Matti Roots: An Orchestra At His Fingertips

You could be forgiven for assuming, at first glance, that singer/songwriter Matt Goodman – better known as Matti Roots – thinks he’s too cool for school.  We’re sitting in one of the many eateries that dot the plush new shopping plaza in London’s Victoria. Sporting shades, a number one, designer stubble and a cucumber demeanour, Roots looks quite the archetypal Blues man.

The dark glasses stay on for the duration of our interview, Matti only removing them momentarily to reveal large hazel eyes with cow-lashes. Still, although he might look the part he thankfully doesn’t have the Rock’n’Roll ego.  Relaxed whilst tucking into Wasabi peas (after first offering me some), Matti turns out to be quite the easy-going conversationalist, seasoning his anecdotes with cheeky wit and pearly-white smiles.

A classically trained pianist since the tender age of three he later picked up his brother’s saxophone at 12, eventually mastering that too.  Neither of his parents were music aficionados according to Roots and he was raised on a pop diet of the Beatles, Elton John and Neil Diamond as well as the classical music he discovered learning the piano.  It was at secondary school that he was introduced to Jazz greats such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane and his appetite for the genre grew.  This must have come in handy when Matti went on to compose instrumentals for Big Bands.  Dalliance with more contemporary production came with the ’90s DnB and Garage crazes.

“I used to sit at the computer making tunes,”  he tells SoulCulture. “Sampling, messing around and just coming up with sonic constructions basically. Not 100% sure why I was doing it but I was inspired by music around me and wanted to make stuff.  I then got into production more seriously and started working with ‘singers’ – in inverted commas…”

Come again? That’s a loaded statement. Matti grins conspiratorially before giving a very diplomatic response. “There were some good ones and there were some who would be good in time.”  He continues, “I learned a lot working with singers; the way they approached writing a song over an instrumental, their points of reference.  I always wanted to write melodies especially playing saxophone.  It’s a frontline instrument; it plays the melody, it sits on top of everything else.  So it wasn’t an unnatural transition to songwriting.  In terms of singing, I always sang but never on the microphone.  It just kind of happened.”

As ever, necessity is the mother of all invention.  Constantly being let down by whimsical vocalists forced Matti to tap into his latent abilities. “I worked with these singers who for one reason or the other were really unreliable.  I got to a point that I knew what I wanted and I wasn’t meshing with the people I was working with. I thought, I might as well do it myself and see.  And so I did and people started saying, ‘That’s all right, you know.  You don’t actually sound bad’.”

Listening to Matti, vocal-wise you will hear strong traces of D’Angelo and his musical progenitor, a certain Mr Rogers Nelson whom Matti sees as a kindred spirit in terms of ‘how he feels music’.  Roots also cites Fela Kuti, James Brown and Joni Mitchell as inspirations and his musical palette takes him on a sonic Safari everywhere from Latin America to India.   I ask if he ever feels pressure to represent these styles in his own work.

“Sometimes I wish I could condense every bit of music that excites me into one thing and create it. Maybe that’s what I’m on a quest to do at the moment.  I get different things from different types of music.  If I’m listening to a particular composer or artist – their emphasis might be on harmonies, on rhythm, instrumentation or lyrical content.  There are many aspects to feed on which is why I’m so interested in different types of music.  I hope to evolve gradually and be able to express those influences at some point.”

Matti is one of those irritatingly adept folk who take to multiple instruments like the proverbial duck to water.  In addition to the piano and saxophone he plays guitar and drums ‘very badly’, he claims (yeah, right).  However it’s the piano that’s his instrument of choice. “A keyboard is an orchestra at your fingertips,” he explains. “I love that you can buy a synthesiser and it’s just got thousands of sounds on it.  Because my skills on the keyboard are quite proficient, I can take any sound, replicate it and it just opens up a world of music.”

Judging from the blurb on his MySpace, Matti is very keen to preserve the craftsmanship in his songs that is missing from a lot of today’s mainstream. In a 2009 interview with American radio station WDKK he says he is into ‘the progression of music’.  Yet as admirable as it is, such a purist approach can come into conflict with being a working musician and putting food on the table.  Matti appears to have found a way to strike a satisfactory balance.

“I think I have to be slightly schizophrenic actually…” he muses, smiling. “I don’t feel I’m not making enough money so I should manipulate what I do.  I can make money other ways; I do advertising music and pop music and I produce for other people” [Matti has worked with and done remixes for the likes of So Solid Crew, Ms Dynamite, Slum Village, Justin Timberlake and more recently a track featuring Wiley for whom he has much respect].  “If I wanna do stuff that is pop, almost contrived, I can do that for other artists.  But because the songs that I write [for myself] are so personal, I don’t feel the need to represent it any other way.”

Does Matti still bring intention and artistry to his pop compositions?

“I think I do; I try.  As a process I’m trying to get more of me into the pop… find a way of merging these two sounds. If I was in a bubble not paying attention to the outside world I probably couldn’t make pop music.  You have to have an awareness of culture and what gets people excited. That’s what makes me grow as an artist and as an individual; putting myself out of a comfort zone and forcing myself to do things that wouldn’t necessarily come naturally.  I enjoy the challenge actually. This project [the debut album] has evolved another side of me that I just let grow naturally.”

Matti’s debut BeatRoot, pencilled for release sometime this Autumn, is a veritable labour of love.  Dissatisfied with the first cut, Roots undertook the considerable task of re-recording the whole thing. “The [original] album didn’t have any homogeny.  The songs had been written over four or five years, all interspersed with production for other people and life generally.  At the end I had these songs that I felt worked well together because there was a common thread i.e. me, but they didn’t sound cohesive.  I just thought, I performed these live in a set together and that felt quite decent; maybe I can draw on that, bring it into the album and create a package.”

See You Again by MattiRoots:

It’s hard to ignore Roots’ heart-on-sleeve, often painfully candid lyrics.  Mid-tempo number ‘OCD’ for instance, has a jauntiness that belies a darker story of an ex-girlfriend who showed subtle obsessive compulsive tendencies. After breaking up, Matti noticed the propensity to fixate had rubbed off on him temporarily.  He must have apprehensions about being so lyrically exposed and vulnerable, surely.

“Yeah I do,” he admits. “Like right now, when I’m having to sit here and actually talk about it and know that it’s going out and to however many people; I suddenly think, ‘Hang on a sec? I’m really laying myself bare’.  But I mentally close my eyes, float above myself and just think, ‘It doesn’t matter’.  The making of the music is absolutely cathartic; turning something negative into something positive.  That’s why even though the subject matter is pretty gritty, if you listen to the music it’s not wrist-slitting indie.”

BeatRoot will feature a duet with legendary singer-songwriter Susaye Greene who has worked with Ray Charles, Leon Ware and Stevie Wonder and co-wrote Deniece William’s classic ‘Free’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘I Can’t Help It’ with Wonder.  Roots and Greene found each other on Myspace.  He asked her to critique the album and it was “Love at first listen,” chirps Matti. “I was really amazed to find someone of that pedigree.  She said she liked this one song called ‘Dope’ where she was jealous of the singer.  So I offered for her to sing on it and she was totally up for it.”

As it goes, Matti has a very open attitude towards working with other acts. “I’m a bit of a whore when it comes to [collaborations], honestly I am.  That probably sounds bad. What I mean is I’m open-minded about these things.  I’ll give it a go with anyone; variety is the spice of life.  I might want to leave straight after but I might want to hang around for a bit.  Now I’m getting more of a sense of when it’s going to work and when it’s not, I may be a little bit more selective than I was in the past.  When you’re working with other people you’re working out yourself as well.   I think I’m starting to get more of a sense of myself so as a result I’m getting more of what I need.”

In his interview with WDKK, it sounded as if Roots was lamenting the demise of decent mainstream UK radio.  Nonetheless, when I ask if he feels iTunes, Spotify and the like have made radio less significant, he is hesitant to draw any conclusions. “I don’t feel qualified to answer these sorts of things.  I need to be more aware of the way all these companies operate.  It’s very easy to form a reactionary opinion; I try not to do that.  Sit on the fence all my bloody life!”

Modesty aside, don’t think that Matti is burying his head in the artistic sand.  His insightful, cogent ideas on the way the current socio-political situation is impacting the music industry demonstrate that he’s better informed than he’d give himself credit. “Music has always been a reflection of times and culture,” he posits. “A lot of political ideals have gone out the window.”

“Even if you look at our government here… At the moment we’ve got a coalition between left and right wing [parties] because they don’t mean what they used to mean anymore.  I think it’s what they call a post-ideological age; that’s why I think music is so mixed up.  With Hip Hop [for example] there used to be a politics behind it and there isn’t really now… Well there is but I think poor people have become less poor, in the West anyway.  The whole divide is narrowing.”

“I’m careful not to judge things but you can have an opinion.  Sometimes the mass culture doesn’t always go in the right direction.  You can look at [ancient] Greek culture or others that have imploded because they haven’t kept themselves in check.”

Blimey. If only more artists were this engaged.

Keep your eyes on for more information about Matti Roots.

Photography by Neil Raja

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