Living His Best Life

A slow, steady path to success has made Raleigh’s Matt Douglas
an acclaimed soloist in addition to a successful session musician.

Story by Bryan C. Reed

One supposes that Matt Douglas doesn’t often have the free time to reflect on his life and career. The multi-instrumentalist is prolific as a soloist and sideman, and has enlivened shows and recordings from the likes of Sylvan Esso, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Josh Ritter, touring and recording as a full-time member of The Mountain Goats. Oh, and he’s also a father of three who operates a recording studio in his backyard. To say Douglas keeps busy is an understatement.

Given a brief break from home duties for an interview, Douglas offers this: “It’s pretty much the best life ever.”

It is not, however, a story of overnight success. “It’s just been a slow progress over the years,” Douglas says. “It’s one of those things, when something would stop working or would just sort of end, I would just ease into something else.”

That journey has taken him from New York University, where he studied jazz and contemporary composition, to a sojourn to Hungary where he gigged and studied European folk music on a Fulbright scholarship, and finally to North Carolina, where he’d initially bunked on his sister and brother-in-law’s couch while submitting graduate school applications.

“I had a more romantic idea of what I thought my life was gonna be like,” Douglas says of his early academic ambitions.

“I mean, my life has turned out to be a pretty romantic version of what I thought it was going to be anyway. But at the time, I wasn’t sure. So I ended up deferring and then didn’t come back to it. I just got more and more entrenched into the music scene in North Carolina, which I didn’t really think was going to happen. I just started playing more and writing.”

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That led to his first major local outfit, The Proclivities—a jazzy indie-pop outfit Douglas formed with guitarist Chris Boerner and drummer Matt McCaughan. From there, Douglas formed The Small Ponds, a duo with alt-country icon Caitlin Cary of Whiskeytown and Tres Chicas. He also joined the jazz-fusion trio The Hot At Nights, with Boerner and drummer Nick Baglio. Finally, after working with the band as a session player and touring member, Douglas joined The Mountain Goats full-time in 2016.

In the midst of all that, Douglas also became an in-demand session player and arranger, working with acts ranging from alt-country (American Aquarium, Six String Drag) to pure pop (Sylvan Esso, Brett Harris). He became a regular feature in Hiss Golden Messenger, performed with singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, and collaborated with Mount Moriah, The Rosebuds, Erin McKeown, and Nicolay. He also got married and started a family, with a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old twin boys now competing for time and attention, as well.

And still, in early 2017, Douglas found time to release his first proper solo album, Affirmation (with Discomfort)—a collection of layered instrumentals, recorded entirely with woodwind instruments, that ties together ambient composition and melodic jazz.

“When I’m making my own music, I don’t think too much about editing or censoring my aesthetic view of what I’m trying to do or the way I’m trying to do it,” he says. “But when I work with other people, I’m not trying to bulldoze it with Matt Douglas. I’m trying to find a way to serve the music and serve the song, and do it in a way that is not sacrificing any of my own creative integrity.” It’s the variety of opportunities Douglas is afforded that fuels the creativity, which in turn builds the aesthetics he brings both to session work and his own projects. Lately, he’s been collaborating with his former bandmate McCaughan on layered and manipulated recordings—beds of found sound and ambient passages—on which Douglas will soon start adding saxophone melodies.

“I think this one rides the line a little bit more,” he says. “It’s still going to be tonal. There will still be melodies. But there’s going to be some interesting, uncomfortable stuff mixed in there with it. So it’s been fun to see how far you want to push that.”

Working without a deadline and at the whims of his own creative impulses gives Douglas a freedom he doesn’t often get in his sideman roles. But, at the same time, he’s not aiming to define his solo work in a realm of avant-garde experimentation or let his session work remain wholly separate and disparate. “I don’t want it to be a total black-and-white, yin and yang thing,” he says. “I feel like I’m starting to blur the lines a little bit on both ends of it.”

Indeed, balance is a vital component of what Douglas aims to achieve, within and without the music itself. Juggling his roles as composer, performer, husband, father, and so on presents its own demand for creative problem solving.

“It’s been a pretty wild last few years, trying to manage all that stuff,” he says. “Sometimes it feels like I’m not doing a great job and sometimes it feels like we’re just making it work, just getting by. But overall, it’s been killer.”