Every once in awhile I come across something that makes me deeply jealous of another artist. Matt Lowery released an album recently called ‘Voyager’ and it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s one of very few albums that after first listen I immediately thought “Wow, I wish I wrote this”.
Voyager is a blend of ambient and post-rock stylings in a somewhat concept album layout following a traveler leaving earth and moving further and further away from what he knows, towards a destination he wasn’t aware of until arrival. This sounds really out there and wild but having this concept in mind while listening really does tie the record together. You can get the record on all streaming services (all links at bottom of this article).
I reached out to Matt after hearing the album. Selfishly, because I had a number of questions about the production, writing process and such. I plan to steal an absolute ton of the ideas he so generously shared in this interview and I hope you find value here too. Enjoy!
Thanks for doing this Matt! Could you give a quick intro on who you are and what you do?
Certainly! I’m a guitar-centric ambient songwriter, a cinematographer, and a husband/dad. I live in Oklahoma with my wife and daughter. Writing music is my favorite artistic endeavor, and I’m incredibly grateful to get to do that most days.
This type of instrumental/ambient music is incredibly open-ended when it comes to song structures and orchestration, what is your creative process as far as song length and arrangement is concerned?
On my most recent release (Voyager), I split the record into two camps: songs with a logical structure, and songs without. The structured songs like Midway, Triptych, and Emergence behave like you’d expect a pop song to behave: verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge/chorus / out. Those songs land somewhere in the 2-4 minute range for the most part. I grew up listening to and writing pop music, so this structure is super familiar to me and is probably encoded into my DNA at some level.
But, as far as the unstructured stuff goes, I really wanted the songs to feel like the soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist. So, rather than specifying a certain length, or setting any structural rules, I tried to latch onto and follow a single emotion per song. Once I committed myself to that approach, the song lengths just kind of worked themselves out.
These songs are all so emotional and vibey. When you sit down to work on something like this do you have an output in mind or is it just kind of letting the music flow out?
First, it’s letting the music flow out. Music has always been the way that I process my thoughts and emotions. When I go for a length of time without that creative outlet, I start having emotional problems. After getting the idea into the DAW, I’ll walk away from the initial composition for a few days or a week. After that, I revisit it and ask myself “ok, what kind of scene would this play under? What would a character in this scene want? What would he feel?” And then from there, it’s just a matter of aiming my efforts at crafting a song that (hopefully) arouses that same emotion in the listener.
On the same vibe idea, do you find yourself surprised by what comes out of this type of ambient / pedal / tape manipulations?
Oh yeah, all the time. And, truthfully, that sense of surprise is what keeps me coming back for more. Feeding a sound into a new combination of pedals, or using an untested technique on guitar that leads to unexpected results- man, that stuff makes me really happy. The music I’m writing right now is highly focused on semi-random, generative processes that sometimes have a mind of their own. I really enjoy that aspect of composing in this genre.
The visual presentation of everything you do is spectacular as well, can you touch on the art process for the album as well as your film work?
I am indebted to my good friend Aaron (www.nghbrs.co) for the vision and execution of the art. We had a few conversations about the themes present in the music. I told him that I had this story in my mind, the story of a voyager who leaves Earth and then just keeps going, further and further away. He has no idea what he’s looking for. But, in the end, he finds it.
It takes a very special artist to be able to translate that loosey-goosey language into concrete works of art, but Aaron is that guy. So, he bought a Russian cosmonaut suit, strapped it on, and we did a photo shoot at my house on a Saturday. My toddler was very confused.
I’m a commercial cinematographer and photographer by day, so I’m very comfortable expressing myself with images. It’s always a very special treat to get to combine those two passion areas.
What type of artists do you draw inspiration from?
Goodness- so many places. I generally try not to listen to music when I’m in a writing phase; instead, I’ll read a lot and watch films. I read a ton of Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, Cormac McCarthy, and William Gibson while working on this record. In the last year or so, I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from music artists like Marcus Fischer, Josh Mason, Blankfor.ms, N-so, and several other guys and gals who are thinking outside the box.
Every interview I’ve done has touched on this concept of “flow” where time stands still while you’re in the middle of a creative endeavor – do you experience that while writing or experimenting with this type of music?
I think the honest answer here is “Yes. Sometimes.” because, yeah, I definitely do some days. Other days, it feels like work. But those days- the ones where I don’t feel inspired, and where every step forward is really hard- are probably the most important days. If I only made music when I felt inspired, I would never get anything done. To paraphrase a story from Steven Pressfield’s The Art of War, Somorset Maugham was once asked whether he wrote every day, or only when inspiration struck. He replied that he only wrote when inspiration struck, but fortunately it struck every morning at 8:00 a.m. sharp.
The lesson here is that, as an artist, you have to show up every day. Just like your day job, you have to come to work, rain or shine, even when you don’t feel like it. Do that enough, and eventually, you are able to write and record stuff that you love and are proud of, even if you’re not experiencing that sense of “flow” that every artist is chasing after.
For example, while writing and tracking Voyager, I set an alarm for 5:00 A.M. and got up at that time most days. I would work until about 7:00 A.M., at which time I had to go get ready to leave for my day job. There are 13 tracks on the record. But, my “ideas” folder, which is where I store my daily work, has almost 200 Logic session files from that time period. So, the great majority of my output during that year- when I was waking up super early and playing guitar half asleep in my pajamas, just hoping to get something useful- was total garbage. And it had to be like that. I’m at peace with it.
You’ve mentioned that you took a bit of a break from music and this album perhaps a bit of an autobiographic concept – how did this come about?
So, from the age of 16 to the age of 27, I was employed as a musician, working mostly at churches. When I got married and was partially responsible for someone’s well-being other than myself, I started feeling really icky about the fact that my religious beliefs and my financial health were so closely intertwined. My bachelor’s degree is in philosophy, and I have this natural curiosity about the world we live in. It’s very important for me to be able to probe, explore, and ask questions. It comes from a place of humility for me; I admit that I don’t know everything about the world, and the things that other people believe are fascinating to me. The religious tradition that I grew up in, and ultimately was employed by, saw this curiosity as a negative thing- labeled it as “doubt”. So, I was caught in this emotional meat grinder- feeling uneasy about some of the beliefs I was supposed to be espousing and held hostage by the fact that my paycheck- the food on my family’s table- was dependent on me towing that line. It was really toxic for me.
But, around that time, I got a full-time job at an agency, running their video department. It’s a great place, and I still work there today. When I got that job, I pressed pause on my music to just kind of heal. The bad taste in my mouth from working in the church world was very much intertwined with music, and so I had to step away from both in order to get some clarity.
Five years went by, and one day I woke up and realized that I was ready to step back in. And, when I did so, I really enjoyed music with a purity and clarity that I hadn’t experienced since I was 12 or 13. I’m still that excited about it. I’ve never had more fun than I’m having now.
What was the process of working with the other collaborators on this record?
I gave myself a one-year deadline for writing the record. So, at about the 10-month mark, Dustin Ragland and I had coffee and talked about beginning production the following year. Dustin is, hands down, one of the smartest and most talented people that I know. And furthermore, we’re kind of just wired up in a lot of the same ways, so I cherish every opportunity that I have to work with him. We needed a bass player but wanted to work with someone who would bring something very special to the record. This led us to Quint Anderson, who is a wonderful musician and person.
So, at the end of the writing stage, I had a handful of Logic files that more or less represented the record. I distributed those, and we started recording a few months later. Both of those guys took the initial ideas and expanded them, interpreted them, and added so much to the songs. I am so happy with how we worked together.
It’s worth mentioning (because I’m sure plenty of folks can relate) that, between the three of us, there are five children under the age of five. And Dustin actually welcomed his second kiddo into the world in the middle of all this. I am amazed that three dads were able to get this thing done at all! A lot of people imagine recording an album as this thing where you’re in the studio for a couple of weeks, totally focused, hammering away. Nothing could be further from the truth for Voyager. Often, we were scheduling two-hour sessions between the time that our kids went to bed and the time that we had to go to bed ourselves so that we could go to work the next morning. And what a blessing it was to be able to spend a couple of hours making music with friends on those days.
Did you imagine all of these tracks with drums and demo them out as such or did you give Dustin free reign on what he would add or not add to each track? Same question for bass.
Both, really. I used Logic’s drummer tracks to initially compose each song because I really need a strong rhythm section in place in order to do my best on guitar. But, when it came time to collaborate, I tried my best to communicate that everything in these songs was up for negotiation. Both of these guys are brilliant musicians, so it was fun to watch them either expand on an idea I had or scrap it and come up with something way better.
Could you outline your recording setup for this album?
Totally! This setup was built specifically for this record. Back to being a dad, and working super early in the morning. I faced this dilemma- I work best when I’m alone, and I get super nervous in the studio. Always have. So, I really wanted to be able to track guitars at my house, little by little. But that was never going to happen at 5:00 A.M. with a two year old asleep down the hall. I wasn’t satisfied with the kinds of sounds I was getting from Logic’s amp emulators. So, after much deliberation and nail-biting, I sold pretty much every musical item I owned that I didn’t immediately need, and bought a Universal Audio OX. It was the best decision I could have ever made. I love that thing, and couldn’t have made this record without it. So, with that being said, my setup for Voyager went like this:
I think it’s safe to say that guitar pedals are a pretty big part of your sound. When it comes to applying them to this type of music do you experiment a lot with order/setup or is this all basically recorded through your pedalboard?
Totally. I’ve given myself wholesale permission to throw out the traditional best practices when it comes to effects pedals. I have a really big, really sloppy pedalboard in my studio, and that lets me quickly rearrange things on the fly. I do think it’s important to understand why the traditional advice is structured that way it is (overdrive>modulation>delay>reverb, etc). But, once you understand that, start breaking the rules. The Effects Pedal Police have (at this time) not kicked my door down. (editors note: more about pedal order here)
Anything else you’d like to add?
The best advice I’ve ever been given about being an artist is here: https://sivers.org/balance and I go out of my way to share it with everyone I can.
Secondly, if you’re serious about making music, don’t be afraid to invest in yourself. If there’s a sound you can’t get with the setup you’ve got, find a way to get the setup you want. I was crippled by guilt for a long time regarding music purchases; so I just kind of stayed in a very traditional box. But one day my wife sat me down and said “dude, relax; this is why you have a job. Buy the pedal. It will be in our family forever.” So, if you’re able to make the purchase without putting yourself in a bind, chase those new sounds!
Beyond that, thanks for listening! And thanks to my wife and daughter for their endless support, and to all the lovely folks who put their hands on this record. I’m enormously grateful.
There you have it. If you made it this far you’re probably going to want to check out the album which is available on Spotify, iTunes Music and Bandcamp. Check it out and also give Matt a follow on Instagram for more amazing content.