“Just being shell shocked by the whole situation, what seemed to be an onslaught every day of bad news that hasn’t stopped,” explains Harlan as the spark that ignited his writing. “I guess what happens is you get used to it, and when you get used to something you start to understand it or get dull to it, but you start to see commonalities.”
Harlan grew up in Boerne before moving to Austin to study journalism at the University of Texas and eventually making his way to Houston. He got his start in the Houston music scene performing at open mikes and getting to know other singer-songwriters.
He soon made it to songwriter mecca, Anderson Fair, and is even featured in the documentary about the venue For the Sake of the Song. “Anderson Fair became a home for me here, it became a place where I got to know people.”
“When I moved here, Houston seemed a lot more disconnected and I don’t know if it's because I didn’t know anybody, but now it really does feel like people in general around the whole city are in connection with each other more than they used to be,” reflects Harlan.
Harlan tasted success in the United States and overseas, often touring Europe and receiving widespread praise for his album, Raven Hotel. He became known for strong songwriting and voice, both filled with emotion yet never shrill. Harlan always seems on an even keel even when singing about the world being on fire.
Harlan took a step back from music after his 2016 album, In the Dark, and has spent the last three years working his way back in. “I felt I kind of pulled back for many reasons; it was something that I needed to do. It was hard to realize that progress doesn’t mean you stay there. The world moves on without you; people forget if you ever played their venue or their town.”
This is Harlan’s fifth studio album and it sees him reuniting for the third time with Rich Brotherton as a producer. Harlan credits the seamless quality of the tracks to Brotherton. “He's got a panoramic view of things; he's got this crazy width, he can see the start and the end of something.”
Best Beasts is by far Harlan’s most collaborative record, featuring some of Houston and Austin’s best musicians including Jon Dee Graham, Bettysoo, Will Van Horn and Warren Hood.
“It was necessary, I was not in a spot where I was writing quickly or well and I needed the people and their take on what they would do.” When asked what the biggest lesson he took away from the experience Harlan says, “You’re learning about your own dogmatic approach to songwriting and also trust is a big thing, and something that I was probably looking for anyway.”
Harlan says he has always written about current events but says this is the first time he has gotten so specific in his grievances. He doesn’t shy away from calling out specific issues in today's administration and culture.
The title of the album itself is a jab at the First Lady’s public awareness campaign Be Best, which focuses on advocating against cyber-bullying and the opioid crisis. “I don’t see how that administration reflects that at all.” says Harlan. “The flip side is being your best evil self.”
In the song “Low Pressure” Harlan addresses the fine line between pride and hate, comparing our current turmoil to biblical tales and warning of an uprising of like-minded people. Though the album is rooted in divide it remains optimistic in tone and comes across more as a call to get together for the greater good.
“Even if it’s different things that we are worried about, there’s this core of so many people across so many parts of society that feels like it has been cracked and shaken and they don’t understand why things are different and if that’s the case then we should all be talking about it,” says Harlan.
The album balances out with funky tracks such as the unexpected “Gemini Blues” featuring a horn section and lyrics about the duality within an individual. “There’s got to be something in human nature that fights against itself and against this equilibrium that we kept saying we want to be in,” says Harlan.
"There’s got to be something in human nature that fights against itself and against this equilibrium that we kept saying we want to be in.”
“If nothing happens from this I’m proud of it and if nothing but somebody finding something to identify with right now, I would be happy with that. I would always be happy with that, but right now that’s enough for me. I think that things are wrong and everybody needs to give of themselves in every way to make to help try to make things right.”
Matt Harlan will play at 1 p.m. Saturday July 13 at Cactus Records, 2110 Portsmouth. Free.