Threading a treacherous needle through his teenaged years, Norfolk native Matt Maeson appears to have landed just fine at the age of twenty-four. Recently co-signed by Atlantic Records and its imprint, Neon Gold, this blues-rock troubadour released the Who Killed Matt Maeson EP late last month. With a heavy pop aesthetic imbued with uncommon sincerity, his songs explore the shaded past of a protagonist seeking peace from the storms of tribulation.
Stepping off the tail end of a series of successful shows at the famed South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, his music is generating outsized buzz across the country with international concert dates planned. Through it all, more humble roots remain fresh in Maeson’s mind. “My first show was in Richmond just before I was 18 at a Chick-fil-A,” he recalled. “It was like a showcase, an open mic. If you won, you got free chicken sandwiches for a year—and I won! That was my first real validation.” Following the fast-food windfall, he moved to Virginia Beach and began playing shows wherever anyone would let him. “I played Shaggy’s Music Expo, won second place in that. Then I did it again and got second again. I played places like Peabody’s and Shaka’s Live. I played the NorVa, but I also did shows in a lot of random spots like Thai restaurants.”
A recent transplant to Hollywood, Maeson looks back wistfully at his path to success and a shot at reaching more listeners than he ever thought possible. “I started playing drums when I was really young, like, three years old.” The guitar came next when his father gifted him the instrument at the onset of adolescence. “He showed me a few chords, then I just holed up in my room obsessively watching Youtube videos and learning for hours and hours at a time. I started writing songs by the time I was sixteen.”
His old man had himself enjoyed a long, spotty relationship with music. “He was really into playing,” Maeson reminisced. “He and my mom were both metal heads. He was—well, he was pretty much a criminal. He and his brother got into all kinds of trouble. He was hanging out with my mom and was on acid. Things got really bad and he found himself on his knees praying.” The episode spurred Maeson’s father to become a pastor and eventually a police officer.
Unfortunately, tragedy marred the family a few years later. “He had, after a period of time, talked my uncle Andrew into coming on board. Andrew got really passionate about trying to reach folks that churches didn’t traditionally minister to—biker gangs, criminals, and drug dealers.” In the course of his outreach, Maeson’s uncle was shot and killed by one of his congregants. “My dad was profoundly struck by that, so he ended up picking up where my uncle left off. He started a prison ministry. Started going any place he saw the church not going to—biker rallies, really bad parts of towns.”
Around this time, Matt found himself in his own personal struggle. “I started doing stupid shit after I moved back. Fucking up, drugs. I had just turned 18 and it really felt like I needed a change.” His father’s music provided just the outlet he was looking for. “I started touring with him, which ended up being about two years. Playing guitar and singing songs, some of the best shows I’ve ever played to this day.”
He counts his faith as a guiding pillar. “There were all these questions that I had, they were pushing me to make a lot of mistakes. I was getting really far away from my home base. I was forced to a bottom, to the lowest I’ve ever been.” His current music is autobiographical, drawing from that dark point in his life. The lyrics are rife with questions about pain and doubt. “It’s something of a healing process. I’m not … I’m not like a religious person. I’m not an evangelist, but God is the most prevalent thing in my life.”
Tellingly, Maeson cites as influences a long line of musicians with outlaw personas: Johnny Cash, Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain. He expresses a particular love for Jim Morrison and The Doors. “I listen to a lot of old shit, probably because of my dad.” While the new album definitely calls back to these past musical outsiders, it also features slick, contemporary production values welded around a man who has clearly grown comfortable with letting it all hang out. Maeson sings like a man possessed, traversing the line between mere growls to full blown roaring with ease. His vocal timbre conveys a raw, brutal honesty that allows his music to transcend the polish of tight songcraft, convincingly carrying him out of the realm of pop into full-on blues-infused rock. This is surprisingly real music, a remarkable feat given the major label radio-friendly sheen.
Today, Maeson finds himself much more centered. Recounting the path that led him to a record deal, he mused, “I was working a desk job at the time. I hated that job so much.” When he released the single “Cringe” in 2015, it garnering quite a bit of attention on SoundCloud. He soon found himself receiving daily calls from record reps, one of which was from Neon Gold’s founder, Derek Davies. “I just kept having the same conversation with different people, and then Derek called. He talked to me about what he was trying to do with the label and cared about what my goals were. I got off the phone with him and not ten minutes later, he calls back and invites me to go on an all expenses paid writing trip to Nicaragua.”
Maeson was blown away, but ultimately had to decline the offer. “I was ready to quit my job. If I had had a passport, I would have, but there wasn’t enough time to get all that square, so I had to miss it.” Instead, Maeson arranged for an in-person meeting where he finally could get a sense of people who actually paid attention to the music. “I’m lucky because I was able to handpick the people I wanted to work with. I ended up signing a co-deal between Neon Gold and Atlantic Records. I essentially have two teams of people working to back me up.”
While the EP is out now, the full length follow-up is still in the works. Maeson also mentioned upcoming plans for touring overseas, several more music videos, and the final recording session scheduled for this summer. When asked about how he will measure the success of the record, he replied, “Today, it’s really all about streaming and play count. The album gets people to come out to the shows. This is the first tour I’ve ever seen people singing along to the words of my songs. It’s a … it’s … I don’t know how to describe it, really. It’s such a great feeling. To actually have my own fans in these crowds? It’s awesome!”
To hear Who Killed Matt Maeson and stay posted on upcoming tour dates, visit mattmaeson.com.
Photography by Weston Razooli