Jessica: Matt, I’m so thrilled to have you here! Thanks so much for doing an interview for TSM.
Matt: Pleasure is all mine, thanks so much for the opportunity.
Jessica: You began singing at two and started performing in public at age eleven. Wow, well you were definitely born to sing! Who were some artists you liked singing along to as a child? What was one of your favorite songs to sing? Tell us about the first time you performed in front of an audience.
Matt: I always enjoyed all types of music, if the song is good then it doesn’t matter what style. As a kid I listened to a lot of Stevie, James Taylor, Nat Cole, The Beatles. As far as which song was a favorite, that’s a tough one, I remember getting Inner visions by Stevie and I would run that album all the way through and sing along. I sang a lot of Take 6 too when I was young, I always tried to pick apart their arrangements then with two boom boxes, try to recreate it. One voice in one boom box, then play that and record while singing on the other boom box, over and over. The first time I performed in front of an audience I was eleven years old at this spot called Cherry’s in Lenox, MA. It was an open mic night and I sang Tevin Campbell’s “Round and Round.” At that point it was the thrill of my life! There were maybe fifty or so people there, just promoted the idea in my heart and head that I’m supposed to play music for a living!
Jessica: At what age did you start writing songs? When did you start playing the piano and guitar? And finally, what was the first song you ever wrote?
Matt: Since I can remember I would always form melodies and words in my head. Was something I always did, especially if I heard a siren go by or any kind of sound nature would give me, I’d start drumming a beat to it and singing over it, and just sing about what I saw or someone who was around me. I think the first song I’ve ever written was around eleven or twelve, I don’t remember what it was called but I remember playing it all the time for everyone. I actually don’t even think it had a name, haha. I started playing piano when I was about five or six, I would imitate what I heard on the radio or wherever there was music, from then after learning chord progressions and melodies I would create my own little songs. But to this day I can’t read a note of music. Guitar? I think I started playing around twenty one or so.
Jessica: What’s your process for writing lyrics? And where do you get the inspiration for your songs?
Matt: Lyrics are so important in songs. The older I get the more emphasis I put on writing good lyrics. I don’t know if there’s a specific process in writing them. They come from all different areas in all different ways. I try to form some kind of concept first, and then think of the million different ways I can lyrically dance around that concept. I change lyrics constantly up until the very last minute. And if you ever saw a page or two of my lyrics, there’s always tons of options for a line, and crossed out words and scribbles. I have ideas thrown in my phone memos, all over my computer desktop, thank God for technology or there would be little pieces of paper with bad writing on it all over the place.
Jessica: In 2000, you were discovered by one of your biggest musical inspirations, Brian McKnight. Wow, the odds of this happening is rare, so you must have been on cloud nine! Can you recall the day that he discovered you? And what it was like collaborating with him?
Matt: That was a storybook day in my life without question. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was at Berklee College of Music in Boston and we had a mutual friend who told me he was coming to hang out at the school. We all were hanging out in one of the big practice rooms at the school and after a while my friend told me I should sing. Nervous as can be, I sat at the piano, and played and sang an original. By the second verse Brian was on the phone making a few calls, at that point I was thinking either he thought I sucked or just didn’t care. Little did I know he was calling his manager and then wife to let them hear me. From there we all just messed around on the piano for a while and he asked me what my plans were. That night I dropped out of school and he flew me to his house in California the next day. Wrote a few songs, had some really great experiences. I’ve been touring with him since about 2007 or so which consisted of some opening up, playing keys and singing background. I’ve learned so much from him over the years, it’s been a dream come true traveling the world with him!
Jessica: Besides collaborating with Brian McKnight, you’ve had opportunities to perform with other accomplished artists such as: James Taylor, Norah Jones, Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, The Beach Boys, Babyface and Christina Aguilera. That is an impressive roster! What has been one of your most memorable experiences?
Matt: There are so many moments that stand out for me. If I had to pick one I wouldn’t be able to. I would say playing with James Taylor was an absolute dream come true. I played with him on three different occasions and each time was surreal. I think one of the most memorable with him was when I played with him and his brother, Livingston at Harvard College, and he and I were backstage for most of the show. I got an amazing chance to just pick his brain a little bit and talk music with him. After that we played a couple tunes together on stage and it was just too good to be true. Past that, I got the chance to play with Stevie Wonder a year or so ago. Doesn’t get any better than that. The thing for me with these moments was, I was so concentrated on not screwing up and what not that I probably didn’t soak in the moment as much as I should have, and each time it flew by. But when I look back, and think about these kinds of moments, I still get butterflies and that surreal feeling.
Jessica: Currently, your self-titled debut album is out. Tell us more about this album. Is there one song in particular that stands out as a favorite for you?
Matt: This album came out in December of ’08, so it’s a bit old and usually as an artist you always look back thinking I should have done this and that, but it did really well for me. It’s on more of a jazz/soul vibe with some left turns and surprises. Some of the songs date further back than the release but they were songs that I sang live and audiences enjoyed so I decided to get them on the album. I’m not sure if one particular song stands out. I’ll always have a soft spot for “One of Those Nights,” – that song won me a lot of songwriting awards and really got my name out there. It was the Maxell 2009 Song of the Year and the John Lennon Song of the Year, I came in second in the International Songwriting Competition, and it was Best Jazz song for the Billboard Songwriting Contest. “Every Step” is a tune I usually still perform at shows, that was the last song I recorded before the album was mixed and mastered, literally wrote and recorded that in just a few days. “Here’s To You And Me,” I actually wrote for my parents, so that song has a special place for me. Then the duets with Javier Colon (Winner of NBC’s The Voice) and Shoshana Bean (Wicked on Broadway) will always stand out. Love those guys! And I think “Once Upon A Time” will ALWAYS be special to me. I wrote that for my three nieces, and every time I’m around my hometown of Pittsfield, MA, they come up and sing it with me – it’s always one of the highlights of my shows. All in all it was a good representation of me, and the second album will really show how I’ve grown musically and lyrically. I’m very anxious to work on it!
Jessica: You are also a professional dance! How long have you been dancing? What dance styles have you had training in? And do you have a favorite style in particular?
Matt: Eh, haha. I danced here and there, I would never call myself a professional dancer. I did a tour with Christina Aguilera that, unfortunately, ended up getting canceled and I was the only male background singer. So, I had to do a lot of the dancing with her and what not. When I was younger I used to breakdance all the time, love the art of dancing, was just too busy writing songs and playing to take it too seriously.
Jessica: If you had the power to do something in the world today, what would it be and why?
Matt: As a musician I think we really strive to touch as many people as we can. All I can really ask for is that what I do can maybe bring a smile to someone’s face once in awhile, or bring up a great memory, or help make better a bad one. Maybe just one person at a time, to give them a few minutes away from something that is troubling them, or maybe just distracting them from a hectic day. Whether it be the biggest of inspiration I sparked, or just a small sigh of goodness for someone.
Jessica: What is one of your favorite quotes (or lines) that inspires you?
Matt: Seems like each day of my life has a different quote. But some of the most simplest quotes and carry such huge weight with me. “It is what it is”, “Live life to the fullest”. It’s tough to pick just one quote, but even those small everyday quotes, that may not mean much to other people, mean a lot to me when you really think about them and practice their meaning.
Jessica: Anything else you’d like to share? And where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
Matt: Well, I’m working on my second album now, collaborating with a lot of amazing writers and artists. Doing a little bit more of a singer/songwriter album this time around and loving the results so far. I’m going to try to put out a sneak peak somehow in the near future, maybe release one or two songs. As far as keeping in touch I’m pretty much everywhere – twitter.com/mattcusson, facebook.com/mattcussonmusic, mattcusson.com, album is available pretty much anywhere you buy your music online, Itunes, Amazon, etc.
Jessica: Thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. I wish you all the best with your music in the future.
Matt: Thanks so much and thank you for spending a little time. The pleasure is all mine!