Matt Megrue has been making music for years, whether it was with the Atlanta punk-pop band the Unusual Suspects, the alt-country group Counting Line Strangers, or his more recent hardcore punk project, Cashout, which also included Sean and Brendan Kelly of A Fragile Tomorrow. In most of these bands, Megrue was the main songwriter. But he'd never released a full-length album under his own name until this year, making his debut with a collection of songs called The Mourner's Manual.
There were a couple of reasons for Megrue's reluctance to officially become a solo artist.
"I think as I've done my own sort of armchair psychology into what took me so long to actually do it, I realized I've always wanted it to be more of a 'band' kind of mentality when it came to songwriting," he says. "But I just don't think it ever shook out that way. Plus, I think with a band name, you can quote- unquote 'fail' and hide under that name versus putting it under your name. It took a lot of reshaping what I wanted to get out of what I was doing. I was chasing the rock 'n' roll dream of touring, getting signed, making a record, and staying young forever, and that's changed a little bit, which I think helped me to make that transition a little bit easier."
And, he adds only half-jokingly, "I finally got tired of changing band names every time the lineup changed, and I decided to start putting everything out under my name."
Luckily, Megrue had some friends on hand to help him make that transition, and perhaps more importantly, those friends had a studio he could use. Sean and Brendan Kelly helped engineer and produce The Mourner's Manual at their studio, Low Watt Recording, in Savannah. The only problem was that Megrue was in the throes of severe writer's block when it came time to make the album.
"I was really blocked before we started recording this," he says, "and I remember meeting with Sean and Brendan a couple weeks before we were set to start recording and telling them, 'Look, I've got nothing; I don't have any songs completed.' And I'd never gone into a studio without having any songs, nor would I recommend anyone going into a studio without having any songs."
But when your collaborators own the studio, there's a little more flexibility, so Megrue headed into Low Watt and wrote and recorded the music for The Mourner's Manual, playing rhythm guitar while Sean handled bass and Brendan handled drums and lead guitar.
"They kind of talked me down from that freak out and told me, 'Just come down and bring all the little pieces and sketches that you have, and we'll work through it,' " he recalls.
And so, in a series of three-day sessions over three years, the trio wrote and recorded the album, trading off instruments, creating arrangements on the fly, and coming up with the foundation for The Mourner's Manual.
And that music is proof, perhaps, that inspiration can come directly from desperation. The sound on the album is big, loud, melodic, and anthemic rock, designed to have maximum impact. There's a sense of grandeur and expansiveness to the songs, combining the otherworldly, ethereal glow of bands like My Morning Jacket with the ringing, resonating chords of arena-fillers like U2 or Coldplay. The songs are so layered and massive that one can sometimes forget that there are only three guys playing on The Mourner's Manual.
The lyrics are refreshingly direct, as well. On "We," the album's lead single, Megrue pays emotional tribute to the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting, singing "There's sorrow in the streets/ There's panic in the air/ Now our steepled skyline's weeping/ Tears of discord and despair."
Elsewhere, on the elegiac, acoustic guitar-powered, Dylanesque ballad "Here's to the World," Megrue laments our country's us-versus-them mentality, singing, "Fake news and fake friends/ Is this how it ends/ Oh, humanity/ When the gospel according to government/ Has only let you down/ Give me truth, give me truth/ Give me some truth."
It certainly sounds like Megrue had a unified lyrical vision for the album, but in truth, he was only following the music where it led him; the lyrics were written months after the music was completed.
"I just rode around with the songs for a few months listening to them," Megrue says, "and I was able to take my time and write lyrics and match what I was thinking with the music. It was kind of a cool experience to have all of the tracks done and then filling in the blanks around the song structures. I just really wanted to not force anything and try to let it come to me as far as the lyrics and how they matched or in some cases purposely didn't necessarily match the mood of the music."
As organic as that sounds, Megrue was still plagued by doubts, having just emerged from a period of writer's block.
"I was worried the lyrics weren't going to come," he says. "Actually, I was worried that I wasn't even going to be able to write again at all. But I think once I got through those three days of recording and saw how things kind of came together, I was able to take my hands off the wheel and let it just happen."
In fact, by the time The Mourner's Manual was done, Megrue's fear had been replaced by a bittersweet regret it was finished.
"By the end," he says, "I wished it wasn't over. I wished we could have kept that momentum going and just kept recording."