Matt Costa / David Ramirez
October 31, 2021
241 South 500 East
Salt Lake City, UT 84102
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When Matt Costa started working on the songs for his sixth record Yellow Coat, he’d been on tour for the better part of two years and had just ended a relationship of almost a decade. The music needed to exist, and it was as much an emotional exercise as a creative one.
“I think every other record that I've written, I wrote knowing that the songs would have an outlet,” Costa says “And for this one, I really didn’t. It was just a process I was going through, clearing myself of these feelings and thoughts.”
The songs were like Costa’s letters to himself, with the honesty and intimacy of something that was not meant to be heard. “ I feel really close to them for that reason,” he says. “Some of my favorite writing is like that - VincentVanGogh’sDearTheo,orSteinbeck’sALifeinLetters.T hoseare really revealing, because it’s not intended as part of their body of work. There’s something really special about that. But at the same time, I write songs and perform for a living. So it's hard to think these songs will never see the light of day.”
And now, of course, they have. Yellow Coat is a masterpiece of heartbreak from a preternatural tunesmith, its raw emotion channeled into gently swinging, hooky love songs, most of them awash in strings and mellotron and harmonies and groove. From the insinuating acoustic riffs and lo-fi beats of “Avenal” and the snappy fatalism of “Slow” to the almost church-like fragility of “Last Love Song,” Yellow Coat is equal parts lost ‘60s AM radio hits, folk-pop beauty and dark night of the soul music.
At the time that Costa started writing, he had stripped things down not only emotionally, but in terms of his surroundings. He had moved into a Laguna Beach studio - as in the size of his living quarters, not a recording complex - with just the bare minimum of furniture and instruments. Instead of a bedside table, a Wurlitzer Sideman drum machine.
The Wurlitzer eventually got used and sampled on “Avenal,” which Costa and his friend Chase Perkowski (Iris and the Shade) wrote on a going-nowhere road trip a few hundred miles northeast of L.A. “I was in a searching headspace,” Costa says. “Running away from something, trying to find something, trying to find myself. We stopped at a gas station overlooking highway 5. Chase was strumming a few chords as the gas was pumping, and I sat under a tree humming a melody and frantically writing
down lyrics. By the time the car was fully fueled I asked him to play back the chords to me as I sang the song.” Back on the road, the next sign said “AVENAL: 2 Miles” and Costa had both his opening track and song title.
The 37 year-old Costa has a lot of music and artistic growth under his belt, particularly in the last six years. He was 21 when he made his first EP, having immersed himself in music after a bad skateboard landing sidetracked what might have been a pro career. Coming out of that world, he had a punk side, but also became enamored of Scottish folk, and Brian Jones’ guitar style in the Rolling Stones.
“One of my first shows that I played was with a band that was all about things like At The Drive-In,” he remembers. “I went up there with my acoustic guitar and played like a Pixies song, and a Donovan song, and then an original of mine. And I remember thinking, What am I? Do I even belong here?” But at no point did he ever think, “Okay, I'm just going to be a guy with a guitar. I always heard bigger arrangements.”
He began his career on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, where both his 2006 debut, Songs We Sing, and 2008’s Unfamiliar Faces were produced by No Doubt’s Tom Dumont. Costa produced 2010’s Mobile Chateau himself, while 2013’s self-titled effort brought him to Scotland, where
producer Tony Doogan (Beck, Air) assembled a backing band drawn from the ranks of Belle and Sebastian. In 2013, he began a several year period of restless wandering, working on soundtracks such as the 2017 documentary Orange Sunshine and releasing short EPs experimenting with different aspects of his artistry. Then, in 2018 with Santa Rosa Fangs, he found a new home at Dangerbird. The record, a winding story about a family of characters in Northern California, was a rebirth of sorts and a second act to a long and storied career.
“I've always had freedom in making my records and songs,” he says. “But with Dangerbird, and the last records, they really trusted me to follow my instincts, which is a pretty special place to be.”
Even before writing “Avenal,” Costa had done a fair amount of home recording. Once an album seemed to be in the cards, the label suggested he connect with producer Alex Newport (At the Drive-In, Death Cab For Cutie, Bleached), as much because they would get along personally as creatively. They worked on three songs that were in varying states of completion, including “Last Love Song” (a simple home recording), “Slow” (a demo) and “Make That Change” (a bare-bones solo acoustic track that Costa and Newport fleshed out from start to finish). Then they kept on going.
Costa plays a bit of everything on the record, but he also brought in touring drummer Cory Gash and one-woman string section Alexis Mahler (she plays both violin and cello). Costa and Mahler had previously done a lot of remote recording, but this time she came down to California for a week. “We worked up a bunch of arrangements together that lifted up a lot of the songs in a nice way,” Costa says. “I wanted to really pull up some of the emotional stuff with string and things” (said ‘things’ being the mellotron, which can evoke so many different tones, as well as Costa’s layered vocals).
Costa had been playing “Slow” at solo shows before recording it, but it was first written around a rhythm track. With its snappy bass and doo-wop-inspired backing vocals, it feels like a song that could have been plucked from a Scorsese movie, except made in 2020. The sweeping, soulful “Jet Black Lake” is equally cinematic, with Costa pushing his vocal range into falsetto.
But it’s “Let Love Heal” and “Last Love Song” that are perhaps the heart of the record, bittersweet evocations of love’s power to both soothe and devastate. When Costa first wrote what became “Last Love Song,” it had a different title, and was meant to be an anniversary gift. Instead, it
turned into a break-up song, its sadness as palpable as the sound of Costa’s fingers on guitar strings.
Life does go on, however: the r ecord ends with the last song Costa wrote for it, “So I Say Goodbye,” which provides a sense of closure, its piano-driven tunefulness feeling both uplifting and melancholy. And since finishing Yellow Coat, Costa has written and released an even newer piece of music, “Human Kind of Song,” which he lyrically crowd-sourced with fans on Instagram while sheltering in-place. Like every other songwriter, he doesn’t know when he will next play live in front of people, so the experience provided some community. And while Yellow Coat m ay have started as an album about heartbreak, its sense of sadness, hope and perseverance also feels completely universal.
“Everyone's going through personal trials all the time,” says Costa. “And it can be isolating. But now everyone's going through something. And as difficult as that is, there's comfort in that too. Because we're all in it together, and we have been the whole time. Except now we can actually feel it.”