Matt Nathanson: 'I've Felt Like a Misfit All My Life' (Q&A)

With his latest album, "Last of the Great Pretenders," coming in at No. 16 on this week's Billboard 200, the singer-songwriter talks to THR about how success lands you a lane that you can't always choose.

Matt Nathanson is not your typical singer-songwriter -- or, as he likes to call it, “man with white penis guitar player." For one thing, he first learned the six-string rocking along to the music of KISS at the age of five and six. A few years later, the New England native would catch a show by the J. Geils Band and decide that his future would revolve around stages and recording studios.  

Today, Nathanson lives in San Francisco, where the sights and sounds of the city have played an integral role on his new album, Last of the Great Pretenders. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the singer moments after he saw the first physical CD copy of his new release, and exclaimed, "Dude, I got to make another one of these!"

The Hollywood Reporter: So this is your tenth studio album...

Matt Nathanson: It is? That sounds like a lot. ... Hold on, I'll do the math. Let's see, there's Please, Burns ... all of those and the EP, then there was this one, but there was a live album, so counting the live albums and EP, yeah that's 10. 

THR: What drives you to keep creating?

Nathanson: Um … drugs? Just kidding, I don't do drugs. For me, the only thing I've ever committed to was music. Going to record stores and buying records and hearing bands and seeing bands and people turning me on to new shit. ... It's like fuel itself. 

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THR: So many of the songs are about San Francisco. Did the city inspire the whole album? 

Nathanson: Yeah, because I've never really committed or felt like any place was my home. I was born in Boston, lived in New Hampshire and Maine, I went to school in Southern California, and then San Francisco was the first place where I was, like, "Oh, yeah, I get it. This is what people feel like when they drive home over the bridge and see their city." I've never gotten that.

THR: How did you choose San Francisco?

Nathanson: I just felt like the thing. My girlfriend at the time -- my now wife -- was from there; my manager at the time was moving up there to work; and San Francisco has had this amazing singer-songwriter scene, with the Red House Painters and American Music Club. Chris Isaak was making some dark, spooky, weird records before he went not-as-spooky-weird. ... So I felt like that would be a fun place to go. It felt like the place that misfits can go and do well. I ended up loving it.

THR: Did you feel like a misfit then?

Nathanson: I've felt like a misfit all my life. The world is full of people who love reality television, and I'm just not that person. I would rather sit in my room and listen to records. I was the person who worshiped at the altar of music. Like when a movie is No. 1 at the box office, I know it's not the one I should see. Same with the records I like, it's just a small circle of people who dig it.  

THR: Are you writing for fellow misfits or is your music for everyone?

Nathanson: I don't know who it's for. That's the hardest part of talking about [music]. I feel self-conscious about how it's directly pulled from my life. ... Like a song about this girl who worked at the coffee shop around the corner from where we made the record in the city, and she's kind of foxy and punk rock and sleeved up and I was kind of nervous to write a song about her. Like, I don't want to give away my secret world, you know what I mean? So I have no idea if anyone is going to relate to it, but it's neat when they do. I feel like I'm giving part of myself away, where with my other records, I would chop the specifics out and make it broad because I felt like broad was a way to not be assassinated by people -- like no judgments can happen when you're being sort of obtuse.

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THR: Would you say then that this album is the most you?

Nathanson: Yeah. Lyrically, this is the most specific to who I am.

THR: What do you think brought this on then at this point in your life?

Nathanson: Truthfully, because I got to this place where I didn't like where I was in my career. I didn't like that I was associated with other artists I don't listen to. I built my way into this room and it wasn't necessarily a room I wanted to be in, I was. like, "How the f--- did I get here?" People would say, "Your music reminds me of" this, and I was, like, I must be doing something wrong because I listen to none of those people. My influences weren't coming out through this music. ... That’s kind of how I felt -- not that the records were wrong, I was just wasn't making it specific to me.

THR: What does the title mean? 

Nathanson: The Last of the Great Pretenders is that idea that I'm ready to let go of that person who is sort of self-conscious about himself and his creative process and get deep into just getting on with being creative and open. It's sort of hippie -- but that's it.

THR: Maybe living in the Bay Area has made you more of a hippie?

Nathanson: Yeah. I'm the hippie guy that owns every Tesla album. [Laughs]  

Twitter: @THRMusic