Q&A with veteran roots multi-instrumentalist Matt Turk, a troubadour, eternal idealist and peace loving realist

"Music allows us to feel human, love, tread lightly and taste a little wisdom to appreciate the sanctity of all life. Music can turn us towards compassion."

Matt Turk: New York Roots Troubadour 

Matt Turk is a musician, recording artist, multi-instrumentalist, veteran performer, troubadour, bandleader, eternal idealist, peace loving realist. Matt Turk does that and much more. With stellar instrumental chops (guitar, mandolin, lap steel) and a warm, expressive voice, he’s performed in hundreds of venues all over the world, from Europe to the Caribbean; in New York City at the mayor’s residence and at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, where he’s a resident musician. As a side player, bandleader, and solo artist, he’s shared stages with everyone from Norah Jones to The Doobie Brothers. His “Fog of War” video features special guest Pete Seeger. The Denver cover is on his 2010 collection of classics, American Preservation. Recorded live and produced by David Dobkin, it also includes a stirring a cappella version of Pink Floyd’s “On the Turning Away.” He’s not afraid to tackle “America the Beautiful,” giving it a cool rootsy vibe complete with Dobro. He has several solo albums – Washington Arms (2006), What Gives (2002), Turktunes (1999) – as well as one album with Mandolin Caravan, Desert Soul (2003), and one as part of duo Gillen and Turk, Backs to the Wall (2008). In 2015 Matt co-founded Deadgrass, a string band adventure through Jerry Garcia's musical world. In 2014, Matt released Cold Revival, produced by David Dobkin, recorded in Los Angeles at Matter Music. Also, Pete Seeger Think Globally Sing Locally (2019), Matt Turk Dog Story (2019), Deadgrass Roll the Dice (2018), Deadgrass Live (2017).

(Photo: Matt Turk is a veteran singer-songwriter who has engaged audiences around the world)

Well-known as a side-player, he recently added background vocals to Pete Seeger’s A More Perfect Union and mandolin to Seeger's Grammy nominated The Storm King. Matt was a founding member of The Hour, a ground-breaking NYC jam band that released three albums. They were the house band for three summers at Arrowhead Ranch, aka Fillmore of the Catskills. Associated with the renowned Bill Graham, the venue regularly attracted rock royalty like Lenny Kravitz, Phish, Blues Traveler, Levon Helm, Little Feat, and the Dave Matthews Band. He’s showcased at the International Folk Alliance Conference, and opened for many including Fiona Apple and Judy Collins. Favorite gigs include an appearance at the New York Disability Parade and many performances at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival. Matt partnered with TrueFire on his first course: The Songwriting Construction Kit (2021). Matt Turk’s Songwriting Construction Kit will convey a clear understanding of the songwriting process and a “building blocks” approach for writing and performing your own original songs.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Roots Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Like a compass, Blues and Roots Counterculture has guided me. An exciting, unfiltered human spirit is on display for discovery and self-recovery. Find myself inspired witnessing the honesty, innovation and originality of the artists. It’s a visceral frequency I resonate with that I actively seek out or it seeks me out. It affects the way I experience live music, hear music, play and write music. It has inspired me to be open, adventurous and to listen. I learn about myself through this counterculture.

Why did you think that the Folk and Roots music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Some folk and roots music share in a human feeling that is connected to the heart and is undeniable for the listener. The source of some of this music comes from great suffering, great joy and a very real human experience that is very compelling to a listener.

How started the thought of The Songwriting Construction Kit!? What do you love most about the act of songwriting?

I was turned on to TrueFire during the recent pandemic when performing was on hold. I felt teaching a course on songwriting would give me focus and renewed purpose. I love the act of songwriting. It is a process of self-discovery, communication, emotional growth, a test of craft and a solitary act. It is very fulfilling to overcome the obstacles involved and create a song that is authentically inspired, has melody, well-crafted lyrics, a great feel and groove, solid singing and is accompanied on an instrument that serves the song.                                                      (Matt Turk / Photo by Jim Metzger)

"Take me to a small juke joint to hear Memphis Minnie, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and to his porch to hear Mississippi John Hurt. Gimme a fresh lemonade and let me soak in the depression era country blues in its original environment, where it all started. Then let's hit a recording session and make a 78!"

Where does your creative drive come from? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?

The creative drive is a gift from the great unknown. Being creative and playing is what people universally do. When I discovered it, I felt it was well worth my attention and time. I’m committed to the craft of songwriting and making music. It began when I was young. As long as it will continue to call upon me, I will respond. I hope people are moved by these songs. I hope folks feel connected to themselves by listening to these songs. I hope you sing along. I hope you play along.

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

Editing and judgement become more balanced through experience. Many more items find there way to the cutting room floor and that’s a good thing. There’s less self judgement and less doubt. There is becoming, process and serving the song. That’s the joy! The guitar and voice have been in my life for more almost 5 decades. The piano and mandolin are also on the journey. These are the fundamental tools of my music making process. Press record and capture the moment in the room. Sing the song. It sounds simple, but I don’t know how simple it is. It’s natural. For me, to be moved emotionally and to be an inspired player and writer is the moment to experience.

How do you describe Matt Turk sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

As a little kid, I saw my dad really enjoyed music and artists like Otis Redding, Beatles and Harry Chapin.  It was sharing in that fun that got me started.  My mother was into all kinds of interesting stuff including Debussy, Edith Piaf and Allen GinsbergAs an artist, we are always just becoming.  For me the day to day is slow and steady and work is craft.  I have fun, practice, work on the craft, get out there and play live as much as I can. A couple of times a year or so I get to make a recording in the studio with friends.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

Basic life experiences, personal relationships, being human, feeling emotions, witnessing wonder, being in awe, being in love - I'm recently married and this has added a whole new dimension to life and the meaning of love, falling out of love, experiencing tragedy, humorous things and being a part of social justice; these all trigger ideas for songs most frequently for me.

"The best advice I have received is to be nonjudgmental, down to earth, follow my values and work on my craft. (Matt Turk / Photo by Rob Schmidt)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Music is a listening art requiring attention and presence. Prepare in advance to play in the moment. Let it happen and let it go. Music brings people together. It is very important for music to be available to all people. There need to be more opportunities for music to be free and accessible. It is the great unifier. Like football, what we in America call Soccer, music is the great unifier.

Can the music crush the shackles of the human spirit and mind? How we can change the world?

Music can warm the heart, soften the mind and bring us closer to overcoming our individual and collective pain and suffering. Music can help us to transcend our wiring and conditioning. Music allows us to feel human, love, tread lightly and taste a little wisdom to appreciate the sanctity of all life. Music can turn us towards compassion.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Now is the most interesting period of life because it is here and were I not to have this commitment to now I might not persevere. A recent birthday of mine was celebrated during a concert where I accompanied Pete Seeger and a chorus of inner city homeless kids.  In a convergence of my values and craft, Pete sang a rare New Mexican Indian "Happy Birthday" song to me in front of the audience and his gift of song to me in that personal, public way was very moving.

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

I just did a gig with Adam Roberts on bass, Joe Bonadio on percussion and Gary Schreiner on keys, chromatic harmonica and accordion in Harlem at Floradita. At some points, the music seemed to be playing itself. I think that's what they call "being in the zone". Another memorable moment is years back at Wetlands in New York  jamming with a few musicians including Wavy Gravy, John Popper from Blues Traveler and The Hour's Mike Mulvey on bass.  That was an exciting psychedelic electric blues jam with Wavy making up words and all of us free flying.

"Music can warm the heart, soften the mind and bring us closer to overcoming our individual and collective pain and suffering. Music can help us to transcend our wiring and conditioning." (Multi-instrumentalist Roots artist Matt Turk and the late great Pete Seeger / Photo by Tom Staudter)

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Memorable gigs including singing with Pete Seeger at Lincoln Center and Clearwater's Great Hudson River Revival, playing with The Doobie Brothers and Fiona Apple at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. I loved singing in Big Sur, California with Fred Gillen Jr. at the Henry Miller Library under a canopy of Redwood trees. Truly amazing was leading the American with Disabilities Parade from Grand Central Terminal to Madison Square Park with Liam Greguez and a couple of thousand folks with disabilities singing their hearts out  to "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around"!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I have been very fortunate in having many wonderful teachers and mentors. Presently Hot Tuna's Barry Mitterhoff is teaching me mandolin and music. He is an amazing musician and teacher. I also have great admiration for his colleagues Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady and all that is a part their universe… Early in my career, through my friendship with Russ Irwin, Aerosmith's keyboardist, I got to record with Phil Ramone. Phil took a great interest in me for a short while and I benefitted from his wisdom regarding recording, composing and making music.  Also early in my life I was exposed to the artistry and live performance of Allen Ginsberg, Harry Chapin and Pete Seeger. I found all three profoundly influential. The best advice I have received is to be nonjudgmental, down to earth, follow my values and work on my craft.

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

Like all people, I miss people I loved who are dead. I am most concerned about climate change and leaving a sustainable earth for our grandchildren's grandchildren's grandchildren.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Make music instruments and lessons available to all under privileged children and people.

"The creative drive is a gift from the great unknown. Being creative and playing is what people universally do. When I discovered it, I felt it was well worth my attention and time. I’m committed to the craft of songwriting and making music. It began when I was young. As long as it will continue to call upon me, I will respond. I hope people are moved by these songs. I hope folks feel connected to themselves by listening to these songs. I hope you sing along. I hope you play along." (Photo: Matt Turk)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Jazz and Jam-Rock music?

Jam is improvisational and a newer "coded" form really coming out of a Jazz/Psychedelic head (think Jimi Hendrix). For example, if you listen to Derek Trucks or Eric Krasno, tho' often categorized as Jam, they are really great American guitarists blending elements of Jazz, Rock and Blues. These lines are meant to be blurred, except perhaps in marketing.

Do you remember anything funny from The Hour?

It would take a book to recall all that is funny about The Hour. That experience was a joyful success. What a great time it was and a fine body of work was created. Funny stuff?  we used to order and eat as much food as we could at a minimum of cost… I remember once, Jon Vitarelli (original drummer) sat down, ordered breakfast, lunch and dinner and ate them in immediate succession. I had a great time, especially with Marshall Madow. He was a great partner and super funny guy.  He was from Queens and was a little punk like a Ramone. He had that New York City, Queens ain't no big deal thing… He also was friends with Giorgio Gomelsky and we used to rehearse at his studio. Giorgio had many great parties and visitors and was a real character.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day?

Take me to a small juke joint to hear Memphis Minnie, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and to his porch to hear Mississippi John Hurt. Gimme a fresh lemonade and let me soak in the depression era country blues in its original environment, where it all started. Then let's hit a recording session and make a 78!

Matt Turk - official website

(Photo: Matt Turk)

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