Wandering through the Garden: A Conversation with Matt Takiff

Talking to Matt Takiff, you get the feeling that every word he says is true, or is a truth, or is not a lie, even if he made it up. The difference between those three things is subtle, but that difference lies at the heart of good songwriting, which could also be called something like emotional honesty.

Listening to Matt Takiff play, you get the feeling that he’s just talking to you, telling you about times he spent wandering, then maybe asking you a question, one that takes you a little off guard in its frankness, because you have to think about the answer, and you want to answer him honestly, too.

Do you believe in love? He asks on “Wordless Melody,” the closing track of his latest self-titled release. In anyone and anything, or nothing lost in everything, an idea that’s connecting everything that it’s affecting? Or as a word that’s bought and sold, with a ring made out of gold, for a person you can hold?

The simple internal rhymes ring of Woody Guthrie, but Matt’s voice springs up clean and strong from ground more fertile than Woody’s dustbowl, a valley hidden somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, a little patch of earth by a lake, tucked up among the cascades.

The album is in many ways about growth, of people and things. On “Garden Suite,” Takiff channels the bizarre charm of Maurice Sendak as lovers grow each other’s toenails into flowers, their eyebrows into vines, then get married in a garden wedding attended by monsters who feast on sweet fried chicken and eggs.

As your toenails grow, they show your life and vivacity which you may share between each other, and with the world, says the leader of the monsters, presiding over the ceremony. Even the grossest parts of our bodies become weirdly beautiful, and the monsters in our gardens are perfectly normal. They should not be feared. They just want to dance.

Like a flat seventh stacked in a chord, like the tension between two voices harmonizing in minors, there’s an exquisite melancholy in the difference between life imagined and life lived, between what we expected and what we ended up with. It’s the same tension that exists within the truths we’ve made up, the folk tales we grow by each retelling, which become affirmations of the things within ourselves that we can’t say outright.

Matt Takiff has wandered, like many before him, collecting seeds. Here he has planted them, and stuck around a while to let them grow. These songs are the fruits of his labor. I got the chance to pick his brain about them, and other things too:

Fans may recognize you first and foremost from the NW bluegrass outfit Max’s Midnight Kitchen. This self-titled solo album shares much of that sound, but also branches out in different directions as well. How would you characterize the difference between this work, and your work with MMK?

In all of the work with MMK playing live has been the priority, and this mentality very strongly influenced the recording sessions. When it was time to record we played songs that had already been arranged and practiced and performed many times. They are a very honest representation of what we sound like when you see us play live, the sessions were always quite short and there was very little production added. This creates a really authentic and grounded sound and also feels a very safe approach.  

Most of the songs on this project have never been played in front of an audience, and I came into the studio without set arrangements for them. It allowed me to view the album as a whole entity and craft the songs around each other. That entity of the album is representing my personal voice, which is not attached to an expected sound at this point in time, giving me freedom to smush together the songs and sounds which exist in my head with the strengths of the other musicians playing on the album in an organic way.

Also, MMK is a collaboration between Daniel Nickerson and myself. We adjust our tunes and styles and mix them together to create something that neither of us could create on our own. The album I just finished is a manifestation of my own songwriting voice and musical vision. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, there’s a lot to learn from both of those worlds.


What’s growing in your ideal garden?

A whole lot of cabbage, I really love sauerkraut. My brother’s girlfriend who’s in Chinese medicine school told me that one of her professors told her that a mouthful of kraut every day is healthiest thing you can do for yourself. And lots and lots of tomatoes, enough that I could can them up in the summer and have enough to eat tomatoes all year, and also enough that when they’re in season I can eat big juicy heirloom tomatoes warm from the sun whenever I want. I eat them like most people eat apples. I also love the way that tomato plants smell. There’d be lots of salad greens too, especially arugula, but tomatoes and cabbage would be the main things.


I could make a list of singer songwriters all day who’ve probably inspired you to some extent, but who is an artist that’s inspired you that we might not guess?

I listen to a lot of JS Bach, especially Yo Yo Ma playing the Cello Suites or Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations on piano. It’s so expressive and the intricacies weave together seamlessly. It’s relaxing but engaging, the shaping of each piece flows and grows and shrinks so dynamically and with ease, especially when played by the guys I mentioned. Bach was a master improviser and I like to imagine his hand writing out music in a continuous rhythmic motion as if the pen were an instrument. At the point in my life when I was playing lots of saxophone I looooooooved playing Bach pieces, and studying the way he writes was formative. I learned about patience in the development of ideas and about surprises in harmony and joyfulness balanced with grief and so many many things.


I love the production on this album, the mix with your voice front and center, the guitar beneath it, and the horns and violins playing around the periphery. The word ‘pastoral’ comes to mind.  Who besides yourself is responsible for creating this landscape, and what were you trying to achieve by it?

It was produced by Nick Pimentel and engineered by Alec Speckenbach, who were awesome to work with. We used a variety of approaches to create the foundation of each track before doing any overdubbing. Some started as just guitar and voice, some started electric bass, guitar, voice, and drums, and some were done with a live string band. There was always a live and interactive component, but we added a lot of stuff on some of the tunes and some of them just let be cause they could capture what we were looking for in their simplicity, or they were complex enough just in what we captured live. No two songs have the exact same instrumentation, which creates that diversity in the soundscape.

This recording is very much about the songs and letting them speak, the music and lyrics interacting and enhancing each other. Whenever someone’s arranging and adding sounds the important question to keep in front and center is, does this actually sound good as a collection of sounds? Sometimes a sound can sound really cool on it’s own or be fun to make and that can be deceiving. Sometimes that doesn’t benefit the song or the album as a whole. For some projects the available sounds inspire the direction of a tune and alter the structure, sometimes a song inspires what sounds to collect to support it. This project was more focused on the latter but there’s always lots of grey area in between.


What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?

I’ve had a nag coming from my gut lately that I want to learn more about fixing and building houses, not sure where it came from but it’s on my mind. I’m curious how or if that nag will manifest.


Read any good books lately?

I’ve been traveling around a lot lately and I usually read whatever’s on the shelf of wherever I’m staying. It’s a good way to get to know the people that I’m staying with, and keeps me learning new ideas. The last house I stayed at had a really nice collection of modern fiction books. The place where I’m at right now has a ton of book about music that I’ve been searchin’ through. The last thing I was looking through is a collection of John Hartford song lyrics and poems. I’m not even gonna get started on him because I’m obsessed and could talk for a really long time. Here’s a quote from a poem of his that I read this morning:

‘Loneliness can be a wonderful thing, it can turn you on with the beautifully terrifying confusion of things as your sense of alone expands into itself…and then explodes reeling in cartwheels through endless skyways of the mind, but loneliness in all its loneliness cannot exist by itself.’


Is there anything you’d like people to know about this album that would change the way they experience it?

It’s best experienced listening to the whole thing through, cause some of the songs might not make so much sense without the songs around them. It’s not a concept album or anything like that, but a lot of thought was put into creating a cohesive collection of tunes. There’s short ones and long ones and serious ones and silly ones and the way in which each song is experienced can be significantly altered by its context.

Also, the approach to this project was not striving for perfection in relation to the immaculate modern studio sound that’s on most records released. We sacrificed that standard for interaction between the musicians and room to experiment with sounds that might not be expected and comfortable.


Where can we catch you wandering in the near future?

Right now I’m in Arcata, CA hanging out with Daniel and rehearsing for the MMK tour that starts up in a couple weeks. We’re going to travel all up and down the west coast, if you want to check out more details about that all the shows are listed on maxsmidnightkitchen.com. After that I’m going to spend some time on my brothers farm in Colorado, then teach music lessons at a day camp a bit outside of Portland, squeeze in a few fiddling camps, then summer’s done!

Download Matt Takiff, by Matt Takiff here!

Henry Whittier-Ferguson & Matt Takiff