“Every bit of important change that has ever happened in this country has always had love centred at it.”
For Washington D.C.-based singer-songwriter Crys Matthews, love and "the hope for better" have always been part of who she is.
“That is definitely my nature”, she says. “I’m a preacher’s kid. I grew up in Southeastern North Carolina with a preacher for a mom, so hope and love is kind of what I was indoctrinated with. Even in those times where I’m talking about really difficult things, really hard things, the central truth especially in this country, is it’s been people loving other people enough to insist on ‘better’ for this country and this world. That is my outlook because that is the reality of what I’ve experienced living in this country. So I tried to make sure a lot of that came through on the album.”
The album Changemakers is Crys’ latest release in a career which began in 2010.
“Music has always been my life’s vocation. I went to college for Music Education. I just found my way to songwriting while I was (there) and kind of called home to mom and (was) like, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to be a songwriter instead of the band director. Are you okay with that?’ (laughs). I’m a classically-trained clarinetist by vocation and had every intention of being a high school band director. Then it happened one night, as it does so often, my roommate at the time needed a fill-in keyboard player for a gig. She said, ‘Can you get us through the gig?’. I said, ‘Absolutely’, and in the process of that she said, ‘Oh, you’re going to have to sing one song. It’s called Tell Me Something Good.’ We had our one and only gig in that configuration and it was the most incredible night! I went home after that and wrote my first song, entered it into the campus talent show, won $500 and the rest is history. It never occurred to me to be a performer, to write songs or that I even could write songs. Then one night the stars aligned and I was, ‘OK, I guess that is what I’m doing with the rest of my life’.”
The experience of writing and performing were vastly different from what Crys had felt from music in the past.
“It was such a deep deep love. This was such a different type of love, a different type of feeling. I was intoxicated immediately.”
Changemakers is an album filled with songs about heroes, both the everyday and the political type, and about the social-political issues that dominated the news for the past 4 or 5 years. As a resident of Washington D.C., Crys sort of had a front row seat to all of the action.
“It had such an impact (on me) because so much of what we see on the news, so much vitriol at the forefront of everything, it’s easy to forget how many people are actively pushing back against those things. So being in D.C., the most important thing about it is actually being there to witness so many everyday people standing up, lifting their voices up and putting their bodies on the line to say, ‘This is not who we are. We’re better than this and I’m here to bear witness to that.’ That’s honestly why so much of the album is focussed on that. That’s why it’s called Changemakers. Those are the people who are being the ‘finger in the dam’, holding the line and making sure that we can actually be our best selves. It’s really a love letter to all of those everyday people who are out there fighting for justice.”
When asked about who were her heroes growing, up as well as those today, Crys starts with her mother.
“My mom is quite an inspiration to me for a lot of reasons, and the people I knew in my life. I’d definitely say (Congressman) John Lewis 100% absolutely was and is one for me. It’s the same way now. There are people that I see, that I meet, who I admire and whose commitment to love, justice and hope keep me hopeful.”
A high point of Crys’ career so far was the opportunity to do a TED Talk entitled “Sing, Don’t Shout! - An Alternative Approach”.
“That’s actually a very serendipitous story”, she recalls. “Before I lived in D.C. proper I lived in Herndon, Virginia which is basically a D.C. suburb. I was sitting on the corner playing music for an art crawl. The person who organizes TEDX for Herndon walked by and stopped in his tracks. He said, ‘What are you doing on this date? I need you to come sing songs like this. You have to do it!’. I jumped at the chance. I have not always been a social justice songwriter but that’s who I am now. I’m so very happy to get to do that work in my art and use my platform in that way. It was an awakening when Trayvon Martin was killed. To be able to have a chance to talk to people about social justice and about how to have and facilitate those kind of conversations, it really was a wonderful opportunity. I’m so glad I had a chance to do that.”
For Crys, there is the understanding of how the phrases, “the love of politics” and "the politics of love” go hand in hand.
“It’s similar to ‘the personal is political, the political is personal’”, she laughs. “For somebody like me that ticks a lot of boxes. I’m like the embodiment of that sentiment for sure.”
Getting back to Crys’s new album Changemakers, the musical palette is wide ranging with influences from soul, pop, country, folk and more, sometimes in the same song.
“I kind of get grouped into the Folk category just because of the subject matter, because the folk community has that long marriage of justice and music. But I grew up listening to Gospel music, Soul, Blues and all kinds of other stuff, Country as well. I mean my family grew up watching ‘Hee Haw’ (on TV) just like everybody else (laughs). So it’s an eclectic palette for sure. But I think it works with the album in one respect because so much of it is supposed to be this portrait of America and we are such a diverse nation, even in our love of music. I didn’t really shy away from that, from letting the songs take the shape they were going to take. I’m really grateful my producer didn’t try to force me to make them all just be Americana or just Blues. He had known me long enough to know the songs are going to come out like they come out, and it’s going to be great if we do our jobs right. It was a very cool experience to be able to do that, because that’s kind of the landscape of this country, so we’ve got to pay homage to that landscape sonically.”
To find out more about Crys Matthews, go to www.crysmatthews.com.