Matt Duke Profile Page
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Anyone who caught singer-songwriter Matt Duke at his early shows in the Philadelphia area or on Manhattan's Lower East Side a few years back would have discovered an artist whose musical vocabulary was nothing short of astonishing. His tee-shirt/jeans/baseball cap attire may have seemed reassuringly familiar, but Duke's performances immediately took listeners into uncharted territory. A self-taught guitarist, Duke's acoustic playing was often full of abrupt stops and starts, unexpected changes of direction, complex rhythms that came off more like jazz than folk or rock, challenging the limits of his acoustic instrument. His voice could be quietly confessional at first, then escalate to an impassioned wail, as startlingly intense by the end of a song as it was gently intimate at the start. In a world of heart-on-their-sleeve singer-songwriters, Duke pushed past the conventions of the genre, combining elements of jazz, folk and pop, even grunge and progressive rock, with unbridled emotion to create a sound very much his own.
Kingdom Underground, Duke's Rykodisc debut, is just as daring as those buzz-generating gigs. Duke is an ambitious songwriter, fashioning dramatic sagas about troubled souls who struggle with romance, life, death and, perhaps most of all, with themselves. His words can be intriguingly ambiguous: the house-bound couple on "Opossum," for example, might be dealing with agoraphobia or maybe even the end of the world. He can also be exhilaratingly forthright, as on "Walk It Off," a no-minced-words rocker about a bruising lover's spat. The unlisted title track, hidden on the disc, lends a cinematically foreboding tone to the proceedings, with a dark, electronic feel to it that recalls Trent Reznor at his most brooding. Not all of Duke's material is of a life-or-death nature, however. "Rabbit" is a tender, spare ballad at the heart of the album. "Sex and Reruns" takes a sardonic look, with a surprisingly easy-going pop feel, at the self-medicating properties of the internet and TV, whether you happen to be bored, lonely or having difficulties composing your next song.
Addressing the complicated, philosophical/spiritual subject matter he gravitated towards on Kingdom Underground, Duke jokingly decides it must be his Irish Catholic background. But then he says, "Love songs - I put those aside. I hear them on the radio so often. Writing about love and breakups is almost tired. The whole idea of your spiritual unrest, what you believe in and what you don't, what you're struggling with now and what you will struggle with for the rest of your life, were, for some reason, the things that were the easiest to write about. It's very rare that I'd write about relationships; it's mostly how everyday, trivial, petty problems could be associated with a greater issue. That's what I get the most inspiration from. And I don't think I'll ever get tired writing about that stuff."
Duke enlisted Los Angeles-based producer Marshall Altman (Matt Nathanson, Virginia Coalition, Zebrahead) to collaborate with him on Kingdom Underground. The singer spent a few months toiling every night at a desk in his parents' basement, working on material. Then he joined Altman for four weeks in a California studio. Duke, who was raised in southern New Jersey just across the bridge from Philly, had never recorded outside of the Philadelphia area, and he was galvanized by his new surroundings: "All I could do in L.A. was focus on my work. It was a breath of fresh air to be in a place where I wasn't so comfortable that I would be falling back into the familiar songwriting habits I had at home." For the most part, Duke and Altman did the sessions on their own, with engineer Eric Robinson, but Altman did bring in a backing band for two long, action-packed days to add rhythm tracks, electric guitar and keyboards. As Duke recalls, "Marshall and I had done the rough stuff, the skeletal structure of the songs, with the acoustic guitar and the guys listened to it. Over two days they cut twelve tracks. They weren't cut to click or anything like that. All the musicians could hear was the guitar and they just went and played it live. It was heavy. It was so cool. There was such an energy that Marshall was capturing."
Altman, who immediately liked the "quixotic" aspects of Duke's songwriting style, was able to help shape Duke's musical and thematic gear-shifting into a cohesive, artfully sequenced album. Duke admits, "When I first started out, I didn't know what style I was --I still don't and I probably never will. That's why it was so important to find a producer who could cater to the dramatic raw energy but, at the same time, hone whatever musical style it was and not make it sound all over the place."
Duke has always been drawn to music as a means of self-discovery. As a teenager, Duke initially picked up the guitar for a time-honored reason: "solely for the purpose of getting girls," figuring out how to play the instrument on his own. When a coffee house in Collingswood, New Jersey, started offering open-mike nights for local talent, Duke decided to get a little more serious about his burgeoning craft. The coffee shop proprietors, recounts Duke, "were always good about letting local people come in and perform. Ninety percent of the time they sucked, but it was always endearing to go in and watch people go up and play. For me, it was perfect because I sucked too and I had virtually no songwriting experience. I would do these shows with my friend Brendan, who played a hand drum, a djembe. I started writing more because he and I were hanging out a lot. Most of the songs weren't very good initially, but they started getting better and better."
Duke's parents eventually surprised him with a gift of some recording time - a live session at his parents' church, helmed by Duke's childhood piano teacher. There was magic in the studio even then: a copy of the resulting demos made it into the hands of a grammar school buddy, then a Drexel University student enrolled in the college's innovative music business program, and the friend brought it into his A&R class for critiquing. The class instructors urged the student to bring in his talented friend - they wanted to feature Duke's songs on the first compilation from Drexel's in-house record label, Mad Dragon. That led to an acoustic-based, full-length album, Winter Child, on Mad Dragon, distributed by Ryko. The folks at Ryko were as impressed as those Drexel professors, and Duke was quickly offered the opportunity to join the label's artist roster.
Music lovers in Philadelphia have proven to be staunch supporters of Duke, as has influential radio station WXPN-FM. Now it's everybody else's turn to discover the mysterious, compelling, emotionally charged world Duke has created with Kingdom Underground.