WWhen I think of gifted and gritty folk songwriters, some of my personal favorite artists come to mind, but there aren’t many of them that I have the pleasure of knowing personally. Matt Harlan is one of those truly gifted songwriters of that ilk that I’m also blessed to know.
Harlan graduated from Boerne High School in 1999. His first performance had actually been in a Boerne Middle School talent show back at the age of 13 in a band called The Spleens. “Believe it or not, we were already doing originals in the eighth grade. I was playing guitar in (fellow Boerneite) Wilson Marks’ band. For the talent show we did songs we’d written, and also wanted to do a Bush song, but they wouldn’t let us, because I guess it had ‘a bad word’ in it or something. It was a lot of fun.”
Matt was already growing accustomed to being on stage with regularity and was then a part of a group in high school that frequently performed at The White Rabbit in San Antonio. “There was also this little place in Boerne at the time called Stagecoach Station where I worked as a dishwasher back in those days I would play songs there on my lunch break. It felt really good. Boerne has always been a really cool town that’s still special to me today.”
Harlan and his bride, Marie, residents of Houston, are celebrating their 1st anniversary as of April, as well as two months for their beautiful newborn daughter, Alice. “You know, going through all of this quarantine with a brand new baby changes your perspective. It’s already easy to do things like wash our hands all the time. And I’m grateful it has kind of been built-in paternity leave for me and that I’ve been able to be home with her and my wife as much as I am during this time.”
After graduating from high school, Matt continued to play with some of the same guys, but like so many of us, was initially hesitant to put all of his eggs in the proverbial basket of music. “I went on to college because I didn’t really think I was going to actually do stuff longterm with music. Just assumed it would kind of be on the side.”
Matt would go to Austin and study journalism at the University of Texas where he’d graduate with his degree in 2003. “It was really after college that I started to actually venture out on my own and begin to play with significant frequency. I moved to Houston, and started making the round at venues, and playing songwriter’s festivals, and began to start doing my own recording.”
One of the absolute most challenging things as an independent songwriter is finding the resources to keep moving forward with the often-costly, time-consuming, and highly-specialized process that is recording. Matt has been a great example of doing this crucial part of the business well through his hard work and planning out his next moves.
He says he’s gotten “lucky,” and we’ve likely all heard the adage: “It’s better to be lucky than good.” I’ve never really thought that was actually true, but some good fortune never hurt anyone. However, I also know Harlan’s accomplishments are due to him reaping the good seeds he’s sown both musically and personally over the years while also busting his tail to scrounge together the funds to get projects done.
“You know, its taken money from tax returns, paying as you go at studios, doing things in steps; I even took a big chance and pulled a loan from my 401K to fund this last project.” Matt simultaneously embodies both the spirit of the artist and the entrepreneur which really is both rare and necessary in order to be a successful singer songwriter that desires to maintain longevity in their career. Hearing about his process is deeply inspiring to me on my own path.
“Every ‘job scenario’ I’ve had since college has been through music in some way even though the jobs themselves weren’t doing music. Folks have always been really understanding and supportive that I’ve always had this music thing I’m gonna go do, and are comfortable standing with me despite the inherent uncertainty of what the process of that looks like.”
We then began to discuss songwriting influences. “I think for a long time, as songwriters, we sound a lot like the people that influence us. I started working with Rich Brotherton as a producer (who used to play with Robert Earl Keen) and it opened me up more. I was already a big Guy Clark fan, and loved Adam Carroll. I then started to get more into Lyle Lovett, and then began appreciating much more what Robert Earl Keen brought to the table as a songwriter.”
If that list speaks to your taste as a listener, then you owe it to yourself to check out Matt Harlan’s tunes. He continued, “I began to realize there’s a lot fewer rules to this stuff than I thought previously. It was really freeing…once you really dig into the depths of the Texas Americana scene, it’s empowering to see how varied the artistic process can be.”
Fatherhood has opened his heart in new ways, and also made him realize that his notion of sleep deprivation and his ability to cope with it still had a long way to go/grow, despite the crazy hours and lifestyle kept by musicians. The sense of gratitude in both his face and voice for his art, his family, and the ability to form a healthy perspective in uncertain times is refreshing.
It’s beautiful to hear from people during this time of widespread, lasting challenge we’re all facing how someone is able to find a silver lining in the midst of trial. One of the key marks of resilience, character, and truly of a good father is the ability to find peace and a lesson while walking through a difficult season. Knowing Matt, I didn’t doubt he’d be a loving father. I’ve more than once been struck with a sense of his humility and kindness in how he relates to people. He’s an incredibly gifted artist that is also one of the most unassuming and amiable individuals I’ve ever met. Alice is blessed to call him daddy and I’m glad to call him a friend.
Please follow Matt’s musical journey.