If you count live albums, early cassettes and compilations (and why wouldn’t you?), Cincinnati singer/songwriter Maurice Mattei’s latest release, Celebrity Issue, is the 21st entry in his diverse and vastly entertaining catalog. And while Mattei’s extensive press archive detailing that impressive body of work features plenty of Bob Dylan references (with Celebrity Issue offering some Randy Newmanesque moments), the gifted singer/songwriter has evolved into a singular talent with a unique Folk/Pop style.
“When I write, I don’t think, ‘Oh, this is going to be this guy or that performer,’ ” Mattei says. “I used to do that. You do that when you’re starting out and you’re a fan more than your own musician or composer.
“It’s the same in other art forms. When I first started doing photography, I was really impressed with the work of Robert Frank, and I wanted to do stuff like Robert Frank. It’s just a stepping stone, a learning process, then hopefully you get to a point where you’re making your own thing. I don’t even think about it. If a song comes out a certain way, it comes out a certain way.”
Mattei’s songs have been coming out a certain way for more than 20 years now, the most recent attributed to his live/studio backing band, The Tempers (currently featuring scene vet Jimmy Davidson on guitar, bassist Neil Sharrow, drummer Mike Grimm and Rick Howell on harmonica). Celebrity Issue, bannered as Maurice Mattei & The Tempers for continuity’s sake, is more a solo album with a guest list. In fact, the album was almost as unplanned as a teenage pregnancy.
“I had no intention of putting together another record; I hadn’t written anything for months,” Mattei says with a laugh. “The first song I wrote, ‘Find Yourself Another Man,’ is kind of a funky dance tune, and with the band, that’s how we did it. The songs that followed, I sort of wrote with the band in mind, but with the logistics of getting that together, I felt like I wanted to do something a little different. So I started doing the songs by myself and I like how it turned out. It took it in a different direction, but I think it works.”
Although Mattei has little interest in concept albums (his Country homage Western Skies and his brilliant Kenwood Towne Center song cycle notwithstanding), he points out the thematic thread woven into Celebrity Issue.
“It’s inevitable when you write a group of songs in a finite period that you’re kind of documenting whatever experiences you’re going through at the time,” Mattei says. “A lot of the material talks about loss; loss of someone you knew or a relationship or an era, a time, a place. That’s what I get from it. It’s about how things change and how loss occurs.”
The aforementioned roll call on Celebrity Issue is potent, with contributions from renowned keyboardist Ricky Nye, pedal steeler Cameron Cochran, multi-instrumentalist/Blessid Union of Souls bassist Dave Ramos, cellist Claire Timmerman, harmonicat Rick Howell and Mattei’s wife Korin on vocals, as well as engineer/producer Bob Craig, who’s worked with Mattei on several previous studio projects. Mattei’s praise for everyone involved is effusive and he credits his musical accomplices as collaborators to a certain extent.
“I love having people come in that have nothing to do with the band and seeing what they come up with,” Mattei says. “That’s really exciting. I’m not very dictatorial. I know what works and what doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned, but I like to see what somebody comes up with on their own.”
Mattei shows no sign of slowing down, recording and playing out semi-regularly and evenly dividing his time between music and his much sought after graphic design skills (except when he’s recording, which commands more attention). After 21 albums and countless gigs, he remains fresh and engaged in the process.
“I think always playing is good, but you have to step away from it and experience life,” Mattei says. “When I finished this project, I started doing more photography and drawing. That doesn’t mean I eliminate music from my mind, because we’ve got shows coming up, but it does mean you’re not always doing the same thing.
“I teach a drawing class, and I always tell students in order to get better at anything, you have to work. There’s no shortcut. The more I wrote, the easier it got to write songs. But there comes a point where you can burn out and say, ‘I don’t feel like writing that song, I feel like playing someone else’s tune or doing something else.’ And that’s very healthy. Let it develop itself and it generally will. If you have that in you, it’ll come back to you.”
MAURICE MATTEI & THE TEMPERS perform at 1 p.m. Oct. 25 at Everybody’s Records in Pleasant Ridge. More info at mmattei.com.