Out singer-songwriter talks music, film and activism

Out singer-songwriter talks music, film and activism

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Out Portland-based singer-songwriter Matt Alber is coming to the East Coast for a string of shows that includes a stop at the Rrazz Room in New Hope July 14.

Alber, who is also a filmmaker and youth advocate, is touring behind his most recent album, “Wind Sand Stars,” featuring original acoustic folk/pop songs that he recorded and produced independently.

Alber was a member of the Grammy Award-winning all-male vocal ensemble Chanticleer before he went solo and steered his career in a more pop-oriented direction. 

“I first started listening to pop music when I was in music school studying classical music,” Alber said of his musical influences. “And it was Elton John, Billy Joel, Rufus Wainwright and The Indigo Girls that got me falling in love with pop music. So the songs I write are totally inspired by those artists.”

Alber also has one foot in the world of electronic music, as he had handed over some of his acoustic songs to be transformed and remixed into up-tempo dance songs

“The fun part of it is that you don’t have a say,” he said of his remixed songs. “You just get to say, ‘Hey, here are the vocals. I like your other tracks. Let’s give this a shot.’”

Alber’s filmmaking skills are put to good use when it comes to the visually arresting videos he creates for his songs.

He said that when he writes a song, he isn’t necessarily considering the video that might accompany it during the creative process.

“Those happen later,” he said about the video concepts. “Sometimes we went through several ideas before we landed on one we could actually afford. My best friend, Robin, who made the video for the song ‘End of the World,’ which opened up quite a few doors for me, filmed it as a barbershop; actually, it was my barbershop in Los Angeles. But before it was going to be in a barbershop, we were going to have it be in a troupe of circus performers that had something wrong with them and they were all going to float off on a hot-air balloon. And then we looked at our budget and thought … Well, we have to go to plan B. And I’m so glad we did. Shooting it in a barbershop made it look like it was 1960s ‘Mad Men.’ And having two fellas fall in love in that old-boys’-club era was pretty exciting.”

In 2015, Alber was selected by the U.S. State Department as a musical ambassador to Russia, Hungary, Kosovo and Sudan. Given that his music and videos speak about “fellas falling in love,” and some of these countries have reputations for not being LGBT-friendly, we asked him if his sexuality presented any obstacles to his international work.

“I was definitely nervous,” he said. “We went to Russia right as a lot of antigay sentiments were bubbling up again. But to our surprise, it was Russia that actually picked us. The way the program works is they send out all the musicians’ bios to all the embassies around the world and the embassies say who they think would be a good fit for them. The U.S. Embassy in Russia said, ‘Go ahead and bring that gay singer-songwriter over and we’ll take him all over Russia. We think that would be a great idea.’ And it turned out to be a great experience.”

Alber sang gay love songs on Russain stages and “told the audience that San Francisco wanted to know if they had a message for them. I held up my phone and they all said, ‘We love you, San Francisco,’ to the camera. It kind of shows that the headlines aren’t as accurate for what people in the country actually believe.”

In Sudan, Alber led music-recording sessions for youth.

“I was teaching young kids how to record music using computers. I did a six-week media training there and it was amazing. Sudan is a really difficult country to live in but these kids were so excited to learn how to record. We worked with young MCs, rappers, singer-songwriters and engineers. By the end of it, they were running their own sessions and making their own recordings. It was awesome.”

Back in the states, Alber is now working with John Garcia on a new docu-series about what it’s like to be an LGBT teenager today.

“It’s called ‘Room to Grow,’” he said. “We are in full swing on season one. It’s an incredible series already. We’re crowd-funding the series so we can offer it for free on the web. It will be eight episodes and it will come out in December so that families and kids everywhere can see what it looks like when people accept each other. They can see what it’s like for another trans teenager who is transitioning. They can see what it is like for a gay son to come out to his father. They can see what it is like for an allied teenager when all of your friends are queer and you feel like an outsider. All kinds of stories are going to be told in the series. If people want to help crowd-fund it, we would sure appreciate it.”     

It seems that ideology and artistic expression cross paths more than usual lately, so we asked Alber if he considers his music and filmmaking to be political in any way.

“I’d say yes, but I hope someday they won’t be,” he said. “While there are still closets to live in and closets people have to hide in, I think my songs and my videos will be political and carry the idea that this isn’t normal. I hope that someday soon they aren’t political anymore and they are just songs.”

Matt Alber performs 8 p.m. July 14 at The Rrazz Room, 6426 Lower York Road, New Hope. For more information or tickets, call 888-596-1027 or visit www.mattalber.com.

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