- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

If Matthew Sweet could fill out his own report card, it would read, “Does not work well with others.” These days Mr. Sweet, a solo artist who became an indie-pop favorite with 1991’s “Girlfriend,” is getting a crash course in teamwork.

His current side project, the Thorns, finds him as one-third of a harmonizing trio of singer/songwriters.

The Thorns — Mr. Sweet alongside Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins — released their first album in the spring and have been touring ever since in support. They recently re-released the album along with a second disc featuring acoustic versions of the album’s 13 cuts.

As a solo artist, “you get in this mind-set,” Mr. Sweet says in a phone interview in advance of the Thorns’ appearance tomorrow at the Birchmere in Alexandria. “Your world is the right thing. Some people are much more open about music. I’m such a loner normally. Being forced to be with others didn’t feel comfortable, but it was great for me.”

As the story goes, Mr. Mullins and Mr. Droge were noodling on guitars together earlier this year when Mr. Sweet’s manager caught wind of it. Mr. Sweet wanted someday soon to create a Mamas and the Papas-style side project, so he dropped in on his fellow singer/songwriters to get a feel for what they had in mind.

“I really wanna do three-part harmony and was really adamant about it,” Mr. Sweet says. The musicians experimented with a song Mr. Droge had called “I Set the World on Fire,” and “it was like the voices clicked,” he says. “We did look at each other and say, ‘Hmm.’”

The trio put aside their solo careers long enough to write the bulk of the album at a ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif., and later turned to producer Brendan O’Brien to help them record it for Columbia Records.

“It was a shocker how fast it all happened,” says Mr. Sweet, whose group toured in recent weeks with both John Mayer and the Dixie Chicks.

The finished album won’t wallpaper over the Crosby, Stills and Nash legacy, but it’s instantly endearing, and the harmonizing proves as enchanting as advertised.

“The effect of doing the harmonies all the time, that’s really been what’s kept it alive and us invested in it,” says Mr. Sweet, whose pop song craft stands in contrast to his colleagues’ rootsier approach. Still, his soaring voice often rises above the collective sound.

“When we play it for even small groups of people, it has this kind of effect on people,” he says. “I wasn’t so sure [about the project]. Was this what I want to do right now? But it’s hard to turn away from it.”

The Thorns project came along for Mr. Sweet just when his career needed it. The singer/songwriter’s ties to the Zoo/Volcano label expired with the release of 2000’s “Time Capsule: The Best of Matthew Sweet,” and the singer’s record sales have dwindled since his heady “Girlfriend” days. Worse, his last major new release, 1999’s “In Reverse,” proved the least accessible disc of his career.

The Nebraska native’s next career steps represent a combination of daring and reality. Next month he’ll release domestically under his own label an album originally recorded for Japanese fans. “It makes me laugh. It’s so Johnny Appleseed,” he says of the approach.

Mr. Sweet figured, at this stage in his career, he might find a place somewhere between the major labels and the independent ones where new musicians’ careers take root.

Change is in the air for the industry, he senses. It just hasn’t happened yet.

“Music is getting squeezed out, you can tell it has to change,” he says. “It’s gotten so narrow what gets on commercial radio.”

“Everyone’s having to find other ways,” says Mr. Sweet, who counts himself lucky that both VH1 and Country Music Television picked up the Thorns’ “I Can’t Remember.”

Don’t expect any departures tomorrow from the group’s three-part harmonizing. In concert, the Thorns avoid breaking out into solo sets.

Once the current tour wraps next month, though, it’s back to Mr. Sweet’s loner ways.

“It’s really given me a new kind of energy on my solo stuff,” says Mr. Sweet, who recorded his next album, due in 2004, while recording with The Thorns.a

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide