For Matt Siffert, a junior semester abroad provided the impetus for choosing the life of a songwriter. He studied music and psychology at the University of Havana in the spring of 2008. With less classwork in Havana than in the Iron City confines of Carnegie Mellon, he finally had the chance to explore his love of music, photography, and poetry, and to develop his confidence as an artist.
“It was one of the most important experiences of my life; I grew up a lot and came to embrace my artistic side,” he said. Back home, he had too often let creativity take a back burner to his academic interests.
Siffert has four works as a solo artist, Morningside (2012), Cold Songs (2012), Rise (2013) and Punch, and has performed nationally and internationally. Listen to Siffert perform his original songs infused with folk, jazz, and classical sensibilities tonight at 10pm at Pete’s Candy Store (709 Lorimer St.).
Uniquely, both Siffert’s Morningside and Cold Songs albums were released in the same year. “It was just when I was getting started as a serious, full-time musician and I was evolving very quickly,” Siffert explains. “Morningside consisted of songs that I had written over a longer period of time, though.” The four songs were written between 2008 and 2011 and are the result of his first experiences integrating folk songwriting with jazz and classical instrumentation.
“Cold Songs continued the idea of combining genres, this time with my classical influences being more prevalent,” he says. In Cold Songs, Siffert also experiments with form. “I think I’ve improved my ability to synthesize genres and use alternative musical forms. I still use a lot of left-of-center musical decisions that don’t often happen in folk music, but now these function as an extension of my self-expression, rather than technical/intellectual experiments.”
In addition to mixing folk, jazz, and classical influences into his music, Siffert incorporates poetry and spoken word. One of his influences is the poet W.H. Auden. “I love Auden. He’s insightful and clear; two qualities that writing songs requires.”
Other influences? “Bukowski’s moral compass isn’t my bag, [although] his ability to tell stories in a concise, witty way has definitely had an impact on me. Frank O’Hara, too, is a great storyteller; he has a bit more of an appreciation for aesthetics in language, which I often rely on. He can make language sound beautiful, in addition to clear and insightful.”
“You don’t always need beauty in language, but being able to access it has certainly been important for me,” he observes.
Over the past year, as a second year graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music, Siffert has focused his time on three big projects: short films coinciding with his compositions, staging a spoken-word theater piece he wrote, and arranging new songs for an ensemble including voice, guitar, percussion, upright bass, and the harp.
The songs he developed for the ensemble “came out better than I expected,” he says and as an experiment with those songs, he replaced the harp with another guitar. The change positively highlighted his folk bent.
Tonight’s 10pm gig at Pete’s Candy Store will include the group borne from that experiment: Siffert on voice and guitar, Joe Etzine on guitar, Joe Peri on drums, and Connor Schultze on bass.