“I like music better than people. I like music better than anything,” Nathanson told Pollstar. “To be involved in this industry, I would fucking walk through fire.”
That symbolic trek through the flames began when Nathanson moved to Southern California to go to college, playing coffee houses and other venues whenever possible.
It was there that Nathanson met his future manager, Jordan Kurland of Zeitgeist Artist Management, when both men were new to the music world.
Kurland said he took over management duties for his friend after spending a summer in New York City interning with Jim Grant and Roger Cramer at Seriously Inc.
“At that [time], it was dropping off a cassette at the local coffee shop, trying to get a club in L.A. to book him and sending his [record] to the limited contacts I had in the music business,” Kurland told Pollstar. “The songs were great and he’s a great performer. I felt he had that inexplicable quality that people were drawn to when he performed.”
When Kurland moved to San Francisco in 1995 to work with David Lefkowitz, who manages Primus and others, Nathanson followed shortly after his graduation. But despite the Bay Area’s open-minded reputation, the local scene wasn’t easy to break into.
“At the time I moved up there, [the scene] was kind of … incredibly cool indie-rock people,” Nathanson explained. “I’m not very cool or indie rock, so I took to going on tour from there.
“I was developing who I wanted to be and getting an identity but, at the same time, always trying to get the music industry to accept me. It took a really long time.”
Tours of the Northeast and Midwest, in addition to fill-in slots at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco, were the building blocks of the elusive fan base Nathanson and Kurland were sure was out there.
“Club buyers were interested in having him back because they thought he was such a great performer,” Kurland said. “I had a great relationship with Michael at Bimbo’s through other stuff I was doing and they really loved Matt.
“The joke was that Matt was kind of the ‘house band.’ He opened for Fiona Apple and Julia Fordham, so that was really great.”
Nathanson’s perseverance was rewarded when he was offered an opening slot on some dates with John Mayer in 2001. “That was toward the beginning of John’s ascent. He was doing well but it was at [venues like] Irving Plaza and Electric Factory. He wasn’t doing arenas yet,” Kurland said. “We knew getting [Matt] in front of the right audience would take things to another level, and it did.”
For Nathanson, that opportunity was the validation he’d been seeking.
“When I played with John, it was a revelation. All of a sudden all the kids are coming to that show,” the singer said. “John and I played the House of Blues in Chicago and I remember thinking, ‘Here’s the audience. Thank God!’”
A record deal with Universal in 2002 also brought Nathanson another break – a chance to do a cover of “Laid” by James for the “American Wedding” soundtrack, which got his name out to another audience.
Kurland said the Universal deal was another stepping stone on a very long path.
“We did one record with them. It was a bit disappointing in terms of their support or ability to stick with it but we knew that was a risk,” he said. “[Matt] just kept touring – alternating headlining and opening – and we worked hard on the college base.
“For the type of artist that Matt is, a lot of [college talent] buyers were excited about booking him. And Matt is so hard-working, he’ll go out and do anything.”
Nathanson’s versatility continues to pay off as the musician has toured with Train, Jason Mraz, Pink, Tori Amos, G. Love & Special Sauce, Guster, Rusted Root and Lifehouse, as well as landed a slot at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2006.
Nathanson is headlining a tour of the States behind his latest album, Some Mad Hope, that will keep him on the road through December.
And he’s more than ready for what comes next.
“There was never any doubt I was going to do this for a living. I just had to figure out how to make it work,” he said. “It’s all about perseverance.”