Cory Mathews is a songwriter from California. An honest-to-goodness songwriter. This interview features his project red, black, and grey, but Cory specializes in trying every style he can. He speaks of breaking into the songwriting scene, growing up LDS in California, and the value of having a family with a wife and children. Recommended track: Distant.
First of all, you seem to have quite a few projects going on at once. Can you explain the different projects and what they’re for?
A: Yeah, I have way too many Mypace pages. Each of my projects represents some side of my musical output—each a different aspect of my musical personality:
red, black, and grey (www.myspace.com/redblackgrey): This is where I post my “personal” music, the music that matters to me. I write what I want to write musically and say what is honest for me lyrically with no outside restrictions on either (although, read the “disclaimer” in the blog section.).
Cory Mathews (www.myspace.com/pensivemusic): This is my “songwriter-for- hire” site where I try to write radio-friendly songs for artists who need songs. I’m trying to work my way in to the L.A. songwriting industry so I write tunes that I think publishers, producers, and artists might be interested in using for their projects. For example, “Best Days of My Life” was a song I tried to pitch for anyone who wanted to sound like Mylie Cyrus. I try to write in a variety of different styles, but I specialize in rock-ish indie jams. (See www.myspace.com/songwritercory for additional styles and genres from country to electronica).
The Utah War (www.myspace.com/theutahwar): I call this an “audio blog for the socially perturbed” because it’s where I vent all of my frustrations, anger, and dark humor in a raucous mix of old-school punk and 90s hardcore. The goal here is to express what I need to express in a minute. I limit my work time to two hours (from conception to recording) to retain somewhat of a raw vibe. I’d like to do more with this concept but I’ve been less angry lately.
Mr. Cory’s Kid Jams (www.myspace.com/mrcoryskidjams): Since the birth of my children, I’ve written silly songs about silly everyday stuff that kids have to deal with. My goal is to make “hip” sounding children’s music that won’t make parents want to commit suicide while they’re child is riding the repeat button. “Everybody Poops” seems to be a favorite, but I like “The ‘Brush Your Teeth’ Song.” The songs are part of a full-length concept album that I’m trying to crank out in my spare time.
How would you categorize red, black, and grey? Is it Indie?
A: I’m not sure. Any ideas? I spent most of my 20s listening to emo before emo became Jimmy Eat World and Fall Out Boy. I used to call red, black, and grey emo, but once the “Are You Emo?” quizzes started popping up on myspace, I changed it to “indie.” I welcome any genre classification suggestions you might have.
Where are you from, Cory? Was your family musical growing up?
A: I grew up on the East side of Anaheim, California. My family wasn’t musical as in “play instruments” musical, but my Dad loves music and plays it constantly. My brother and I grew up listening to everything from Patsy Cline to the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to New Order. I remember when MTV first came out because we all watched it constantly until cable became too great an expensive for the family budget. I didn’t get into my own music until I was in 9th grade because I never felt the need. But then I heard fIREHOSE…
How do you feel about sharing your name with a Boy Meets World character?
A: Yeah, I really don’t mind too much. But if I were you, I wouldn’t openly admit that you spent your Friday nights as a teenager watching TGIF.
Were there a lot of LDS kids where you grew up? Did you feel out of place or like you didn’t fit in?
A: Lots, yes, but most of them were jocks, nerds, not personable, or just plain self-righteous. My parents were converts who quickly became inactive, so I grew up in the church but not in the way Molly or Peter grow up in the church. I only started attending church regularly as a teen because I liked a Mormon girl. By that time, I was a skater-musician who really was put off by Mormon culture in general. So, if I had to hang out with Mormons, I only hung out with the “cool” Mormons who also prided themselves on being different. It wasn’t until my mission that I realized that us oddball California Mormons were a special breed who didn’t represent the church as a whole. Out of place? Didn’t fit in? Maybe. But as a Mormon I expected that. Most people either respected me for my beliefs or just cracked a joke and moved on. California’s full of music-loving Mormons who play and record, so not-fitting-in is not an issue. My wife and some friends even put on a huge multi-stake concert event called “Mormonpalooza” three years in a row with amazing success. They had 30 acts on two stages all comprised of Mormon bands, from punk to funk. But now that I’m still doing music in my early 30s while most everyone else has “moved on,” I’ll occasionally feel a bit out of step with the majority of members I encounter. I think they look at me like, “No, what do you really want to be when you grow up?”
When did you first start writing music? Who influenced you to start loving and writing music? What is Hanah’s Outfit?
A: In the 9th grade, I traded my surfboard for a bass guitar for some reason and just taught myself how to play. I holed up in my room until I could play almost every Minutemen and fIREHOSE song ever made. Word got around that I could play, and eventually a few of us players got together and formed a band (Hanah’s Outfit: www.myspace.com/hanahsoutfit). Once covers got boring, we started writing originals and I caught the songwriting fire. I wrote all day every day. I’m not sure why, but it came easy to me and I absolutely loved it. I haven’t stopped songwriting since. Today, I still can’t imagine doing anything else.
You are trying to get into the music business as a songwriter. How’s business? Why not just start a band?
A: When I returned from my mission my goal was to be a singer-songwriter of the positive variety. But after a summer of interning with Sony records, I witnessed first hand that I couldn’t simultaneously be a touring musician and make marriage and family my top priority. I sorrowfully hung up my dream of being a rockstar and decided to pursue music the college way. The good thing is that I’m now married with two wonderful children and am putting family first in every respect. Best decision I ever made in my life. The bad news is that somewhere down the line of my college education, I turned into a music scholar. This means that as I did research more and more, I wrote songs less and less. I somehow lost touch with my original passion. After my doctoral exams, I returned to songwriting with a vengeance and started having doubts about my direction as a scholar/professor. As my dissertation work became more challenging, I turned into a songwriting maniac. I thought to myself, “There’s got to be some way I can make a career out of songwriting without having to be in a band.” I began poking around and realized that some people make a decent living writing songs for other artists and/or for film and TV. A month later I joined the independent A&R company TAXI (www.taxi.com/corymathews) and have since been trying to make my way into the industry as a songwriter. It’s really slow going because now I’m having to figure out what the industry wants and needs as opposed to just writing whatever the muse brings me. I’m constantly reading songwriting books and attending weekly local songwriting meetings where industry guests critique my material and tell me how to make my music more marketable. Word on the street is that L.A. is a “five year town,” and I’ve only put in 9 months. I haven’t made any money yet, but I’m in it for the long haul because I believe in my abilities and can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. In the meantime, I bailed on my dissertation (and my PhD), took a position as a music teacher, and am now taking the next steps toward a career in the commercial music industry. (Plus, I suck as a singer. I could never make it in a band situation with a weak, amateur voice like mine. And even though I still enjoy performing, I’d rather not. I’d much rather concentrate on writing than spend time practicing my performance chops.)
How do your religious beliefs influence the kind of music you write?
A: With my songwriter stuff and with my kids music, I try to steer away from any religious issues or spiritual overtones. I do, however, consciously avoid subjects that would conflict with my religious values. For example, if I wrote a song entitled “Party ‘til You Puke,” and it happened to get picked up by an artist and make the charts, it may be a little weird explaining that to the bishop when he asks what I do. For my personal music, Mormonism—or at least spirituality—has always maintained a presence in my songwriting, even if it’s not overt. On my mission, and immediately after my mission, I wrote tons of positive message songs without being blatantly Christian. I wanted to be like Sense Field, where you could always discern that there was something deeper behind that veil of fantastic lyrics and music. But as I moved through the educational process of college, I was taught to be critical, objective, realistic. I dove headlong into philosophy and stopped writing from “the heart” …actually, I stopped writing, period. I couldn’t write inspirational “you can make it” songs when I felt burdened with the weight of five centuries of philosophical problems that sometimes challenged my optimistic theological beliefs. The funny thing, though, is that when I turned off my right-brain, I realized that my left-brain writes crappy music. So, I started dealing with my existential crises with my right-brain and it oozed out as hyper cynical views on life and the human experience. At that time, I also became heavily influenced by Pedro The Lion and I felt encouraged by David Bazan to confront “heavy” spiritual issues in my songs even if that meant appearing pessimistic. For example, red, black, and grey’s “Boomerang” is about me trying to deal with the disastrous manifestations of pride in my life. Instead of resolving the issue with a motivational turnaround (which I did all the time in my old songs), I reverse the guilt and lash out at God for the decisions made in the pre-existence: “How could you have left us? How could we have agreed to this?” After this outburst, the song just ends. Bleak, yes, but for me it is an extremely cathartic purging of unwanted emotional energy that otherwise becomes lodged in the corners of my soul. Another example: the very cynical message of “lovesong” is me confronting all the misconceptions I carried around as a young single adult about love, marriage, happiness, and the like. Now, after 8 years of marriage, two kids, and the death of a child, I have to say frankly that the Beatles were wrong: Love is NOT “all you need.” This does not mean that I’m anti-love, bitter, or completely closed off to the power of love—on the contrary. Through the twists and turns of the marriage and family relationship I have come to experience sides of love that I never knew existed. (Read the section on love in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet to get a better idea of what I’m talking about.) So, no, I’m not Jars of Clay, but I speak honestly about my struggles with life and the gospel to produce musical material that’s meaningful to me as a spiritual person
You have a day job teaching children with disabilities. What exactly do you do?
A: I teach music to autistic and bi-polar teens at a place that harbors kids who get kicked out of regular schools because of their unique struggles. These are smart, personable kids who also happen to be one click off socially or emotionally. But it’s perfect because I honestly feel one click off socially and emotionally most of the time, too. That particular quirk allows me to vibe with them really well. I teach individual music lessons (drums, keyboard, guitar…whatever they want to learn) and music appreciation. I also teach them creativity and music technology through Garage Band. My goal is to help them express creative energies that otherwise go untapped for one reason or another. It’s a rewarding job because I get to share my love of music with a castaway population who desperately needs music in their lives.
The music industry seems like it can be rather discouraging. How can listeners who enjoy your work support your music?
A: Send me money. 🙂 No, unfortunately, there’s not a lot a single listener can do. If I was a band, I’d need them to tell their friends, buy downloads, come to shows, etc. But as a songwriter, having fans is great but doesn’t really help me all that much. Other than having talent, the name of the songwriter game is who you know. So if anyone out there knows someone in the L.A. music industry who could benefit from my songwriting abilities, introduce me. Or, if you’re a songwriter who’s trying to achieve similar goals, email me your suggestions on how I might make the songs posted on the Cory Mathews site stronger or more marketable. If you like my red, black, and grey jams, just drop me a line and let me know. I make RBG music for myself but am always happy to hear the reactions of other music lovers. If you dig Mr. Cory’s Kid Jams…play it for your children! And if you need more material than what I’ve posted, send me an email and I’ll let you know when the full-length album comes out. (That might now be for another year, however.) If you enjoy The Utah War, may your loved ones take pity on you. 🙂