Mattiel: More Than Just a Weird Name

Mattiel Brown spent a lot of time with herself growing up. An only child, she was raised about an hour directly south of Atlanta, in miniscule Brooks, Georgia, on a modest, five-acre, self-sustaining farm where her mother still lives. I’d venture a guess that Mattiel still spends much of her time with herself, or at least would prefer to. She just sorta seems to project a reserved, chilly vibe, to me, at least in the social sense. Regardless, she is immensely talented, in multiple facets, and her artistic inclinations took shape early.

It’s safe to surmise that some of her mother’s traits and interests found their way to Mattiel. Originally from Detroit, her mom’s a city girl who didn’t like the city life. Yearning for more isolation she bought the Fayette County home after selling a similarly rural plot of farmland in Pennsylvania. While she paints for leisure, her creative abilities led to a career in the film business doing props, effects and set dressing, mainly, ranging from fake ice cream cones for the Georgia-filmed In the Heat of the Night TV show to concocting toxic slime out of glow sticks for the 1984 sci-fi B-movie C.H.U.D. “She makes things a lot with her hands,” Mattiel says of her mother. “I think she and I are very similar in that way. We’ll always find something to do, as far as making things.”

With her father, who Mattiel says was “sort of roughly diagnosed with manic depression, and bipolar disorder, and what seemed to me like schizophrenia,” increasingly out of her and her mom’s lives (“I’m not really sure where he is,” she tells me), by Mattiel’s mid-teens she was earning cash by designing rudimentary custom MySpace web pages for local bands.

“We had [the farm], but we didn’t have a luxurious lifestyle, by any means,” she says. “[My parents] didn’t make a lot of money, so I was trying to save up for a nice digital camera. So I was doing design work for bands on Myspace, and getting paid like $75 or something for one layout. And I just kept doing that until I could buy this camera. It was like metal bands from Marietta. I don’t remember any of the names. The names are so weird, you know.”

Not like “Mattiel” or anything. Which is, by the way, her given name – her mom’s sister had a friend in Cape Cod with that name. “I’m named after somebody but I don’t know who that person really is,” she says. “I just know that very vague story.” Just don’t believe the Urban Dictionary definition that comes up if you Google it: “a person, usually female, who likes to take baths with a numerous amount of crayons.”

“My friend actually wrote that in high school as, like, a joke,” she confesses. “I think we were both like 13 at the time.”

It’s kind of appropriate, though, given her strong artistic streak. Moving to Atlanta when she was 18, she served a few semesters at Oglethorpe University and spent six months studying abroad in Brussels. Upon returning, she transferred to Georgia State University to study art. It wasn’t long before local email marketing firm MailChimp took her on as an intern, and as that steadily developed into a full-time design position, she left GSU in the dust. “I was already making portfolio work there [at MailChimp], so I didn’t really see a reason to continue and bust my ass at school.” She’s been at MailChimp four years now, doing what the design dept. over here at S&S calls stellar work.

“I don’t think that I have a distinct [visual] style developed yet,” she says. “But I like bright, blocky things. I like minimalism. I like balance… [Visual art and design] was my first [interest]. I never really thought I’d be able to do music.”

Oh yeah – music! We’re already more than a third of the way through the article and I haven’t even mentioned the whole reason for writing it! It’s just that, you know, there are so many different avenues of Mattiel’s mad skills. (Did I mention she also makes furniture?) But, yes… she’s a strikingly talented singer and lyricist, and through her association with Randy Michael, Jonah Swilley, Black Linen and their whole freshly retro InCrowd group, she’s developed admirers both local and beyond. Even in Fullerton, California, where the good folks at Burger Records (for all intents and purposes, the only label that matters anymore) (I mean that in the sense that they’re so focused, consistent and discerning) are issuing Mattiel’s self-titled debut album on September 29th, after teasing us a few months’ prior with her “Count Your Blessings”/“Whites of Their Eye” 7-inch. The twelve songs on the album are the exact same demos she wrote and recorded with Randy, Jonah and the gang back in 2014 and ’15.

It’s pretty fantastic stuff. If you’re familiar with the musicians involved, you won’t be shocked to know that there’s a solid, steeped-in-the-sixties garage/soul vibe happening. But don’t dismiss it as some stuck-in-the-past fashion show. Diving into these songs, you swiftly realize it’s far beyond that – and there’s a cinematic scope to the material that brings in elements of folk, blues, psych, punk and classic girl group pop. Mattiel’s voice is tough, commanding and brassy, her delivery precise, with a certain metropolitan tone that I can’t pinpoint any more specifically. It’s like she sounds simultaneously youthful and yet a woman of the world. There’s a cool, aloof mystery to it. Perhaps part of that is the reverb, which always adds a strange power. But the effect – the marriage of music, words and voice – is breathtaking and intoxicating.

She doesn’t come from a particularly musical family. It was more her parents old records that got her interested in singing and writing songs. The Monkees. The Rolling Stones. Peter, Paul & Mary. Psychedelic Lollipop by The Blues Magoos, a band her mom would go see a lot whenever they came through Detroit.

The first album Mattiel ever bought? “It was one of Cher’s newer, more modern albums. I mean, I still love Cher. I love her!”

She first encountered musician/songwriter/producer Randy Michael at the Starlight Six. “I don’t think I even met him there… I just saw [Randy’s old band] The Booze play at that Drive Invasion thing, with all the cars, and I met some of the Biters, through some friends that knew about them. I was like 17 years old. And I think I kept track of [The Booze] on Facebook, and then I saw that Randy moved to L.A., so we didn’t talk at all [until] he came back to Atlanta in 2014.

“I didn’t really know of anybody else in town doing the kind of music I wanted to do. It was all like shoegaze stuff, and I would go watch that, and it was cool to see it, but it wasn’t something I wanted to be making. I knew what I would want to do.

“I think we recorded a Donovan cover just to see… like, I really hadn’t professionally recorded myself much by that point, at all. So I didn’t even know what I was really able to do. But I had a feeling. I had a feeling I could do it. I had worked on it. I spent a lot of time with myself, haha!”

So they began coming up with songs together – Randy and fellow guitarist/songwriter Jonah Swilley (Black Linen, The Gartrells) writing the music, Mattiel penning the lyrics. “We’re in the same corner,” she says of their working arrangement. “We like a lot of the same things. [Randy] knows a lot more about rock ‘n’ roll and music history than I do. I mean, the library in his head is vastly more substantial than mine!” The first song she wrote with them, “Send It On Over,” is included on Mattiel. One of the starker tracks instrumentally, it’s eerie and powerful.

Though she may keep her guard up socially, many of the album’s songs are personal, inspired by people, events and situations in her life. But they’re ambiguous enough that they’re more intriguing than explicit.

“I find that subconscious things come to light, like if I’m paying a lot of attention particularly to, uh, an area of politics, or something current that’s going on that’s on my mind a lot, some of that will come forward [in songs],” the 24-year-old allows. “But I like to keep it somewhat vague. I don’t wanna beat somebody over the head with some idea. I like what Bob Dylan used to be able to do, by being able to say something direct without saying it directly.”

Certainly with the impending release of her album, there’s gonna significant touring involved, which is something Mattiel hasn’t yet experienced. (Burger, in fact, signed her sight unseen, without even catching a live show.) She says she looks forward to getting out on the road with Randy, Jonah and the band early next year, and sees it as no different than playing locally. I hope, at least, that the repetitiveness of it loosens her up as a performer. She tends to come across as stiff, unexpressive and uncomfortable onstage, which, combined with her distinctively dark Italian features and more masculine fashion sense, can be a bit off-putting to newcomers. She tells me she’s more at ease now than the last time I saw her perform (granted, probably over a year ago), but admits that “I’m not used to being the center of attention, and I don’t always know what to do with that… If anything, making myself sound the best I can sound is my primary focus. And once that becomes easier, then the social aspect of it will become easier.

“I like people,” she laughs, when I ask if she considers herself more of an introvert. “But I spend a lot of time at home. My partner Jason and I spend a lot of time together. And we don’t always have a lot of people over at our place. I don’t often like to go to parties. When I do, I enjoy it. I just don’t do it a lot. So, I think I try to keep things balanced. I’m really comfortable alone.”

Photo by Jason Travis.