This article is Part II of a two-part series. To read Part I, click here.
Last week, I published Part I of a conversation with musician, urban farmer, and activist Matt Monaco, where we discussed his start in music, his EP The Road We Take, and lessons in philosophy. Matt’s music reminds listeners to celebrate the smaller moments, take it slow, and cherish the earth, while also spreading the message that the smallest of actions within our own communities can contribute to making the world a better place.
In this second installment, we’re delving more into Matt’s music and activism, discussing how Matt’s music relates to the current political climate, his travels, and his latest project, the creation of a community farm space that will bring together music, art, fitness, food and community in one holistic environment.
Last week, we started to talk about your EP The Road We Take and the process behind creating it. Your songwriting always inspires me to want to make a change, and I love how every song incorporates social commentary. Though released almost four years ago, do you feel the messages in The Road We Take are still relevant today? For example, the lines “The government can’t function, got no money for the arts or for the parks / They’ll pay a gun to kill while we wait for a senator to pass a bill” in “Jah Revolution” struck a chord with me, because these are still hot topics in today’s society.
Yeah, so I moved to Syracuse two years ago, and that was right around the time that the current administration got elected. And it freaked me out a little bit that my songs all of a sudden felt like foreshadowing, as opposed to just musings I had while on campus. As a result of that, it took me two years to get back out playing again, ‘cause there’s so much tension around the words “revolution” and calling out the government, and it forced me to reflect on it.
But I do think it’s still relevant. I kind of laugh when I play that song, I wrote that during the government shutdown of the Obama administration. I was in an environmental science class and I couldn’t get to a certain park, and I couldn’t get on a certain website about the park ‘cause the government was shut down, and I was like, “This is crazy!” That was my first experience with the government shutting things down, cutting funding for arts, and probably hovering around the time of fighting in the Middle East. We weren’t even talking about the sudden rise in calling out police brutality, and now I see that as a correlation too, not even just paying the military to kill, but government being in bed with corporations in some senses – though it’s not everyone.
But yeah, I do think it’s still relevant, and it was a lot for me to process at first, ‘cause I always try to stay in the middle and provide, like you said, commentary. But I feel like, in the past two years, it was very much a time of people being forced to take sides or declare a stance, and I was like, how do I take a stance while still having my arms open to everybody? Because I really do think my goal, my job, or whatever, is to bring everybody back to that sense of shared space. And I’m not saying there’s not evil, there really are some people you can’t reason with, I get that. But yes, I do think they’re still relevant and it kind of gives me some feelings of responsibility to pick it back up, and stick to what I had coming.
So thanks for picking that line out in particular. I think art helps people connect, helps people relax, be peaceful, and express anger, and express frustration, and communicate messages. So although the funding for that seems to get cut, at the same time that we fund destruction and war, I think it’s exactly those arts that we need.
I think you hit the nail on the head, that music is a great way to get those feelings out. I also like what you said about staying in the middle, but it’s hard, especially in today’s society, with everything being so divisive, and then things happen, and people react…I really like your perspective of trying to keep your arms open and welcoming everyone in, ‘cause that’s definitely something that I think we need, especially in these times.
I would agree. And for me, the challenge seems to be having those open arms but also the firm stance when certain things are just unacceptable, you know? But being able to communicate that in a way that still tries to keep the arms open.
I hear you have a new personal project in the works – creating a farm-based community space. Can you talk a little about this project?
Yeah, I’ll try to keep it concise, because it is still in its early stages, and yet I’ve been working on it for ten years, at some point or another! Through my background in martial arts and teaching martial arts and fitness and wellness, combined with my passion for growing good foods and connecting with people, I’ve kind of seen that there’s a need for non-competitive fitness spaces that are accepting of everybody where they’re at. I’ve also seen that there’s a great need for volunteer opportunities for people who have court-ordered community service hours, or people who are formally incarcerated, for job training or actual employment. And I’ve also seen how working in gardening and how movement therapies and just fitness in general can really help people of all abilities, anywhere from having not worked out in a long time to maybe having special needs or assistance requirements, how therapeutic all of those things can be. And, I’m not going to lie, I’ve got a deep desire to be living on a farm space! [laughs]. So there’s that too.
I’d like to see a nice, 10 to 20 acre at minimum environment which kind of blends chemical-free, regenerative gardening with community space, somewhere where fitness classes can be done, painting, music, art, and really allowing those groups in need of job rehabilitation or soft-skills training or just volunteer opportunities to come together. I know that’s a little broad, and whenever I say I want to start a farm, people automatically assume hundreds and thousands of acres, sitting on a diesel tractor, cutting up the earth.
But that’s not what I see; I was blessed, like I said, to come from a family that told stories of farming for generations and hearing how they did things pre-tractor, during-tractor, and faded away out of it or are still in it. And I think that it’s more than just food. Farms have kind of been industrialized, like everything else, and that takes the magic and the beauty out of a lot of it. Not entirely, ‘cause to farm you have to have a deep love for community and feeding people, but I think there’s
regenerative agricultural practices that not only heal the land, but they heal the food system, they heal the farmer, and they heal the community. So I think that food and music and art bring people together, and having a space where all of that can be done under one roof is appealing to me. And like I said, I’d love to have a spot where I can live on the farm, with some woods to hike around and see the songbirds and write music.
Ooh, that’s so exciting, I love it!
Thank you. I’ve found a few properties in the central New York region that seem like they could be good fits, I’ve been seeing what it would take to make that happen. I’ve got a 45-minute set right now that I’m polishing up and trying to hopefully shop around, whether it’s at coffee shop shows, I’m also seeing shows at yoga studios where it’s a little more of an intimate storytelling session, to talk more about my goals and the importance and the value and the benefit of all these things, and hopefully use my music to raise money to get this other dream going.
I don’t have any expectations of being a rockstar in the conventional sense, but I do love creating music and playing music and sharing with people. I think it could be a nice way to promote my other goals and get people excited. I’ve got some friends designing some cool merch, some t-shirts and tote bags and beer cozies and whatnot that have some fun food-based logos or social-justice based logos. So I’m excited, we’ll see where it goes.
To switch back to your music; what is your song-writing process like? Is there a certain mood you find yourself in when you write, or a mood that tends to spark song ideas?
Early on, it was always probably angst and depression, or deep feelings…I’ll say that, I came to realize it wasn’t just angst and depression, but it was any deep or moving experience or feeling that would kind of kick-start it. Or, it could be as simple as I was sitting on campus one day and it was finally beautiful and sunny, and there were pine trees around, the sun was hitting my face, a bird landed in the trees and started singing. In one of my songs, I was really bitter about Montclair for a while. But at that moment, the sun came out, the bird landed, and I just said to myself, “It’s really not a bad place to be. The sun is shining on me, and the birds are chirping. Oh damn, that feels like a song!” So I turned it into one. Not just because it’s a catchy little rhyme, but because it was important to me to feel that powerful emotion of things are okay, this is actually a good spot, and to remind myself of that as the song lives on.
So sometimes it will be a few words that come to me, sometimes there will be a melody that I’m humming. Very rarely is the guitar first, occasionally it is, but I’ve definitely been more of a poet/lyricist in my life than a guitar player. I’ve had to get my guitar to equal and meet my lyric-writing.
Out of all of your music, do you have a song that was your favorite to write, or your favorite to perform?
That’s a good question…I should have maybe seen that coming, but I didn’t, I’ve never really thought about this! [laughs] I guess it’s really good that I like all my music!
One of my favorites to play, I don’t play it all that often now, but especially when I was at Montclair putting shows on at Tierney’s Tavern, I’ve got a short song, it’s on that EP, “My Friend Named Frankie.” That one just gets me moving, and Frankie is such a good person, always looking out for me, we’re always having a good time. And she’s just a good-energy person all around. Jams on ukulele, very creative, very cool about it…so that was fun to play ‘cause it’s just short, quick, talk about a friend who I’ve always been friends with, and picks up speed every time.
As far as writing, there’s one that maybe I’ve released some version of on SoundCloud, I can’t quite remember. But it’s gone by different names, it’s been called “Virginia Cascade,” it’s been called “Harmony,” been called “Here Right Now.” The riff came to me on that same road trip; Natalie and I were in Yellowstone, and – it’s very sad – someone had been eaten by a grizzly bear like two weeks before we were there, in the same area we were, so I was just terrified of grizzlies the whole time. But we found this little creek, there was a sign that said “Virginia Cascade” so we turned and drove down that road. It was nice, there’s one hill that looks as though there had been a wildfire and a mudslide, one side was still green and forested, and just this beautiful little meandering creek. So we were playing around in the creek, Natalie was doing some sketching in her sketchbook, and I was just fiddling on the guitar, and the riff for that song came to me. It captures the peace of it.
I have to say, that one has probably been my favorite to write and play because I really tried to capture those feelings of Yellowstone. We got up super early one morning, saw the sun rise over Yellowstone Lake, there was an elk eating the frozen grass…and then we were in the Badlands just prior to that, a very magical and powerful place for me to experience. So probably that one, and if it’s not released it’s definitely in the set I’m trying to work on right now.
That sounds amazing. What do you want your listeners to take away from your music?
Keep me humble, and tell me when things speak to you, because that’s how I know we’re getting somewhere. Care for yourself, and care for each other. For better or for worse, it’s helped us advance as a society, but I think in our culture we highly pride in individualism. And there’s a place for that no doubt, for individual success, individual growth, and great accomplishments. But I think, while we have that identity of self, we’re still part of this planet, we come from this planet, we all have long, deep lineages of this planet, and we’re not all that different when we come down to think about it. So, I guess prize the individual but love each other and love community, would be what I hope people would take away.
Those are awesome messages. What is your current musical obsession?
I’ve been trying to listen to albums start to finish in the order they’re released in lately. This guy, Cas Haley, out of Texas, he just released an album called Lessons and Blessings, I’ve been playing that on repeat. And there’s a new album called Ley Lines by Rising Appalachia, two sisters from the Deep South, that’s really been speaking to me. And then my friend Chase Gray’s EP, Songs for Maggie. So those have been the three I just haven’t been able to get enough of.
This next question is a question I can’t take credit for, I saw it on the music blog A Lonely Ghost Burning, but I think it’s a great one: What makes you smile?
Ha! That is great! This time of year, seeing an unexpected flower, or even a flower I’ve seen before, flowers make me smile. ‘Cause you’ve either got bees flying around them or grasshoppers climbing up them. They tell me to remember beauty and stillness. They don’t move fast, they don’t go anywhere crazy, but they’re stunning.
Flowers are great, your answer made me smile! To wrap up, one of my favorite lines in your music is “Global revolution is rooted in small towns” from “Phone recording from the age of leisure/Sounds from the phone.” What would be your advice for people who want to join the revolution to make our world a better place?
So when I sing that one, I sometimes say “Global revolution is rooted in small towns,” when I’m in cities I say “Global revolution is rooted in your town,” and I guess what I’m trying to emphasize is that it really starts with the individual. You’ve got to look at how you’re acting and reacting.
And that song in particular, for me it was spending less money. Because I got so stressed out, what are the right products to buy, what are the right foods to buy. And I was getting overwhelmed trying to figure out what was right, and things I thought were right were becoming wrong, then I realized I just gotta slow down and not spend nearly as much. Can I grow some of the vegetables and I know where they come from? Can I trade with someone who’s got a shirt they don’t want anymore that I really am digging?
And that’s just me, I know there’s a lot of people who are down and ready to get on the front lines of a march, of a protest of chanting, and that’s cool too, if that’s you. I guess really you have to see what speaks to your spirit and get out there and participate. And it’s important to know that for some people that’s being very out front, and for others it’s cooking meals for people, it’s saying hello to the people you pass.
As a most basic answer, I would say to get involved in meditation, you’ve got to look inward. And forgive yourself for things that may bother you or upset you, and realize that anything you do now, you at one point didn’t do. We’ve learned everything we do and we can unlearn everything, it just takes a little bit of focus.
To learn more about Matt and listen to his music, check out his SoundCloud.