Who is Serena Matthews? Intensely private, endearingly humble and audaciously gifted, she is who she wants to be. No other artist writes quite like her, no other artist sings quite like her, and no other artist will leave a listener quite as dumbfounded by the beauty and unalloyed passion of her art as she does. In an online dialogue--her first in-depth interview--this product of Byrdstown, Tennessee (otherwise known as the home town of teenage bluegrass phenom Sierra Hull) frankly discusses family, music, songwriting, her commitment to womens’, animal and Native American rights (she’s part Cherokee), and her ambitions in a series of wide ranging, freewheeling email exchanges. Out of the most conventional circumstances and influences, bathed in the love and support of a close-knit, small town family, she has fashioned powerful art. Read, and believe. Serena Matthews is for real.
By David McGee
Photos by Serena Matthews
When I began writing last month’s cover story on Sierra Hull, I thought I had come up with a pretty clever idea for the lead. Since Sierra had spent the past two years as a Presidential Scholar at Boston’s Berklee College of Music after being born and raised in tiny Byrdstown, Tennessee, I thought a good way to get into her story would be to contrast the basic demographics of the two cities as a way of illustrating what different worlds the now-19-year-old Sierra had traversed during her ongoing education as a professional musician.
Wikipedia was a natural starting point, so there I went, to check the Byrdstown, Tennessee, entry for facts, figures and possibly some interesting links to Byrdstown data. As I came to the bottom of the page, directly above the “References” section, was a single sentence: “Byrdstown is the home town of folk singer Serena Matthews.” No Sierra Hull anywhere. (Note: the page has since been updated, with a “Notable Residents” entry that lists not only Sierra and Serena, but also Sierra’s distinguished relative, Cordell Hull, who was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of State and a Nobel Prize Winner.)
Serena Matthews? Not even a mention of Sierra. Serena Matthews? Suddenly something clicked. I was sure I had heard the name, and was equally sure I had heard it from Sierra herself, during our first interview, for a May 2008 cover story in this publication’s second issue. I hastened to call up the transcript from that interview and do a search for “Serena.”
Nothing. It’s not in the transcript. She must have mentioned Sierra, if she did at all, after the interview was over, the tape had stopped, and we were chatting casually before hanging up.
So in the midst of writing another cover story about Sierra Hull, I took a detour to the Serena Matthews website, where I learned she’s not completely unknown--since her first recordings surfaced in 2000 there have been a smattering of breakthroughs in the press and at radio--effusive praise, predictions of imminent stardom, emotional comments about the impact her songs have had on listeners, indications of a couple of songs being used in films--but there was no continuity, no traction, to her career arc. Here’s a parenthetical comment I added to the lead of the Sierra Hull story after doing my initial Serena Matthews research:
(Byrdstown in fact has produced another female musician of note, the mysterious folk singer-songwriter Serena Matthews, about whom this is known: she is older than Sierra; is a college graduate; works, or once worked, at a digital photo lab in Nashville [in March of 2009 she posted a note on her website saying she had lost her job “and I’m trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, career wise and otherwise” but in October of the same year described herself as “a stay at home mom”]; is giving away all her music for free at iLike.com; and has a YouTube channel, a Facebook page and a Flickr site, the latter of which includes a photo from the back porch of her parents’ house in Byrdstown. Once signed to the indie but now defunct Lost Cat Records, for which she cut two albums, Matthews, singing in a searching, haunting, little girl’s voice with the slightest of a blues drawl and accompanying herself with rudimentary, spare, acoustic guitar atmospherics, may well be the female Nick Drake. Afflicted with “pretty bad insomnia,” she prefers late night-early morning hours for writing, but says her songs are “too dark for sharing. My voice is peculiar, my guitar skills are mediocre, at best. And my songs are too consistently sad for the radio. This leaves me saying ‘Hmmmm.’ I feel the world deeply. Sometimes it feels like it’s too dark for me to exist here, but then I look at my daughter and I know that I must, for she did not ask to be here, and I will not leave her alone. My parents never left me alone. I love them for that, and for ten thousand other things. All I really want from anyone is a little bit of relating. Otherwise this world is very hard to swallow.”)
Serena Matthews wouldn’t be the first artist to be deliberately obscure in the process of constructing a pop myth for her- or himself, but even a cursory listen to all the free music she’s offering would disabuse the most hard-boiled skeptic of any notion this artist is anything but painfully honest and open about herself and her intentions, if not self-critical to a fault.
That peculiar voice? Its timbre is reminiscent of a less polished Hope Sandoval, with a hint of the Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins in there, along with the rawness and brute honesty of a young Hazel Dickens, and at times a pronounced and savvy blues streak that will manifest itself at the most unexpected moments and with a certain startling twist in her slurred phrasing reminiscent of Lil Green. Mesmerizing, riveting, wounded and unself-consciously funny at times (I dare you not to laugh when you hear her whimsical warbling of the original last verse of the Christmas carol “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” which observes “my little brain isn’t very bright” and is treated in a bluesy manner--a truly memorable contribution to the Yuletide canon), Serena’s vocals are never less than honest and heartfelt expressions of, it seems, exactly what she’s feeling at the moment, with no evidence of an editor’s hand at work as she tells her stories. Other artists talk about being an open book; Serena Matthews is an open book--it’s not even a close call to say so. Stranger still, the voice, sometimes a bit sandpapery, soft but with depth, is of indeterminate age--she might be eight years old, or eighty.
The mediocre guitar skills? In her own way she may be the most sophisticated guitarist around. Her minimalist backings perfectly frame the austerity of her singing and create atmospheres thick with subtext. The settings for her songs are so still you can feel the riffle of air as spirits pass through her narratives.
What does she write about? Her catalogue is abundant in brooding soliloquies on loneliness and heartbreak, and sometimes those are exactly what they are--sad and hopeless chronicles of a broken heart. She will often rise up out of an emotional or moral morass, though, to find a place where the light breaks through to a brighter day. She doesn’t restrict herself to aspects of love, though. Her riveting historical song about the fate of the Cherokee Nation at Andrew Jackson’s hands, “Savage Grace (Trail of Tears),” is a devastating account of cultural genocide told from the viewpoint of one who’s in the midst of it and trying to hold onto something precious as everything around her is collapsing into chaos. In a note accompanying the lyrics on her website, Serena writes: “The song was written about the Trail of Tears. I think it's important that everyone knows what happened to the Cherokee so long ago, and how an entire race of people almost completely vanished because of the new people who invaded native America. In my opinion this is the most important song I've written to date, and I hope someone finds something inside it to carry home with them.”
SAVAGE GRACE (TRAIL OF TEARS)
By Serena Matthews ©2003
dark wind blowing on me tonight
my feet are broken and my baby just died
Jackson said we're not civilized
so we're moving west he said that's best
for a savage land, for a savage land
cold snow falling on me today
my horse is tired but still she carries me
I want to go back home, but they burned it down
I want to go back home, but there's no room
for a savage town, for a savage town
not so many moons ago I watched the Red bird fly
floating circles round and round beneath a hazeless sky
floating round and round and round in a hazeless sky
above a free land, above a free land
hard rage burning my heart tonight
my horse broke down, she died and I'm not going to make it
my blood falls out of me, it's red just like the president's
but all he sees is red skin from a savage land
from a savage land
not so many moons ago I watched the Red bird fly
floating circles round and round beneath a hazeless sky
floating cirlcles round and beneath a hazeless sky
above a free land, above a free land
a free land
A sly sense of humor animates some of the tunes as well--I may have described her as “the female Nick Drake,” but she is not afraid to have fun at her own expense in a way Drake never did. “Beauty’s Colors” is a memorable example of her balancing lusty come-ons with harsh self-appraisal and bracing self-confidence all at once (I’m not your sweet and steaming cup of tea/But I’m confident that you have been misguided,,,)--and making her flaws part of her sexual allure.
By Serena Matthews©2003
You say that I am not what you desire
I’m not your sweet and steaming cup of tea
But I’m confident that you have been misguided
You just haven’t seen the woman inside of me
I might be slightly jagged around my edges
And most likely I could use a lesson in grace
But don’t underestimate my invitation
I could satisfy your craving if you taste me
Oh, I am just a woman
Looo-nging for just a man
And I bare beauty’s colors
Underneath this old faded gown
You believe that I’m not moving forward
And I will admit it that I am happy where I stand
If you’ll give me half a chance and just one dance
I’ll make it worth your while to slow things down
Don’t terminate my night before your dawn comes
Don’t throw away my heart because my face is worn
Sometimes fate is hidden by the shadows of skin
Until you scratch my surface you will never comprehend
That I am just a woman
Looo-ning for just a man
And I bare beauty’s colors
Underneath this old faded gown
On first blush, her music sounds like the work of an inspired primitive. Dig deeper. Most of it has been recorded at home, on standard issue gear, and yet she’s learned enough basic recording skills to be able to artfully double-track her vocals and even more effectively, to add arresting, eerie echoes that drop off into a dark sonic abyss, like lost, wandering souls wailing in the phantom zone. She makes her own videos, using some basic editing software and a PC, and these take a couple of forms: a series of still photographs, taken by Serena, who studied photography at Middle Tennessee State University, of landscapes in daylight and dark--the moon hovering forlorn in the sky or emerging from clouds is a signature image freighted with meaning in the context of its use in a particular song--or a single image, a photograph or a painting, unmoving on the screen through a complete song, its solitude mirroring the singer’s isolation. Rarely--literally only two or three times, and fleetingly--does she make an appearance in her own videos. When she does appear, she’s almost always in shadow, or on the outer edges of a frame, her full body never visible: in one of the few live action videos, for the existential investigation that is the oddly hopeful ballad “Not Dead Yet,” she pops up in a side view, a head shot, basically, sitting next to her coffee maker (giving the camera a pouty, seductive look with her thick, dark hair hiding one side of her face, a la Veronica Lake), in a side view for a couple of seconds; a few second later she edges into the frame to pick up her guitar off the couch, and in a quick edit the scene repeats itself, but all we see of Serena is mostly her right arm and right hip, and then she’s gone. The one major exception to this rule is her video for her song “Staircase," in which she appears frequently, either staring blankly at the camera or looking away, never singing or playing guitar. Her use of stark black and white has led some online commentators to liken her to David Lynch, but the juxtaposition of random images in other videos, seemingly disconnected until they start revealing themselves to be elements of a consciously designed whole, of a thoughtful, considered statement of an often unsettling nature, has roots going back to Un Chien Andalou, the classic surrealistic short film made in France in 1929 by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. Just as folks are still debating the message of Un Chien Andalou, so are the messages of Serena Matthews’s video similarly conflicting at times. Light and dark are in constant motion and intertwined in her songs and in her visual depictions of those songs--lyrically, vocally, musically, visually, ambiguity is high art in the hands of Serena Matthews. More than any other quality, ambiguity--a word composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein once said is difficult to define in music because its meaning is ambiguous--is the defining characteristic of her art.
Serena with daughter Emma
Ambiguity is not, however, the defining characteristic of Serena’s life. Her reticence at revealing herself as an artist any more than she does is a choice she’s made to keep her distance from the machinery of the music business. At home, in her private life, she is a happily married 35-year-old mother, living with a musician husband and their young daughter Emma in Murfreesboro, TN, with a profound longing to get even deeper into the country, to get back to the beauty of the open spaces and mountains she grew up in and around as a child in Byrdstown, where her parents still live. (Her husband, Jeff Hightower, is a gifted singer-songwriter himself, whose blues-inflected southern rock and country, ballads and burners both, is smart, well crafted and delivered with a sense of urgency at every turn. Check him out.)
After last month’s issue was launched, I tracked down Serena via email. First I sent a note to the address on her website. Following two days without any response back from her, I began devising alternate routes to finding her: maybe contacting Sierra Hull to find out if she or her family had any connections to the Matthews family. Or calling the Byrdstown high school to see if anyone in the office might be able to put me in touch with the family.
Then Serena wrote back. In the initial exchange of emails, I told her I was considering calling the high school, and she replied that had I done that I might well have found myself talking to her mother, who works for the school superintendant.
In an email dated March 21 I made a pitch for a phone interview; she demurred, writing back:
A phone interview... admittedly makes me kind of nervous, I'm deathly shy when I talk about my music out loud. I don't know why.. I guess because it's such a personal thing.. I've barely ever even played live. a few open mics at the Bluebird Cafe and a few rounds at little places in Nashville.. that's it other than a couple of songs in films.. (just 2) .. I don't know. There isn't a lot to tell.. I stumble over my words, I'm afraid I might sound like an uneducated hillbilly or something.. I don't know. What would we talk about? If I sounded awful would you say so to everyone? I'd be quite embarrassed if that happened.
I'd be quite embarrassed if that happened. That’s not an uneducated hillbilly speaking. There’s some sophistication behind that sentiment, as there is in her music and in her videos.
She asked for more information about what a phone interview would entail, “so I’m better prepared for it if we do it. Would that be okay? Apologies for being so weird.”
I wrote back with specifics on the ground to be covered in the interview--from basic biographical facts to her development as a musical artist and so on--and assured her this was in the nature of a positive piece, seeing as how I had become such a fan of and so intrigued by her art, music and videos both.
On March 22 came this response:
Okay let's do it. I'm really tickled that you asked me, honestly. I wish I was more of a talker.
What if we do it half by e-mail half by phone? Like ask the get to know me questions by e-mail maybe, then the more detailed things by phone? That gives me time to write you a few times before we speak…be a little more comfortable. I've never done a phone interview.
I've actually only ever done one interview in person, for the MTSU newspaper here in town. They came out to the place I was living at the time and interviewed me, took some pictures.. I live in Murfreesboro.. it's 20 minutes outside of Nashville. I say Nashville online on websites because it's easier than having to explain where Murfreesboro is, since most people have never heard of it. They interviewed me because I was featured on Jewel's "Soul City Cafe" website (now dead.. gone with the wind.. people as a whole really don't care about indie artists, even if big name artists like Jewel are pushing them, apparently..) Anyway, I was the first featured artist on that website. It was pretty cool. I'm pretty proud of that.
The bio you read on my website.. I just took it down, it was so melancholy. I wrote it right after I lost my job in 2009. I'm doing SO much better now, though, have cheered up tremendously.
Just let me know what I need to do. Thanks again for finding me. How did you find me, by the way?
So began an interview that was completely conducted online. As much as I would like to impress readers by fashioning a personality profile out of her responses, on reflection I believe letting Serena’s words speak for her unfiltered provides the best sense of the young woman in full. Her responses are always interesting, sometimes provocative, unfailingly revealing. I sent the first set of questions on March 24. A day later the first set of responses arrived.
‘Fortunately, I'm in absolutely no danger of becoming famous. I have nothing to worry about. I'm exactly where I want to be. I'm truly blessed in an infinite number of ways.’
I hope these answers are okay. Please feel free to send more.
I copied the questions over to my notepad and then copied them back to the e-mail here after I answered them..so the format kind of went freaky on me... I tried to fix all the extra spaces it created, but it might have left some. I don't have time to really read over my answers...if anything sounds weird, just ask me about it. Could be a typo or something...
Tell me about your family. What do your parents do for their livelihood? Do you have brothers and/or sisters? If so, are any of them musically inclined?
My family means everything to me. I have the most wonderful parents anyone could EVER hope to be blessed with. They've never been anything but supportive and kind and loving to me and my younger sister, Traci. (She is two years younger than me, and is my only sibling.) She's a wonderful sister. Again, the best anyone could hope for.
My mom works for the Superintendent of schools in Byrdstown. She is a secretary, probably the best one you could ever find anywhere. She has the biggest heart and she's so smart. She's very creative as well…you should see her paintings. Unfortunately I didn't inherit that skill. I'm lucky if I can accomplish drawing a stick person. No, really. I can draw flowers and butterflies though…as you can see from the pictures of the homemade CDs from my website. I think they're still up there. I drew little things like that on every CD I ever sent out to anyone. A few people bought duplicate copies just to get different scribbles. I kid you not.
My dad is a maintenance mechanic for TTU in Cookeville. (Where I attended college for two years. He actually helped me to get a job painting dorms for 2 summers there at the school. That was the best job I ever had, as far as being happy goes. I made some really fantastic friends because of that job, and isn't that what life is all about anyway?) I think his job is really cool. He knows practically everything there is to know about heating and air. He works so hard. It's not and easy job that he has. In a few years he gets to retire, along with my mom. They deserve the best retirement possible. If there was ever one single reason I'd want to be extraordinarily wealthy it would be to give them all the money and security they'd ever need when they retire. They deserve it. They shouldn't ever have to worry about medical bills and such. But then, nobody should.
My Grandparents owned a furniture store for many, many years in Byrdstown, on the square, until they retired. I don't know why I'm throwing that information in here now, but I'm really proud of them and wanted to mention it, I guess. Everyone in Byrdstown knew them, I think. My Grandmother used to be a school teacher, and my Grandfather was the local Mr. Fix it Man…he could fix any dishwasher, air conditioner, VCR, satellite dish, microwave, TV, you name it. Needless to say we never had to call a repair man for anything.
My sister is two years younger than me. It was really great growing up with a sister. She's always been there for me, even when I was a jerk and didn't deserve it. I love her so much. She's an amazing person, and very talented in so many ways. I also have the greatest nephew in the entire world; his name is Jesse, named after our Grandfather on my Dad's side. I can't remember him, but I know he and my Dad's mom were very wonderful people, because look how my Dad turned out. Plus, everyone says so who knew them.
I can't say enough great things about my husband, and my daughter. I don't even know where to start. My husband is a very talented musician as well, an amazing songwriter. My daughter just turned 5 in December. She's completely everything to me. She's extremely interested in music as well. She plays the piano amazingly well for a 5 year old. Her favorites are Beethoven's 5th, and “3 Blind Mice.”
Serena Matthews, ‘Moon Hanging Low,’ video by Serena Matthews
Did you grow up in a musical environment? That is, did either parent play an instrument or sing and encourage you to do so? Was there music in the house via records, radio, movie musicals? Who were your favorite artists when you were growing up?
My dad taught me how to play the guitar; he's really a great guitar player himself, and he has the most beautiful singing voice (as does my mom, and also my sister, but she'd never let you hear it!) I think the first songs my dad taught me on the guitar were CCR songs. (Creedence Clearwater Revival). He said everyone loves to play CCR songs because they're mainly C, G and D. Totally true. "Bad Moon Rising" was probably the first song I learned, I think. It's the first one I can remember getting right at least. When I was very young I took piano lessons. I still remember the day the piano was brought into the house. I was so excited. My sister took lessons as well.
The first song we learned was called "Fun Fun Fun." I still remember it. Tiny little song. My dad taught me "Heart and Soul" and we used to play that together. He also taught me "Mona Lisa Lost her Smile." (David Allan Coe, as I found out from Google!) I love that song. I've never even heard it, actually. I only know the piano music. I guess I should listen to it. Ha. Okay I just looked it up and I'm listening to it right now. Loving it.
Yes, it seems like there was always music in the house in some way or another. My parents have a huge record collection, just about every genre. My Dad had the Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA album on 8 track, also The Beach Boys. My mom was very much into the Monkees, My dad and I used to listen to Def Leppard together too. We'd shoot hoops out in the driveway listening to the radio. We must have done that 1000 times during my childhood.
Neil Diamond, Christy Lane, some of the records I never knew if my Mom or my Dad owned them. They both adored Alabama and Randy Travis (as do I). Other names in their collection included everything from Hank Williams Jr. to Bob Dylan, 3 Dog Night, Blackfoot, Debbie Boone, The Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Bros., the Steve Miller Band, Willie Nelson, Ricky Nelson, CCR--so many more.
In my teen years I enjoyed mostly what I could hear on the radio though, which wasn't much--the stuff you'd hear on Casey Kasem's Top 40. I went through a ‘90s hair band phase with Cinderella, Motley Crue. Winger, Firehouse, Poison. But before all of that I adored Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. The first cassette I ever bought was Tiffany's debut album, actually. Then came Chicago & REO Speedwagon. Oh, how I loved those bands.
Then I went through the New Kids on the Block phase, in which I declared to everyone that I would one day marry Joey McIntyre. (I really believed it!) I still get butterflies when I see him on TV. One would think that would be embarrassing to admit, but I suppose I have no shame about such things.
My Grandma used to sing to me and my sister when she'd put us to bed on Saturday nights. We spent nearly every Saturday night at my Grandparents' house (which was just down the driveway, maybe 100 yards or so, more or less). I don't know the name of the song she would always sing, but it had the words "Bye bye, little baby of mine” and the words "Moses" and "Jesus" were in it. I wish I could remember the entire thing. My Grandma also had the most beautiful music box, and it played the most unspeakably dreamy melody. I don't know the name of that song but I pick it on my guitar a lot. I've never been able to find the song anywhere. I'd be over the moon to ever know the words to it, if it has any.
My Grandad played the guitar too, but he hurt his finger one day and wasn't able to play anymore after that. He said he'd play "Wildwood Flower" a lot. Whenever I hear that song I think of him. He and my Grandma loved bluegrass music and they'd play it in their house a lot on the radio. In fact there is a video of my sister and I playing in the yard and my Grandad had bluegrass music playing in the background. In the video we were playing in the yard with our Barbie dolls, the cats, and a toy General Lee car. (We adored "The Dukes of Hazzard,” but who didn't? It was the ‘80s after all.) (I am 35, born November 12, 1975)
‘I wish I could talk about my family forever. I wish I could mention everyone. There's nobody in my family that I don't love. I love them all, even the ones I don't ever get to see much anymore, cousins and aunts and uncles.’
3.What was your childhood in Byrdstown like? Did you have good memories of those years?
Yes, the BEST memories. Byrdstown might be one of the greatest places in the entire world in which to grow up. It is very small, less than 1000 people, according to the census. It sits right on top of Dale Hollow Lake, which is a very large lake that stretches into Kentucky as well. I grew up in the country on the TN/KY border (from my parents' front porch you can see the hills of Kentucky); anyway, I grew up in the middle of an absolutely wonderful somewhere. I'm not going to call it the middle of nowhere, because that would be insulting to the fact that it is such an amazing "somewhere.” There were fields all around us and a large forest behind my Grandparents' house and barn. We barely had any neighbors at all, and the ones we did have were so nice.
I was really quiet in school. I sat and scribbled poetry in my notebooks when I wasn't talking to my best friends. I talked to one girl more than anyone, my best friend Priscilla. Such a wonderful person. Her brothers were like brothers to me too. I miss all of them a lot. I had other very wonderful friends too, best friends. Sometimes I wish I could go back and do it again and talk more to people and be more outgoing. But I'd still probably not know what to say, and really, I don't want to go back to high school.
When the Fog Came To Byrdstown, video by Serena Matthews, filmed in her home town, Byrdstown, TN: ‘Byrdstown might be one of the greatest places in the entire world in which to grow up.’
I tried to be nice to everyone, but I never went out of my way to talk to people. I did enjoy the Service Club, though, the last couple of years of high school. I was the Vice President of that my last year, in fact. One of my favorite memories is actually picking up trash along the highway one beautiful Saturday. I don't know why I can remember that day so clearly, but I do.
Another way I passed my time was writing to pen pals. Back in the days when people didn't have computers, we actually wrote letters on paper with pencils, put them in envelopes and stuck stamps on them. My sister and I both had over 100 pen pals at one time. We'd ask for rolls of stamps for Christmas and our birthdays. I only keep in touch with 2 of my pen pals now, but they're two of the greatest people I've ever known, and are like sisters to me.
What else? My sister and I spent summers with my Grandparents, and those summers were so fantastic. Everyone should be so lucky. When we were very young before my Grandparents retired we spent the summers with our Aunt & Uncle Conner, two of the sweetest most wonderful and caring people you could ever know. I could say this about my whole family, but these two were so special to me and I saw them most often. Very fond memories. My uncle Albert (we called him Uncle Ab) would play records for my sister and I also--very old timey stuff. I don't know what he played but it sounded like Hank Williams Sr., that kind of music. I loved hearing his records. And our Aunt Lete, she did so much for us and brought so much joy to our days. I should visit her more. All of my Aunts and Uncles are so wonderful. I wish i could list them all, but I fear i might leave someone out.
We also visited my dad's sister and husband very often, and they and their daughters were some of our favorite people to ever see. They lived in the next town over, in Jamestown. It is quite a bit bigger than Byrdstown. We'd stop at this restaurant on the way back sometimes, I think it was called Smitty's Drive In. I hope I'm getting the name right. We'd always get milkshakes, the best you could ever taste. I hate fake milkshakes. These were REAL milkshakes. We'd sit in the car and eat, and chat. Sometimes we'd stop on the side of the road and eat at a picnic table.
Sorry that answer was so long. I wish I could talk about my family forever. I wish I could mention everyone. There's nobody in my family that I don't love. I love them all, even the ones I don't ever get to see much anymore, cousins and aunts and uncles. I have SO MANY of them.
‘Staircase,’ Serena Matthews, video by Serena Matthews
4. What do you recall as the first music that really spoke to you? What artist inspired you to start writing your own songs? When did you start playing guitar?
The first music that really spoke to me? Gosh, that is a hard question to answer. This might sound very cheesy, but I might have to say it was the theme song to that TV show, "The Greatest American Hero.” Admittedly, I don't know the name of it or who sings it, but it goes, "Believe it or not I'm walking on air/I never thought I could feel so freeeeeee.. flying away on a wing and a prayer, who could it be? Believe it or not, it's just meeee." I sang it all the time. I even sang it in front of the entire elementary school for a school program once. I think that as in kindergarten or in first grade. Also that Lee Greenwood song, "I'm Proud to be an American"--sang it all the time too. In 3rd grade, I believe, I got up in front of the class and sang that song. I had NO problem singing in front of people when I was a kid. I don't know what happened along the way, but I am not like that at all now.
The artist who inspired me to start writing my own songs was probably my Dad, to be honest. I always loved hearing him sing. It made me want to sing too. And he'd play this song that he made up sometimes, and I always thought it was so beautiful. Yes, I would definitely say it was him that made me want to write my own songs. I wanted to be like him, to do what he did. I don't remember how old I was when he started teaching me how to play the guitar. A teenager for sure, probably 16 or 17, maybe closer to 18. I can't remember. The later years of high school and early years of college; for Christmas one year while in college I got my first guitar, a gift from my family. An acoustic, it came straight out of the Sears catalog, I believe, and I loved it so much. I wrote my first complete song on that guitar, called "Backstreet Café.” It's on the Internet somewhere, if you look hard enough. I mean I wrote little songs here and there before that one, but that's the first one I was ever proud of.
‘Backstreet Café,’ aka ‘Forlorn,’ about lovers reuniting after years of being separated. ‘Backstreet Café’ is the first complete song Serena Williams ever wrote and the first she uploaded to the Internet, circa 2000. This is the first use of a Serena song in a video the artist didn’t make herself.
“Backstreet Café” is the first song I ever uploaded to the Internet. That was back in 2000 I think, maybe 1999. I don't remember dates very well. I uploaded my songs to a website called mp3.com. It used to be really cool, a wonderful source for indie musicians. I first heard John Mayer through that website, back when he was just starting out playing Eddie's Attic and stuff. I knew he would be famous one day. I wrote to him complimenting his music and he wrote me back, in fact. The song I complimented him on was called "Comfortable.” Not sure why I still remember that..
5. I assume you graduated from high school in Byrdstown. Did you go on to college? If so, where? And what was your major? If not college, what did you do after high school?
Yes, I graduated from PCHS in Byrdstown in 1994. In Fall of that year I enrolled in Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, TN. I started out undecided in my major, and then decided that I wanted to become an archaeologist, so I began a major in Geology. After I realized that it was completely boring to learn the names of different types of rocks and fossils, and I had a difficult time even staying awake in those classes, I figured I'd major in English because of my love for poetry and reading. I wanted to become an English professor. Long story short, 2 years into college at TTU and I decided that what I really should do was to pursue my love of photography, which I'd been interested in since I was 12 or 13 (my passion has always been landscapes and nature). So in 2006 I transferred to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, moved in to a tiny little apartment across from campus with my sister, actually, who was also attending MTSU. I graduated from there with a degree in Mass Communications with an emphasis in Radio/TV/Photography. (That's the only way to get a major in Photography at MTSU) And I was able to get a minor in English, and also a minor in Business Communication, for which I'm quite sure I'll never use for anything.
6. It appears Sierra Hull knew about you. Does that mean you were playing shows when you lived in Byrdstown?
No sir, I've never played any kind of show anywhere except in the Nashville area, and those were few and far between, and half of them were just open mics at the Bluebird Cafe. I did a round at Hobo Joe's to help raise money for an animal shelter. I think that's what it was for, I know it was to help animals. I've done so many things to help animals over the years I can't keep them all straight. I did a round at The French Quarter Cafe with Lee Tyler Post and Tim Prince in 2008, that's the last time I played live. Speaking of Lee & Tim, they're two of my best friends and are two of the greatest musicians you'll ever hear. You should check them out. Seriously.
I'm honestly not sure how Sierra knew about me. We've never met, but I did send her some fan mail once, telling her how much I love her music. Maybe that is how. Word of my music certainly doesn't spread around Tennessee much, I can tell you that. I only just this year stopped selling my music via homemade CDs, but when I did I was selling most of them overseas. Europe mostly. I've become friends with a large amount of the people who bought my CDs, because with every CD I sent a thank you note and asked the people to keep in touch, and many times they did. It's a blessing to meet so many wonderful people around the world who can relate to my songs in some way. I don't understand it, quite frankly; there are so many wonderful musicians out there, it amazes me when anyone finds me at all, much less thinks it's anything special. I produce everything myself, and I have no training whatsoever in editing or recording, as you can tell from my recordings. So the recording quality is not so great. The kind of music I create, though, it isn't meant to have whistles and bells attached to it. I want it to sound like you're hearing me sitting out on the back porch playing for my parents, or for friends.
A radio station in North Carolina once playing my song "Unsteady" on one of their radio shows. The host gave me some advice: he told me I should record with other musicians, get some help on my recordings. I appreciated that advice but I had no interest in doing such a thing.
My music is a very private thing for me. There's a reason I mostly just share it on the Internet. For one thing, I don't like playing in front of people, I never have. On the other hand, I do have a pretty strong desire to share my songs. I always wonder if anyone might relate to my lyrics in some way. Music as a whole is mostly all about the lyrics for me. I consider myself a poet more than a songwriter, and a songwriter more than a singer, for sure.
‘Here In the Blue,’ Serena Matthews, video by Serena Matthews: ‘It’s just a shot of the sunrise from my parents' back porch, but it's live. You can see a bird or two fly by in places, and the cowbell move sometimes from the breeze. That song is all about the recollection of a memory. Where best to recall memories than the back porch during the sunrise out in the middle of the country?’
I don't consider myself to be a singer in any kind of professional sense. My voice is kind of strange, I realize that. On YouTube someone recently said of my video for "You are My Sunshine" that my voice was creepy. People most often say it's "unique" or "unusual.” I always assume that's a polite way of saying it's weird.
It doesn't bother me when people don't like it. 10 years ago when I first began uploading songs to the net I got some pretty negative feedback, and it hurt my feelings some back then. Over the years I've learned to brush those comments aside and do what I want to do my own way without worrying what anyone else thinks. If you don't make songs that you like to sing yourself--then what is the point of even doing it? I think musicians waste a great amount of time writing songs they think other people will like instead of creating something that is personal and means something to themselves. You can tell when that happens. You can tell when a song is real. I can. I'd rather listen to someone like Patty Griffin sing a song any day than to hear most of the artists you find on the radio.
I hate fake drums. I have one song with fake drums in it ("Left Alone") and it bothers me every time I listen to it. It was just an experiment. Oddly enough it's one of the songs I get the most compliments on. Gosh, I've strayed very far from your question.
7. When did you move to Nashville or the Nashville area? Was that a move to try to further your music career, or to start a career as a professional musician?
I've never lived directly in Nashville, just here in Murfreesboro. I moved here to attend MTSU in 1996 and I've been here ever since. I definitely never moved here to further my music career. I've never really had big dreams of having a music career. I mean, sure, everyone dreams of being known for something special, but I would never want to be famous. The only reason I would want to be famous would be so I could have an influential voice, to make a difference in the world by sharing what I know about some things, like animal abuse and women's rights and such. Some people think musicians and actors shouldn't express their political and personal views so strongly, but I feel exactly the opposite. If you have a way to use your voice in a positive way, use it.
8. Somewhere along the way you also became a good photographer, and you became quite skilled at making your own videos. How did that develop?
The photography came from MTSU. I learned real photography, straight photography, getting my hands wet in the darkroom. There's almost nothing quite like that feeling of watching an image appear as if by magic onto a white sheet of paper and knowing that you caused it to happen by doing all the right things.
I stick to landscapes and my family. I LOVE taking pictures of my family. I think I already said that, but it's true. I have more pictures of my daughter and my nephew (he's 10 now) than I know what to do with. My favorite thing to shoot besides my family is the moon. I adore the moon, every last thing about it completely mesmerizes me. The "supermoon" this week was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I have pictures of it up on flickr now. I refer to the moon in quite a few of my songs.
Sometimes I love photography more than I love music. And sometimes it's the other way around. But more than any of that I love my family. One reason I'd never want to be famous, and have no interest in that whatsoever is that I see what fame does to so many families in show business. I'd rather not take that risk. If I lost my family, I'd be lost myself. Some risks are just not worth it.
As for the videos, my husband bought me a camcorder and it came with some video editing software. I just figured it out and did some videos. It was really fun. My editing software doesn't work anymore though for some reason, so no videos from me for awhile.
9. How many CDs have you recorded?
My first CD ever was done through mp3.com, it was an "mp3 CD.” They printed them for musicians and sold them via their website, and they took most of the profits from it. But I sold a couple hundred CDs that way, I guess. So the CD I did through that site was called Here in the Blue and then I also did Dreams for the Broken through that site also, but later I added more tracks to Dreams for the Broken and that's when Lost Cat Records picked it up. Through Lost Cat I only released Dreams for the Broken and Soul Searching. I did a Christmas album called Mistletoe & Angelbells through mp3.com as well. With the exception of Here in the Blue I sold all the albums mentioned above as homemade CDs, and everything I've ever released has been recorded in my home, by me. I've never been in a studio, not even to tour one or anything. I almost signed with a label in California once, and they were going to get me into a studio, but that fell through after I had a lawyer look at the contract they gave me. I was being very picky about it, they were kind of flaky and I had a bad feeling about them. My friend, Danny Hamilton, signed with them for awhile, but even he said they were strange and he cut ties with them.
So to answer your question, the homemade CD's I've done are as follows, and in this order:
Here in the Blue (2000)
Mistletoe & Angelbells (2002)
Dreams for the Broken (2003)
Soul Searching (2006)
Currently I'm working on a new album called Imaginary Ocean. But I'm sure it will take another year or two to finish. I haven't created anything new since March of last year, except just this week I wrote a new song and wrote the guitar part for it too. I almost had it completed and then I took a break, came back and forgot the melody! Bah! Maybe I'll get it back. Anyway, I think talking about my music a bit kind of inspired me to write again. So thanks for that! I owe ya! --Serena
‘People have a hard time believing it, but my songs aren't very much autobiographical. I consider myself to be a bit of a storyteller.’
1. Tell me how you got started writing songs. In the first round of questions and answers, you discussed the music you grew up with, and certainly your own music is quite different from the mainstream pop and rock of your youth. Did any particular artists on the folk or country--roots music, let's say--trigger something in you that got you into writing your own songs?
Let me think. I can remember when I first pondered writing songs instead of poetry. Ironically the guitar I used for those first little experiments was an electric one that my dad owned. I used it most often in the beginning because it didn't hurt my fingers as badly as his acoustic strings did, and it was easier because the neck was more narrow. Plus, I think I got a kick out of having an amp in my room. I can remember playing around with it and making up these poor little excuses for songs and recording them on a cassette player to see how my voice sounded with the guitar.
I was in college when I really became heavily interested in songwriting. I wrote this song called "Backstreet Cafe" and I played it every single day for at least several months, maybe a year, maybe 2! Really not kidding. I was in love with that song. Funny story: I remember walking out to my car one day and finding a CD in the parking lot. I picked it up and it was a Backstreet Boys CD. I had no idea who they were but I was ticked off because they stole my word, "Backstreet." I thought I'd made it up. It was MY word. Oh, I was frustrated with that. But I also remember thinking, "Well, at least nobody knows who they are." I didn't have the Internet back then, so it wasn't like I could Google them to find out who they were. It had to be one of their very first albums because that was probably 1996 or so. Maybe 1997. Maybe ‘98. I don't know. I don't know when I wrote that song. It was definitely ‘96 or later though, because I was at MTSU at the time. It was probably ‘97. I was really proud of my chord arrangements.
As for influences, I just don't know. I listened to Jewel a lot back then, in the mid ‘90s (her first two albums) and the Indigo Girls and Counting Crows were constantly on repeat, and the Eddie & The Cruisers soundtracks, and Bob Dylan. I actually never knew of Bob Dylan until I wrote a paper about one of his songs in an English class my second year at TTU. We were asked to interpret a piece of work chosen from a list he gave us. There were hundreds of things from which to choose; poems, songs, letters. I read the lyrics for "Like a Rolling Stone" and wrote my paper--nailed it. I got 100 percent. A-plus. So then, of course, I wanted to actually hear the song I had written about, and to my surprise, my parents had the album in their collection. I played that album over and over again for a long time. I remember my Dad walking through once as I was listening to it, and he said to my Mom, "She's listening to Bob Dylan. My daughter is listening to Bob Dylan." He sounded so tickled and I felt pretty proud about that.
Wow, I've really exhausted this question with nonsense. Let's move on.
2. I wonder too, given what everyone seems to hear as the personal nature of your songs, if you the songwriting has been not only a diary keeping kind of experience but also a means of expressing things you haven't been able to say otherwise, for whatever reason.
People kind of have a hard time believing it, but my songs aren't very much autobiographical. I consider myself to be a bit of a storyteller. "Thursday Dawn" for example. It's one of my favorite stories, along with "Angel in Hell." "Thursday Dawn" is about a preacher's wife finding out that her husband was cheating on her.
I had heard some story on the news once about a preacher's wife who went crazy and killed her husband or something. I forget the story, but I remember feeling sorry for the woman because it seemed like he'd driven her crazy himself and abused her and kind of doomed himself in that respect. She shot him. It was all over the news; you probably are familiar with it.
So in my story, which is quite a bit different, this particular woman finds out that her husband is cheating on her; she finds them out by seeing them kissing out on the street. They notice that she notices. She soon begins to listen in on her husband's phone calls with "The Other Woman." She comes to find out that he is actually planning to murder her so that he can be with the other woman without being publicly humiliated.
Audio clip: ‘Thursday Dawn,’ by Serena Matthews. The song was inspired by an infamous case in Tenneesse, when a preacher, a community pillar, was murdered by his wife, who claimed her seemingly straight-laced husband had abused her for years.
Feeling that she had no other choice, even while being very conflicted because she was a very religious woman, she decided she had to kill him first. She figured the police would take his side, because it was a small town, and who is going to assume a preacher is a murderer? Everyone loved him. You see? I have this entire story made up about this song. It's really quite detailed. It's dark and it's awful, but it's just a story. And really, parts of life are dark and awful. I think God sends us here to learn how to deal with that through compassion. How could you learn how to feel sympathy and compassion of there was nothing in the world to make you feel sorrow for someone?
Side note about that song: you can hear real thunder in the recording, and it came at the most perfectly placed locations. You may need headphones to hear it. I was jumping up and down after I recorded it. I couldn't believe a storm rolled in exactly at the perfect time. I guess it's pretty obvious from my recordings that I don't really worry about background noise. In this case, it really helped out. I love that recording for that reason. I felt like God helped me out with that one. It was like God said, "Here, have some thunder. I don't need it anyway." At the end you can really hear it well when I say, "What have I done? Should I face this or run?" I don't really like the way my voice sounds in that song though. It's too low and scratchy. But it doesn't matter. The story was told.
3. I guess a related question to the above would be: do you find songwriting therapeutic?
Very much so. One reason some of my songs sound so sad is because that's when I usually write and sing. I don't usually even pick up my guitar if I'm content with things. I read science and nature articles and poetry books instead. Songwriting and playing music take my mind off of whatever is bothering me at the time. (Often some awful, scary thing I've read in some science article or on CNN's front page!) I usually try not to write about what it is that's actually bothering me, so I just make stuff up.
I did write "Jumping Broken Fences" for my Grandmother though. I wrote that after she passed away in 2001. I was so unspeakably sad. I started playing the guitar more than ever that year, and writing songs more than ever. It started with that one.
Also, I wrote "Savage Land (Trail of Tears)" for a very specific reason. It's about Andrew Jackson forcing the Cherokee people to walk "The Trail of Tears.” It's completely about that and nothing else. My ancestors are Cherokee. (My 6th great grandfather was Chief Doublehead, quite the character, rejected by his tribe, in fact. He was even a cannibal at times. to add effect, I believe. And his daughter, "Princess" Cornblossom. You can find quite a bit about her on the net; she was a warrior, a hero. Anyway, I can't believe Andrew Jackson is on our 20 dollar bill after what he did to all those people and I refuse to visit his homestead in Nashville. (The Hermitage. It's a huge big deal here. Disgraceful.) I'm 1/16 Cherokee on my Dad's father's side. But his mom also was a great deal Native American as well, so I'm probably more than 1/16 if you add it all up. People say they can see it in me. I can certainly see it in my dad. I'm very proud of my ancestors on my mom's side too. They date back to England, all the way back to a prince. I forget which one. I want to say Edward, but gosh, weren't there a dozen Edwards?
4. To what extent do your songs give us an accurate portrait of your own personality?
I guess you can kind of look at the previous answer for that. My own personality? I'm pretty darned cheerful and happy. I have the most wonderful husband and daughter (Jeff and Emma Dee) that anyone ever could hope for. I'm blessed to be able to stay home with my daughter right now before she starts kindergarten this Fall. I've been given so many gifts. I have nothing to complain about at all. I even have two adorable house cats, Jasper and Waffle.
I guess I could put it this way, maybe. When you hear me singing a sad song in a sad way, I probably really was sad at the time, but it probably doesn't have anything to do with the lyrics I was singing at that time. Maybe slightly. Maybe there are some hidden messages in there. Maybe not. Maybe it's a secret. *grin*
Okay that's probably WAY more than you needed or wanted. I hope I didn't put you to sleep.
Serena Matthews, ‘Unsteady.’ Video by Serena Matthews. ‘Weeki Wachee Spring, Florida’ photo by Toni Frissell, first published in Harper’s Bazaar, 1947.
1. As a result of the website upgrades, your songs aren't listed as they were even a week ago. There is one song I would never have known was inspired by cruelty to animals, because it sounds like a broken-hearted love song. I don't know if you can figure out which one that is--you once had a note clarifying its subject matter on the website--but maybe you can explain the song and, more to the point, why you are so strong in your defense of animal rights.
I really can't think of which song that would be. I've looked on my website pages and can't find it. It must be "Sad Little Song (Broken Bird),” though. I was clearly thinking of "broken birds" when I wrote that. It was also a combination of a story about a guy and a girl trying to escape the world to live a life on their own in a world untouched by the corruption which lies in society. I grew up in the country, surrounded by trees and flowers and meadows and wild animals; that was Heaven to me. Now I live in a city. I live outside the city; technically it's the "country" but I don't see it as such. From my front porch now I see a dozen other houses in less than a 1 mile radius. That isn't where I'd be if I had my pick of anywhere in the world, but one day we hope to afford a place with lots of land, even if it's a tiny little house.
Animal rights… I've been an animal lover my whole life. I grew up with LOTS of cats--at one time we had more than a dozen running around. Of course they had miles and miles and miles for roaming. But they came to us to feed them. Eventually we had to give most of them away, but I've never in my life been without a pet. OH, I take that back--the first few years of college I didn't have a pet. Then I got my boyfriend a kitten, then I married my boyfriend. I still have both! Thank the stars!
Anyway, when I finally got a computer and the internet, that's when I really was able to read more about animal rights. I was completely horrified at the things going on in the world--animal testing, factory farming, the fur trade, abuse in general. It breaks my heart. I became so engulfed in my research that I had to take a few steps back, because it was throwing me into a depression.
Thanks so much!
This seems so obvious a question I can't believe I didn't ask it right off the bat: What about influences from the literary side? Do you have favorite novelists and/or poets whose work directly or indirectly inspires your own writing? (Directly in the sense that you try to achieve something in your writing that you find in theirs; indirectly in simply being inspired to write by reading their work.)
Most certainly one name fits here, almost exclusively--Emily Dickinson. I love her work so much. My mom had a book of her poetry and selected letters in her book collection and I found it as a teenager and fell so much in love with her personality and her passion for the even the tiniest things in nature and her curious introspections regarding love and death. But most of all I loved reading her letters to her sister and to her mentor, Thomas Higginson. It's so much easier now that everything is online, to find things, but it's not the same as curling up in bed with an actual book, turning actual pages, maybe even wounding yourself with an actual paper cut. Nothing online ever beats a good book in your hands.
I've always loved reading poetry, all of it, by anyone, but I've never had a fascination with any other poets the way I am fascinated by Emily Dickinson and her work. One day I want so badly to visit her homestead and her grave in Amherst, Mass. Jeff and I went to Cape Cod on our honeymoon in 2000, and we actually mapped it out to see if we'd have time to drive out to Amherst to visit her homestead, but it would have taken an entire day at least just to do that. So we opted to see the whales instead. (Provincetown, Mass has the best whale watching cruises in the country! Humpbacks, baby!)
My favorite book would have to be a tie between Little Women and The Outsiders. Also I very much love Illusions by Richard Bach. I've read that book a dozen times, I'll bet.
I've been reading The Catcher in the Rye for about 10 years now. I can never finish it. I start it, then I get a little ways in and get distracted and by the time I come back to it I've forgotten what I read previously. I don't know why I can't remember details in that book like I can in others. I guess the details are too important to me. It's just such an important book in literary history, I don't want to miss anything.
True story: I once was pulled over for speeding (it was a back country road here and I knew it like the back of my hand. There were no other cars around and I was only going like 50) and anyway, I swear to you the officer was going to give me a ticket, and then he glanced over to the passenger seat and saw Salinger's book and he smiled, and told me just to be careful and walked away. Ha!
My other favorite book is called Saved by the Light. It's by Dannion Brinkley, who wrote the book after having a NDE (Near Death Experience). That book had a profoundly inspiring effect on me and it helped to strengthen my faith in God. Now I have all of his books, one of them autographed to me.
I think that's it. Of course I love Henry David Thoreau. I also very much love Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Oh, and Maya Angelou.
1. In the song "Unsteady," you have a lyric, "put your trust in faith." I assume I'm hearing that right. We haven't touched on faith yet. So what role does faith play in your life? Do you attend church? Do you consider yourself a religious person in the traditional sense?
I'm very much a strong believer in God, a higher power, a creator, yes. Do I have all the answers? Heck no. But I believe there's a reason we're here. To me, God is the ultimate gatekeeper of unconditional love and peace. God is in everything we do, knows everything we do, supports us, gives us strength, above all else loves us no matter what we do. No matter what! Even when we screw up. Even when we lose our way. Even when we fail. Especially when we fail.
I think when we die we experience a "life review" in which we re-live everything we've ever done to anyone; every time we've hurt someone we feel their pain as they felt it; every time we've loved someone, we feel the love as they felt it. People who have had near death experiences all over the world often mention this as something that happens to them. I can't imagine they'd all be conspiring together to make up the same stories. That wouldn't make sense.
I think angels are everywhere, helping us out when we need it most, giving us those little pushes when we're in doubt, the voices in our heads that tell us not to give up. I think our loved ones who have passed on watch out for us too. I think they're with us all the time. I think they play a part in the "little voices" as well. They want us to be happy. They're waiting to be with us again.
‘The Jester’s Aubade,’ an iPhone duet between Danny Hamilton and Serena Matthews (portrayed here by Rachel Holmes), is featured in Season 2 of MTV’s My Life.
I don't go to church as much as I should, but church can happen anywhere, you know? You can talk to God anywhere, and the love and worship, it comes whether you're in a building with other people or whether you're walking through a meadow watching the birds fly by. Sometimes I watch a sunset or I kiss my daughter goodnight or I hug my parents or play with my nephew or share secrets with my sister or look into the eyes of my husband when he's telling me goodbye in the mornings or whispering goodnight to me, holding me. In those moments I thank God. That is like church for me.
I don't think God will hold it against me that I'm not in a real church every Sunday. I don't think it's a mark against me. The Native Americans never had a Bible. It didn't mean they weren't dedicated followers of a higher spirit. It didn't mean they didn't have as much faith as anyone who sat in Church every Sunday singing songs and saying prayers. They sang their own songs and said their own prayers. I can't imagine God would care if we didn't follow society's standards of how to be a good Christian, or Jew, or Muslim, or Catholic. We're all the same deep down. Good and evil, it's the same everywhere, in every religion. The rules are all different, but the concepts are practically all the same.
In "Unsteady," however, when I speak about put your trust in faith, that isn't actually about God, it's about believing in yourself. It's about believing you can do anything you want to do if you set your mind to it, because you believe you CAN. That song has a lot to do with fate. I believe in fate, destiny and such, but I think the pieces of the puzzle are laid out for us down different roads. If we don't pick up the pieces and figure out how they fit together then we could miss some really amazing things. We could miss our "fate." And guess what? It would be our own fault.
2. In the "Unsteady" video the only image is of a woman in an evening gown floating below the water line--a photo published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1947. Why only this image through the entire song? What does it represent to you?
That is an incredibly beautiful image by an extraordinarily gifted photographer named Toni Frissell. It actually was published in Harper's Bazaar in 1947 and in Sports Illustrated in the 1950s. It's one of the most beautiful photographs I've ever seen. And since "Unsteady" is very much about uncertainty and hope and believing in yourself even in the darkest hours, and it's also about waiting on someone else to find you--it's about waiting on someone else to love you before you grow tired of waiting. That image of a woman floating in the water just seems to me that it fits the mood of the song. Both meanings. Her head is above water and she's waiting--it just works. But that girl, she won't wait long.
From the other side of the story, her head is above water, and she's trying to hold on, and she'd better not give up or life will pass her by. So yeah, the picture worked, in my opinion. And it was way easier than making an entire video for the song when all I really wanted to do was share it. My laziness inspires me to be pretty clever sometimes!
3. There is another video, but I couldn't find it last night, in which there is only silence for two minutes at the start. So: (a) is that you in the video? and (b) explain the concept of two-minutes' silence and how it fits the song's presentation.
That video was for "Left Alone" and was done by Drake Jurado.
I saw some of the beautiful videos he made for his brother back in 2007 and I left him a comment that said something like, "If you'd ever want to make a video for a poor southern folk singer in Tennessee, let me know." And, to my surprise, he let me know. He was going to make a video for "Dimestore Cowboy" but one day he called me up and told me he was making a video for "Left Alone" instead. I was grateful either way. He did such a fantastic job. I love that video so much.
It isn't me in the video. Drake lives in Seattle and I'm all the way out here in Tennessee, so there was no way to make that happen. She's a much better actress anyway, I'm sure, and far prettier. I don't know if she wants her real name released. She used a stage name of Ossuri Kurmakur. I hope I'm spelling it right. It's in the credits for the video. I'm sure the name means something but I don't know what. Something interesting, I imagine.
‘Left Alone,’ a video of a Serena Matthews song, by Drake Jurado, begins with two minutes of silence. The actress in the video is Ossuri Kurmakur.
But as for the two minutes of silence, Drake is the only one who knows for sure, and he probably wouldn't tell. He's kind of secretive. It seems to be left up to the viewer to decide.
I personally do interpret it in a way that seems to fit with the mood of the song. She wants to be left alone, forget everything, even the sounds of the world. For a moment she is completely oblivious to everything around her. She doesn't even hear sounds. Then she comes home, guard down, she's alone, and she thinks that's what she wants. But she has her own ghosts to deal with. That song, by the way, was written in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. That's what it's about. Drake turned it into a love story of sorts. The beauty of music is that it's all up to the listener to make the interpretation. I could say the song means one thing, but that wouldn't matter to someone else who already relates to it in a different way.
4. In what way did Neil Young influence "Here In the Blue"? Are you a fan of Neil's music and/or of Neil himself?
It's the whole concept of "the blue,” which Neil refers to in his song "My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).” (I've actually covered this and recorded it, but I don't share it online because it's obviously copyrighted. Neil is still alive and so that's how I decide on releasing covers. If it isn't public domain and the singer/writer is still alive, I don't touch it. I covered Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars" but he sadly committed suicide many years ago.) Anyway, it's that concept of being in the blue, whatever that is; it's different for everyone. In my song it's about remembering a kiss.
5. "Not Dead Yet"--that's you in the video, right?
Yes sir. It's the first time I ever appeared in one of my videos. I don't like being on camera at all, but people kept asking. I figured what the hey. I shot that half in Byrdstown at my parents' house and half here in Murfreesboro in my own house.
6. I have to ask, because these videos are so evocative and stirring in their minimalist way, if you've been influenced by filmmakers as well as musical artists? You said in an earlier answer that you love photography, so maybe I should include photographers as well as filmmakers in this question.
I'm going to have to say no. My videos are all me, just my thoughts, not really inspired by anything except my own music. Of course there is always in the back of my mind the rules of photography and I've read some articles on film-making, basics and such. But when I make a video the only thing I'm thinking about is how to best portray an image or images that help to interpret the meaning of the song. Sometimes you don't know what a song means until you watch a video for it. Sometimes you think you know what a song means and then you see a video for it and you're like, "Oh.. I never would have thought of that." That's all I'm doing.
For "Here in the Blue,” it's just a shot of the sunrise from my parents' back porch, but it's live. You can see a bird or two fly by in places, and the cowbell move sometimes from the breeze. That song is all about the recollection of a memory. Where best to recall memories than the back porch during the sunrise out in the middle of the country? No place better, I'd say.
‘You Are My Sunshine,’ Serena Matthews, video by Serena Matthews. ‘That video is telling a story. The ending especially. I changed/added some of the lyrics to that song to make it a little bit more ‘me.’’
For "You are my Sunshine" I'm extremely detailed in that video even though it's entirely composed of nature shots. Some people say, "Oh, just the sun through the clouds and some leaves rustling around on the patio, big whoop." But it's so much more than that. That video is telling a story. The ending especially. I synced up the music in places so fantastically well that I was completely delighted with myself. In one place a leaf flies by the camera perfectly in time with the music. I did that. I mean I didn't throw a leaf in front of the camera--the wind did that part for me. But I took it into my video editing software and I synced it up with the music in a place where it worked. (It's at 1:05-1:06).
You know, I changed/added some of the lyrics to that song to make it a little bit more "me." Since then I've seen some videos show up on YouTube covering that song, and people are calling it "The sad way" or "the sad version" and I never saw anything like that until I put up my song. Just saying. I might have started a trend. I'd get such a kick out of that.
I can't believe it's had nearly 40,000 views so far. And a shocker, if you search for "You are my sunshine with lyrics" on YouTube, it's the 10th video to be listed out of 19,000. Pretty neat.
7. How many videos all told have you done for your songs? And you've done all of them on your home computer, correct? I'm assuming your production costs have been minimal.
Seven. All on my home computer, yes. The only production costs come from the price of my camcorder my husband bought for me (because I pathetically left my first one out in the rain!!) because it came with editing software. It doesn't even use little tapes or anything, so I just upload video to the computer and then work on clips in the editing software. It was kind of difficult to learn. And very frustrating because every 5 minutes or so my computer would freeze up because it didn't really have the memory needed to work such a complex program, I guess. But that software actually no longer works since we got a new computer last year when the old one died, so I don't make videos anymore. I became kind of bored with myself anyway. It's just as well.
8. Ultimately, are you happy, as a musical artist, doing it as you do now, at home, posting new music on the Internet, doing your own videos at your own pace and promoting yourself that way? Or deep down do you wish you could go on the road and get your music out to a larger audience and get paid for it?
I get asked this pretty often. I get offers from people trying to help me "become famous" more times than I can count. It's annoying, to be honest. I hate having to respond back with "No thanks." It seems ungrateful.
Deep down, I sometimes have the desire to be heard by a larger audience, of course. I think everyone wants to be heard. It's human nature. But if that meant I would have to be famous, no way. Not at all. I don't want that. It's the last thing I want. I don't want everyone to know who I am. I value my privacy too much. How awful that would be. The money might be nice for awhile, and it would be awesome if I could pay off my student loan debt, which is nearly $12,000. But money in mass proportions tends to doom people. I don't want that for my family. Ever. I'm completely 100 percent happy doing what I do the way I do it. When I was with Lost Cat Records, Jerry Jodice never pushed me to do anything. He let me do my own thing. What a fantastic person he is. He's a rare breed. He's in it for the music.
I don't want deadlines and to have to tour or be held responsible for low profits if I'm not doing well. That's too much pressure. What is the point of writing music if it isn't from your heart? How meaningful can a song be if it was written with dollar signs in your eyes instead of hearts and stars? You can tell the difference when you hear a dollar sign. You can tell the difference when hear the hearts and stars. That difference is so obviously there.
Fortunately, I'm in absolutely no danger of becoming famous. I have nothing to worry about. I'm exactly where I want to be. I'm truly blessed in an infinite number of ways. To ask for anything more would be entirely selfish of me. I don't need that on my conscience.
So many thanks for ever finding me, David. That's not an easy thing to do, by any means. I'm really grateful.
Many thanks and God bless you.
Night Falling in Byrdstown. Video by Serena Matthews.