we do all these weird things to sabotage it ahead of time. I know I do that.”
Throughout The Waking Hours, Jones shares his truth. All the while, listeners relate as the songwriter makes them feel less alone in their own thoughts and doubts. Jones says his hope is to always write real songs that engage the heart and his listeners.
“I think that is the beauty of art — it helps people feel less alone in the world and less alone in their experiences in the world. That’s the importance of making true art and not just entertainment,” he explains. “The value of good art is not only that it meets us in places, but it can even push us further into a deeper experience of life. I think there should be something challenging too with art, whether that’s to help us look at ourselves, the things that we’re not looking at. Even if that’s the challenge, art can push into those places we don’t like to go.”