Accomplished in multiple musical fields, Rob Mathes is a noted singer, songwriter, arranger, music director and producer. As an arranger, he has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Tony Bennett, Elton John, Bono, and Panic! At The Disco, to name a few artists. As a producer, he has worked with Sting, Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, and Beth Hart. As a music director — or “MD” — he has overseen high-profile performances at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden and the Super Bowl. Rob has also released several solo albums, which has led to him having two television specials on PBS. In turn, it is not particularly surprising that he is an Emmy winner and the recipient of Grammy, Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations.
On Dec. 18, Rob Mathes brings his annual holiday concert — 23 years and concert — to the Schimmel Center. Rob’s shows are known to feature world-class musicians, as including musicians from Saturday Night Live, The Late Show With David Letterman, and Paul Simon’s band. Rob spoke to Downtown about this year’s event, what else he has coming up for him, and plenty more. More info on all things Rob can be found at www.robmathes.com.
Where did the idea for the first Rob Mathes Holiday Concert come from?
Rob Mathes: My parents raised me as a Christmas kid. Once Santa came into view, I went into a kind of heat every year almost as if I was on a new anti-depressant. I loved the cold, the dark and the lights — everything — and I always saw the Christian part of the Holiday as this story about humility and grace entering the world right when it wanted a warrior. So from my teens I wrote Christmas songs. I admit a few were cheesy early on, but many came from the better tradition of Christmas music — i.e. the Bruce Cockburn record, the Ray Charles records. I grew up as a Pete Townshend and Beatles fanatic but who also listened to Stevie Wonder, Motown and Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite. It was schizophrenic but wondrous.
Eventually I started to accrue real credits and started working with great musicians in studios thanks to the legendary producer Phil Ramone, who hired me regularly as an arranger, guitarist and piano player. I decided to collect the best of this music, released a few independent CD’s, put some of these musicians together and started giving this concert. Eventually an amazing Rabbi from Stamford, Rabbi Mark Golub — who hosts a talk show on Shalom TV — started coming to the concert regularly and I promised him some music. It became a true holiday concert, the Menorah, the Manger, the sleigh and reindeer.
Did you know that it was going to become an annual tradition?
RM: I had no idea. People loved the first concert and grew attached to a few of the songs that became our “hits” so to speak, the song “William The Angel” — which I eventually ended up singing with The Boston Symphony at Symphony Hall years after the Holiday event became a perennial — and the blues-oriented “When The Baby Grew Up.”
For someone who hasn’t attended before, what should be expected? Are there particular things that happen every year?
RM: It is an odd one, Darren. The original songs fall firmly into the singer/songwriter tradition. I grew up on Dylan, The Band and Stevie, so I write an equal amount of music around both the piano and guitar and it is the kind of singer/songwriter stuff that you might hear on WFUV. On the other hand, I grew up being raised equally by my mom and aunt, identical twin sisters both of whom were classical musicians who married men they met at Yale Music School, my uncle who played with big bands and was a composer/arranger and my dad, who was a classical clarinetist but who secretly was a folk music fanatic.
Because of this, I also adore Ellington and Gil Evans, Vaughan Williams and Mahler and have written hundreds of arrangements for various horn sections and string sections. So we do straight up swing versions of some carols and even a couple of Instrumentals for my six-piece horn section — full of brilliant virtuosos — that groove like music by The Meters and The JB’s. It is quite eclectic.
Who is in your backing band this year?
RM: It is the same group that has played with me for 20 years. Will Lee, the legendary bass player and studio session star from New York City, who played on the David Letterman show since the very, very beginning, is playing bass. We have two drummers, the great Shawn Pelton from Saturday Night Live on drums and Joe Bonadio, who is also an astonishing percussionist. Billy Masters, who played with Suzanne Vega and Dar Williams for years and who was often a part of my Kennedy Center Honors band, is my guitarist. Ricky Knutsen, a composer and keyboardist from Brooklyn, has played every single show since 1993. The six Horn players are Jeff Kievit and Don Harris on trumpet, Aaron Heick and Andy Snitzer on saxes, Mike Davis and Jeff Nelson on bones. Between the six of them the credits are insane. From Sinatra to Aretha Franklin to Springsteen to Paul Simon to Nile Rodgers to The Rolling Stones, these are six of New York’s finest.
Vaneese Thomas and James “D-Train” Williams are also unsung heroes of the vocal scene in New York. D-Train had big hits in the 80s but, along with Vaneese, became one of the first calls for any background vocal session had on major records over the last 20 years. Between them they have sung with Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole, Luther Vandross, Alicia Keys, Sting, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, etc. It is a great band and, while the show can be said to be about music that people the age of 35 to 60 will relate to, it is not staid and tired. This is a muscular evening musically, emotionally resonant and alternately funky, warm, resonant and meditative. To say it is appropriate for all ages is both true and somewhat self-serving. That said, it is an evening/afternoon I am very proud of and a focal point in my year.
Aside from the Holiday Concert, what is coming up for you?
RM: I have been doing a lot of work with the David Lynch Foundation, having produced the Music Of David Lynch record, recorded at the ACE Theatre in L.A. last year. There will be a big David Lynch event at the Kennedy Center in the new year and I think I will MD that event. I am hoping to do some more arrangements for both Twenty One Pilots and Panic! At The Disco who I have worked closely with for years and produced one of their records. I will musically direct a tribute to Jimmy Webb at Carnegie Hall next spring. When Sting finishes touring the new record with his long-time band late next year, there are plans for a London production of his musical The Last Ship, which I orchestrated and musically directed. Other things are floating.
You are a singer, songwriter, arranger, music director and producer. Do you identify with any of those categories more than others?
RM: I always wanted to be a singer/songwriter 24 hours a day, but I was so obsessed with music and it was coming at me from all sides at home. My uncle playing Sinatra and Ellington, my dad playing Dylan and Pete Seeger, my mom and Aunt playing Gospel music and Beethoven. I wanted to understand Mahler’s 9th, Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours, Stevie’s Songs In The Key Of Life — my favorite record ever made — Duke Ellington’s Blues In Orbit, and Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Therefore all four of the monikers above stand and I can’t pick. Schizophrenic indeed.
You have been honored with Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Drama Desk Award honors. Which was your first nomination of note?
RM: The country artist Kathy Mattea won a Grammy for her Christmas record, the title track of which was my song “Good News.” That was not a personal Grammy nomination like my production of Bettye Lavette’s Interpretations, but it was the beginning and meant a lot. I won my Emmy Award for musically directing and arranging the Kennedy Center Honors show. That year I had done a massive multi-genre arrangement of “Here Comes The Sun” for Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, The Silk Road Ensemble, Emanuel Ax and Jamie Laredo and James Taylor, all conducted by John Williams. That was easily one of the most astonishing moments of my life. The point was to illustrate Yo Yo Ma’s musical playground and how he crosses borders. He was one of the honorees that year. Wow!
Awards aside, is there an accomplishment that you are most proud of?
RM: There have been moments that transformed me: Accompanying Al Green on piano when he sang “Amazing Grace” at the 9/11/02 Concert For America I musically directed for NBC. Writing and conducting a full orchestral version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking” for an African Choir, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Bono and The Edge at Carnegie for Bono’s Red Charity last year. The first studio session writing string charts for Bruce Springsteen. He came up to me in the middle of the session at the old MSR Studios on 48th Street and told me “you’re my guy from now on.” Huge!
Musically directing and arranging the Obama Inaugural at the Lincoln Memorial. Co-producing a few records with Sting, who was a huge influence on me when I was young. Writing the National Anthem arrangement for Renée Fleming for the 2014 Super Bowl. Having Lou Reed personally thank me on his album The Raven for a simple string arrangement I did — a first. There are many more but these stand out.
Your list of credits is essentially a who’s who, between Beyonce, Bono, Elton John, Sting, Panic! At The Disco, Twenty One Pilots, Tony Bennett, Yo-Yo Ma…All sorts of genres, to say the least. How does work usually come to you? Do you have a manager or agent pitching you? Is it more word of mouth?
RM: My manager is Jonathan Daniel at Crush Management. He manages Sia, Lorde, and Fall Out Boy, among others. He has saved me in that most people like myself get called for “Adult Contemporary Music.” He has hooked me up with Butch Walker and Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy and many others. He has single-handedly kept me young — to a certain extent (laughs). He is smart and unpretentious. Super-important. But a LOT of my work comes from word of mouth.
Is there anyone you haven’t yet worked with but still hope to?
RM: I would love to work as an arranger with some younger hip-hop artists, because whenever I have written string or horn charts on those records, most of which were produced by my friend Just Blaze, he TURNED THAT SHIT UP! There is a spirit in that community and that music which just will not be denied. It is the center of popular music and has been for a while. So much of it is so vital, passionate and intense that when you bring in ideas coming from an arranger’s head, they get channeled in a way very unlike just a sweet string arrangement on a pop or rock ballad you can hear in the background.
I would love to produce a record of spirituals for Mavis Staples with a big gospel choir, orchestra and rhythm section. Mavis was great to me through the years when she came to sing some of my arrangements at the Kennedy Center. We performed a concert together in Connecticut. I think it is a long shot but I would love it.
When not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?
RM: With my three daughters and wife — Emma, Sarah, Lily and Tammy…Studying music, I want to look at every note in Elgar’s Violin Concerto and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre VERY closely. Reading the late and long Charles Dickens novels and re-reading The Brothers Karamazov. Writing my OWN music, one of the reasons the Holiday concert is such a joy).
Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?
Do you have a favorite album of 2016?
RM: I am completely floored by the new Bon Iver record. I don’t listen to Beyonce’s Lemonade all the time but recognize both its power and its brilliance. Solange’s new A Seat At The Table record is beautiful and vibey and my daughter and I have listened to that a lot. I just discovered the band Fink from England and love the Jules Buckley arranged record they did with the Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam. Maybe my favorite though is A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead. The new Lisa Batiashvili — brilliant violinist — recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto conducted by Daniel Barenboim is ridiculously great.
Finally, Rob, any last words for the kids?
RM: By kids you must mean young people. I say “get busy.” You are a better generation than we were, more talented, quicker and with more passion than I can even remember…I can’t wait to hear your music. Come to my holiday concert. You may dig it and, if you don’t, tell me what sucked and I will LISTEN. I am NOT one of the old, cranky musicians who says, “It ain’t Aretha. It ain’t the Beatles!” The talent out there is ferocious right now. I am blown away and, don’t forget, by the time Bob Dylan was 25, he had written “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Chimes Of Freedom”, and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” not to mention the albums Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde. A word for the kids? “GO!”