Updated: Nov 3, 2022
A prolific songwriter with seven albums notched on the neck of his guitar, Matt Jaffe also manages to be intensely, intently, intentional about each one of them (and everything else he does). Tirelessly dedicated to the technical craft and creative journey of songwriting, he's already standing on the dusty, hallowed, coir doormat of the American Canon with one foot past the door jamb, ready for the bowler-topped bouncers to let him in. - CC What did creativity look like for you as a child?
Though my earliest musical experience was classical violin lessons at age five, I don't consider that my earliest creative pursuit. By second grade, I was writing epic stories about a chipmunk detective inspired by Chip 'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers, Chip being the predecessor to other heroes such as David Byrne and Elvis Costello; a side note about Chip and Dale--though many people are willfully oblivious to this fact, they are easily distinguishable by several features: 1) Chip has a black nose, Dale a red one; 2) Chip has a single front tooth, Dale a pair with a gap between; 3) Chip is a savant, Dale a moron. Let's not settle for ignorance, people! Moving on, these stories were lengthy and without meaningful blueprints, but they did act as a creative outlet. Ironically, as a musician, I've come to dislike songs with oppressively narrative lyrics. There are exceptions (Mariner's Revenge Song by The Decemberists, Tecumseh Valley by Townes Van Zandt), but I think that an overattachment to storylines actually undermines the unique power of lyrics to transcend the concrete obligations of prose. This issue is akin to how animation is underutilized if it fails to betray the physics of our world. Disney animators were criticized for how their art simply mirrored our real lives within cels, while Warner Bros. used it to stretch the boundaries of our reality. Similarly, lyrics are afforded verbal liberties of which prose is bereft. That said, there are interesting ways to marry the two, perhaps best demonstrated by Dylan's Tangled Up in Blue. The lyrics, often referred to as "Cubist," clearly follow a storyline, one of withering youth and romance, but they are not hamstrung by it.
What does your creative process look like now versus five years ago?
In my previous answer, I broached far more theoretical terrain than intended, but it does connect to how my process has splintered from moralizing or linear amibitons. This transition spans a greater length of time than five years, but overall I am no longer concerned with conclusions. They don't exist anyway so for me it's best to write from the perspective of a single moment. "Change over time" is a phrase I associate with history class essay prompts relating to the Habsburgs or the Ottoman Empire. More apt than "change over time" is this quote from Sandra Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek: "the way you grow old is like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one." We build on each pinpoint but the old grudges and joys and sorrows are ingrained. The concept of memory fascinates me; when we say we remember a moment, how much do we remember the experience of the moment vs. the simple trappings of the moment? I may retain the other people present, the weather, the food on the table, the song on the stereo, but is this even close to the sensation of being in it? At best, I can inhabit my 22-year old self as my 27-year old self would, which is why it's best for me to skirt inherently distorted narratives and filter experience through the inescapable lens of the present.
As an independent musician, you have access to content creation, distribution, marketing tools, and metrics that were once only available to record labels. How do these tools affect (or interact with) your creative process? (For example, if you're watching your metrics, and you know that your fans are responding to a certain song, is your tendency to write more in that vein, or go another way entirely?) The best part of the modern influx of digital tools is that one can largely excise parasitic third parties from content creation and monetization of said content. A&R people, DJ's, PR reps and other gatekeepers can be largely skirted. I don't want to write off the lot of them as certain people (Seymour Stein is a big one for me, having championed Talking Heads and The Pretenders, among others), but ultimately narrowing the divide between creator and audience can only be a good thing. Instead of genuflecting to labels as I tried (unsuccessfully) to do in the early going, I now focus my energy on crowdfunding campaigns that limit the third party to a fee taken by the crowdfunding platform, Indiegogo (a fee that accurately reflects their contribution to my efforts). The only downside to this model is that it best caters to an existing fan base and does less to build on one. However, without an affiliation and obligation to a label, the need to replicate success is limited. My intent is often to write in the vein of a current favorite artist, regardless of my more successful songs. Early on, the influences were more obvious. People could easily pinpoint Talking Heads and Costello, but these days I've had so many influences that the cumulative effect is simply me. And that's the bottom line: no amount of intent can override the fact that we are ourselves. However, I do have an overarching ambition to explore new boundaries as I find the artists whose relevance has endured have been chameleons (Bowie, Dylan, etc.). Even artists who aren't canonized as chameleons are deceptively so. Think of Tom Petty. Culture doesn't celebrate him as an innovator in the way it does Bowie, but take two steps back and realize how much Refugee differs from Don't Come Around Here No More differs from You Don't Know How It Feels differs from Free Fallin'. So accurate. I've long thought of Refugee as one of the darkest songs to come out of the '80s pop landscape -- and have equally-long loved it for that. - CC
What do you feel is the biggest impediment to creativity in your daily life?
It's a boring answer, but it's simply time. Is it too early to be talking about the benefits of the pandemic? I'm not talking about the euphemistic "silver linings" that we love to bandy about. I'm talking straight-up benefits. I estimate that I spent 2-3 hours a day driving, approximately 20 hours a week in my car, before the pandemic, getting to gigs and lessons and sessions. I would go out into the world and collect inspiration on my Voice Memos and Reminders apps, but it often wasn't until weeks later that my schedule afforded me the free time requisite to channel those inspirations into songs. Suddenly...March 2020! I collected inspiration for a song at 10am and crafted that song by 2pm! The flipside is that the routines of pre-pandemic life, even the doldrums of it (especially the doldrums?), are foundational to creativity, so isolation from the parts of life that don't seem intrinsic to creativity is its own impediment. Creativity is recursive, but that meta-influence isn't indefinite. It needs fodder, and oftentimes the best fodder is best found in the mundane. My favorite exponents of the mundane were lost during shelter-in-place, like my OCD picking of the right yam at the grocery store or waiting in line to renew my Passport. Furthermore, having commitments that define time foster creativity. Broad vistas of free time make it more challenging to apply myself. If I don't have at the very least one appointment in a day, urgency is lost. Just like life must be defined by death, as in Borges' The Immortal, in which the titular protagonist is driven mad by his inability to derive meaning within an unending existence. Is this analogy a stretch? Perhaps, but the fact remains that songwriting and life alike are motivated by constraints.
Matt and I collaborated on this Iggy Pop/Kate Pierson cover earlier this year. - CC
What do you feel is the biggest facilitator of creativity?
A sense of "otherness" drives me to write. Ok, let's address the elephant in the room of that statement. As a straight white male (half-Jewish doesn't do much to differentiate me in the Bay Area), I embody the hegemonic norm and have been endowed with every privilege in this world. So with that in mind, with that elephant poached, I mean "otherness" in a cultural sense, and a resultant social exclusion. There are no villains in this scenario, but in the music that swaddles me on a daily basis, I have learned to embrace a different outlook. In doing so, I channel feelings of detachment into something productive, all the while finding a community that, ironically, thrives on otherness. Is otherness obliterated when it brings people together? Now I'm toeing the line of condemning solidarity so I'm going to step right back from that ledge. If a community forged by otherness begets solidarity, then solidarity begets empathy. Again, given my privileged demographic, empathy is not hardwired into my mentality. Frequently, it is merely an intellectual exercise. How can I understand the consequences of being a solitary woman simply walking down the street? For my part, I have become part of the epilepsy community having developed that condition in 2015 (a much longer story for another time). After being invited into that network by the Epilepsy Foundation of Northern California, I have had more first-hand experience with relating to others by means of a poorly understood deviation. In essence, I am motivated by how I distinguish myself from a dominant norm.
What's your primary creative goal for 2023?
This answer relates back to the excision of parasitic third parties from content creation. I want to make make make. I am not fully liberated from release strategies and PR campaigns, but I've grown to value the volume of output, insomuch as it doesn't compromise the quality thereof. I accept the drama of this statement, but when I pass away, I don't want to have left anything on the table and I want as many songs out of my system as possible. I want to give the same answer when you're asking me the same question in 2053. Perhaps by then 60 will be the new 30? (Working on it - CC.) I want to doggedly pursue my muse (sometimes it has a human name, other times a more indelible one) and go back to the well as long as it welcomes me. I'm a firm believer in hounding creativity. Lightning-in-a-bottle inspiration surely exists, but it's lost to those without practiced execution of inspiration. I'm bad at taking days off and maybe creative muscles are best if given rest days like muscle muscles, but right now I'm not taking the chance.
What's really inspiring you in this moment?
At the moment, my favorite media is essay collections. Who have I become? Just months ago I would have extolled the virtues of fiction over any other writing (this does not conflict with my earlier statements about avoiding narrative since that was in the context of songwriting, not prose). My two favorite essayists are Samantha Irby and Abbi Jacobson. The comic honesty of their work is so valuable and encourages me to be more forthcoming in my lyrics. I have wielded my words as a weapon of abstraction and I would do well to eliminate detachment. Coming full circle, Dylan is often accused of said detachment, but it was with Blood On the Tracks and its key track Tangled Up In Blue that he pierced that armor. The reaction to certain songs of mine correlates with the emotional frankness of the lyrics. I'm not saying it can't be communicated via imagery (such as a voodoo doll), but listeners are subconsciously aware of truthfulness and more often than not, it's a good thing. Thank you Samantha and Abbi.
Find more of Matt on his website, on Spotify, YouTube, and all major non-parasitic music distribution platforms. See Matt live with Strange Cities and Everything But the Everything at Amado's SF Friday, November 18!