Pianist, singer, and arranger Matt Ray is a fixture of New York City's downtown music and theater scene, known for his inventive collaborations with performers such as Taylor Mac, Joey Arias, Justin Vivian Bond, and Bridget Everett, among others. In advance of his American Songbook performance on January 27—an evening of fresh takes on Hoagy Carmichael standards—Ray sat down with his friend and downtown comrade Rachelle Garniez to talk about what drew him to the Carmichael catalog, his preferred approach to arranging, and one of his favorite pieces of advice.
Rachelle Garniez: I was so excited when I found out you were doing this show. It's totally perfect, it seems like it just suits you to a T.
Matt Ray: Yeah, it's the kind of music that has enough depth to it while also being simple Americana kind of music, and I really find myself drawn to it.
It's the melodies, you know. Hoagy's melodies—he doesn't write a lot of the lyrics for his songs, but what he did with those lyrics is place them in melodies that tend to jump a fifth or an octave or a sixth, and then play a little chromatic thing, and then go back up.
RG: So many of the melodies seem to meld so perfectly with the mood. There's also this thing about them—as many times as I've heard them, there's still a surprising element. It never fails.
MR: Yeah, it can be the tiniest thing. There's this song "Memphis in June" that we're going to do. The first melody is [singing] "Memphis in June, a shady veran-dah," and it just has that one little extra destination. And it's so interesting. It's not a choice that a non-musician would make, like if somebody was just writing lyrics they wouldn’t say, "Oh, please make that other thing go down a whole step." Or, you know, "Stardust" famously has all those jumps up and down.
He's really exceptional at finding—you know, for singers—finding that vowel sound that you can open up on when the melody's very complicated and you need a landing place. On the other hand, his songs are hard to sing.
RG: Very hard! And I salute you for taking them on. It's deceptively simple. I guess that's the Americana kind of reference. So when you take on doing your version or interpretation of the song, are you looking at any specific angle?
MR: The great thing is that you can listen to recordings of Hoagy performing the songs themselves. Some of them I've known just from playing with singers since I was 18 years old and wanting to learn how to sing them myself. But some of the ones that I didn't know or hadn't fully learned, I often started with Hoagy's version just so I could see how he was interpreting his own melodies. I really believe as an arranger that you have two ways of doing it. One is you do an arrangement that you have in your head that you really want to do, and that can be reharmonizations or recontextualizing. But another way is you just find the players you want, and bring those players' skills to the best possible location. And that's more been my approach.
RG: In a lot of ways that's the jazz route, I suppose—trusting your compatriots. What type of instrumentation do you have?
MR: Well, I have some longtime collaborators joining me. Danton Boller will be playing bass. He's been with me for 20 years. And Kat Edmonson—I couldn't think of anybody better to interpret the songs, so she'll join for quite a few of them. And then Antoine Drye is playing trumpet. And Antoine is a newish collaborator, last five years or so, but I love his approach and sound. And Marika Hughes is playing cello on some songs. That's what I have so far, and there will probably be some other surprises along the way.
Kat and I have been working together for a few years now and we have some special connection, which is a little hard to describe, but I think people who come to the show will immediately see it. It's a love of certain elements of popular American music from that era but also just, you know, getting into moods. She gets into a mood so quickly—I cannot believe how she can do that.
RG: Accessing emotion.
MR: Yeah, she accesses this thing, and the sound of her voice is so riveting, so I think people that come to the show will get to experience our unique bond and the way we support each other musically.
RG: You'll be singing as well?
MR: I will be singing. Kat and I will do some duets.
RG: Duets are… it's a deep thing to sing with somebody. Especially harmonizing with someone, it's such a wonderful way to just get over yourself, in the best of ways! To sort of get lost inside the sound of what you’re doing.
RG: Is this a project that you feel like you've been working on peripherally for a while?
MR: I hadn't really thought about it, but I've been playing Hoagy songs a lot. When Charles Cermele [Producer of Contemporary Programming at Lincoln Center] approached me about doing an American Songbook show it popped into my head in one second flat. But I said, let me think about how I would do it. And then I immediately thought of Kat. So, yeah, to answer your question, doing a Hoagy show had been on my mind for a little bit of time.
"Once you get to a certain place, it's really about playing in as many different situations as possible."
RG: If you had to think... what is some of the best advice you've gotten along the way?
MR: Well, it's funny, you know, a lot of people have little mantras or things that they say. Taylor [Mac] has one that he tells me, which doesn't have anything to do with music, it has more to do with life and existing—partially existing as a queer person on the planet and partially just dealing with situations that come up every day in New York City. He says, "Matt Ray, win by losing."
This isn't so much related to music, it's just advice that I've used a lot in recent years. It's helped in my collaborations, too. Some of it was just, hey, if somebody's trying to pick a fight with you, don't get in a fight with them—like on the street—but in rehearsals I started to realize, "Oh, we don't all have to come to agreement about things." Sometimes everyone can say, "Oh, let's just let it go." And it seems like no one's winning but nobody has to win. I don't have to win. And that kind of advice has helped make me a better collaborator.
RG: Is there any advice that you wish someone had given you?
MR: Maybe I could answer that by saying when I was 19 I wish I knew that all you're really going to end up with is great relationships with musicians that you trust and admire and wherever that takes you is the joy, and whatever audiences that you get to interact with, that's the joy. When you're a teenager you're just thinking about everything and nothing.
RG: Do you have any practice tips that you would offer?
MR: I believe in hanging out, especially with other pianists and keyboard instrument players, because I always learn something and that's the exchange that I enjoy.
RG: And in doing that, do you mean just getting together?
MR: Yeah, one person plays a song and you kind of watch and get excited by that and then you play a song. It's not something that you can do all the time because everybody's so busy in New York, but it comes up once in a while. Practice tips–wise, the only thing I would say is play. Always play. In your mind, at the piano. I do believe in doing the work that you need to do, like scales and arpeggios and basic technical upkeep, but I also believe that once you get to a certain place, it's really about playing in as many different situations as possible.
RG: So get your foundation solid and then move.
MR: Right. Do the technical work that you need to do and then go and do it somewhere in public. Make the mistakes. Come back the next day and do it again.
Rachelle Garniez is a performer, singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist who composed the music for Taylor Mac's visionary Obie Award–winning theater piece The Lily's Revenge.