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Matt Wilson’s creative floodgates open wide on 'When I Was a Writer'

Tod Foley Design & Paul Irmiter Photography

Tod Foley Design & Paul Irmiter Photography

A crowdfunding campaign to support the Twilight Hours’ 2016 album Black Beauty offered a unique reward: a chance to co-write a song with vocalist Matt Wilson.

An Omaha-based artist and filmmaker named Tim Guthrie chose this perk and traveled to Minneapolis to claim his prize, but he wasn’t looking for a co-writing credit. Guthrie wanted to tell his story: how his wife passed away, and “how it destroyed him, and how he tried to rebuild his life and the way it was a hurricane in his world—it was flattened—and then he had to return,” as Wilson puts it, speaking by phone from his basement studio in Minneapolis. And he wanted Wilson to write a song about it.

That in-person meeting, coupled with an art project Guthrie had launched to honor his wife, inspired Wilson to write “I Can’t Return.” The song’s lyrics focus on coming to terms with new realities, and finding equilibrium: “Who was I?/Shadow man, troubled man, travel plans/A mouthy child, alive at night/Too much darkness, too much light.” About the only thing the protagonist knows is they “can’t return”—a powerful (if bittersweet) statement that’s tinged with both optimism and wistfulness.

“I Can’t Return” proved a creative catalyst that “led to an avalanche of music that started coming out of me,” Wilson says. “And I recognized pretty quickly that this is something unusual for me, something special and really positive, and so I began to do everything I could to prepare myself to receive this music, to make sure I captured it and to be alive to songwriting as much as I could during this period.”

The resulting album, When I Was a Writer, brims with deeply felt meditations on what it means to be alive and searching for meaning in a flawed, imperfect world. Credited to Matt Wilson & His Orchestra, the full-length features Wilson on acoustic guitar and piano, playing alongside several collaborators: a long-time musical foil, bassist Jacques Wait, as well as two additional talents, harpist Phala Tracy (who’s also in the Dust of Suns) and banjo player Quillan Roe. Thanks to this instrumental configuration, the music shapeshifts between genres—baroque pop, lush folk, rich acoustic rock—with intricate grace and precise arrangements. The nuances of the topsy-turvy melody of “Real Life” and “Petty Thief” come into sharp relief thanks to cascading background harmonies, while Roe’s galloping banjo and Tracy’s fanciful playing offer texture to “Space Cruising.”

Wilson’s burst of creativity was also driven by a deeply personal impetus: a relative who is dealing with dementia. “For me, all my joy is making music and trying to put together interesting combinations of words,” he says. “The idea of losing my marbles… it makes me feel desperate. And being immersed in that as I have been lately, I felt, like, ‘Oh my God.’ Who knows, maybe the doors are shutting. I have to run and try to get through the doors and express to people how I feel music should sound—do what I can with my gift to try to create music that’s moving and that expresses my idea of how music can be.”

To that end, Wilson encouraged his muse in a variety of ways. He took cues from his brother, Dan Wilson, and did a lot of writing in general “to keep the sediment in my mind stirred up and floating around, visible.” At the suggestion of his wife, Wilson also booked multiple weekend songwriting trips to “budget hotels in the suburbs,” where he’d bring his electric piano and acoustic guitar and spend uninterrupted time working on music. “That was very productive; that led to a lot of songs, ones that aren’t even on the record.”

Wilson also can’t say enough good things about his When I Was a Writer collaborators, in particular Tracy and Roe. He was familiar with both—he had collaborated with the former before and knew the latter from another project, the Roe Family Singers—but saw their musical gifts in a new light several years ago after catching performances they did at John Munson’s annual Camp du Nord. Initial rehearsals with the pair that also included Wait exceeded Wilson’s expectations.

“It was like, ‘Oh, I love this sound, this is so sunshine-y and bright,’” he says. “It met my goal of having a group where my quiet, cloudy voice could come through the middle and shine through without competing with electric guitars.” For Wilson, the ability of Roe and Tracy to do vocal arrangements on the fly was particularly impressive. “It’s something that I first experienced—and maybe only experienced—when Dan and John and I first sang together and we sang the song ‘Applehead Man,’” he says, referencing the early Trip Shakespeare song.

“And right off the bat, these guys were just arranging their parts and coming up with these cool intertwining harmonies. We looked at each other afterwards, and it was immediately apparent that that we had something—that it was easy to make something special. The same sort of thing happens with Phala and Quillan.”

Over time, Wilson’s relationship with this current group of musicians has deepened and evolved into something even more meaningful than he’d expected. “It’s like they were a vacuum that was pulling myself toward them,” he says. “I wanted to hear, ‘What about this song with this group?’ I started bringing in all these songs that I had been writing. I wanted to grab it, make this my group and just roll with it.”

The Twilight Hours are idle for the moment and not working on any music, although Wilson’s not ruling anything out in the future. “One of the biggest mistakes I ever made in my life was breaking up with Trip Shakespeare,” he says. “Now I’m like, ‘Well, why not just let everything live together? Nothing has to end.’ There’s still the Twilight Hours; they’re still out there. We’ll all come crawling back to each other, and it’ll be fun.”

Wilson is deriving great joy from playing with his Orchestra, however, as it’s facilitating deep connections with audiences as well as the musicians. “I strive to write songs that are moving, and I try to have shows that transport you. I know I don’t always by any means achieve it, but that’s been my goal is to create these moments of realness where something is really happening and you are stirred and touched.”