Even though he grew up in Palo Alto, California, the technological center of the universe, singer songwriter Matt Simons isn’t necessarily a tech expert. Still, it’s somewhat ironic that a slew of Internet ads he posted on Facebook when he was promoting his first album, Pieces, is what led to his biggest success so far.
“I’d just made a record, and as an independent artist, I had no idea how to market it,” he said. “So, I turned to the Internet and it ended up working really well overseas.” Soon, the 27 year-old musician had a small, dedicated fan base, in of all places, The Netherlands, where he traveled and played a few small shows.
In the audience at one of those shows was a writer for one of the biggest shows on Dutch television, Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden. She heard him sing an impassioned version of his song, “With You.”
It was then that he learned what the words, “overnight sensation,” truly meant. Though he’s been studying classical and jazz since his childhood—taking the requisite piano lessons before switching to the saxophone (“the saxophone is just cooler,” he cracked), and he’d been gigging in his now hometown of New York to small crowds, he found himself something of a minor celebrity in the Netherlands.
“They don’t have to ask your permission to use your song. I didn’t even know it was happening,” he said. “I just woke up one day and it was a top 10 song in the iTunes charts.”
In a flash, Simons went from obscurity to “famous in Europe.”
“It’s almost like the “I’m big in Europe” cliche,” he said. “It’s the classic line,” he said. “Who would have thought? It’s a fun story to tell.”
He went from being an independent artist to an artist with major label muscle behind him, Sony Music, who picked him up on the strength of “With You.” He appeared as a guest judge on the Dutch version of the X-Factor. His song was a top seller on iTunes, finishing 29th on the top selling songs of 2013 in the Netherlands. “It out-sold The Lumineers’ ‘Ho Hey’; it beat Katy Perry’s ‘Roar,’” he said.
The result is a weird dual existence, one where he sells out 1000-seat venues overseas but comes home to New York “and play crowded bars for people” who have no idea who he is, gigging several days a week in New York, playing in cover bands, and performing his own solo music to small audiences.
With his next album ‘Catch and Release’ out Fall 2014, he hopes to change that. He wrote the bulk of it in three weeks with co-writers in LA and worked with six different producers in Nashville, L.A and The Netherlands.“It was this crazy period of creativity after about a year and a half of writer’s block.”
Music is in Simons’ blood—his grandparents were both opera singers in Los Angeles, and he spent his life studying jazz and classical, learning to play on piano, switching to clarinet, guitar, and saxophone, eventually settling back on piano. When his peers were listening to rock and roll, he was listening to jazz. In the current pop landscape when so many stars don’t write their own music, Simons’ extensive musical background gives him a leg up. “I think you take the tools that you have acquired and try to make something meaningful out of it — that’s always been my philosophy,” he said. “The greater goal is just trying to be able to express yourself.”
His style recalls the classic song structures of his musical heroes, the Beatles, with hooked-filled harmonies, and plaintive lyrics that evoke a sort of insightful melancholy. “We can tell each other secrets, and remember how to love,” he sings on the title track, “Catch and Release.”
“I try to be autobiographical, but not necessarily so it’s super-obvious. I like to just draw on common themes that everyone relates to in their daily lives—feelings of unrest, feelings of movement — of new beginnings, wanting to start over,” he said.
Then, perhaps, Americans will know what the Dutch have already known about Matt Simons: that he makes beautiful, sometimes sad songs.
“My favorite kind of songs to listen to are the ones that, the lyrics might sound depressing, but at the end of the day, there’s some truth in it, and that makes you feel good.”