“Spiritual Refugee” On Near-Death, Conversion Therapy, and His New Old Record
By Adeem Bingham, Editor
Late summer in East Tennessee is a fickle sort of creature. The mornings are deceptively cool, the afternoons brutally hot. I am sitting in my studio with a mug of green tea and I am listening to the folksy, bluesy songs of Matt Lovell. His new album, “Nobody Cries Today,” is a collection of personal numbers that blend blues and pop in a unique Americana sound.
It was in the can – but not yet mixed and mastered – 4 years ago, before he was shot in the chest and nearly killed by a 16 year old kid trying to steal his car – a circumstance that I am very nervous to ask him about. Naturally, the album took a backseat to recovery, but he has finally set these songs free into the world. The marketing has been somewhat furloughed due to the nature of the times, which is a damn shame, because this is a really extraordinary record.
Produced by Matt Odmark (Jars of Clay) and featuring guest vocals from Leigh Nash (Sixpence None The Richer, Fauxliage), it is a delightfully full vision of the songs’ potential. I am interrupted from listening by his phone call and I do my best impression of someone giving an interview.
AB: Thanks for chatting with me today about your new album. Now, I understand you recorded most of it in 2016. Is that right?
ML: Yeah, it is. I met Matt Odmark in 2015 and it kind of took me a while to find my voice as an artist and a writer. I started writing very seriously in 2012. So, about three years later I had a collection of songs that I felt like really started to resonate with who I was and the kind of thing that I wanted to craft as an artist.
AB: Have you added anything or is this the original project from 2016?
ML: They were all recorded in 2016 except for “Dime Adios,” which is a duet with my friend Leigh Nash. I met Leigh when I was recording the first batch of songs for the album and I had been a fan of her for many years. I actually grew up loving her work with Sixpence None The Richer and then followed her solo efforts.
Matt Odmark reached out to her to sing on a song for my record called The Gospel. So, we met the day that she came in for that session and then we kind of hung out and started writing quite a bit after that, so “Dime Adios” was a duet we wrote that year and it was not recorded. It wasn’t supposed to be a part of the record, but I was shot in 2017 right after finishing the record.
So, as I stepped away from releasing the record, I kind of toyed with the idea of adding a lot more to it and, thankfully, Matt Odmark had some pretty strong ideas that we should just kind of leave it as it was but we did decide that we loved this little duet that I wrote with Leigh.
AB: It’s such a beautiful song. I was just listening to the album again today before I talked to you and it really jumped out at me. I’m glad you added it.
ML: Yeah, I am too. I was shot in a carjacking and it was really traumatic and I had to kind of step away from music and from really kind of everything for a while to just recover from that. Leigh reached out to me last year.
I was just starting to turn a corner with my recovery from the shooting and we hung out one day and she told me that she wanted to record that song and release it so that was kind of a huge gust in my sails to kind of get me back to the work of being an active singer-songwriter again.
AB: That’s great! So, you released a lead single in 2017 called “Nobody Cries Today” and at that time, I’m guessing you were still newly into recovery?
ML: It was released 3 weeks after the shooting. I was at my parents house recovering and there was just a huge wave of love that came at me. When something like that happens in your life a lot of people come out of the woodwork; childhood friends, people that I went to school with.
So I was just feeling really connected to people in a really loving way. I knew it would be a minute before I wanted to release this record but I just wanted to put something out, so we decided to just go ahead and release “Nobody Cries Today” as kind of a little, “Hey, see you later! Here’s a song” kind of a thing.
AB: Right, yeah. It’s really nice to hear about the warmth, because I can imagine the trauma of that must have been really overwhelming.
ML: It was amazing. I remember 2016 was just such a heavy year for all of us. It was an election year – it was a really tumultuous election year – the Pulse shooting was that year, there was a lot of civil unrest, police brutality. A lot of really beloved musicians died that year like Tom Petty. It was just a hard year and I remember that year just being so discouraged.
It felt like humans were getting so much meaner to each other and what I’ve discovered through the experience of the shooting was that there is still a lot of human kindness and good will out there because, you know, when the rubber met the road, I just experienced so much love. It was really beautiful. It was almost overwhelming.
AB: Wow. This reminds me that I also want to talk with you about faith. I’m, personally, an apostate and it seems like you’re on a similar trajectory. Am I correct in that assumption?
ML: You mean like a church expat?
ML: Yeah, definitely.
AB: From what I was reading, it sounded like this album was about that; about you processing the experience of growing up in that environment and how it shaped you in probably positive and negative ways. What is it like to be four years beyond working through this and revisiting this work that is mired with that process?
ML: Yeah, it very much feels like a time capsule. It was such a heavy period of my life. Right around 2007, my last experience with the church, I was actually involved with a church that had a Gay Conversion Therapy Program that I was a part of. I was there on my own volition but I was still quite brainwashed and really living in fear that something was wrong with me.
It was really traumatizing to be in gay conversion therapy – as you can imagine. So, I wrote but I was terribly shy. I was finally playing some songs for some friends one day and they said, “You need to start playing out.” And I said, “No, I’m too shy. I can’t do it.” But, in a way, playing out helped me feel more home among other humans because I just felt that connection and how beautiful that could be.
By the time I met Matt Odmark who released the record, I still felt very lost but I was just starting to build some new legs underneath myself. I still had a lot of unlearning to do and it’s crazy because that was all kind of coming to a head. I think I actually felt very lost as a human being when we were recording these songs and somehow almost losing my life helped me to kind of finish a lot of that work.
I really don’t think anything is ever finished in terms of working on ourselves but it really solidified some things. In order to get through the trauma of the shooting, I really had to shed anything that wasn’t working for me anymore.
Growing up gay was not easy for me. I definitely took it hard. So, to be on the other side of that and to be on the other side of a near-death experience and the recovery from that has been really beautiful and I’m just so thankful. To me, this record feels like a monument to survival. Not in an egoic, “I’m so proud of myself!” sort of way. I’m just so thankful for all that I’ve come through and to be somewhat lighthearted on the other end of it.
AB: Yeah. I love the really redemptive way that you describe that experience. It has that meter of a testimony which kind of says, “Things were like this and then it was like this but now it’s like this.”
ML: Talk about a testimony, right?
AB: No kidding! But there is something beautiful about using that formula in a way that feels honest.
ML: Absolutely. Matt Odmark actually described this record as a coming out record but not in the way of me coming out. We wanted to create a space in this record where people could find themselves and realize that it’s really important for us all to be able to come out to each other as who we are.
Whatever kind of nuance we carry, there needs to be space for that and that’s my biggest desire. My upbringing was really grueling because I felt like there wasn’t a space for me and I’m thankful that I found a crew of friends and other acquaintances in this creative community in Nashville who helped me feel like a human among humans.
AB: What was it like for you, as someone who grew up listening to those records, to get to record with Matt Odmark?
ML: It was trippy. I started listening to Jars of Clay when they first came out and I was probably like 13. It was huge for me. I think the first time that I ever heard it, I was in the car with my babysitter who was this, like, teenage guy that I actually had a kid crush on. I can still remember where we were driving when I heard them for the first time.
I met Matt through my friend Bre Kennedy who’s a Nashville singer-songwriter. She called me in the middle of the night and she said, “Hey, I have some fun news for you. My friend Matt Odmark- we just had drinks and he wants to meet you and possibly make your record,” and I was like, “What? That’s awesome. Who’s Matt Odmark?” and she said, “He’s from Jars of Clay,” and I was so nervous because being a gay kid that grew up in the church – in my mind, they were a Christian band.
I almost turned down the meeting because I was nervous that they wouldn’t want to work with a gay artist and it turns out that they’re the loveliest crew of guys ever. It’s actually been really healing for me to realize that I had that all wrong. It makes me want to hold more space to not make those presumptions, you know? And I think when you’ve been hurt by a certain institution, you kind of wince when someone has that association with their name and I try to do that less and less.
AB: I struggle with the same thing. It sometimes feels like a weird unspeakable chasm between myself and people entrenched in Christianity. Which, actually, leads into my last question a little bit. Do you have any advice for people who might be in the situation that you were in before this record? I know a lot of young people might see conversion therapy as a solution to a problem. The language that we used in the Church was “struggling with same-sex attraction.”
ML: Right. That’s exactly the language that I even used to describe myself to other people at that era of my life.
AB: What advice would you give to youth who identify in this way and could easily be caught up in the lie that there is a “therapy” that can “fix” this part of them?
ML: Even thinking about people in that position just makes me sad. Get around people who are safe and trustworthy and people who don’t have designs for your life one way or the other. Be patient with yourself. It’s a huge undertaking to leave that kind of upbringing and the damage that it’s done. To leave that and set out on this quest of recovery is a lot.
It took me a few years to find my friend-family in my adult life. I spent a lot of time feeling like a spiritual refugee. I just didn’t know where I was going to land and along that way I even met people in the gay community who I just probably didn’t need to be hanging around.
There’s a lot of brokenness in the gay community. There’s a lot of pain because we’re a very ostracized minority and there’s a lot of damage that comes with that. Hurt people hurt people, right? It’s important to believe in the goodness in yourself enough that you protect that and if you have to leave family or friends behind, just make sure that wherever you land, you can trust those people.
Just be gentle with yourself. That’s the biggest thing. I was so hard on myself in those years. If I could go back and take that kid’s hand again, I would be like, “Hey, just be patient. This is going to take a while but it’s going to be okay,” which sounds corny but it’s the truth. It’s going to be okay. Just try to make it through.