“Suddenly, there’s a brand new Steinway B in my studio. I’m hearing colors I’ve never heard before, and it feels like anything is possible.”
Steinway Artist Matt Rollings discusses what he's learned from the many legends he's worked with over the course of his illustrious career as a pianist, composer, arranger and producer. In his interview with Soundboard producer/host Ben Finane — Editor in Chief at Steinway’s award-winning online music magazine listenmusicculture.com — Rollings reveals how he remains in service of the song.
On stage playing piano, behind the board producing, or alongside an artist writing songs, Matt Rollings staunchly subscribes to a philosophy that powers all aspects of his creativity and has led him to become a multi-platinum, GRAMMY® Award-winning producer, pianist, and songwriter.
“My philosophy about music has three facets,” he affirms. “Mastery, innovation, and service. Mastery is the craft. It’s what I know how to do. Innovation involves the chances and risks I’m willing to take. Service is self-explanatory. Everything I do has to be in this spirit. If I’m producing or playing, I’m in service of the artist I’m working with. My job is to lift them up. If I’m an artist, my job is, ultimately, to be in service of the audience.”
This approach serves him well. The sought-after piano virtuoso’s performance discography spans thousands of recordings. These range from Eric Clapton, Lyle Lovett, Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, and Queen to Metallica, The Dixie Chicks, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Mavis Staples, Sheryl Crow, and more. In the producer’s chair, Matt uses his innovative approach to great effect. His work has been met both with critical acclaim and commercial success, with credits including Willie Nelson’s GRAMMY®-winning Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s GRAMMY®-nominated The Age of Miracles, Keith Urban’s multi-platinum self-titled breakthrough opus, and the Edwin McCain Band’s multi-platinum Misguided Roses.
“As an instrument, piano is the whole world to me. The landscape is all laid out.”
In many ways, his instrument speaks for him and has done so since he discovered it during childhood. “As an instrument, piano is the whole world to me,” he explains. “The landscape is all laid out. The piano covers so much musical ground. It can at once be an orchestra, a boogie-woogie band, or the smallest of lullabies…. It’s everything.” The piano also ignited his career. The budding impresario had a major breakthrough when Lyle Lovett enlisted Matt’s talents for his 1986 eponymous debut. Matt has played on all of Lyle’s recordings since, and they’ve enjoyed a collaborative partnership and friendship that exceeds 33 years and includes touring as well as co-composing the score for Robert Altman’s film, Dr. T & The Women.
Within the Nashville scene, he is established as a sought-after collaborator whose unique voice graces numerous landmark releases. Continually recognized by the industry, the Academy of Country Music (ACM) notably awarded him “Pianist/Keyboardist of the Year” ten times (1991-1998, 2002, and 2007).
2018 represented further evolution for Matt. In addition to touring with Alison Krauss and producing Blues Traveler’s anxiously awaited thirteenth offering, Rollings also snagged two more GRAMMY® nominations for his work producing Willie Nelson’s My Way: Willie Nelson Sings Sinatra (Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album and Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals for the track “It Was A Good Year”). 2019 will bring Matt’s highly-anticipated solo album MOSAIC, which will showcase his mastery not only as a pianist and arranger, but also as a producer with collaborators Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, John Hiatt, and more.
“My life in music is really a mosaic of sorts,” Matt says with a smile. “As a musician, I sit at the piano and try to coax beauty out of wood and wire, as a producer I join with singer and song to help make something bigger than both, and as an arranger, I look for some hidden truth in the music, a path of more or less. Mosaic is a conversation between all these parts of my musical life.”
In the end, Matt’s devotion to mastery, innovation, and service makes for an enduring connection with each show and song. “To me, music is all about feeling,” he leaves off. “Yes, it involves craft and intellect, but it ultimately has to have feeling. That’s how I communicate to the world. It comes down to authenticity.”