California is a mythological place. It's sunshine and surf, it's glamour and glitz; it's endless open roads and bumper-to-bumper traffic; it's air pollution and earthquakes; it's rampant homelessness; it's the fifth largest economy in the world. It is, in short, complicated.
It's also home to singer-songwriter Matt Costa, whose outstanding new album Santa Rosa Fangs is a song cycle about the Golden State and the characters, real and fictional, who inhabit it.
"I grew up in California and....it seemed like something that follows me up and down the coast of California," Costa told AXS.com about the title of his new album, which drops May 18 via Dangerbird Records. "With all of these memories that exist for me in California, that [title] sort of embodies it. These memories that stick themselves into you and they make a lasting impression and they shape your life, that's the story of the Santa Rosa Fangs."
The album is bookended by two different versions of "I Remember It Well." The first version is a piano-driven romp that eases you into the album, as Costa says, in an "alluring, upbeat way," while the acoustic version that closes the record is more of a "release."
"Even a song cycle, when you're working on a song, it can go through many different phases and can invoke different feelings," Costa says. "And I think both versions of the song evoke two different feelings."
They certainly do, but all of the music on the album is evocative in different ways. Although the record has plenty of touching acoustic numbers that will sound familiar to Costa's longtime fans, the album's sonic architecture and arrangements borrow from the amorphous "California sound."
"The California sound is very varied," Costa explains. "I draw a lot of inspiration from overseas, from traditional music of Britain and even Appalachian music. And I think that all of those [styles] inspired the music that is California, because it all sort of migrated West. And it finds its home here where it kind of settles and you can take a deep breath and everything has that sort of California pacing to it."
In addition to the geographic markers, the album looks at California through the perspective of a trio of characters: A young woman named Sharon (whose titular song just got a video) and her brothers Richie and Tony. Name-checking Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology" as a reference point, Costa says that the album's conceptual hook came to him when examining the pieces of what he came up with in the writing process.
"For me, I always feel the time I know to move forward on a song is when it strikes [an] image in my mind," Costa says. "I feel like, growing older and writing songs, you can go many different directions with it, especially different styles and things. And this record does have that, but I started to see how these characters definitely grounded the story of the record. In somewhat of a conceptual way, and how I weave in and out of their lives here and there and also tell their story as well."
Costa drew inspiration from another great Californian when conceptualizing the album.
"John Steinbeck....talked about how he would sit down for three months before he even would write a story, and envision all of the characters," Costa explains. "He would basically write in his mind how all the characters would react to different situations and develop the characters in his head. And when he sat down to write it, the characters would speak for themselves and act for themselves."
"I tried to take that mindset to it," he continues. "And like I said, that's the thing, for me, that grounded it and also gave it, as a songwriter, a depth that I think is something new that I haven't really ventured into. I started blending into these characters' stories and we started working harmoniously together. I know that's a weird thing to imagine, but it started to feel really natural in that way."
Concepts and themes aside, Santa Rosa Fangs is a sumptuous sounding album. Although he's self-produced much of his music in the past, Costa credits producers Peter Matthew Bauer (The Walkmen) and Nick Stumpf (French Kicks) for helping him break out of his comfort zone.
"I like folk music, that's how I started writing songs, so my default is that," he says. "But I think that adding a little bit of that grit to some of the prettier-sounding things....Nick and Pete definitely are good at doing that while still capturing the magic quality. Giving a little bit of that grit to the sound and also bringing a bigger sound to some of the songs."
Costa will be touring the album alongside opener Elizabeth & The Catapult beginning with a May 19 show at Boot & Saddle in Philadelphia, PA. Browse his tour itinerary and get tickets to select shows below, and check out a teaser for Santa Rosa Fangs in the video above.
May 19 - Philadelphia, PA - Boot & Saddle (Click here for tickets) *
May 21 - Vienna, VA - Jammin’ Java *
May 22 - Brooklyn, NY - Rough Trade (Click here for tickets) *
May 23 - Cambridge, MA - The Sinclair (Click here for tickets) *
May 25 - Toronto, ON - Longboat at Great Hall *
May 26 - Ann Arbor, MI - The Blind Pig *
May 27 - Chicago, IL - Schuba’s *
May 28 - Milwaukee, WI - Shank Hall *
May 30 - St. Paul, MN - The Turf Club *
June 5 - Los Angeles, CA - The Troubadour †
June 7 - Carmel, CA - Live in the Vines
July 7 - San Francisco, CA - Café du Nord †
July 9 - Bellingham, WA - Wild Buffalo †
July 10 - Seattle, WA - Tractor Tavern †
July 11 - Vancouver, BC - Biltmore Cabaret †
July 12 - Portland, OR - Doug Fir Lounge †
Aug. 16 - Dana Point, CA - Bluff Park at Salt Creek Beach
* = w/ Elizabeth & the Catapult
† = w/ Katie Toupin (ex-Houndmouth)