“I write songs and make records in my bedroom and share them on stages and in living rooms (and sometimes middle schools) around the globe. I sing about boys and crushes and brotherhood and getting lost in the woods on purpose and some other things. I was often chased home from school. My parents hated each other for a long time. I was terrorised by so-called Christians who told me God wouldn't love me if I was gay. There was a plethora of shitstorms, but I survived. I coped in the ways I knew how. They weren't always the best ways. I got sober. Things feel a lot clearer now.”
Sounds like that could be John Grant talking, doesn’t it, but its Matt Alber, a singer-songwriter, film maker and activist who was born in Kansas, raised in St. Louis but is now – according to his own website - based in Portland. A friend recently introduced me to Matt Alber: not in person, you understand, although I’m pretty sure if we were to meet we’d have plenty to talk about. No, he posted a link to one of Alber’s songs on a Facebook group we both follow, and after listening I spent most of the rest of the morning dipping in and out of Matt’s back catalogue. I heartily recommend you do the same.
As a youngster Matt was a member of the St. Louis Children’s Choir, and from 1998 to 2003 he was a member of San Francisco’s Grammy-award winning male vocal ensemble Chanticleer. Chanticleer, who celebrate their 40th anniversary this year, was founded in 1978 by tenor Louis Botto, who sang with the group until 1989, and served as Artistic Director until his death from AIDS in 1997. Alber is unashamedly gay, as the video for his song End of the World (see below) makes abundantly clear. Upon leaving Chanticleer he tried out for a US TV series, American Pride, a talent show aiming to find America’s first out-gay country-western star. Producer Larry Dvoskin had clearly had never heard of Lavender Country. Alber was picked for the show, but American Pride never made it to air.
Alber's first album, Nonchalant, was released in 2005. Five of the tracks on the low-key, independent release were re-worked for his major label debut, Hide Nothing, which appeared three years later through Tommy Boy Silver Label. Silver Label was set up by the hip-hop specialist to concentrate on ‘dance’ music, according to a story in Billboard, but the imprint quickly became known for issuing singes and albums by LGBT artists, including Alber and Rupaul, as well as gay-themed soundtracks (Queer as Folk) and compilations.
With touches of electronica, lots of keyboards and some deeply personal lyrics, Alber’s voice and songwriting style drew favourable comparisons to Rufus Wainwright and John Grant, and he is happy with the comparisons. “I’m honoured,” he told interviewer Gregg Shapiro from Chicagopride.com “I love Rufus. I think he’s one of the best songwriters around. I love his melodies. If people think that I remind them of him, I think that’s a huge compliment.” End of the World, the lead single from the album, went viral after gay entertainment television channel Logo TV put the accompanying music video on heavy rotation. He looked all set for a stellar career but working in for a major company did not agree with him; he wanted something smaller, more intimate. Silver Label was wound down shortly afterwards.
Alber followed Hide Nothing with 2011's independently-released Constant Crows, an album that is dominated by acoustic guitar and piano sounds, and which found him experimenting with a more laid back, reflective style. He made his London debut in 2013, at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and in 2014, the same year that the Lincoln Center in New York invited Matt to perform on their esteemed American Songbook series, he issued the album Wind Sand Stars. The following year he was selected by the U.S. State Department to act as a musical ambassador to Russia, Hungary, Kosovo and the Sudan, where he taught recording techniques to young artists in Khartoum, and helped one of the students, Eimoz, raise money to pay his tuition fees and to record some of his songs professionally.
Matt’s most recent release, Live in San Francisco is a fourteen-track, digital-only collection recorded live at San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall in 2016. He is also involved with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the charity set up in the wake of the brutal, homophobic murder of 21-year-old Matthew. This year, to mark the 20th anniversary of Matthew’s death, he has been touring the U.S. with the Conspirare ensemble, performing in composer Craig Hella Johnson’s oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard. As if that wasn’t enough, he is also the co-producer of Room To Grow, a documentary featuring real-life stories of LGBTQ youth.