Labeling today's touring musicians troubadours romanticizes their gritty, DIY existence. They log thousands of miles, going from smoky dive to smoky dive, playing for embarrassingly small crowds and hoping to make enough scratch to get to the next unfamiliar destination. But for 31-year-old Boise-based musician Matt Hopper, taking that kind of hardscrabble path actually was romantic. It led him not only to a comfortable, laid-back life here, but also brought him to an artistic destination--and a new CD, "Jersey Finger" (Hatcher Pass), his fifth album and the one he considers his best work yet.
Hopper grew up in Alaska. Wasilla to be exact. He likes to say he's from Hatcher Pass, Alaska, because it sounds more mysterious--he says few people have heard of it--and to avoid answering questions about Sarah Palin.
Though he'd played music through his teens, it wasn't until age 21, while playing with his band The Roman Candles and living in Anchorage that he began to feel that "musician" was the answer he could give when anyone asked, "So, what do you do?"
"That's when I considered I could do this for a living. I could do this as a career," Hopper said. "I could be one of those guys that puts out records and tours. I was like, I want to do this."
The Roman Candles (a name he still records under and plays with), put out two records, which helped Hopper find the confidence to give in to his wanderlust and hit the road. He had also read Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer's story based on the journals of Chris McCandless, a college-educated young man who hitchhiked into the Alaskan wilderness to live a life of solitude and who died of starvation four months later. Inspired by that sense of adventure, but wanting to avoid starvation, Hopper's first stop was Los Angeles. He met a lot of people and learned a lot about being a musician while living in L.A. but it's tough to be poor there.
It wasn't long before Hopper was at a turning point. He would have to get a real job if he wanted to stay in L.A. or he could do what troubadours do and hit the road. In 2003, Hopper booked himself a West Coast tour, which is when he first discovered Boise. A national stint soon followed and he was on the road for an entire year.
"That's when I first became 'Troubadour Matt,' a road warrior," Hopper said, laughing.
What 10 years of being a road warrior has resulted in--besides a healthy fan base and a slew of stories and song fodder--is a number of relationships, many of which continue to this day.
Some of those relationships still come in handy at Hopper's day job: booking shows for The Bouquet. Bouquet owner Tyson Twilegar said Hopper's time on the road is a big benefit to finding good acts to play the bar.
"He offers a lot of things people who aren't musicians couldn't," Twilegar said. "He has an eclectic group of friends and he knows people and bands from everywhere."
Another of Hopper's important relationships is one with producer/musician Richard Swift, who Hopper met while he was living in L.A. When it came time to record this album, Hopper knew he wanted Swift at the helm.
Hopper dug into his back catalog of more than 300 demos, culled them down to 34 and started e-mailing them to the producer. Swift chose 12 and the two set a date to record. However, on the day Hopper arrived at Swift's Oregon recording studio, Swift sustained a painful injury referred to as a Jersey Finger, in which the flexor tendon of the finger is damaged. Recording was on hold for a couple of weeks and once Swift recovered enough to play (he plays synthesizer, drums and bass on the record), the two set out at lightning speed to get the album done. Swift brought in some elements that Hopper wanted--like horns--but also kept certain things out of the recording that he knew wouldn't work. For example, Hopper really wanted djembe in a song. Swift disagreed. There is no djembe on the record.
The result of time spent in that Cottage Grove, Ore., recording studio is the 11 tracks (and one bonus track) that comprise Jersey Finger, an energetic, rock/pop/Americana album with handfuls of chugging guitar, brushed snares, surprising horn sections and Hopper's controlled talk-sing vocals that shift from raspy reflections to goosebump-inducing falsettos in a snap.
The CD opener, "In It For the Music," sums up what Hopper discovered about himself during all of those years on the road: He's a musician. This is what he does.
"If home is where you wanna be all the time / I don't think you could ever hang with my kind. / We're in it for the music ... We're in it for the music all the time."
"Being on the road changed me. I kind of grew up out there," Hopper said. "I learned how to use common sense. I learned how to deal with loneliness. I was lonely for a long time, but eventually, you realize it's just a state of mind and you can overcome that.
But it's like I told my parents, 'I'm an artist and artists have to suffer.'"