ANNICK: Matthew you are an award winning songwriter and composer. Can you tell us more about the awards that you received?
MATTHEW LEVINE: Two first places, a second place, and a grand prize for my gospel tune A HOME THAT FOREVER WILL STAND; a first place for my first string quartet, THE PROPHET OF SHIRAZ; and three or four more for some pop and children’s tunes (ONE OF A KIND, THE HUNTER, and I forget the other(s).
ANNICK: Before we get into your music world of composition, choral, jazz, cabaret, musical theater, concert music, would you tell us where you were born and raised, and at what point did you realize that you were going to be a musician at some point in your life?
MATTHEW LEVINE: I was born in Santa Monica, lived in Newport Beach from 8-19, and the Los Angeles area in my twenties. Once I heard the Beatles when I was about 9 years old, I knew I wanted to write songs but it was fairly subliminal and gradually slithered into my consciousness in the next five or six years. As a teenager, I was “weaned” on Cat Stevens, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Elton John, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and Joni Mitchell. At 19, I moved to Hollywood determined to become a songwriter.
ANNICK: At what age did you get your first piano lessons?
MATTHEW LEVINE: I started with classical piano lessons at 8 and knew fairly soon after that that music would be my life. Bach, Chopin, and Rachmaninov gave me a soulgasm.
ANNICK: You have a daughter, Matthew and I am sure you are very proud of her. Can she read music, sing and play the piano, as well?
MATTHEW LEVINE: I have a daughter and a son that are both in their twenties. My daughter hasn’t been into taking music lessons nor has my son although my son has recorded a lot of original trap music which he learned on his own.
ANNICK: When you were a teenager, I heard that you had the opportunity to be a gopher (a person who is often running around doing various small tasks) in a low budget movie that was filmed on the beach where you lived. Do you recall any specific memories that you would like to share with us, and in those days, were you trying to become an actor?
MATTHEW LEVINE: Actually, it was a made for TV documentary called LONELY AUTUMN. A friend of the family was co-producer and they had a low budget so I offered to be a grip. After the first shoot, I found out that they had no budget for music so I offered to write some for free. I did it on spec and they liked what I did and used it in the documentary. I was somewhere between 17 and 19 at the time (I’m terrible with dates, no pun intended, but interesting…)
ANNICK: It looks like you were quite busy as a young man. One day, you were walking around with your boom box (portable music player) as all teenagers do in America, and out of nowhere someone confronted you. It happened to be Edwin Starr, an American singer and songwriter from Nashville, TN who happened to be in Hollywood. Is that where it was? Can you tell us what happened that day?
MATTHEW LEVINE: When I was 19 I moved to Hollywood into the DeMille Manor, a small, run-down apartment complex on Argyle north of Franklin. I almost immediately got a job selling tickets at the Pantages Theater a few blocks away. A few days later, I was walking home from work with my ghetto blaster—that's what everyone called boom-boxes back then—and naively decided to walk unannounced into Total Experience Recording Studios where the two people there (a guy and a woman on a couch) stared at me like I had just committed a mortal sin. I said, "Hey, does anyone want to hear a song I wrote?" After a pregnant pause, they looked at each other. The guy motioned for me to press play on my blaster—at least that's how I interpreted his barely decipherable gesture. After about 20 seconds, he got up from the couch and without a word, waved for me to follow him. We walked into the main studio recording booth. He said, "Take out the tape." So I did. He played it over the huge monitor speakers and then said, "Would you like to collaborate?" I said sure. He introduced himself as Edwin Starr who sang on a big hit song called WAR which was huge. Right then and there we sat down at the grand piano and we tried to come up with something but our writing routines were totally different so nothing came of it. I’m not sure where he originated from but our crossing paths in such an unconventional way provided a delicious memory.
ANNICK: In 1983, in your mid 20s, you received a call from a talent booking agency working with a foreign agency. Did they hire you as an actor or as a musician? Can you tell us more about this?
MATTHEW LEVINE: I got a call from a talent booking agency I was signed to that worked with an agency in Japan called Washington Kikaku. One of their musical acts dropped out about a week before their start date and they asked if I could be ready to sing and play piano in Japan in a week. I said yes even though I had never done it before and had no repertoire. I learned about 60 songs in a week, flew to Tokyo and performed there for a month followed by Takamatsu for two weeks, and then Hakone for two weeks and back to Tokyo where I roomed with a classical guitarist from Argentina who brought fresh yerba mate with him which we drink daily. I bought a Yamaha DX7 there, one of the first keyboard synthesizers.
ANNICK: Matthew, you wrote a song called "Sushi In The Kremlin." What was that all about? Why would you write a song about Sushi and the Kremlin? The first commercial compact disc was produced on 17 August 1982. In those days were you selling CDs or vinyl albums? Was the song a success?
MATTHEW LEVINE: SUSHI… was my first professionally recorded song. It’s about a potluck with different races representing the unity of the human family. It was released in Germany on Baierle and Polygram Records on the German soundtrack to the movie Mystic Pizza, which was totally different from the US version. That's my rather loose connection to Julia Roberts although I secretly was more attracted to Annabeth Gish. They also released a single LP of the song which included another one of my songs, The We Generation, on the flip side.
Later that year, on a bus going from London to the ferry that went to Belgium, I sat behind two Irish young adults who listened to Sushi… and got into a heated argument because one loved it and the other hated it. Fists were waving but they contained themselves…for Irishmen. Later on the Ferry, I played it for a bunch of teenagers who just wanted me to go away. The song didn't phase them. One of them listened to my song on the flip side, The We Generation, and, after passing it around, they all went crazy and asked for my autograph. Apparently, in their small German town it was a hit.
ANNICK: Do you ever go on tours, traveling in either a van or a tour bus in the USA?
MATTHEW LEVINE: In the summer of 1995, I organized a tour through over 100 cities in the U.S. performing my original songs and selling my CD's. Later they called them living room concerts. The largest crowd (about a thousand) was at a Baha'i Conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin where I alternately shared the stage with Red Grammar, Seyforth (Paul Kurokawa) and (Rob) Jenkins, and Jaimi Findlay among others. The smallest concert was in Indiana, Pennsylvania where no one showed up. The hostess urged the one Baha'i college student in the area to come over. Her name was Jia-Yi and she became my wife for ten years.
ANNICK: Your music took you around the world, that's wonderful. You traveled to Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. I heard you mention Manila, have you been there? How did you like traveling and performing your music in those Asian countries?
MATTHEW LEVINE: In the Fall of that same year, through the Asian Baha'is, I organized a 3-month tour through Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, doing living room concerts. The Baha'is there arranged everything. I lost my voice in the Philippines but everyone in the audience played music so we all jammed. The title song of one of my albums, A Sacrifice to Thee, was performed by a local Baha'i, Allen Cantos, who sang the s*** out of it. A few days later in Hong Kong, I stayed with Paul Meredith, a fine musician, who helped me organize a concert where I wouldn't have to sing much. I mostly sang everything an octave lower than usual in my basso profundo voice lent to me by the insidious virus I was trying to shake.
We opened the concert with the Beatles song that goes, "What would you do if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?" After that, who would leave? I then rapped a song I wrote (There's another oxymoron. Aren't they fun?) called My Voice. Some of the lyrics went: “One day in Manila from the stifling smog, my voice disappeared, the notes fell like a log. Once I could croon just like the Velvet Fog; now I can’t even do a good Kermit the Frog.”
ANNICK: You mentioned the word 'Baha'is.' Are they members of a church who organized your tour and welcomed you in Asia?
MATTHEW LEVINE: I joined the Baha’i Faith when I was 19. Since there are Baha’is in every country, it was easy to find Baha’is to host me no matter where I traveled. I did most of the organizing but that year many Baha’is hosted me and one in the U.S. volunteered to book my tour from Maine to Seattle (I had booked my itinerary from Newport Beach to Maine but had none after that).
ANNICK: That's wonderful to be able to meet people wherever you travel to. Matthew, you grew up and lived in California, where else did you move to?
MATTHEW LEVINE: Moved to Seattle for a year-and-a-half where I stayed with Kurt & Leslie Asplund, two patrons of the arts (me being the art part) as well as talented musicians and great people. We formed a 9-member a cappella jazz group called Tapestry from Baha'i musicians in the area. The brilliant Tim Pierce directed and we gigged around the most beautiful place on earth. One of the best years of my life. The most memorable gig was at one of the biggest churches in Seattle where we took the stage with three other choirs behind the Dalai Lama. Afterwards, Wes Baker, the representative of our group that day, gave Dali a big bear hug who reciprocated with a big grin on his face.
ANNICK: Matthew, you must be very proud of all your accomplishments. Your work is amazing and very unique. Do you have a favorite musical instrument? The one that you always pick up, first.
MATTHEW LEVINE: The kazoo, hands down! (get it. You don’t need your hands to play it. Is that a dad joke?) Piano is the only instrument I play decently, and I love it, but it’s more the artfulness of the arrangement that attracts me rather than the instrument. The album I play most often is a guitar album called CHARACTERS by John Abercrombie which I never get tired of. It’s artful in a timeless way. The DURUFLÉ REQUIEM is one of my favorites which is choir and organ (some versions have a small orchestra). My favorite Baha’i pop album, WAITING FOR A CHINESE SUN by Paul Meredith, is guitar-oriented with vocals, bass and percussion. The only album with piano that I play regularly is Paul Self’s CREATION, a collection of Baha’i prayers which feature piano and voice.
ANNICK: You have created some fantastic pieces of music such as the 40’s ragtime band, Oracle, Chopinesque Waltz Piano, Pianimba Jazz, and much more. Your instrumental music work is amazing and so pleasant to the ear. What type of music do you prefer to create today?
MATTHEW LEVINE: I am not creating any music now. I lost my recording set-up, and hardly anyone is buying my music (see below) and I have no budget to buy equipment or market my material, let alone tour. Music is a form of communication and if I have no one to communicate to I’d rather do other things that people value. I am however, doing some fine-tuning to a musical I’ve composed music for with lyricist/book writer Richard Castle called LOVE STINGS which is slated to debut at Northern Sky Theater this summer. It was scheduled for the summer of 2020 but the Academic ruined that for us. I hope this summer will work out. I give it a 51% chance. I’m an optimist. Matthew's music can be heard and bought at: https://matthewslevine.bandcamp.com/ and https://9starmedia.com (search: Matthew Levine).
ANNICK: Thank you for making time to answer my questions, Matthew. Wishing you continued success!