While studying in Boston at Berklee College of Music, Matt Cusson instinctively found his way to Harlem’s Apollo stage. And in the years to follow, as a three-time winner of the venue’s legendary Amateur Night, Cusson would eventually perform alongside some of the music industry’s greatest contemporary voices: Babyface, Christina Aguilera, and Norah Jones, to name a few.
In July 2009, Matt Cusson’s jazz composition, “One of Those Nights,” was announced as the 2008 Maxell Song of the Year. (In previous months, the song was unanimously heralded as the winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest within the “Jazz” category.) Quite fittingly, the grand prize was presented to Cusson by his long-time mentor, Brian McKnight.
Upon review of Matt Cusson’s self-titled debut, the accomplished singer and songwriter managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on his Berklee experience, the inspiration behind “One of Those Nights,” and the inevitable challenges that independent artists face.
At what point in your life did you realize that music was going to be a part of your destiny?
To be honest with you, I don't know if there was ever one point that I knew it's what I wanted to do. My mother always jokes that I kicked to the beat in her womb. It's really odd. I started playing piano – I must have been around 6 or 7. Started singing shortly after that. Played the drums for a couple of years when I was a kid. I wrote my first song when I was ten. It's really all I ever knew, and all I ever did.
And when I was fifteen, I sang in a church. And this lady — she must have been in her late eighties — came up to me after I sang with tears in her eyes, and she said, “You were meant to do this.” Maybe that was the point where I was like, “I always loved music.” I always knew what I wanted to do and I never knew how. But that moment kind of got me saying, “Man, if I have to sing in church every week, I'll sing here. If I have to play background for somebody, I'll do that.” And then it kind of grew from that.
Then I went to Berklee College of Music and things really took off there. I started meeting other musicians and it just kind of went from there. It's taken an upward hill since then, and hopefully I'm going to keep climbing.
Oftentimes, many artists defer the college experience, in order to jump into the music scene immediately. In what ways did your college experience, prepare you for taking your career the independent route?
Well, Berklee was a great experience. I came from a really small town in Massachusetts where there weren't a lot of artists, and there was a bunch of just 9-to-5 workers and families and that kind of deal. I was a kind of a small fish in a smaller pond, and Berklee surrounded me with people that did what I do. I was only there for three semesters, but it was enough time to get used to the stage, to get used to working with other musicians, to get used to being in a studio.
The resources at Berklee are phenomenal. They have high-end studios and performance centers and teachers like Livingston Taylor – who's James Taylor's brother. Just meeting new people and performing in front of them and working with them — that was Berklee to me. The classes were classes, and I've never been a good student, but to work with the musicians … Every day there was a rehearsal or a show for something. And whether it was a cafeteria show – which thirty people would come to – we would just jam out for a couple of hours.
My second semester, I made the Singer Showcase which highlighted the school's eight best singers. There were 1,500 people at that show. So it just gave me a lot of opportunities, a lot of experiences. But the most important thing, I think, was just vibing and being around other cats that played music and did what I did my entire life.
Consumers tend to only see the glamorous side of the music business, but I pulled the following quote from your bio: “As a solo artist, I have struggled in ways you can't even imagine, packed up my car with clothes and a keyboard and driven across the country numerous times, not having enough money to pay for a meal sometimes.” What particular obstacles do you think were necessary for you to obtain the level of success that you've achieved? Sometimes people think of obstacles as being negative. In what ways were they positive?
Well, from every mistake that was made there was a lesson learned. They say the statistic is for every yes you get in the entertainment industry, you get forty no's. Clearly, being an independent musician, there's not a lot of money around. I constantly packed my car up with my keyboard and my clothes and drove across the country about six or seven times. I toured on my own, in my own car. I'd just go from place to place, sleeping at Motel 6s.
The obstacles are part of it – as cliché as it sounds. I tour with Brian McKnight now, and every night we all get together and say a prayer before the show. And he ends his prayer by saying, “If we can move just one person in the audience that we're performing for, then we've done our job.” Through all the obstacles, I kept hitting certain people, certain industry associates and certain things like that along the way. Even when obstacles come or a speed bump comes, you say, “You know what? That's not a big deal. It wasn't meant to be.”
I put my music career in God's hands. I know that he's going to do the right thing and whatever comes of it will be what He wanted. I don't mean to be cliché or anything like that, but you learn after a while to just roll with the punches. Everybody goes through it. The best entertainers go through it. It's part of it. And a part of learning is that the entertainment industry is not an easy industry to be in. So I think some of those punches thicken your skin a little bit and make you a little stronger.
As you talk about “thick skin,” I feel compelled to ask you about your three wins at the Apollo Theater, in spite of the (white) elephant in the room. Was it nerve-wrecking?
I sang to be safe — if you sing a gospel song, nobody's going to boot you off-stage [laughing]. I was like, “I'm white. I'm performing at the Apollo. I'm loving it a lot. But I might as well just be safe on this one, and do a gospel song [laughing].” So I did a gospel song, they didn’t boo me, and I ending up winning first place. Came back a second and third time. I don't remember what I sang. I might have sung the Donny Hathaway song – I think “A Song For You” – or something like that. Played piano as well. And I was supposed to go back a fourth time, but I got mono and I couldn't do it. I got really sick. Which wasn't supposed to happen. But everything happens for a reason. So, hey, who knows?
When you look back on the recording experience for your first album, Matt Cusson, are there any memories that immediately come to mind?
Oh, man, every song has a story. That album – I have so many songs I archived. Those songs were just picked mainly for the fans because they were the most requested songs. It was kind of compiled by the fans. My first album was very raw. A lot of just me with acoustic background. Singing. Piano for a couple of songs. A VA guitar. Small bands. It's very raw. I just wanted to get the point across that the songs speak for themselves.
I am a musician. I am an artist. I'm not just a singer or just a pianist. I try to be everything. I love arranging. Arranging is one of my favorite things to do. As far as studios, we went from Boston to New York to L.A. to Nashville. We did so many different studios and had so many different amazing musicians. It's just a blur at this point. I guess the only story I can think of is recording the last song, “Every Step,” which ended up being the first single.
And it's funny because I broke up with this girl that I wrote that song for in mid-September of last year. Wrote the song at the end of September, maybe took three or four days to write and record. We were mastering in October. If you're an artist, you're never satisfied. You just get to the point where you say, “All right, it's good enough. Here. Put it out.” But I remember being in a studio practically in tears because this girl broke my friggin' heart. I had a glass of wine, because that was the only thing that was paying me from all the crap that she was putting me through. And that's how – unfortunately – I remember finishing my album. But like I said, every song has a story to it. And we'd be on the phone for about four hours [laughing].
I absolutely adore “Could.” Tell me how that song came into being.
“Could” is actually a McKnight tune. I recorded it last Christmas – actually, a year ago Christmas. It was recorded with Brian, after I sang it during one of the rehearsals. Once he heard [my rendition], he said: “You’ve got to record that.” So literally that night, I went home, just put a quick piano track down – which is not the piano track that's on the album – sang the song through and did those background arrangements.
I'm a big jazz, vocal buff. So I love six-part harmonies and things full of parts. I love that kind of stuff. So I added those to it and it got around. Brian loved it. A lot of people loved it. A month before the album got mastered, a guy named Bill Meyers – who is one of my musical soul mates; he's one of the most talented orchestrators, string arrangers that I know of – he called me and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, nothing. Just mixing the album, working on stuff.” He said, “Why don't you come down to the studio. I'll throw some strings on it.” And that was like a dream come true.
So that happens, and then about a week after that, Shoshana Bean – who was the lead in Wicked on Broadway for three years and who I met through Brian – was in town. We were hanging out at a diner somewhere. I was like, “You know, I need to get you on my CD. I'm doing a Brian song and it's coming out beautiful and it would be a great duet.” And she didn't hesitate. We literally drove from there to the studio, put her vocal on within an hour, and it was good to go. And that kind of completed it. Then I knew, “All right, this is getting on CD.” It's unbelievable. We did the most work on the album a month before it came out, so it's great.
Two of the songs on your debut have received recognition from the judges of the John Lennon Songwriting Competition. “Every Step,” in the R&B category, and “One Of Those Nights,” in the jazz category. Out of all the songs at your disposal, what led you to enter those particular songs?
Well, certainly with “Every Step,” I chose that song because it's one of my favorite songs on the CD. And I'm not sure if it is because it's the newest song on the CD to me, or it really is just a good song and I like it. But I think when I entered in the contest it was brand new to me. And it was getting really well received.
Everybody around me was like, “That's got to be your first single.” I was like, “No, I want to see if it really can float on its own.” So I entered it in the R&B category. Got nominated – the final top three, which is great. And as far as “One Of Those Nights,” “One Of Those Nights” is kind of a song I look at as . . . I think a lot of artists have their baby, their favorite painting, their favorite song. And I don't know if it's my favorite, but it's definitely one I'm proud of. Musically, it's all over the map. It changes tempos and it changes keys. It's all over the place. It's not a song you'll hear on the radio, but it represents one of the hardest times that I had to go through in my life – a real struggle, a real down and out.
I was real depressed. It was the clichéd artist's depressed time, dark time. And it was even darker for me with all I was going through. And that song . . . I remember during my little dark period I began to write — I wrote some of the music. I wrote the chorus, and then I left it alone for like a year, year-and-a-half. And I came back to it, and it just kind of finished itself, almost. So, although I knew it wasn't radio – which everybody wants – and all that stuff, obviously there was something about the song. And the players that played on it said the same thing. So I entered it in the jazz section and it ended up winning right away the jazz award. And then, also greater, they surprised me in Dallas, saying you won the Maxwell Song of the Year, which is amazing, and apparently was the first unanimous judged decision that's ever happened. And the judges were Fergie and will.i.am. and Al Jarreau and The Veronicas – like a lot of amazing, amazing artists that are wrapped in all that soul.
Again, how do I feel? I still don't know. It's kind of crazy to me that, certainly that song of all songs, held up against pop songs and rock songs and rap songs and everything. And this crazy jazz song wins. When I was younger, I always said, “Somehow I've got to bring jazz back.” Not that it's gone, but it's definitely diminished in this country.
That is very true. Very true.
Here I am, with a jazz song that just won a huge award, and it's getting great recognition. The recognition that I got from winning it is amazing publicity. I get a lot more respect now from a lot of people.
That's great. You once said that everyone always wanted you to be the next somebody instead of being the first you. Expand on that a little bit.
You know, I'm one of the people that is actually in the music business for music and for the sake of music. Money and goods and things — that stuff never fazed me. It was tempting when I was younger, but I never bit into it. And I think, you know, I was offered deals with labels, and it was always, “Oh, man, you're going to be the next Norah Jones,” or “You're going to be next pop king – Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke and Rob Thomas.” All these names. And then not too long ago, I got an email that said, “We want you to be the white D’Angelo.” Like, “Okay. Well, that's all fine and dandy, but how about instead, I just turn around and make this album over here.”
It'd be one thing if I didn't write, or if people weren't really liking what I was writing. But I'm getting such great feedback and people are coming to my shows and singing the lyrics back. I saw a little bit of injustice to me and the people who worked for me. If I, you know, forget all this stuff, I'm going to sing over this beat and take my shirt off and have girlfriends around me and say baby a hundred times. I'm doing all that, and – no offense, I love all that stuff, too – it's just not me. I think I'm doing something here that's different that other artists aren't doing and that's why it's me.
You're always going to be compared to someone else. It's just inevitable in this business. And there's a lot of artists out there that come to me and say, “I want a song like so and so,” or, “Can you write me a song that's like Alicia Keys mixed with this and that.” And I say, “Sure.” But also, I'd love to get together with myself and say, “Let me get to know you, and let's just play piano and vibe for a couple of hours, and not even write, and just see what happens.” I love bringing out the artists in a song instead of looking for the next thing. And that's the whole point of my album, I think, is that there's no more albums out there like it. And I want it to be the first me instead of thinking, “I'm going to write a D’Angelo song, and now I'm going to write this song,” and on and on.
So I think for me it's important to be different, to be your own art. It's good to have idols and it's good to pattern yourself after other people once in a while, but find yourself in all of that and it's the only way it's natural.
Is there a particular direction that you are going to explore your second album?
I think it's going to be a lot bigger than the first album. It's going to be a lot more arrangement-based, a lot of bigger arrangements; horns and strings. I'm definitely going to brighten it up a little bit, as far as tempo goes. I'm going to put a lot more up-tempo songs on here. As far as we need to go, it's going to be similar, just like I said: more up, more bright, bigger sound. Happier, hopefully. We'll see what happens over the next few months.
The songs I've written so far are pretty up, and I'm really trying co-writing with a few people this time around. And try to get a few guest stars on the album. But it is going to be bigger and more up tempo. They're still going to have the ballads and the jazz, this and that, but it's going to be just another aspect of Matt Cusson that people didn't hear on the first album.
I have so many musical ideas. I want to experiment with so many different things that two albums isn't enough for all the music I have inside of me. It will take me forty albums before I get the point across that I want because each one will just show a different side of what I'm trying to do.
You are currently a member of the house band for Brian McKnight’s talk show on the CW network, and you recently shared the stage with Stevie Wonder. How would you describe that magical music moment?
Stevie, he's been my king since I was a baby. I've always listened to him. You know, the past two months, I went from The Roots to James Taylor, Stevie Wonder and all of my musical idols. So Stevie kind of topped it off. I was so nervous that I probably didn't enjoy it as much as I should have because I had to play strings, horns and Rhodes, three different keyboards on one song. We did, “Do I Do.”
And I was so nervous because I know one of his keyboard players – she's phenomenal. And she never makes mistakes. And she can play anything you want her to play. And I play all by ear. I can't read a note of music. So when they gave me the part, I was like, “God, there's horns and strings and everything on this thing.” It was one of the tough ones, but I learned from it to practice and practice and practice, because I really didn't want to mess up. But when Stevie walked into sound check, he was so cool. And he was smiling. And one thing I noticed about him is that no matter what is going on around him — whether people are trying to talk to him or they're being quiet on the stage – he was always playing piano and singing, or playing something and writing something, or playing some weird piece of music, or playing something from his Secret Life of Plants album – which I love.
I'm like a kid in a candy store when he starts playing something I recognize. I'm like, “Oh my God! I love that song.” Those kinds of moments — while I'm in them, I'm on top of the world. I'm on cloud 99. And when they're over I keep the memory, but it makes me want to hurry up and have more. It makes me want to just go do things that Stevie Wonder did. Go inspire as many people as he did. Moments like that make me want to be better. I'll never be satisfied. Just playing with Stevie Wonder, playing with James Taylor — I need more.
So every time a moment like that happens it creates a great memory. It creates a lot of friendships and great music, but things that go around — I'm ready for the next thing. I'm ready for the next big thing and do whatever I have to do to make it happen.
For more information on Matt Cusson, visit his official MySpace page.