Thursday, November 18, 2010

Interview with Lead Singer of Vertical Horizon Matt Scannell

Wednesday night I got the chance of a lifetime -- to talk to Matt Scannell, lead singer of Vertical Horizon. His song "Everything You Want" skyrocketed to the top of the charts in 1999 and 2000. In fact, it was the most played single in 2000 according to . They also have a lot of other big hits like "Forever," "You're a God," "I'm Still Here, and "The Best I Ever Had." You can listen to "Everything You Want" (and watch the music video) here.

The year 1999 (the year "Everything You Want" was released) was the year I started college at UF. I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it, along with millions of others. There's something about this song, I think unlike any other song I've ever heard that just draws you in. It's filled with such real, honest emotion. It's like you can hear the sadness in Matt's voice as he sings. It's inspiring and touching, and the raw emotion makes it (for lack of a better word) beautiful.

I can remember that my first year in college was when Napster and other downloading sites were in their infancy, and "Everything You Want" was one of the first songs I downloaded. I put a shortcut to the song on my computer's desktop and I would listen to it all the time. I couldn't listen to it while cleaning the dorm room or studying, though. There's something about this song that demands my full attention. Whenever I would play it, I'd just turn it up and sit still and be immersed in it. I've never tired of hearing it, either. There's something about the song, the nuances and the meanings behind each line. I think I hear something new each time I listen to it. Even now, if it comes on the radio when I'm driving, I can't talk or do anything else. I just turn it up and let it wash over me.

"Everything You Want" is among probably my top five favorite songs of all time, and it was important to me at a time when I was finding myself and starting out my adult life. So when I heard that Vertical Horizon was coming to St. John Town Center's Holiday Spectacular Nov. 20th, I found a contact person and begged for the chance to meet the band.

I didn't necessarily expect a reply -- I write all kinds of emails asking for one thing or another for my work with "Out and About in Jax", sometimes I get a reply and sometimes not.

But after a few emails back and forth, the answer finally came that I would get the chance to actually speak with Matt Scannell over the phone for a 10 minute interview! Okay, I know I say a lot on here that "I was beyond excited" about one thing or another but believe me...

I was beyond excited!

Because of the time zone change between where I am (Eastern Time Zone) and where Matt is (Pacific Standard Time) and due to the fact that he's getting ready to travel, and juggling his work for his next album, I didn't exactly know when I would get to talk with him. I'd gotten a phone call from his management company trying to nail down a good time, and I'd been exchanging emails from some people who work in public relations for the Town Center. So I was filled with nervous excitement all day, not knowing exactly when or even if the phone call would come. I had a list of questions scribbled in my pocket that I kept with me all the time, and I'd done lots of Internet research about the band, and about Matt in particular, but still of course I felt unprepared.

Matt had been interviewed by the likes of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Dick Clark, to name a few -- and here I was, no formal education in music or journalism, no real credentials, and very little experience conducting interviews. All I've learned about interviewing I've figured out on my own with a little notebook, digital recorder and passion for writing and connecting with others.

I think that this is one of the most amazing aspects of the 21st century. Through Facebook, Twitter, live chat, and blogging, now the average person has greater personal access to everything -- political candidates, movie and music stars, large companies. I'm so lucky -- I live in a time where somehow, armed with a laptop, digital camera, and a small recorder or notebook, I've turned into a budding journalist of sorts.

I am beyond grateful.

So even though I knew the call was coming, I still jumped when my phone rang at around 8:30 pm. I was still dressed in scrubs from working a 12 hour nursing shift. My heart pounding, I ripped my list of questions out of my pocket and scrambled into my room (locking the door behind me so my 3 year-old couldn't get in (you moms out there know what I'm talking about) and answered the phone.

I think my voice was shaking as I said "Hello". I didn't have any idea what to expect. I'd never spoken to a star this big in my entire life, and he was taking time out of a busy workday to talk to me. It seems each time I do something for the blog, whether it's stepping into a packed $75 a ticket charity event, or meeting the CEO of a resort, or walking into a Buddhist meditation class, I have this moment a split-second before I take a flying leap out of my comfort zone where I say to myself What the heck am I doing?!

The minute I heard Matt's kind, friendly voice on the other end though, all my fears subsided and I completely relaxed. He was so genuine. We talked for twenty minutes, and there wasn't a hint of pretentiousness, impatience or condescension anywhere in his voice the entire time. Although he's probably given hundreds of interviews, he never once seemed bored and I never got a canned answer. Each question I asked, he took a moment to truly think about and give me an amazing, in-depth, well thought out response. The very honest, genuine voice that instantly drew me and millions of others into the experience of "Everything You Want" and made Matt a star, also put me at ease that day. This was not simply a "star" or "celebrity" I was talking to, but a really great guy.

I'm going to try my best to replicate the experience, and most of what he said, but I have to admit, I had no way of recording what we were saying since it was over my cell phone. I relied on handwritten notes, which I've used successfully for other interviews and pieces. I know quite a bit of shorthand (we use lots of abbreviations, symbols and shorthand in the medical world), but I'm afraid it's still going to be tough to capture how incredible Matt's answers were.

Matt was extremely articulate. If you google interviews with him and read a few others, you'll see what I mean. His speech has a poetic quality ---everything from his word choice to the way he weaves imagery and his own personal philosophy into his answers makes for a fascinating conversation -- its easy to recognize the natural talent with words and ability to connect with others that make his songs so special.

"Hi Erica," he started, "I'm so glad to get the chance to talk to you. It was a really busy day in the studio, and I got out a bit early, so I'm really glad I had the chance to give you a call."

"I'm so glad you called too!" I almost squealed. I tried to promise myself I wouldn't gush too much, (I'm sure he gets enough of that already) but I told him all about how much I loved "Everything You Want" and about how I listened to it all the time in college.

"Thank you so much for telling me that!" he said genuinely, "I never get tired of hearing stories about how something I wrote touched someone else. Believe me, its an amazing and humbling experience to know that something I did can have that effect. I think that's what so great about music -- it can be so emotional. It has this amazing ability to help us reach beyond ourselves and connect with others through our shared emotions and experiences. I hear stories all the time about the way one of my songs has meant something special to someone, and it's incredible."

"Can you tell me one of those stories?"

"Well, I do have one particular story I really love. So my brother took off for a month once, to go backpacking in Nepal. He went out near Everest, and just all over -- in tiny villages and places where there was barely anything we would think of in terms of civilization. Out in one of those villages, sort of in the middle of nowhere, was a small hut where this old man was inside knitting sweaters and listening to a tiny radio. 'Everything You Want' was playing on that radio!"

"Wow! That's incredible," I breathed. I hadn't realized that this song had been played all over the world, and was reaching places so far from the US. "Well, obviously 'Everything You Want' is your most popular song, but do you have a favorite song of yours?" I asked.

Matt laughed. "Gosh, it's hard to pick a favorite. I'd imagine it must be something like a parent trying to pick a favorite child. It's an interesting question... well, there is this song from the album, Go called 'Underwater'. It's just so completely free from any kind of pop influence. It isn't meant to be a pop hit, it is completely artistic. To me, it's like a painting in a way -- just filled with my own creativity and expression, so it's really special to me." (You can listen to the song and watch the video here).

"Speaking of your albums, you released your latest album Burning the Days last year. In that album, you have a mix of more upbeat positive songs, like 'The Lucky One', and more dark songs like 'Save Me From Myself.' Which do you identify with more at this point in your life?"

"Well, to tell the truth, I wasn't all that happy in the past. I've been through a lot in my life. I like to use music as a vehicle for self-expression. I think creating music is a way to not only make a living, but when you pour yourself into it, and use it to work through problems in your life, you can become a fuller and better person. I tend to hold onto things -- whether its guilt, or anger... songs for me are like capsules for trauma, regret and pain. The music for me is a way to let go of those things in my life. So some of my songs can be darker, but also there are a lot of positive things going on in my life lately and I'm all around a very happy and positive person right now. For me, the glass is half full and that comes through in a lot of the more positive songs I do."

"I've read that it was a difficult personal experience with someone who you were in love with that inspired you to write 'Everything You Want.' Can you tell me a little about that?"

"Yeah, so I was in love with this girl, and she was just a broken person. She kept turning to everyone except me for love and acceptance, and I wanted so much to help her. I wanted to be the one to give her everything she wanted, but I couldn't. She just couldn't accept it from me, and it was that pain, that led me to creating the song."

"When that song hit the radio, that was the thing that helped skyrocket you to success. Was there any one moment where you knew you'd made it ... where you knew you were becoming a star?'"

"Hmm, I can't think of any one particular moment. It was sort of a lot of 'little' experiences that started to add up to a feeling of achievement. Well, I wouldn't call these experiences little, but when we went on David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan, those were pretty big moments. We were interviewed by Dick Clark once -- that was really awesome. Once, my mom was driving from my hometown of Worcester to Cape Cod (its about a 2 hour drive), and she told me that she listened to my song nearly the entire time. She would switch from one station to the next and it seemed it was always on. I think those are the moments where you take a second to realize how lucky you are and how much all of your hard work is starting to pay off. I've been playing guitar since I was 7, and writing songs since I was 10. Now I've been doing what I love for 25 years and each day I feel so lucky to be able to make a living doing something I am so passionate about."

"That's awesome," I told him, "I feel the same way about writing. I started journaling and writing short stories when I was eight or nine. Writing is something I've been passionate about my entire life. It's just a hobby for me now -- it's not like I can make a living doing it, but I feel so lucky to be able to do it. That's interesting that your mom had the experience that they were playing your song all the time. I felt like they never played that song enough. That's why I had to put it on my computer so I could listen to it all the time."

"I can't tell you how much it means to me to hear something like that, Erica" he told me, "its so nice of you to share that with me, and I love you for it."

Did you hear that?! Matt Scannell said he loves me! I momentarily forgot where I was, and had to glance down at my list of questions, which I'd almost completely forgotten in the natural ebb and flow of our conversation. "Okay, let's talk about the event for a minute. So you're coming here on Saturday to perform at the St. Johns Town Center Holiday Spectacular. I read that you are going to be doing a mix of some of your popular hits along with some Holiday songs."

"Yeah, we're really excited. The whole band will be there, and its going to be a more 'stripped down' acoustic performance. I really like acoustic guitar, and I think everyone who comes out will enjoy the experience. It should be a lot of fun."

"Have you ever been to Jacksonville before?" I asked.

"Yeah, actually but it was a number of years back. Some friends of mine actually knew a few of the Jacksonville Jaguars cheerleaders, so I came with them to visit awhile back. I'm excited to be coming back though."

"Any particular part of Jacksonville you want to try to see while you are here?"

"Well, yes. Have you ever heard of the Food Network show 'Diners, Drive-ins and Dives?' "

"No," I laughed, "Sounds like a tongue twister..."

"Yeah, I guess it is," he laughed, "But it's this great show all about local places to eat in different cities. There's a place the show featured in Jacksonville called The Metro Diner ( ), so some friends and I are going to check that place out. I'll be in town a few days and it will be nice to check out the area."

"I think you'll have an incredible time," I told him. I took a few minutes to gush about what a fantastic city Jacksonville is and how much I love it. Then I moved on to my last couple of questions. I was trying to keep in mind how busy Matt was -- I didn't want to take up too much of his time, although he gave off every impression that he was enjoying the conversation and never seemed rushed at all. "Tell me," I asked him, "Where do you get inspiration for your music if you are stuck?"

"Well, I try to go out to a movie, read a new book, maybe check out a new art exhibit, and I look for new ways to stimulate my mind or emotions. I try to take an active role in a passive activity if that makes any sense."

"It really does."

"Yeah, and I also try to tap into my own experiences and emotions as well. I don't like to listen to music as much to get inspiration, then I'm afraid I'll take on someone else's ideas or energy. I like to tap into things from my life, whether positive like happiness and love or dark, like pain or trauma. I don't really strive to make music just so I can sell records. I want to make myself a better person in the process."

"I remember how you said before that you use songwriting and music as a way of dealing with your pain," I cut in. "I really admire that. My passion is writing, but I often shy away from writing about anything difficult. I like to write about happy experiences, but I can't really make myself face anything difficult or painful when I write."

He took a moment to speak directly to me as he said, "You know Erica, when I was starting out in music, I played other people's songs. It took me awhile to be able to tap into my own creative side and to be able to deal with my own experiences. It took practice, and in the end it was a way for me to heal. You may find that in time you are able to sit down and write about the more difficult aspects of your life."

I'd read in some of my research about Matt that he'd actually been given the nickname "professor" because of his innate ability to explain anything and be so easily understood. I brought this up right here, unable to stop myself from gushing. "I've heard you've been called 'the Professor' before. You seem to have a great way of explaining things. What did you major in at Georgetown?"

"Psychology," he laughed.

"Makes perfect sense. I feel like you are inside my head! Okay, I know you have to go soon. Let me ask you one more question. What's next for Vertical Horizon?"

"Well, we're going to be doing a little more touring in the Summer, which we are all really excited about. Also, I've done a lot of work with Richard Marx. We've done several shows together and we've made a couple acoustic records together. Right now we're working on a band record that I think is going to be really awesome. Of course I'm looking forward to Saturday's show at the St. John's Town Center. Are you going to be there, Erica?"

"I wouldn't miss it for the world!" I exclaimed. From there, I wrapped up the conversation, thanking him profusely for taking the time out to talk to me. The entire conversation was a dream come true for me.

I can remember so vividly the 19 year-old I was, sitting at my computer, feeling so connected to the strikingly beautiful and hauntingly sad (yet somehow uplifting) voice drifting from the speakers as I listened to "Everything You Want" over and over. I could never have imagined back then how much I would mature in just ten years, or how far my life would take me. There are so many things about my life right now that I would never have believed if someone had told me about it back then.

How could I begin to fathom that I'd be juggling a career, a family and school while still persuing a passion that has somehow enabled me to one day have a conversation with the man behind the song I loved so much back then?

This interview has been so much more for me than another piece for "Out And About in Jax". It has inspired me so much -- to continue to persue what I love, no matter how far it takes me out of my comfort zone, to maybe use writing to explore and express the more difficult things in my life, and to truly realize how much we all really share. I think that's what writing for me is about -- sharing my experiences in a way that everyone can relate to.

I think Matt Scannell was completely right. Following your passion can and should be something that makes you a better person.

Okay, so here are the event details: I'll be at the Holiday Spectacular Saturday, and it's going to be amazing. St. Johns Town Center will basically be the site of a huge Holiday kick-off party all day. There will be activities like bounce houses and face painting for kids, plus shopping and specials for adults. Music performances start at 6pm, with performances from The Charlie Walker Band , Ryan Star and the UNF Tuba Euphonium Quartet. Vertical Horizon will take the stage at 8pm, and afterwards, Santa will lead the crowd in a count down to lighting a huge 32 foot Christmas Tree. Then there will be a dazzling fireworks show. Believe me, this is going to be the event of the YEAR. And best of all it's FREE. I can't wait! See you there....

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