You can hold the best of Maurice Mattei’s material to the highest songwriting standards. His “Set The World On Fire” would not only fit fine on Bob Dylan’s Love And Theft album, it would be a highlight. Butch Hancock could claim as his own the pivotal line from the title cut to Mattei’s theatrical song-cycle “Western Skies”: “Everything’s different now, but nothing’s new.” Not everything Mattei has recorded is as compelling as those two songs, yet it was an ear-opening revelation when a career-spanning package from this unsung songwriter arrived in the mail.
Though the Tuscany-born, Ohio-raised multimedia artist has heard plenty of Dylan comparisons — an affinity Mattei acknowledged by titling his 1999 CD Girl On Girl (in playful homage to Blonde On Blonde) — we might better consider him as the Butch Hancock of Cincinnati. As with Hancock (who has worked as both an architect and photographer), Mattei’s songwriting is just one manifestation of an artistry that takes various forms, from his day job as an ad agency illustrator to his photographs and posters available along with his music on his website.
Even in his Cincy hometown, the artist isn’t a household word (at least much beyond the Mattei household), and the 47-year-old father of two pre-schoolers doesn’t have high expectations for raising his popular profile. He plays locally a time or two a month, and, as he explains in his bio, “prefers to be an opening act since this allows him to get home at a reasonable hour.” Yet Mattei is so creatively prolific, with ten self-released collections since 1995, that making this music is plainly an end in itself — not merely something he likes to do, but something he has to do.
“Obviously, it would be nice to get some sort of validation for it,” he says with a laugh, “but I can’t see ever not doing it. There’s a magical quality in coming up with a song that I just don’t find in photography or prose writing. It’s mysterious to me how the songs just come out of nowhere and seem to happen. And then I like to do the packaging, putting all the elements together.”
His recent solo live album, Maurice Mattei And A Room Full Of Victims, provides a representative sample of his songwriting, hung on the bare bones of his ragtime bluesy guitar, though the audio verite atmospherics (people bumping into things and talking with each other) can seem a little offhand. A newcomer to Mattei might opt instead for 2000′s World On Fire: The Best Of Maurice Mattei Vol. II or last year’s Western Skies (A Musical), which serves as a demo for a theatrical song-cycle that might only be staged in the artist’s fertile mind.
Though Mattei began recording and releasing his own music in the early 1980s, his songwriting took a turn in both style and subject matter as he became more involved with photography, shooting subjects on the underbelly of society. “I like lyrics that are more like little slices of life than a big overall statement, and my music became a lot simpler and more roots-oriented,” he explains. “There’s a voyeuristic quality to some of my songs. Photography got me into a whole lot of social circles — some people into heavy drugs and fringe criminal activity — that I’d never experienced before.”
While Mattei says he’s been contemplating moving with his family back to Italy, which he left at age 5, living in Cincinnati has made a strong imprint on his music. “It tends to be kind of a boring town, but there’s a lot of interesting things going on below the surface,” he says. Below the surface, his songs creep inside the listener’s skin.