Matt Scannell is best known as the lead singer and songwriter for Vertical Horizon, the modern pop band who gave us such hits as ”Everything You Want,” “Best I Ever Had (Grey Sky Morning)” and “I’m Still Here.” But as we discovered when we talked to him at ASCAP’s Music Café at the Sundance Film Festival, Scannell’s got a lot more going on.
He played two shows at the Café, a solo gig and one with his close friend and musical collaborator, Richard Marx. The two start a new tour together later this spring and their second album together, a live set recorded in St. Charles, Ill., comes out soon.
Scannell told us why it’s always a good day when he’s working with “Bad Day” singer Daniel Powter (whom Billboard named the biggest one-hit wonder of the 2000s) and how Vertical Horizon is somewhat responsible, in however small a way, for Scannell’s hero Neil Peart’s return to Rush.
Q: You and Richard Marx also plan to put out a third electric album together, following the forthcoming live set and the previous set, which highlighted some of your individual works. What’s going on with you two?
A: The bottom line is we really love hanging out together. He lives in Chicago and I live in L.A. We just thought we’d just get together and play a show so we could go out and have dinner or go see a movie, just hang out together, but it’s really taken off. People are really enjoying the shows, which is wonderful. He’s still doing his records and they’re very much his priority and I’m very much part of Vertical Horizon. This is something that’s a complete joy. All the stuff that can slow people down, all the logistics when you travel with a band [and] crew…this is totally easy and fun, every bit of it is fun.
Q: What have you learned about songwriting from him?
A: I’ve learned so much about melody from him. He’s such an effortless singer and I’m not, it’s something I have to work a lot harder at, and so when he comes up with a melody, they’re very often things that I wouldn’t think of. He’s such an incredibly proficient keyboard player that he comes up with changes that are not guitar player type changes. I feel like every time that we sit down; it's like a graduate school class in songwriting.
Q: Rush’s Neil Peart is on Vertical Horizon’s new album, “Burning the Days.” I read an article that said you helped him return to music after he lost his daughter and wife within a few months of each other in 1997. How so?
A: I read that too. I have to say that that article probably overstated that. I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination that I was the one to convince Neil Peart to get back into music and go back with the band Rush, but I do know that Neil has told me, and it’s a very moving thing for me, that “Everything You Want” was one of the songs he heard on the radio during a very difficult time in his life that allowed him to believe there was something in music that he could connect to and would inspire him to get back into playing music again.
Q: How did that make you feel?
A: Awesome is a word that gets overused, but that really was awesome. Rush was my favorite band growing up. It was epically huge for me to meet him and for us to become friends. We talk all the time and send emails back and forth and are always visiting each other. He’s a super guy. I love him so dearly.
Q: Speaking of tragedies, a few years ago, Gary Allan had a top 10 country hit with a cover of “Best I Ever Had (Grey Sky Morning)” after his wife committed suicide. Is someone covering your song the best compliment a songwriter can have?
A: Oh yeah, it was lovely, but under tragic circumstances. So every time I talk about Gary’s version, I have to kind of say I’m sorry he had to sing the song. I’m sorry he connected with it, but it was the right song for him at that moment and I’m honored by that.
Q: Do you have other covers of your songs that you’re partial too?
A: Sometimes I’ll go on to You Tube and listen and you hear these people who are just totally sitting in their bedroom playing the song and that’s pretty moving to me…someone over in Asia sitting down with their guitar playing one of my songs. I grew up in Worchester, Mass. And I picked up my guitar in my bedroom and I was playing Rush songs and J. Geils songs and Simon & Garfunkel and James Taylor and to think of somebody across the world doing something like that with my music is very humbling and I’m very grateful to that.
Q: Are you interested in working with other artists?
A: I’m doing that. I’m working with Daniel Powter right now on his new record and I’m producing an artist named Alissa Moreno, who wrote a Rascal Flatts song called “Every Day” with Jeff Steele. So yeah, I’m doing lots of work with other artists and I love it. Getting out and going on a tour bus for three or four months at a time is a difficult life and I could see, at some point, devoting more time to production and working with other artists.
Q: Tell me more about working with Daniel Powter.
A: Daniel has this incredible melodic sense. He’s a really great piano player who comes up with these really cool changes and then, sometimes, has a little bit of when he’s connecting with a lyric, he tends to be a little more scattered on it. He was just trying to find someone who could help him connect some dots. It’s not a really active role that I have to play with him because the sentiment is coming from him. I think that’s crucially important because if you’re going to go out on the road, I know this better than anybody, if you’re going to go out on the road for 200 days a year, you need to sing a song that comes from inside of you. I think we have five or six new songs that we’re putting together for his new record and we’ll see.
Q: Does the new record sound like “Bad Day?”
A: I think there are some songs that move away from “Bad Day,” not in a reactionary way, but he has a wide range of music that he loves so it’s not like he’s trying to run away from song. There are many different sides to his musical personality, but there are definitely some moments that resonate more like “Bad Day” did.