Matthew Sheens: ‘I get bored easily and rely on things outside my experience to shape my music’

Photo – Charles Quiles

WheneverMatthew Sheens‘ name is mentioned, it’s usually followed by an account of his being the first Australian to win a Downbeat Magazine Student Award (best soloist category), and receiving a scholarship to pursue his Masters in Jazz Performance at the New England Conservatory in Boston. What is seen as a highlight, is actually the starting point of a very creative ongoing journey, which has produced some wonderful music. Now Sheens is back in Australia, for a while and he’s currently on tour to promote his new album, ‘Cloud Appreciation Day’. Which is a perfect excuse for an interview. How did ‘Cloud Appreciation Day’ come to be?
Matthew Sheens: The title of one of the tracks came to me as I was on a plane, staring at the amazing clouds from above. it was soon after a friend had suddenly died and I thought about how he would never be able to see clouds – things we take for granted, yet are actually spectacular. About five of the tunes were written within a month, as a I had a serious deadline with the studio. I think the first tune I wrote was “First Orbit”, a piece about turning 28.
A lot of the pieces on the album were automatic musical reactions to events that had occurred in my life and also global events. “Rage Against the Dying of the Light” was written while my 13-year-old cousin was in a post-car crash coma, not expected to wake up (he did!). “Last Poem” is literally the last poem written by an Auschwitz prisoner that was found in his pocket after he died, which I wrote music to and half of “Cloud Appreciation Day” was written before a friend died suddenly and completed after the event, so there is a bipolar quality to it. Almost every track has a distressing background, but it doesn’t always make the music depressing. In some cases, the reaction was to write more uplifting sounding music.

AJN: How was the recording process?
MS: The process behind this album was very strange. I had won an award through APRA, and one of the prizes was a whole day of recording at the amazing 301 Studios in Sydney (the biggest studio in the Southern Hemisphere!). I live in NYC, so as the expiration on the prize approach I had to squeeze the session in on a trip back and write a bunch of music in a very short amount of time.
It took 18 months for me to get the album completed in NYC and trying to make the album sound unified was important to me, while allowing the musicians to be themselves. I had my guitarist in NYC, Alex Goodman, overdub extra melodies etc on the old studio session, and we did similar things with voice and rhodes.

AJN: You have an amazing group of musicians featuring on the album, from Gian Slater to John Patitucci; what is working with him like?
MS: I used musicians who have very distinct voices musically, and have an aesthetic that I know will match my writing. But they all know how to blend and support to give life to the music. As for John, one of the greatest bassists and musicians alive of any genre, I have the amazing pleasure of playing with him every Sunday at this little 19th Century church on the Hudson river. Playing with him is always a lesson in itself. His all-encompassing sound and rhythmic feel elevates the musicians in his radius, and he was very obliging and encouraging when I asked him to be apart of this project.

AJN: What should anyone coming to your upcoming tour expect to hear?
: I could describe what we will play, but I’ve noticed in past concerts that people will come up to me and describe what they heard and relay the images they came into their head, and it’s always completely different to what I had originally conceived – which I love, so people will have to come and figure out the music’s effect for themselves! John Patitucci said the music was full of imagery and, in that sense, reminded him of Wayne Shorter’s writing. I don’t like writing my name in the same sentence as Wayne Shorter! But, in short, imagery.

AJN: In the past, you’ve blended classical elements or latin rhythms into your music; now a west-african flavour is prominent on this album. How do you feel about mixing different sub-genres? Is this a goal of yours, something that you do deliberately, or it happens in the process?
MS: I didn’t try too hard to discover a certain sound. It’s a matter of absorbing lots of music and things that interest you, and all of this is filtered through who you are as a person and how your brain works. I will say that when I did my masters at the New England Conservatory in Boston, I deliberately sought out as many non-jazz subjects as I could to widen my palate. Having studied the music of Charles Ives, Stravinksy, Sun Ra, pre-Bach western music, West-African drumming, Turkish Music to post-modernist piano music left me sounding and writing much differently than I had. It’s perhaps not important for everyone to draw from a wide range of influences, at this point in my writing I get bored easily and rely on things outside my own experience to shape my music. I will mention, however, that you can trace almost every genre that’s popular today back to West African music. It’s at the roots of the family tree, and it’s a fascinating universe from which to draw from.

AJN: What does jazz mean to you?
MS: I’m not a big fan of the word Jazz – for some people it boxes their expectations up of what something will sound like. I like Pat Metheny’s concept of the term Jazz being a verb, not a noun.

Matthew Sheens is currently on a ‘Cloud Appreciation Day Tour’ around Australia