June 21--EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD singer-songwriter Matt Jaffe calls it "a wonderful serendipity."
The first songs he learned to play when he was 11 years old were by David Byrne and Talking Heads, and, years later, by some cosmic turn of fate, Talking Heads multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison ended up discovering him, taking him into the studio for the first time and producing an album's worth of his intelligent, offbeat songs.
It's the kind of only-in-Marin story he couldn't have foreseen, that was somehow fated when his parents gave him a Talking Heads album for his birthday and he sat down with his guitar and taught himself to play "Heaven" and "Psycho Killer."
He was a high school kid from Mill Valley, a Branson student, when Harrison, who lives in Mill Valley, happened to hear him do covers of those tunes, plus a handful of his own cerebral originals, at an open mic a few years ago at the old Masonic Hall in Mill Valley, now the new Sweetwater.
After the breakup of the Talking Heads in 1991, Harrison had turned to producing bands like the Violent Femmes, General Public, Crash Test Dummies and Marin's Stroke 9. In this guitar-strumming kid with a boyish soprano and a set of intelligent songs, he saw something that reminded him a little of the quirky genius of the Talking Heads frontman he used to work with.
"Matt writes songs about ideas rather than just about feelings," Harrison says. "In that he's
a little bit akin to David Byrne."
Harrison was so impressed that he brought Jaffe into his Sausalito studio and did rough demos of 50 of his songs.
"The original experience of being in the studio was a steep learning curve for me," Jaffe recalls. "I learned how to sing and how to act in there. It was an amazing opportunity to work with Jerry."
Harrison picked the best 15 of those demos and, in the summer of 2011, had Jaffe record them again, this time in a Southern California studio with a professional rhythm section -- drummer Steve Ferrone from Tom Petty's band and bassist Nathan East, who's worked with heavy hitters like Eric Clapton, Joe Satriani and Stevie Wonder.
"That was a really cool experience to see how quickly they picked up the songs," Jaffe recalls. "We did basic tracks for all 15 songs in four days. That was all thanks to them being incredibly proactive in their playing."
Back at home, they filled out the sound with vocal overdubs and some added instrumentation. But something was missing.
"I needed a band that was my age to perform with," Jaffe says. "It wouldn't be feasible to ask those incredible older musicians
to play live."
Marin record producer Narada Michael Walden introduced him to Terra Linda's Alex Coltharp, who would become his new drummer. And Coltharp brought him Sammie Fischer, a classmate of his at Novato's Marin School of the Arts, to play bass. Inspired by Elvis Costello's early band, the Attractions, Jaffe called his new trio the Distractions.
They went right to work, playing a rigorous schedule of gigs and showcases, including one at the Roxy in Los Angeles. They released a couple of singles, "Backs of Our Eyelids," shooting a video for the tune in the Marin Headlands, and "The New Continent," a song inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." In the video for that song, Jaffe strikes poses that pay homage to Byrne's angular moves in "Stop Making Sense."
In their first hometown show as a headliner, Jaffe and the Distractions perform June 27 at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley.
"It's been an experiment to see how people react to the singles we release," he says. "We've begun shopping the record to labels in New York and L.A."
So far, though, there's been no one willing to take a risk on a young talent who's hard to categorize. And now, having just graduated from high school this month, Jaffe can't hide his apprehension about an immediate future that may not include touring and recording full time.
"This is an industry that moves pretty slowly," he
says. "It can be a bit disheartening when everything seems sort of static. So we're a bit in limbo right now. It isn't clear if it's possible to make music a career right now. We're getting a lot of good feedback, but so far nobody's pulled the trigger for us. It could happen at any time, but there's no guarantee that it will ever happen."
As he passed through adolescence, his once boyish soprano has deepened, forcing him to have to change the key to most of his songs. And, at 18, he's still very young, but he's no longer the boy wonder he once was.
"There was this window of his youth being part of what was so unique," Harrison says. "The older you get the less that exists. But I think he's a great talent, and many people will hear of him in the future."
Although he's reluctant to discuss it, Jaffe has been accepted into Yale University, a prestigious Ivy League school he's both proud of and embarrassed about. As it stands now, that's where he'll be heading in the fall.
"It has weird associations with an elitism that I don't think it really embodies," he says. "We were hoping we'd be recording next year."
While Harrison would have liked to see his protege break through onto the national stage, he's enthusiastic about his prospects as a collegiate musician at one of the most prestigious universities in the country. After all, Talking Heads were an East Coast band.
"It certainly means he can't devote his entire efforts to his music," Harrison concedes. "That being said, I think the change of scenery on the East Coast will be a good thing. There are so many colleges there and more potential opportunities to play concerts and develop a following. I think it might be the best thing in the world for him."
Contact Paul Liberatore via email at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LibLarge. Follow his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/ad_lib.
(c)2013 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
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