Matt Stell doesn’t fit the mold of the typical country singer. He grew up listening to alternative rock, played college basketball – he is 6ft 7in – and after a medical mission trip to Haiti, was accepted into a pre-med program at Extension School in Harvard University.
But the 37-year-old Arkansas native put it all in the rearview mirror in 2014 when he signed a songwriting deal with Wide Open Music.
Since then, Stell has slowly started to make his mark in country music. Now signed to Nashville / Arista Records, Stell’s debut radio release, “Prayed for You,” reached number one and was certified platinum, and his next gold record, “Everywhere But On,” also reached No. Top of the charts, making Stell one of the first eight country artists over the past six years to have his first two singles topped the charts. His latest release, “That Ain’t Me No More”, quickly became a radio and fan favorite.
To say he speaks well and is a bit intelligent – he has a weakness for science books – is an understatement. But his intelligence has served him well as he systematically builds his career in music rather than medicine. And he doesn’t regret his decision. “I had obtained a master’s degree in communication and then applied for a pre-medical program. I was excited about it, but there was a part of me that knew there was no guarantee I could even do it – and luckily, I didn’t have to find out the hard way. I’m glad I didn’t fail with a bunch of debt, ”he said with a laugh.
About two months before he considered entering Harvard, things changed. “I had the opportunity to write songs and it turned into a management contract that turned into an EP on Spotify and people started listening to ‘Prayed for You’, and that s ‘turned into a recording deal – and now we’re sitting here with some number one and another single. It’s been a crazy trip.
“Prayed for You” with its post about a single man who prayed to find the girl of his dreams certainly connected with listeners and changed Stell’s life. “It has definitely knocked all the doors down for us,” he said.
But at its roots, it’s a love song, which Stell isn’t particularly comfortable with. “It’s not that I don’t like love songs, it’s that they don’t come naturally to me,” he said. He says he’s “happiest when I go wild,” which he attributes to “being a ’90s product and growing up around alternative music. A lot of this stuff had that melancholy, negative vibe, but it never made me feel that way. For me, that’s where the songs are made from, so I often find myself in that headspace when I write.
This melancholy is evident in “Everywhere But On,” which tells the story of a guy trying to escape the memory of a broken relationship by traveling across the country to find odd jobs. Stell admits it’s “one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. I grew up listening to all kinds of music, but I have a little independent side and it shows in what I write.
The latest single, “That Ain’t Me No More” also tells the story of a lost love that passed to another guy after being treated badly by the singer. The song was actually written by Hunter Phelps, Jake Mitchell, Michael Hardy, Nick Donley, and Smith Ahnquist and it’s the first single he’s released that he hasn’t written.
“I moved to Nashville to be a songwriter and implicitly that’s the idea that the best song wins,” he said. “When we go to record music, I don’t care what name is at the top of the page. At the end of the day, I just care about the song.
To accompany the single, Stell also starred in the video playing a guy on probation trying to change his life but still harboring an inner anger about how he let the girl escape. Playing in videos is new to Stell, but something he’s embraced. During the pandemic, he also shot an ironic video for “If I Was a Bar” where he played 13 different characters.
“I don’t like to pass up opportunities of any kind without at least missing them,” he said with a smile. “So anytime anything comes up outside my wheelhouse, whether it’s acting for a music video or reading for a role – I don’t have any experience in that area, so it’s new and uncomfortable, but it’s my MO to try to chase them away. things down and see what happens.
One of the positive aspects of the lockdown was the opportunity it gave her to focus on writing music. “I wrote almost every day and thanks to the technology it gave us we were able to do it through Zoom,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but it’s definitely better than the alternative of sitting at home and writing on your own. I still write on my own, but working with people is a big part of country music now. I think the music will be better for this free time.
Even though Stell is now making his mark in front of the mic, it begs the question: what does he prefer? Write music or play?
“I sometimes see myself, even now, more as a songwriter than an artist,” he said. “But maybe it’s just because I’ve been doing it every day for the past few years and the artist’s thing [is newer]. I like some aspects of both and if you took one off I probably wouldn’t appreciate the other as much.
Right now it is his character as an artist that attracts the most attention and he will continue to be the center of his mind now that he has started filming again.
“We’re back on the road,” he said. “Some of the venues will have capacity rules, but in terms of the dates on the books, especially now that it’s started to heat up and everything is outside, we’ve been very busy. We did a headlining tour from the start of everything opening up in the Southeast. And now it’s a lot of fairs and festivals. We are delighted to be there and to be able to do so in a responsible manner. I cannot tell you how many years I have been playing music and hadn’t spent as many consecutive days at home as we did during the pandemic. We tried hard to come back after that. “
On stage, Stell can also flex his fashion muscle. He works with a stylist, Amanda O’Connor, and loves custom boots PRPS, Rag & Bone, ML Leddy and other brands that help him create his country-boy-meets-big-city aesthetic. O’Connor said she is selecting Ksubi, Purple, Frame, Nudie and expanding her collection of All Saints leather jackets and Jordan sneakers, which is not surprising with her basketball history.
“I’m from nowhere, Arkansas, which I love and am proud of, but I’ve learned since getting into this business how important a consistent look is to your art. This visual representation of what you are doing is much more immediate than giving someone four minutes to listen to a song.
So, with his vision and path mapped out, where does Stell see himself in the future?
“It really helps me set myself executable goals, over which I have full control,” he said. “Like writing X number of songs over a period of time. In a perfect world, I want to play music that is close to my heart to the people who care about it, and I want to do it on as large a scale as possible.