Katie again, and I feel like it’s been ages since we talked… I’m wondering, have you changed at all? Is your hair still red? Hard not to start with a Dylan joke for me because, when we started Underwater Sunshine Fest, we were completely ready to do it once a year— a big push up to the final show in the fall, one shot a year to see each other, to be in each other’s orbit, to catch up. And then after the first one, Adam (you remember my friend Adam) said, “I just hate that it’s over. We should do two a year.” I remember the door to my favorite place clicking shut behind me and thinking, “It is too bad we will never pull that off.” Loaded up with suitcases, my husband Andy, my then-student-and-intern Charlie, and I trudged to the elevator, Underwater Sunshine writers all three of us, and all wishing something like that could actually happen.
Reader, we did it, which still floors me if I’m being honest. Not only that, we’re gearing up to do it again in November, and this time we’ll have all three stages at the Rockwood Music Hall. Which means: Underwater Sunshine Fest 3.0! We’ve already started booking bands— people we’ve heard, a few people we’ve seen, and in some cases, people we just can’t help but want to see again.
Partially thanks to the Underwater Sunshine Fan Community, that means I’m happy to announce our first artist for Fall 2019: the oft-requested, never forgotten, always beautiful soul, Matt Sucich. Matt— even though he didn’t play in the spring— was a constant presence during the April Fest. And of course he was. Our symbol is a lightbulb and Matt is the man who comes into the room and quietly twists the bulb, just enough to brighten everyone’s day. Even when he wasn’t around, I had people asking me, “Is Matt Sucich here?” Or “I saw Matt Sucich— will he play, too? Is he the special guest?” Truthfully: Matt is always the special guest, anywhere he goes, guitar in hand or not. (He’ll have his guitar though. Promise.)
I wrote the profile of Matt for the inaugural Underwater Sunshine Fest in October. It’s only been a year but, when I went to “update” my work for this fest, I was blown away by everything Matt has accomplished since then. He never, ever stays still. Among other things, he toured all across the country, released a brilliant LP in Thousand Dollar Dinners, and even filmed a performance at the Paste studio. So while some of this essay might sound similar, my guess is what you’re picking up on is largely tone: how can you write about a man who beams like Matt Sucich without picking up some of the radiance and glow yourself?
Last fall, I said, “there is a strange alchemy” to being friends with Matt. It reveals itself in surprising ways. I saw him play two more times between October and April, each better than the one before. Nevertheless, his April Garden Session still revealed a performer who somehow got just a little sharper, learning where to extend a pause or take a breath, letting the line sink in just a little deeper— before, often, smiling and picking up his strum pattern on a line like, “Because it doesn’t even matter anyway.” I feel like Matt may be one of the best living songwriters (and I’m not exaggerating) partially because he’s always willing to negate himself, to use a moment of self-degradation and turn it into a moment of reflection. I’m in awe of him. It’s been a lot of fun over the course of the last year to watch other people fall in love with his music and then say, “You know, he played the very first Underwater Sunshine Fest…”
His record Thousand Dollar Dinners included many singles people were familiar with because he released the record two songs at a time over the course of several months. The title comes from the track, “Saturn,” which is fast-paced, hard-strummed, and full of energy. I dare you to watch this brilliant video of him performing at Paste studios and not smile along with him, despite it being a lyrical heavy-hitter:
I woke up from a fantasy daze
With pearls of wisdom like I had just been saved
And some things are hard to tell yourself
Like the way you’re living life isn’t good for your health
And hell, you’re nothing special, Kid
It is what it is…
Yeah, cuz it’s all relative
One of the most remarkable things about Underwater Sunshine for me as a music writer is, every year, I get to immerse myself in someone’s catalogue, educate myself, tear the lyrics apart, try to figure out what makes me tick in each track— and then when we get to New York, videographer Ehud Lazin (from One on One) films a Garden Session where each musician winds up playing three or four songs. In a room no larger than a garden, space becomes sacred and precious quickly though. You know when magic is happening. Matt’s filmed twice with us, and both times the whole house fell into a joyful hush. I’m really tired of trying to tell you about it though. Today I’m just going to show you what I’m talking about. Check out this Garden Session:
The song starts gently, with a jangly Hearts and Bones era Paul Simon vibe. The lyrics are both plainspoken and sincere— yet they create a very real and genuine feeling of connection with the audience. This moment is brought about partially just because of the tone. In that space, in that moment, Matt’s voice and the sound of his guitar filled the room in a way that’s, well, indescribable, which is why we have Ehud there to record these moments.
But as a writer? It’s hard to do much better than to start a song:
How to cope with what you gave me
They’re only daydreams until they’re not
But now I know, the facts were fiction
And it was not distance that I needed at all
But I was in over my head when I touched your arm
And I never thought it would lead to anything more
And how this goes? It is not my business
I did not ask for this beating heart
But now I know the facts were mistakes
And they’re always mistakes, until they’re art
But I’ve been in over my head since I learned how to talk
And I’ll be in over my head until death comes calling
On the record, the song erupts here, and you can tell even in the video, Matt is barely restrained in the pause between stanzas. For someone who is always simply billed as a “singer-songwriter”, Matt commands a power and a presence as a performer that isn’t always evoked by the phrase. Some of this is pure writing: his very clear delineation between when to use conjunctions and when to spell a phrase out isn’t just to fill out the line. He’s directing you towards the simpler lines, away from the ones that hurt. A good writer can use that kind of sleight of hand: “It is not my business” is a strong statement up against, “I’ll be in over my head until death comes calling,” but only structurally. Matt covers a lot of ground in an economy of space.
For me, though, when I think of Matt’s writing, I think of his vulnerability. When he sang, “I Want Everything,” we collectively held our breath. It seems like a simple premise at first, but when you hear him sing it, just him and his guitar, it becomes a different animal. The repeating line— “I want everything to lose”— plays against the title of the song. We hear “I want everything” and the “good” is silent. Matt doesn’t let himself or anyone else off so easily. He doesn’t just want the happy moments. He wants to have enough of a stake in his life, and in the lives of those he touches, to actively worry about their loss.
What a gift. What a strange, beautiful way to appreciate life, and something few of us would be brave enough to admit out loud. The idea that, sometimes, even the pain is beautiful. That sometimes you need the mountains and the flatlands. That you need to gamble— but you have to acknowledge that it means having something to lose.
That’s my friend Matt. He’s going to bring gratitude and joy and also a wide-eyed clarity and vulnerability, in songs that cleverly pocket all of that somewhere between tricky fun lyrics and brilliantly composed guitars.
You can’t afford to miss him at the third Underwater Sunshine Fest, which is coming at you in November on the 8th and 9th at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC.
And yes— we are going to keep doing this twice a year. Because listening to new music, writing about it, sharing it with my best friends, and then watching your eyes while it hits you is simply too good to pass up. I’ve heard people call music “medicine,” and I do believe it can be one of the most powerful forces in the world. Beyond that, though? Having friends— family— to share that with is a precious thing. Adam’s right. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. I can’t wait to see you in November!