Calling from his new home in Tennessee, it’s hard to hear Matt Hires. His labradoodle Luke is barking loudly at something outside, and it takes a few moments for the 31-year-old songwriter to find a quiet place at his new home in East Nashville, where he and his wife Rachel relocated over a year and a half ago. The Hires’s last address was in Tampa’s Seminole Heights zip code, and they jumped ship for a different neighborhood within another up-and-coming Southern city after friends of theirs also relocated to The Volunteer State; they were looking for a change in scenery.
“It isn’t meant to be permanent,” Hires tells CL, adding that he misses eating ramen and drinking at Angry Chair Brewing. They should, however, consider sticking around Nash Vegas a little longer than planned. Upon moving, Hires, who is not a prolific writer, spent 18 months composing what could be the most important album of his young career. He comes off very much alive and invigorated over the line, but starts to sound a little uneasy when talk turns to the topic of the new album. He might even be a little bit scared. Not scared of something he’s about to do, but scared about this thing he already did.
Six years after an impossibly sunny Atlantic Records debut, Hires has teamed up with producer Randall Kent to record and ready American Wilderness, his most transparent and powerful album to date. The 10-track effort, due October 14, is a beautiful 37-minute confessional set to the sound of fully fleshed-out, modern folk-pop. Hires is free of his Atlantic contract and sounds braver than ever on his first outing as an independent. Album opener “Fighting A Ghost,” where he sings about swinging at smoke and chasing old horizons, might be a battle cry, but it could also be the sound of a man begging for somebody to help him off the ground.
“I wasn’t sure where I was going with the music thing, struggling with whether or not I want to keep doing it,” Hires says. “I didn’t know what kind of artist I wanted to be. After that song, I re-evaluated and got super honest about everything.” He pivoted away from relationship songs, opting to take a good hard look at the cynic inside of him. The chap criticizing himself and the world around him on American Wilderness is a little bit of a dark cloud, but he’s much more human than the lad on Hires’s Atlantic recordings.
“Those records were genuine, I like them, but I feel like I was holding things back,” says Hires. That stuff wasn’t always exciting to play either, and he constantly worried about what A&R was thinking. The subject matter on American Wilderness could potentially land him in hot water with another audience — old fans used to a more positive narrative. And his parents: Hires grew up in the church, where his dad was a pastor.
“You’re bound to fall when you can’t tell the difference between a chapel and a shopping mall,” Hires declares on “The Wilderness.” The cut, like many on the new album, does more than stick a scalpel into organized religion; it dissects it, leaving the guts on the operating table where listeners can get their hands dirty questioning everything they were taught their entire lives.
“Mom sometimes has a harder time listening,” Hires says, adding that dad is more open to honest conversations that hash out differences and land at a place where they both can grow. The healthy discourse is refreshing in this television talking-head era of disgustingly partisan news. There’s a lyric on ”Holy Way” where Hires combines hymns and more, shall we say, modern vernacular.
“My Jesus I love Thee, I know Thou art mine,” is how it starts, “but sometimes it sucks to have to love you in America.” Hires says he was looking at other people in pop culture who also identify with the man upstairs. “I don’t see them being like me,” he says. “The line became truer and truer with me through the election.” The songs that find Hires under his own microscope are the most powerful moments on American Wilderness. There’s a vulnerability there, and an angst that’s almost tangible.
“A lot of this process is me trying to lose my religion while still holding on to God,” Hires says.
The collection does end on a hopeful note, thanks to “Don’t Let Your Heart Grow Cold,” where Hires declares he’s going to keep writing and singing until he burns out or fades away. On the record, Hires sounds fearless, but talking about the tour and bringing it to fans brings back that apprehension about the way he’s exploring himself on the new album. What Hires might be forgetting, though, is that all of his fans have grown up too, and they’ve probably been looking for a voice to help them express what they’re feeling.
“I want to begin again, drop all the pretensions and labels... we can take it back where we started before all our friends got divorced and we turned into cynics,” he sings on “Begin Again.” That’s good and fine, but this new Matt, the one unafraid to sing loud and tackle the questions inside him, is the one fans and friends have probably been waiting for this entire time.