Interview By: Victoria H. (Urban Editor)
Download Mateo’s – “Underneath The Sky Mixtape“
When MATEO walks onstage, sits at his piano and starts one of his heartfelt songs it’s clear that this is an artist on a mission. It’s no coincidence that Mateo lists Lauryn Hill, India.Arie, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Justin Timberlake, and Robin Thicke as influences but he’s also quick to give a nod to alternative acts such as Radiohead, Coldplay, Daft Punk and Kanye West. “Everything is merging together, and I like that in my music; a mixture rather than one flavor only; R&B/Pop/Alternative/Soul—Urban Mod—if you want to pick a new genre.”
Mostly recorded in a humble apartment studio in Los Angeles, MATEO’s upcoming album artfully avoids the assembly line of modern pop music by having thoughtful lyricism and sweeping melodies at its core. The first single, “Complicated” is an example of that, with its introspective and honest description an unintended love affair that is now reaching critical mass.
A graduate of the prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, with degrees in music and marketing, MATEO almost abandoned plans for a music career for the steady, but soulfully dry world of finance. MATEO explains, “I was on track to do the business thing, interning at American Express, spent time in New York, graduated and got a job at a consulting firm. It was a cushy job, but I hated every minute of it.” Interestingly, while in college, MATEO applied for an intern position at Boston Consulting Group, which oversees business trends. He was interviewed by none other than John Legend, who was also a consultant prior to launching his own career in music. “I didn’t get the internship, but looking back, it was kind of funny that John was also a consultant,” MATEO laughs.
MATEO felt if he wanted to realize his potential, he would have to dive head-first into music. With the decision made, MATEO’s career began to take shape at a rapid pace. He found a studio in Brooklyn, where he scratched out ideas for songs, and then met Jae Staxx, a producer from Philadelphia who was about to leave for Los Angeles to work on rapper/actress Eve’s new television show. Staxx invited MATEO to join him. Seizing the moment, MATEO quit his consulting job and hopped a plane to Los Angeles in 2005. “It was one of those things that this was a chance, an opportunity. I didn’t want to be one of those people that had regrets of woulda, shoulda, coulda…”
Mateo wrote music for “Eve” until mid-2006. A close friend pushed him to go even further with his music. “He said, ‘Yo, you need to do a live show, but I was scared to death of live shows”, MATEO explains. “Performing in front of people, I was like, ‘man, what if I suck?” After getting up the nerve, MATEO held his first live show at the trendy Hotel Café in Hollywood. It went off far better than Mateo could have imagined, and he realized his fears were unfounded. “That was when I got the fever. I was like, Man, this is good; this is fun!” Encouraged, MATEO posted his first song, “Human,” on his MySpace page, which attracted thousands of fans, over 200,000 plays and led to requests for more shows. “The responses from MySpace really brought it home that I should continue; that I’m doing something right.”
An encounter at a show with CSI New York actor Hill Harper led to a meeting with Harper’s friend, former MTV VJ, Quddus Philippe. Philippe is currently an A&R consultant for MySpace Records and was instrumental in signing MATEO to the label in June, 2008. “I came in for a meeting, and I just liked the feeling, the vibe of it better than other labels I had gone to. It felt like they have my back.” MATEO also appreciated the freedom MySpace allowed him to develop, musically. “R&B music has turned more into head-bop music; hip-hop beats over hip-hop loops. I want to bring R&B music back to where people actually have some type of emotion when they listen to my music. I want them to feel that not only is it my story, but their story as well; that they identify with it, and will be able to recall the song ten years from now.”
MATEO is doing what came naturally. His father, Roy Gartrell, played guitar with his mom – MATEO’s grandmother – vocalist Kitty Gartrell. And his grandfather, Freddy Jordan, played guitar on Charles Brown’s classic “Home for Christmas,” but his major claim to fame was being a studio musician at Kings Records where he played for the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
On his down time, MATEO follows American politics. He sang at several Barack Obama 2008 rallies in Los Angeles and attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. He is also style savvy and can be found playing spur of the moment acoustic showroom shows around Hollywood. He is aware that artists need to be involved in all aspects of there careers. “In this day and age, you can’t be the dumb artist; you’ll get stepped on.” MATEO is an artist committed to making art that matters. “Any song can change you either in a positive or a negative way. I just want people to change in a positive, therapeutic way when they listen to my music, whether it be happy or sad songs. All in all, I’m a love song writer, and that’s where I want to go. I’m the new wave of what that is.”
WCOR: You have been described as being a part of the urban mod movement (mixing pop and alternative with classic r+b). What do you think about that?
I think its a good direction for the “new RnB”. Urban music is changing and starting to incorporate elements of all different types of genres…I mean, Kanye’s doing songs with Daft Punk, Drake’s doing joints with Lykke LI.
I think there’s room to expand RnB. Its gotten a little stuck over the past few years as just people singing over looped hip-hop beats but I see that changing. Thats why I call this movement “Urban Mod”…its the modern movement of urban music.
WCOR: What was it like quitting your consulting job in 2005 and moving to L.A.? Was L.A. what you thought it would be?
It was a huuuggee change…ha! It had its pluses and minuses, although the pluses far outweighed the minuses. The corporate world is so different from the music world. First, and most importantly…you know you’re getting paid every two weeks…ha!
HUGE difference. In music, you may have times where you are swimming in loot and other times its extremely slow. I actually never thought I would move to L.A., because I always considered myself a east coast kid. But the best part about moving out here to do music was that you can structure your own time and actually work toward something that is fulfilling a dream.
I was able to move out to L.A. and immediately work on TV music for shows like “Eve,” “Cuts,” and “All Of Us.” It gave me the funds to pursue my career. Also, every industry person in entertainment has to come out to LA, so you often find yourself chillin’ in a club next to Will.I.Am or Kanye….its a good place to network.
WCOR: What was it like writing for “Eve” and being interviewed by John Legend at the Boston Consulting Group?
As I said before, the “Eve” show was great because I was able to get paid a nice amount of money for singing for about an hour a week…ha! Many people don’t think of TV music when they are trying to get their foot in the door..but it definitely helps.
The “Eve Show” was also dope because I got to meet and work with her whole crew….I immediately was learning about the business when I moved out here.
Ok… So the John Legend story is pretty crazy. When I was at Morehouse, John interviewed me for an internship at his consulting firm, BCG. I remember the day I read his bio card before the interview and I was thinking..”Dang…this dude played for Lauryn Hill?…this is perfect…he likes music. I’m gonna nail this.”
Well…I think I nailed that interview but didn’t kill the rest of them…haa…I didn’t get the internship..womp womp.
He was very cool though and we kept in contact up until the time things started taking off for him with Kanye. I remember sending him the first songs I ever recorded …they were pretty bad now that I look back but I remember getting his advice on how to write better songs…man, I had no clue he was going to blow up like the following year.
Words of wisdom…you never know who you are meeting in this industry..be nice to EVERYBODY!
WCOR: You follow politics; what was it like playing several Obama rallies and going to the Democratic National Convention?
Yeah…I’m an Obamanite. It was a dope experience because I felt like I was apart of history. This is truly an important time to get involved. We, as young people, have a voice and can change our world.
I think Obama was a testament to that. The rallies and DNC were my confirmation and I got to meet the president which is something I can check off my list.
WCOR: You come from a very musical family; what is it like growing up in a house with music? Was the expectation made that you would go into music?
Its funny because I don’t know how it all really started for me. It was never forced on me…it was just always around. Its kind of like if your family doesn’t eat pork then you grow up not eating pork also.
Well, I grew up with music around so it just became apart of my life naturally…my grandmother was a touring singer, my dad and uncles are guitarists, and my grandfather was a prominent guitarist that played for Kings Records where James Brown recorded. So it was everywhere.
My mom put me in classical piano lessons really early and I added saxophone in high school. I was always singing, either in the car, in church, or on my grandmother’s karaoke machine but I didn’t really think I could do it professionally until a few years ago. Most people in my family expected me to go to college and then get a regular job…i don’t think they saw this coming really….uhhh..maybe my mom did…have to ask her.
WCOR: You said that you “just want people to change in a positive, therapeutic way when they listen to my music, whether it be happy or sad songs.” Do you feel that you have created that connection with people? What is it like opening your emotions and thoughts to the public?
I think I am starting that connection. That’s what keeps me going really. When I hear or read comments from people online or at shows and they tell me what my songs have done for them….I feel like all of the grind and hustle is worth it.
It is definitely risky to be a musician because you wear your heart on your sleeve and hope that people accept you for who you are. That’s why I wrote the song “Get To Know Me”…it’s so important to be accepted for all your flaws, especially when you put it out there for the world to see.
WCOR: Your mixtape “Chapter 1 of Underneath the Sky” is very good; what inspired you to do a mixtape? Is the experience of recording a mixtape different then an album?
Thanks…the mixtape idea came up because I witnessed how rappers got buzz out about their project and I was thinking…why not do it for RnB?
It’s been really helpful because it’s free and when you do shows, people can sing along with you. The “Underneath The Sky Mixtape” is a little different though. We had this idea to put together a cinematic mixtape series, where the songs actually tell a story and we shot a short film for it.
I don’t think this has ever been done. We just released Chapter 2 also and it’s getting a great response. The series plays like a concept album but still has the rawness of the traditional mixtape. I think that’s what makes it different from an album. I feel like you can have more fun with a mixtape…there isn’t a label chiming in and telling you what to do…its all just fun.
WCOR: What was touring with Day26 like? Did it the experience give you ideas for what you would like your tours to look like?
It was amazing! I learned alot from Day26 and J. Holiday. It was just cool to see how their fans responded to them…so excited and just hype all the way through. I learned how these tours run and how to win over a new crowd. I think we did a good job at that.
I would perform and just go out and meet the people…that level of contact went a long way. Peeps were coming up to me afterwards and were excited to buy music and shirts…EXCITED to buy??…that’s rare in this day and age!
WCOR: Where do you see your career in the next year or five years?
I see myself having an album out within the year and touring the world. I can’t wait to do more shows! Thats my favorite part. And in five years, I hope to have come out with a few projects, worked with some of my heroes in the industry, and of course…have made a lot of money..haha.. I’m not ashamed to say that at all!
WCOR: Who would you love to work with and why?
Ummmm…there are so many people. Off the top of my head, I would say Kanye, Alicia Keys, India Arie, ColdPlay, and Justin Timberlake. I think they all have contributed so much to our music today and I would love to just soak up a little bit of their musical genius…it would be an honor to create with them.