Matthew O’Neill channels the spirit of the wilderness on his latest release.
My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, is a novel I used to love reading with my fifth grade students. The protagonist in the story, twelve-year-old Sam Gribley, bolts from the city to live on his own deep in the mountains of New York.
Singer/songwriter Matthew O’Neill could very well be a modern day Sam Gribley. Like the fictitious Sam, O’Neill spent much of his young adulthood in the wilderness. After losing his father at a young age, O’Neill turned to the wilderness for solace and wisdom. He spent time living in national forests and on Native American reservations and, during his travels, his music began to blossom.
For O’Neill, the melodies of music and the outside world are inextricably combined.
Recently, Matthew O’Neill celebrated the release of his latest record, Campfire Cook, and I was lucky enough to chat with him about this new collection of tunes and the wonders of being outside.
BRO – For you, what’s a perfect day in the woods?
MO – Wandering out the back door, tracking out in a certain direction, then following water or a canyon ridge till I’m pleasantly lost. Wander some more, do some sitting, praying, movement, snack on what’s growing around. Follow some more game trails, discovering some new places, creatures, nooks. I love a gentle rain to walk through. Then intuit my way home briskly, arriving at dark.
BRO – You have spent significant time in both western and eastern wilderness systems. Do you favor one over the other?
MO – If I had to, I’d say I prefer the eastern, slightly. Water is a big thing. I live in the Catskills, so that says a lot. There are plenty of things western wilderness has that eastern doesn’t, and vice versa, so for me I prefer to experience it all. Mountains by the ocean are a big advantage of the West, and so is the spirit of the Southwest. I love both, I need both. No matter where I am, I’m grateful for that place and I miss the other a little. I’m grateful I’m American in that sense. A citizen of our wilderness farms.
BRO – How has the solitude you have encountered during your time in the wilderness influenced your music?
MO – It’s had a great impact on my music. A defining impact, you could say. The sense of connection and infinity that comes from prolonged solitude, that is at the center. And it’s such a giving thing thing that, for me, the only way I can begin to give back in such a way is through music making. It’s also often where the voices come through for writing songs.
BRO – You made a conscious effort to get out of the city to record Campfire Cook. What was that?
MO – So far, I’ve tended to prefer recording in cabins and shacks and whatnot, places off the beaten track. I prefer to be somewhere conducive to certain suitable types of magic. Sense of place is very important in songwriting and recording. This doesn’t rule out the city. I would say it was a conscious effort to record the record Out West, in Wrightwood, Calif.
BRO – We are featuring “Bluejay Cedar” on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s the story behind the song?
MO – “Bluejay Cedar” began in a summer thunderstorm here in the Catskills. Those storms are a highlight of the year, the way they come through with such immensely beautiful power and energy. Just vibrant rains. I remember sitting on the porch and thinking that if this doesn’t inspire a song, I don’t know what will. A bluejay was hanging with me there, in a cedar for cover, and he was in his element within this pounding, swirling thunderstorm. They’re talkative, they’ll tell you things. Sometimes they’ll have some good messages, and it led me to more western locales and an allegorical song that is about heavy relationship issues. I’m not loquacious, so it’s good to have a little help sometimes.
For more information on Matthew O’Neill, when he might be coming to a stage near you, or how you might get your hands on Campfire Cook, surf the web over to his website.