Matthew McAllister is a builder.
Not the kind who hammers two-by-fours, one after the other to create the bones of a new house. However, he does follow suit in working with his hands daily, picking strings though, rather than pounding nails. He carefully selects which words to lay like bricks, and stacks them into a verse, a chorus, a four minute and 28-second song, decorated with a pretty melody, yet a little rough to the touch because of the sincerity of his presentation. “I get one line I really like or one musical bar and then the rest of the song forms around that and I kind of piece it together. A lot of songwriting for me is really song-building,” the 21-year-old singer/songwriter from Afton, Virginia says.
The songs he builds, like “The Greatest of These” or “Childhood Box of Memories” create walls for people to duck into—not to hide from the chaos, but to briefly rest and confess the overwhelming anxiety of a muddled world with which each of us is all too familiar. However, the shelter he is building is still in the works.
“I want to write about all sorts of things, and I definitely see a lot of room for growth,” Matthew says. Caught between dreaming and reality, Matthew operates from within the frame of the in-between. He already has the talent, skill set, and self-critical lens through which to evaluate his melodic stories of anxiety and fear, though he has not yet reached his full potential as a musician.
“I have a lot of maturing to do with songwriting,” Matthew acknowledges, with motivation rather than dread in his voice. This middle space provokes him to carry on writing, learning, and transforming more and more into the musician he is meant to become—for the sake of our ears, no doubt.
At age 13, Matthew began to write original notes and lyrics, pulling from inspiring artists including Jon Foreman and Damien Rice. “You can kind of hear that they taught me how to play guitar, because I’m self-taught.” Other formative inspirations for him include hymns from a childhood spent in church, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, and most recently, Dawes. On a daily basis, however, his biggest influences are the friends around him who are also pursuing music.
Matthew admits how overwhelming the music industry appears to striving artists. “There are so many better musicians. But, I don’t really think that is what it’s about. I just hope that something I do sparks something, or people can relate to it or it moves them. That’ s kinda the whole point,” he says. Throughout both the writing and performance aspects of his music, Matthew is taking his time to critically craft his work and the messages they convey. “Right now I really want to tone things back and work on writing and recording. I want to take my time, practice songs, and think them through.”
The art of building music is not an insular work for Matthew either. He has played with a band a number of times, as well as violinst Julia Kwolyk. “Incorporating other people into the music is definitely something I want to do more often. I write a lot of songs that are meant to just be vocal and acoustic guitar, but I also write songs that are meant for people to add what they hear into it, and that is neat to see the song get built.”
Matthew has played with band members at venues in Central Virginia such as The Southern and Main Street Annex, and has performed solo at various sites like The Camel in Richmond and Starr Hill Brewery in Crozet. Performing his music has provoked the young artist as he thinks through his lyrics and voice. The ideal venue for him to play is “a room where people are actually there to listen. Many songs are not only musically driven but they’re very lyrically driven so if you don’t hear the lyrics, you’re definitely missing out on an important part of the experience.” He recalls a number of his own shows in coffee shops, where his words of relatable anxiety searched the room to find a grieving partner, and returned void as customers talked amongst themselves rather than with his melodies.
As an avid listener himself, Matthew feels there is “something to be said for emotion and imperfect musical performances,” which is what attracts him to attending and playing live shows. One of his favorite performances was of Glen Hansard at Rolling Stone studios. “He breaks a string and he just keeps singing and rips off the string. And then another one pops and he only has four strings on his guitar and he finishes the song anyways, and it’s just awesome,” Matthew explains, panting with excitement over the raw realities of music caught in a momentary time and space. He also points to the story of Sara Bareilles who, while recording her EP Once Upon Another Time, broke down in the midst of her song “Bright Lights and Cityscapes.” “The producer didn’t let her take another take because she cried and he was like, ‘why would you ruin that?’”
After hitting a mental block in his music construction business, Matthew teamed up with Sean Dart at Virginia Arts in Charlottesville to produce his own EP. “I feel like now that it’s recorded, it’s behind me, and I can move on and write other things because I felt stuck with this material that hadn’t been put out there yet,” Matthew says. The three-track EP titled One More Round revolves around “some form of romance,” with more profound life issues at their core. “All of the songs have a hint of getting past anxiety, or not getting past anxiety. I don’t really write songs that are just about break-ups or romance.” The EP features Matthew’s originals, with the accompaniment of his violinist for the first song, and will be released online this September. “I’m making myself vulnerable because I’m singing about my thoughts and emotions, and it’s hard. But I want it to be Matt. I don’t want it to be a persona. If I weren’t playing my songs out, I would still be playing them in my bedroom, writing and singing them to myself.”
Well, Matt, we sure are glad you’ve decided to play them out.