Singer-songwriter Matt Stell had been battling obscurity in Nashville when he started thinking about a back-up plan. The Center Ridge, Arkansas, native had some success writing for Texas-based artists and plenty of experience playing clubs, but Music City wasn’t working for him.
“It was a couple years of waiting for that opportunity to come, and it hadn’t,” Stell says. “I thought, man, maybe music is just something I’m passionate about but I don’t get to do it as a job.”
Stell enrolled in an extension program offered by Harvard University Medical School with the aim of becoming a doctor. Weeks before he was set to begin his new journey, Stell finally landed a publishing deal and started writing songs professionally. He bundled a few of those songs together on the 2019 EP Everywhere but On, one of which, “Prayed for You,” became a streaming hit and then radio chart-topper once he signed with Sony Music. He followed that with the EP’s title track, which became another radio hit, and then put out the Better Than That EP last October.
On February 5th, Stell released “That Ain’t Me No More,” an atmospheric power ballad that puts a new spin on the classic country tropes of loss, regret, and personal transformation. “I’m doing as good and as bad as I’ve ever been,” Stell sings in the song penned by Hardy, Hunter Phelps, Smith Ahnquist, Jake Mitchell and Nick Donley.
“Prayed for You” seemed like it came out of nowhere and effectively launched your career before you’d done the usual step of getting signed to a label and promoting to country radio.
When we put out “Prayed for You,” we got a little playlisting and folks started listening. So my management company — the same folks who were my publishers — became involved and really supportive and believing in what I was doing. I thought I was going to write songs for bigger artists and hopefully get cuts that were on the radio and make my own records that followed my own muse. But it turns out I made that EP and a fair amount of it is stuff that made sense on country radio. Really that was the floodgates opening, country radio embracing it.
You covered Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” on your 2019 EP. Why did you choose that one?
I just think it’s a great song and it works in a way that my favorite country songs work, in that it has a lyric twist to it. And it’s also got a title that’s provocative and you’ll see that in some of my favorite country music, like, “Oh, what’s this about?” Then you hear it and you’re like, “Oh, cool I see how that works.” That song in particular really grabbed my ear because that was also very different from what I was doing. That’s what I was looking for because my favorite artists have always had a lot of different sides to them. I knew that’s what I wanted to be if I was going to be an artist — somebody that was dynamic at least in sound and subject matter.
Do you listen to a lot of different kinds of music?
I sure do. I go through phases where I’ll listen to rap music for a stretch and any time my favorite bands drop a record I always love to listen through those. Dawes released a record [Good Luck With Whatever] and I’ve been listening to that front to back because I’m such a fan. All kinds of music — bluegrass to rock to rap, country music, obviously.
I know country radio because that’s just what life was and that’s what was always on. But I really loved alternative music in the Nineties. [Alanis Morissette’s] Jagged Little Pill is one of the first records I remember buying with my own money and, still to this day, it has such an influence on me. So did [Oasis’] (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and Hootie & the Blowfish. It was that kind of music mixed with whatever rap music I was listening to, those 2pac compilations. I was playing a lot of basketball, so I was exposed to quite a bit of rap music. We weren’t bumping a lot of country music pre-game.
“Heartbreak in country music is nothing new, but the way this song treats it is a little fresh.”
“That Ain’t Me No More” just came out and it almost feels like the opposite of “Prayed for You” in a way. Your character gets his act together, but there’s no happily ever after. What drew you to this song?
For one thing, it’s written from the title down, where the lyric does the heavy lifting and it’s got a turn of phrase in there that really hits hard. And I love how it just sounds. Even if the lyric didn’t work the way it does, it would still sound cool. You pair those couple things together and you’ve really got something special. And thirdly, heartbreak in country music is nothing new, but the way this song treats it is a little fresh.
Your characters seem to be in very different situations and mindsets from song to song, whether getting married or struggling with a loss or regretting bad decisions. Do you see yourself in any of them?
To a degree I do. I think about the songs as having their own protagonists in a lot of ways, but typically that guy in the song is someone that’s not too far off from me or an experience I’ve had or seen firsthand. Especially in the singles, I’ve lived a lot of those lives in the songs. I hope that helps to bring some authenticity to what I’m doing — so that it sounds like I know a little bit what I’m singing about.