music (2006-26)

The Signs We See

Talking literature and destiny with Matt Costa

by Molly Kincaid

If you have an overactive imagination, driving up or down the coast of California can transport you into the setting of a John Steinbeck novel. The brown scrub fades into the muted greens, the flatlands bleed into the darker, hillier forests beyond; it’s the real-life version of those impressionistic images Steinbeck so viscerally conjures. There’s no one around for miles and miles, but you can almost sense George and Lenny somewhere in those woods, eating from cans of beans and talking about imaginary rabbits.

To hear it in a song, and to see it in liner notes, makes anyone who’s ever had the sensation feel an instant kindred pull toward Matt Costa, the up-and-coming musician from that great Western state. On his album “The Songs We Sing,” and in the song “Sweet Thursday,” which is about driving to Monterey, he sings, “I left my home behind me/ the row there kept reminding/ of pages in your writing.”

On the phone, on a tour stop in Florida, Costa confirms an affinity for Steinbeck, having grown up in Huntington Beach, in the state where most of his books are set. Another song, “The Ballad of Miss Kate,” is even based on themes from East of Eden . “The funny things I’m realizing about his books is this mood—there’s always a bottle of whiskey or wine—the way the characters lived hard lives. In a way it’s depressing, but there’s an optimism to it,” he says. “I try to do that in my songs—have little glimpses of hope even if it’s a dark song.”

And while some of his songs do have hints of darkness, in life Costa is more of a make-lemons-into-lemonade kind of guy. His stumble into a music career, in fact, occurred while he was laid up in bed, recovering from a severe skateboarding accident. “I had always been around and loved music,” he says. “But I finally had the time to sit down and see what it is about songs that makes me feel a certain way. I became really obsessed with dissecting songs.”

Since then, somewhere along the way on his musical ascent, Costa has befriended fellow Californian Jack Johnson, though their styles are pretty disparate. Costa cites that disparity as the main reason Johnson sought out his record for his personal label, Brushfire Records. There’s an undertone of Johnson’s sweet surfer-tunes here, but it’s accented with bluegrass and folk-rock elements too. It’s not too surprising when Costa mentions Van Morrison and “old-style finger pickin’ from the Carter Family” as influences.

The progression of being injured and then turning to music seems like a classic story of fate knowing best, but Costa only halfway believes in destiny. “I think things are what you make of your opportunities,” he says. “But with that question of destiny I could go either way. I think things do and don’t happen for a reason.”

Still there’s a sense that a remarkable force of synchronicity follows the optimistic singer around, making up for his admitted absent-mindedness. He loses everything—he recently misplaced all his luggage, plus he’s always without sunglasses. His band members remind him from the background that he has to search for his harmonica for a good 10 minutes before every show. “Recently, things have been falling on my head,” he adds, not sure if the pattern’s a sign or just clumsy coincidence. “In the bus, a two-liter bottle of vodka fell on my head, and later someone’s shaving kit…. I’m just waiting for what’s going to happen today.”

On a long tour, there are so many unexpected elements that it’s easy to understand how musicians would want to seek control in other realms. Even the songs they  write take on their own lives, floating out and changing and hitting peoples’ ears in different ways. But the typically unassuming Costa doesn’t cop a sense of ownership—only a sense of wonder. “Every show, the crowd’s reaction is different, and it brings different things from the songs for me,” he says. “People form these emotional attachments to the songs, and that makes me feel good, but kind of guilty in that I get to do something so cool, and then it affects people. I mean, I just wrote these songs in my bedroom.”

Who: Matt Costa w/ Perpetual Groove