We spoke with Matt Davidson who performs under the moniker Twain.
You formerly performed with the group Spirit Family Reunion. How did your time with them impact your songwriting with Twain? Was it just time to move on to a different adventure?
Playing in Spirit Family was a lesson in humility. Nick is a rare kind of songwriter; his messages are so full of virtue and human positivity; and they welcome everybody in. To me, the songs outline a gospel that worships life. I started to realize that, by contrast, my writing was full of doubt, worry. I felt my role in the band become darker and darker. It would take pages, months to unpack all of this - but to put it simply, I felt I had to leave in order to get in touch with my own lightness, to find a personal equilibrium.
What are the challenges associated with stepping away from an established group to forge your own path as a solo artist?
The thing I struggle with the most is the feeling that I haven't really earned the attention I may receive, that the music is only interesting to folks within the context of other bands I have been part of. It used to really trouble me, but I've pretty much come to peace with it now.
You've put out some EPs and other albums on bandcamp but haven't put a record out with a label yet. Is this by design and an act of D.I.Y. rebellion or are you just perfecting the product before taking something to market? Are you working on a full length album? Can you share any juicy details?
It's mainly because no one asked me to! But I'm happy to say we are planning to release the next record this summer through a local label in Richmond.
Where are you living now? How has living there affected your creativity?
I just moved back to Virginia, where I was born. I have a back yard now and that is a serious game changer, creativity wise. I was living in NYC previously.
Your songwriting is unique in it's ability to seem so real and honest with lyrics that carry your songs like reading a handwritten letter to a close friend or something. What types of things spur your creativity for songwriting?
Whoo! This question is nearly impossible to answer. The best I can do is to give a little list of the most common obstructions to feeling/being creative. In no particular order:
1) Self Consciousness
2) Prideful excitement
3) Concern that someone will be morally offended by what I make; sub-concern that I am morally bankrupt
Laziness; over-eating; over-exposure to urban environment
The Twain name seems appropriate when seeing pictures of you sporting one of the burliest mustaches around and loose, flowing hair - not unlike Mark Twain's getup. Was the choice of name based on this appearance or for your literary interests?
Nope. Neither is an homage to Mr. Clemens. The men in my family wore mustaches sometimes so I do too sometimes, is all. As for the name, my buddy Sam Doores from the tremendous band the Deslondes came up with it during a high school history class. I still don't know what it means. (I mean, I understand the definition...)
The production on your 2014 release, Life Labors in the Choir, is raw and feels really close - an excellent way to experience your songs. What's your production style? How has it changed over the years? Do you do things yourself or outsource that part of song creation?
I co-produce all of the records with my friend Adrian Olsen. We record most everything at his studio, Montrose, in Richmond, VA. The gist of the process is that I babble discordantly for a while to Adrian about the sounds/ideas I am after, and Adrian somehow manages to intuit what I am totally failing to put into words and manifest that in the sounds we generate.
One of the best things about making records (or anything) with someone continuously is that you can have a mutual sense of what is "good" without having to define it too rigidly. So, over the years we have developed a much stronger, though equally nebulous goal - and every time we make something that feels good (by skill or by sheer luck) we get a better sense of what we're after.
You've been helping Langhorne Slim with a new record recently, correct? What's been your role with that process? Do you help out often with friends' project either in the studio or on the road sitting in with other musicians?
Ya! My role when working on friends records is generally as arranger/instrumentalist and song namer. I am also trying to perfect the occult art of album sequencing, but I am many years away from doing so. Occasionally I'll help out with the writing process but this doesn't come naturally to me.
Some of the musical highlights of last year for me were projects like this; specifically getting to spend some time in the studio with my good buddies Big Thief and sitting in for John James Tourville of the Deslondes for a couple runs.
You're a vocal critic of the digital realm of the music world. What measures do you take to keep your music pure in an analog sense? Does it mean avoiding technology in songwriting, recording, and production?
Wait! Who told you that?! I am passionate (and, admittedly, a little arrogant) about the analogue process, but by no means a critic of digital music.* Most of my favorite modern albums were created that way, and the chief reason I like to work purely on tape is that it forces one to have a lot of discipline during the recording process (i.e. saving few takes, no editing of performances, limited (8-24) tracks) - also it sounds really, really good. It takes a lot of patience, but I would say making a good record digitally requires even more discipline, because the options are much more varied, and the ability to doctor or eliminate mistakes is tremendous.
* I do think that certain digital listening services are cheapening the experience of listening to recordings, but that reality is just as much created by the listener as it is the distributer
Our process, radically simplified,* for those who are interested in how to make a record that doesn't at any point become a digital file, is of three main phases:
1) Recording sounds : this is done to a reel to reel tape machine, but there are lots of cool alternatives out there. (My buddy and I were just trying to get this wire recorder going - there's nothing like hearing a fifteen-piece big band from 60 years ago being played off of something you'd hang a painting with)
2) Mixing sounds : we mix everything down to 1/2" tape for the mastering engineer. there is a corollary challenge to recording here, because if you can't save mixes to work on later; if you don't print the mix, it's lost when you move on to the next one.
3) Mastering sounds for the world: we send the 1/2" tape (one reel for each side of the record) to an engineer who is skilled in analogue mastering. there are not too many of them out there, as it requires a special skill set and some really crazy gear. the engineer transfers the tape signal into an acetate, which is the seed of what will become the record stampers. a digital master is also created during this process, which we use for Spotify and bandcamp and such.
*(in large because, for the most part, I don't know very much about the technical side)
What's the goal for 2017 for Twain? New recordings? Tours? Are you a planner or do you take things slowly and organically like your music would imply?
I'm chronically indecisive (these answers, even the short ones, have taken me more time to settle on than I care to admit*) and consequentially a terrible planner. Basically, I have been extremely lucky. A lot of folks have reached out and offered support; I wouldn't have the wherewithal to do this publicly without people showing that kind of confidence and love.
*(the fact that this personality trait is codes into the band name is not lost on me)
Purchase a limited vinyl reissue of Twain's record Life Labors in the Choir.