Indie-rocker Matthew Sweet just released a new album, Tomorrow’s Daughter, this month. The music sounds a lot like the records that Sweet has been making steadily since he first started putting out solo albums over 30 years ago. That sound has remained one that refers back to late-’60s psychedelic-tinged folk-rock of Buffalo Springfield and Moby Grape with a heavy dose of Big Star and Cheap Trick-style power pop. These are some of the compass points for the terrain that Sweet traverses.
Sweet and his band plays Winston-Salem’s Gears & Guitars festival at Bailey Park on May 26, on a bill that includes Blues Traveler and Soul Asylum. (The four-day festival will also feature Liza Anne, Colony House, Cold War Kids, Charley Crockett, Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Luxuriant Sedans, June Rise, Muddy Creek Players and Big Daddy Love.) I spoke to Sweet last week by phone from his home in Omaha, Nebraska. We talked about the new record, his move back to Nebraska, where he was born, his series of Under The Covers albums of expertly curated covers with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, and about Tomorrow’s Daughter, which is Sweet’s 13th studio album.
The songs on the new record were all written and recorded as a part of the batch of material that went into Tomorrow Forever, his double album released in 2017. As part of the crowdfunding campaign that helped pay for the 2017 record, Sweet had promised some key contributors an album’s worth of advance demos, but as life got hectic and Sweet began work in his home studio, he skipped the demo phase altogether.
“I just started making real recordings of everything,” Sweet said. “I knew that I wanted this to be a stand-alone album that was sort of like a little child of Tomorrow Forever.”
(His crowd funders received early mixes of what became this new record.)
The record opens with “I Belong To You,” the chorus of which contains these lines: “I don’t wanna be free, I just wanna believe.” The song has the mix of muscle and cotton-candy harmonies that would be at home on a Badfinger record. And that lyrical sentiment, the desire for a kind of mysterious faith, a certain style of surrender, might relate to how Sweet thinks about what he does.
I asked Sweet about his approach, steadily making records, and not burning out.
“You have to have this almost leap-of-faith belief that it’s gonna happen,” Sweet said.
Sweet grew up in Nebraska, moved to Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s and then out to Los Angeles in the late 1990s. Over the years, in addition to writing, performing and producing his records, Sweet has also taken up pottery on the side.
“Making pottery is humbling,” Sweet said. “It’s very similar to music.”
The importance of practice and physical action is one point of overlap between the two artistic pursuits. Pottery doesn’t become real until you sit at the wheel with a lump of clay and get your hands dirty, pressing and digging into the thing as it takes shape. There’s no music until you make a sound. There are no songs — more or less — until you string some words together and hang them on a melody with a few chords. One might make a connection, particularly in Sweet’s case, between the utilitarian nature of pottery, the relatively limited number of its forms, and the familiarity and durability of classic song structure. Sweet seems like he isn’t necessarily wringing his hands over some self-imposed struggled to come up with new ways of making music. He’s remained pretty content with the ways that people were making records in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
When his single “Girlfriend” became a hit in 1991, it sounded vaguely nostalgic, with its psychedelic riffs and Byrds-ish vocal harmonies. Since then, Sweet has signaled his fondness for masterfully produced old records in covers of bands such as the Left Banke, Love, the Zombies, the Grateful Dead, Mott the Hoople, Bread, Roxy Music, the Smiths and many others. Where some artists treat a cover as an opportunity to rethink and reinterpret a well-known song, Sweet and Hoffs have approached their ongoing covers series as a reverent homage to both the song, the archival performance, and production techniques used to make the original recording. Listen to their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News,” with its peculiar trebly guitar figure up front in the mix and those distinctively pillowy drum sounds, and one can tell that Sweet and Hoffs geeked out in their loving recreation of the classic recording.
“We really tried to not throw away the spirit of the original record,” Sweet said of his and Hoffs’ approach to those covers.
Knowing how to zero in on the artistic essence of a thing can be the core challenge for anyone engaged in a creative endeavor. Sweet says his writing-and-making process is both focused and intuitive.
“I don’t really access a lot of rational thought. It kind of comes from a weird space.”
Sweet seems to view every chance to make music or art as a new puzzle with unknown solutions. The process is partly about pursuing the smallest fragments of inspiration and seeing where they lead.
“I’m looking for the very birth of the tiny idea that catches my fancy,” he said. “It really only has to be a little thing with a little bit of melody or some word, and I know it will become a song. I believe the process is gonna work.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.