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Interviewing Matt Nathanson: As career grows, Philadelphia stays behind him

Singer Matt Nathanson's ties to Philadelphia
Before playing Philadelphia (again), singer Matt Nathanson recalls his ties to city
What are singer Matt Nathanson's ties to Philadelphia?

When Matt Nathanson plays Philadelphia’s Mann Center for the Performing Arts tonight, Aug. 15, it will be the third time in nine months the singer-songwriter has played in Philadelphia.

Nathanson stopped at The Electric Factory in November to promote his then-new latest album “Last of the Great Pretenders.” He returned to World Cafe Live in February to play a radio station WXPN-FM benefit for Musicians on Call, a group that has musicians play at hospital patients’ bedsides.

Matt Nathanson at Philadelphia's Electric Factory in November
Photo by Brian Hineline/Special to The Morning Call

And now he returns as part of his co-headlining tour with Gavin DeGraw.

If that seems like a lot for one artist, Nathanson says it’s not happenstance. He says the City of Brotherly Love has always welcomed him, and from the start has supported a successful career that includes the platinum 2008 single “Come On Get Higher” and the Top 10 Adult Chart hit “Faster” in 2011.

In a recent telephone interview, Nathanson spoke about his experiences in the City of Brotherly Love and his career.

Here’s an edited transcript of the call:

LEHIGH VALLEY MUSIC: You just played the Musician on Call benefit at World Café Live in February for radio station WXPN-FM, and you played The Electric Factory in Philadelphia on Nov. 2. That’s a lot for the same city.

MATT NATHANSON:  “WXPN was the first radio station in America, or anywhere, to ever play my songs, way back – they played a song off an independent record in like 1998 or something, so I’ve had a relationship with them for a really long time. I mean, they’re my favorite – they’re the bomb, you know?

“And so they reached out and said, ‘Would you be down with headlining this Musicians on call thing, and I said, ‘Of course.’ I sort of would do anything for them, because they’ve always been so super supportive.”

“And then, when it was the Musicians on Call thing, of course,  I can’t really say no to it because it’s a fantastic organization. I’ve done a lot of work with them and I’ve done a lot of work separately with St. Jude’s Hospital and playing. A lot of times music is sort of a healing thing. I’ve done a lot at, like, nursing homes … women in a shelter, that kind of stuff. So it’s sort of like everything about it was, ‘Of course, let’s do this.”

I saw your show at The Electric Factory in November and you went on and on there about the affinity that you have for Philadelphia. Talk a little about that.

“Ever since I started touring full-time, I would always kind of go to Philadelphia. When I first started way back, I would fly out from California and I would kind of do Boston, New York, Philadelphia, D.C. – that run. And Philadelphia has just always been … it’s just such a musical hotbed.  I think a lot of it has to do with WXPN, actually. But also with proximity to New York.

“But I’ve always just sort of felt welcome there. I recorded a live record at what used to be The Point in Bryn Mawr [2005’s  “At The Point”] and I think I’ve played every possible venue – from, like, tiny café to … and we were up at the Tower Theatre, I think [Laughs].

Nathanson's new album 'Last of the Great Pretenders'

And it was like, Philadelphia’s just a music town, a hundred percent. Think about Springsteen was embraced there early, and all that kind of stuff. And every time I play there, the crowds are just, like, powerful and super engaged. And so it’s always been on of my favorite places to play, for sure.”

Talk about you latest disc, “Last of the Great Pretenders”  – how well it’s doing, how well it’s been received. [“Last of the Great Pretenders,” is the highest-charting disc of his career. It hit No. 16 on Billboard’s albums chart and No. 2 on the rock chart, and produced two Top 40 hits: “Kinks Shirt” and “Mission Bells.” This week, “Kinks Shirt” was still No. 27 on the Adult Alternative chart, more than a year after its release.]

“I was fun to be able to tour the record in the fall. The record came out in summer, and you’re never really sure if anybody’s going to dig the songs [Laughs]. Sort of like sending you kid to the playground and wondering if he or she is going to, like, A) get beaten up or B) beat someone up or C) if they’re not going to get along, you know?

“So it was nice to be able to be able to tour in the fall and watch peoples’ response to the new songs and have them, like, sort of take them as their own so quickly and sing them back to us and all that stuff. So in that respect, it’s been like way beyond. It’s been heartwarming, actually, which is not a word I would use any other place, actually.  [Laughs] It’s, like, incredible to get such positive feedback from folks. Still, every day, I’ll get people posting lyrics from the new record and people discovering the new record. And then when we did the fall tour, it was just rad to see people kind of engaged like that and singing and taking the music and making it their own.

“So it’s been pretty bad-ass. So far, it’s been pretty amazing.”

I’ve seen you play before and I know you play covers. [Nathanson has been known to totally veer off his set list to play crazy covers of songs such as “You’re The One That I Want” from “Grease” or Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance with Somebody.”] But the covers you played at the Electric Factory really kicked ass. You did U2’s “Bad,” and then you did “Under Pressure.” And then -- it might have been spontaneous, it looked spontaneous – you did Asia’s “Heat of the Moment.”

“That was spontaneous, for certain [laughs].”

Yeah [Laughs]. And it was – I’m a nerd enough, and old enough, that like all of those songs were really cool to me. And I was, like, “How does this guy do that.” Speak just a moment about how you approach a show or the spontaneity of a show, or whatever.

“So shows for me are about really connecting with folks. It’s not very much fun if we can’t get the energy going between the crowd and the band, it’s sort of like bouncing a basketball off a wall. You know, there’s like nothing – it’s fun, but it’s not, like, transcendent.

“And so, for me, I’m always trying to get everybody to lower their guard. ‘Cause everybody comes to shows with different … might come just wanting to watch. For me, it’s really important that we sort of wipes the decks, and we make it sort of like immediately people know that it’s a sing-along situation and that it’s a fun situation, and it’s not just going to be you watching me pour my heart out, you know?

“And so we get to do covers like that. For me, I feel really comfortable in front of people, and I feel really comfortable being able to change the script a little bit depending on everybody – what’s going on on stage and what’s going on with the folks in the audience.

“So at The Electric Factory, for me it’s a lot like throwing a party, and you’re just rolling with what the guests want to do. Before they get there, you just let them know, like, ‘This is going to be a fun party. It’s going to be a good time. So let’s get engaged and let’s do this. And then once they’re engaged, kind of roll with their energy and have a good time. And sometimes that means playing ‘Heat of the Moment.’”

That show actually made my year-end list of best concerts.

“Oh, that’s rad.”

 The last question I wanted to ask – I think, if my math is correct, you turned 40 this year?

“Yes, I did.”

 I just want you to talk about what maturity that has brought to you.

“I feel like I’m really interested in dying most of all since I started [Laughs]. No, I feel like my evolution as an artist is, like, I feel like It’s always just further outside my limitation. Getting older to me is kind of this incredible opportunity to kind of like learn and grow and let go of all the crap that you have learned as a kid. And consequently, making music gets sort of more and more enjoyable for me as I get older. So for me to make records now, I feel way mor in touch with it than I did when I was making my older records.

“And so that’s pretty much how it goes. And it’s also fun to be able to tour the country and go back to places that you’ve been 20 times and see old faces. I said this at The Electric Factory because it was so apparent: There’s, like, old faces and new faces mixed in. It felt like a reunion; it felt like ‘Here are these people in Philadelphia who have been coming to my shows for 15 years. And I, like, remember when they were in high school or whatever. And also, you look out and you see all these faces and everybody’s having a good time. That was a pretty amazing show. The Electric Factory’s such a great room, because it’s big, but everybody’s right up with you.  And so another thing as we sort of progress through the years, it’s like you build this connection with folks and you get to go back and say, ‘Here are my new songs!” And ‘How are you guys doing? I get to see you again.’ It’s like a pleasure.”

Read a story about Matt Nathanson in today's Go Guide

MATT NATHANSON AND GAVIN DEGRAW, with Andrew McMahon, 7 p.m. Aug. 15, Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 5201 Parkside Ave., Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. Tickets: $25 to $45. Info: www.manncenter.org, www.Ticketmaster.com, 800-745-3000

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