Matt Cusson: Casual gig for family, friends

Friday November 9, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Matt Cusson has long since found his own way through the sometimes thorny life of the independent musician fending for himself in the business.

A few years removed from the release of his debut album and a breakthrough award that put him on the map in music circles, the Pittsfield native is re turning to town for a show at the Colonial The atre's The Garage space to night.

Last au tumn he played a date at Shakespeare & Com pany with Livingston Taylor, followed by a Christmas show at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre, but tonight's gig, he says, is more of a casual affair.

"The past few years I've done big theaters" for homecoming shows, he says in a telephone interview, but The Garage's booker Noah Weiss enticed him with the notion of a more intimate performance.

"It's more like what I do all year long all over the world. Instead of having one big monster hometown show, let's just treat it like it's a show like I'm in New York, except with my family and friends from my hometown," he explains. "So it's going to be a much more fun show as opposed to a huge production. It's just going to be fun."

He'll be backed by bass player Chris Loftin, who he's worked with in the band of R&B star Brian McKnight, plus a young drummer and special guests who'll include whiz-kid guitarist Jeff Howard, formerly of the McLovins.

The songwriter, vocalist and keyboard player, known for an often-sultry mix of jazz and blue-eyed soul, is on the verge of his first major follow-up to a burst of success surrounding his 2009 debut solo record. At the time, he captured a series of high-profile awards -- the top prize of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, which he won by unanimous fiat of its celebrity judges (and that that carried a $20,000 prize along with its intangible cachet); plus the Billboard Songwriting Award and a second-place show ing in an international song writing competition.

It was a real publicity boon, he recounts.

"It was a heck of a staircase to another level of the business. These days, when I get introduced a lot of people mention that and people just take you a little more seriously, especially as a songwriter -- any time your name gets mentioned in the same breath as John Lennon!"

Though he's done some featured guest spots on other artists' records since then, the first new release under his name will be a Christmas-themed EP, which he just finished recording and hopes to have out in several weeks. That'll be followed up in January by a new single (which he describes as a simple pop number) called "Leaving L.A."

He signed a one-off deal with an independent label for the first record, but is going it solo for now. The January single, in fact, is occasioned by behind-the-scenes interest he's been able to generate for licensing opportunities.

In today's music world, he says, licensing fees for things like film and television soundtracks are promising sources of income -- and exposure -- the independent musician is wise to pursue.

"It's unbelievable, because record labels aren't paying people anymore. Especially for independent musicians, the licensing is one of the biggest avenues we have to get heard and to make some money," Cusson says.

Tonight's show is preceded by a songwriting workshop at 4. Cusson will use two of his songs -- the award-winning number "One of Those Nights," which employs lots of jazzy chord changes, and the poppier selection "Leaving L.A." -- to lead a tour through writing and recording a song, as well as getting it out into the marketplace.

Cusson grew up listening to and playing music, starting to perform at Berkshire open mic nights at age 11 and taking to learning songs on the piano by ear. He was snatched away from Berklee College of Music midway through his third semester by McKnight, who heard him sing informally and began making calls on his behalf before the song was over.

The smooth-voiced elder statesman, a prolific author of R&B hits and a 16-time Gram my Award nominee, put Cusson to work in his band, as an opening act, and on various recording projects. A decade later, the relationship continues. It's fostered a series of dream-come-through collaborations for Cusson, an avid student of the history of pop, soul, and the singer/songwriter tradition -- he's found himself jamming with Stevie Wonder and James Taylor, to name two prominent examples.

When superstorm Sandy temporarily prevented Cusson from returning home to Jersey City after some gigs, he says, the solution was to fly back to Cali fornia and stay with McKnight for a few days, working casually on some studio projects.

"Fairy-tale-wise, those kinds of moments are just unbelievable to me. I'm sitting here with a guy that I grew up listening to, and we're writing a song together," he says.

Whether backing a legend like Stevie on television or playing a small solo show out on the road for a small crowd, Cusson says it's all about logging experiences -- and letting the fairy tale play out one scene at a time.


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