Maybe it’s at the destination, perhaps it’s written on the backs of the signposts sweeping by along the way, or in the vision of the places to come. Or it could be in the music that seems to run through his body and connect his flesh to his bones, but Matt Mays’ songs, like the man himself, can neither be tied up in a neat bundle, nor tied down to a place, style or vibe.
After his wandering heart led him from his Halifax home via Los Angeles, New York and Montreal, Mays settled in Toronto – for now. Interspersed in this nomadic life have been trips to Indonesia, Mexico, Costa Rica and Morocco, ostensibly to surf but also to create music, all while continuing to spend time on the East Coast. The changes of venue echo the changes of Mays’ songs; it’s as if they’ve been infused with a bit of road or beach dust from each place he’s slept.
“I’ve moved around quite a bit,” Mays says. “I kind of feel like I have only so many years on this planet so to stay in one place doesn’t make much sense to me. Once I started traveling, getting to see the world, once you get to see some you want to end up seeing more.”
And if places are one dimension through which Mays moves with ease, music is another. His most recent album, 2018’s Twice Upon a Hell of a Time, is an acoustic re-imaging of its predecessor, 2017’s Once Upon a Hell of a Time. Of re-doing his album with a different feel, Mays once said songs don’t have to have just one life. Now, he elaborates: “Songs are kind of like people – you can’t (force) it, they’re just gonna be who they are. And they can wear really different outfits, but you’re never going to change who they are. Songs are like that, you can play them any way you want in a different genre or interpretation, but it’s still gonna be the same thing.
“If it’s a great song it’s a great song, or a bad song is a bad song.”
If, over his seven albums since 2002 (after he left his first band, The Guthries), his songs have had many lives, well, so has he, especially when they’re measured out in the coffee spoons of his moments onstage, when he is often flooded with images of his past.
“Music’s super weird like that for me — usually when I’m playing live older songs, weird memories of my life pop up and it’s always different random ones, it’s never the same ones, it’s ones I never would have thought of again. Something about the music brings it out. It’s nothing I can anticipate. Sometimes it doesn’t happen; other times it does. It’s just different times, strange times, great times, happy times, sad times; it’s all very strange.
“The thing is music is equally good for happy times in my life as well as hard times. It’s part of me, like eating or breathing.”
When he’s home, Mays has established a routine that helps him spend as much time as possible focused on the music that is like air to him. He awakens before 8 a.m., takes his miniature schnauzer puppy Rhubarb (Ruby when she’s good, Barb when she’s bad) out, then works out and rides his bike to the studio, returning home for dinner and some downtime. Mays once said, “It’s contentment I’m chasing, not a bigger house or a fast car.”
Could that contentment now be captured?
“I’m starting to realize that I’ll never have it; it comes with being a restless artist I think. I’m pretty happy these days. The level of contentment I think I could possibly have I think I’ve met for now. I have a very good life.”
The good life, however, does not interfere with Mays’ muse. “The only thing that is a sure thing is the truth is the harbinger of the element of the song. You don’t even know why you’re writing it, and then 10 years go by and you realize the whole song completely applies to your life. I don’t know how it all works, but yeah, it’s a strange thing and it’s probably the beauty of music. Music’s really a theory; it’s not really the facts, so that’s why it makes everybody feel something.”
(Photo courtesy Devin McLean.)
Matt Mays plays The Wildhorse Saloon Tuesday, July 9. For information, go to http://wildhorsesaloon.ca/
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.