By Myself, But Not Alone
Matt Merlin Speaks to Performing Solo and the Power of the Music Community
There’s something to be said for pushing forward under your own steam and flying solo. Just ask Matt Merlin – a veritable six-string wizard who performs as part of the legendary local rock band Envy and has recently expanded his own repertoire to include solo performances.
I caught up with Merlin as summer was fading into fall and got the chance to pick his brain about everything from keeping creative during the lockdown to early-90’s metal – but first, though, I wanted to learn how he got into music in the first place.
“I’ve been gigging since I was probably about twenty,” Merlin related to me, “so I’ve been doing this for almost two decades now. I started out on drums when I was a kid but then I switched over to guitar – that was a really long time ago. I played in a lot of bands around town – I was in an original band called Summer of Panic, we had songs on the radio for a bit – but I was always playing with other people. I’ve done lots of fill-ins on bass and guitar for a lot of bands too, and I’m also in a Metallica tribute band called Damage Inc. and I play lead guitar there. I grew up as a metalhead playing lead guitar, and then when I started gigging I got told I should start singing, so I actually started singing after I started gigging – I definitely was not very good at first!”
With that history providing some context, I wanted to know more about what sparked Matt’s move toward solo artistry – after all, that’s a long time to be playing in bands to suddenly make the move to go it onstage alone. As it turns out, Merlin’s solo swing was a result of equal parts the COVID-19 pandemic and the Langdon Firehouse’s own Greg Thompson.
“I guess it all goes back to 2020, when it was really only during the summer that things were open,” Merlin began detailing his journey toward solo musicianship. “I was fortunate enough to get some gigs – I know lots of people who didn’t get any gigs last year at all. So while we were opened up, we tried to really push to get some shows. We had an alright summer and played a few evenings – but then we ended up booking a whole month of shows just as the season started wrapping up, and that’s when all those restrictions came back into play. Of course – we go back into lockdown right when we finally started to get booked up again!”
The pandemic hasn’t made things easy for musicians and performing artists out there – but it did give Merlin just what he needed to take the plunge and start pursuing a solo career in music. “I started working on my own stuff a lot more because I saw the potential that it offered to let me keep playing. Solo work wasn’t something I had really done a lot of – I’d almost always played with a full band. Then COVID happened and Greg Thompson offered me a solo show at the Firehouse – which was probably only my fourth solo show ever – but it worked out really well and it got me pumped up enough to keep pursuing it. It’s something I really should have started a long while ago, to be honest.”
There’s nothing better than hearing a positive story about an artist taking a risk and seeing it pay off – especially right now, when the average story so often seems to be one of struggle rather than success. That said, standing up there on stage with nothing but a microphone and a guitar is an entirely different experience from performing with a full band backing you. I mentioned as much to Merlin as I asked him about making the swap to solo, and he chuckled knowingly in agreement as he answered.
“Solo’s a way different vibe,” he started out confirming. “Even just being up there singing by yourself for an entire set is seriously tough. And I’ll be up there playing for three hours – how many other bands do that? I’ve never really been a lead singer, so even that was a big consideration: just seeing how long I could sing for and then arranging everything around that and hoping my voice held out. Like, could I actually play a full set and still be able to sing by the end of the show? It takes a lot of thought and consideration to not push yourself too hard at the start, to make sure you can finish your show, to trust yourself and your ability to make it through.”
We chatted a bit more about the unique nature of performing solo on stage, and Merlin began to dissect the double-edged nature of being his own creative partner.
“Solo is easier, but it’s harder as well,” he elaborated on the subject at hand. “There’s no one else to rely on – it’s just you, whether you’re picking songs or performing or anything. There’s no one to run things by, no one to help you decide what to do – but there’s also no one to object to something you really want to pursue or move forward with either. When you’re playing solo, you know what you do well, and you’re free to do it – so aside from the nerves that come along with it, once you get going, it’s like, ‘Okay, I’ve got this, I’m comfortable with these songs, I’m holding the timing down, I’ve got it.’”
“There’s a vulnerability to solo performing,” Merlin concluded. “When you’re riding that vibe, it’s amazing. But when you crash and burn, it can really take a toll on your psyche, because it’s just you up there! It’s pretty wild.”
And what does Merlin bring to the table as a solo artist, you’re curious to know? As it turns out, something entirely different than you might expect. “I need to consider what works for me and what I can do well solo and try to approach things from that angle,” Merlin explained. “I’ve found a bit of a niche in playing songs that are written for two people on guitar, and I’ll break them down and combine some of the different parts and bring some unique flavour to them that way. It’s difficult sometimes and it works other times – but I feel like when I get those types of songs down, they’re untouchable in a sense. People remember them, and that’s awesome.”
Strangely enough, it was by making the leap into solo musicianship that Merlin actually ended up engaging with the live local music community here in southern Alberta more than ever – not that he was a stranger to the brilliant, talented, driven individuals who make it up in the first place.
“A lot of my friends,” Merlin began, “a lot of the folks who perform at the Firehouse, actually – they do a lot of solo performing. I’ve played with them at jams over the years, and they’re the people who actually ended up getting me on stage. They gave me that push to do what I’m doing now.”
This detail in our conversation really stuck out to me, and I told Merlin as much. Time and time again, I’ve heard about how the local live music scene here in southern Alberta is chock-full of individuals who would give you the shirt off their back and the strings off their guitar if you asked – and Merlin agreed with this assessment wholeheartedly.
“Once you’re a part of this live music community,” he reflected thoughtfully, “and you meet some of these local performers, and you get up there and play with them (and you’re not a complete degenerate – you know, you make conversation and be a normal person), you have this endless support from them. I’ve had help getting shows, I’ve had help making connections, and these people just continue to go out of their way over and over again – and they don’t have to, but they do, and that’s the cool thing about it all. That very real sense of community and belonging.”
It speaks volumes that even as a solo artist, Merlin is able to find all the support he needs (and then some!) from the generous, welcoming community of bands and musicians that make up the live local scene in our neck of the Prairies. That’s a rare thing, and one that’s worth not just celebrating, but championing – by bands and solo artists alike.