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For his newest, self-titled recording, Huntington Beach troubadour Matt Costa decided early on that he needed a change of scenery—a serious change. For years, he has made an art form out of folding bluesy, downtrodden lyrics into folky, upbeat song formats that you can simultaneously sway to and contemplate. In the search for new inspiration, he left Orange County for the misty moors of Scotland. But the rootsy, melancholy album entrenched in Americana he intended proved hard to come by in the land of kilts.
The exuberance crept in again, this time thanks to producer Tony Doogan (Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai). He pumped Costa's compositions full of lush orchestration, gorgeously delicate melodies and '70s AM-radio prettiness. The results are less retro and more reflective of a developing songwriter's love for his influences weaved with his own soulful sound.
Matt Costa is a bit of a departure from Costa's previous works, particularly 2010's self-produced psychedelia-'60s throwback, Mobile Chateau, a love letter to the Zombies and one of his musical idols, Donovan. After working with No Doubt's Tom Dumont as producer for his first two full-length recordings, Costa got his hands dirty, exploring new tones and instrumentation, best heard on Mobile Chateau's single "Witchcraft." Flush with tremolo and skittering drum beats, it was a notable detour from the unfettered acoustic tones of his previous releases.
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"But then I felt like I had exhausted all that, and I wanted to get in the studio and work with someone on things I hadn't learned yet," Costa says about his trip across the Atlantic. Recording in Scotland's Castle of Doom didn't immediately come to mind, even though Mobile Chateau's "Can You Tell Me" offered a good segue.
Costa first called Dave Fridmann, whose production work for Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev he admired. But Fridmann was booked, so his manager suggested Tony Doogan, whose credits have an orchestral, ethereal feel. In Scotland, Doogan started humming string ideas. Once members of the astral ensemble Belle and Sebastian started chiming in, Costa was sold. The Belles, as Costa calls them—Chris Geddes, Stevie Jackson and Bobby Kildea—played on the album.
"Shotgun" was the first song to come alive, inspired by a Ray Bradbury interview speaking to the false intimacy of books. "I like the juxtaposition, the driving of it and the strings with the playful interweaving lines," he says about its sound. "It takes it to a different place than just a rock song."
The lush orchestration that sent the album in what Costa sees as a mystical direction is most notably heard on the song "Laura Lee." "It's more like an enchanted fairy tale or something," he says, "in which you are searching in the crevices in the mossy green corners, and there is a story that lies there."
Doogan's signature sound worked well with Costa's musical leanings at the time. Leading up to the recording, Costa studied Mozart on guitar, how the phrasing works with the strings, and learned finger-style guitar playing reminiscent of such British folk musicians as Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Martyn.
"I was imagining [adding] some string productions to those kinds of sounds," Costa says. Once Doogan's ideas unfolded, Costa hung the moody, rainy notions out to dry and replaced them with the wistful, daydreamy nostalgia that emerged on songs such as "Early November."
Doogan's vision for slow songs such as "Loving You" in a sort of Ennio Morricone, 1960s, spaghetti western-style production took hold, lovelorn content be damned. "Those had a really cinematic, lush, big production sound with strings," Costa says about Morricone's signature style. "He likes using a lot of landscapes and horizons in the mountain ranges as inspiration."
"Good Times" is the upbeat account of a dreamer who moved to the big city with even bigger dreams only to drain his bank account and accept defeat. Costa holds dear that juxtaposition of a depressing tale and the beat of happy-go-lucky drum and horns.
"It's essentially what the blues are," Costa says about the form's swingin' laments. "You can sing about the sad, darker side of things, and people can relate. . . . The music is what transcends it."