For as long as I can remember I have been creative. I was born in Watsonville, California to Barbara and Kenneth Gray and grew up in Santa Cruz County. I am a third child. I attended Holy Cross School and Westlake School in Santa Cruz, and there is at least one moment I remember as being important in discovering my passion for creativity. A friend of mine in Miss Rogers’ class, Brad Norton, was assigned to work with me for a puppet show. We collaborated on a character and it was a success. I am sure this experience is always in the back of my mind as I collaborate with others.
I started with cartooning and graduated to taking art lessons from Linda Webb (painting), Amateur Video Production while helping out at a store called Bay Video while attending Moreland Notre Dame. I studied Photography at Aptos High as a Freshman in Gordon Leighton’s class but my Grandfather, F.W. Gray taught me a little bit as well about the art.
At Watsonville High, I was an all-arounder. My parents owned Gray’s Hallmark in Watsonville, so I would work there on the weekends and especially during the holidays. While in the store, I would admire the greeting cards and I think it just naturally came to me to start focusing on my writing.
During my Junior Year, the school put on a Musical Production called “Standing Room Only,” and I did a Jimmy Durante solo. The song I sang was “Inka Dinka Doo,” and I researched it more for my U.S. History class with Miss Thompson. She agreed to let me perform the song in the class during my presentation. Those were fun times.
I focused on Journalism as I was Opinion Editor for the school paper called “Catztales”. I played competitive tennis all 4 years of High School and later a year at Cabrillo College. I participated in other extra-curricular activities, Mock Trial and Model United Nations. I was even Football Homecoming Chairperson in the Fall of 1986.
I was writing poems earlier as a teen, but I tended to like writing verse poetry rather than modern, deep free form (At Cabrillo, I was encouraged to keep a free form poetry journal and did so for the class). Because of my love of songs, songwriters and music in all forms, I took to writing song lyrics and stuck with it. I remember really studying people like Neil Diamond, John Denver, and many then-current songs. Our house was always filled with music and I soaked it all in. My brother Russ listened to a lot of Hard Rock while Jeff, my middle brother listened to New Wave & lighter fare. I watched a lot of MTV and enjoyed the music of the day.
Songs that I listened to were not just popular songs. I listened to Novelty as a kid. These were the songs I really found fun and creative. Dad had a variety of favorite writers, but he had a fondness for Tom Lehrer, who worked up at UCSC as a Mathematics Professor but also taught a Musical Theatre class. Tom’s lyrics were witty and I learned a lot from his style of writing. A more modern parody writer I enjoyed was “Weird Al” Yankovic. I would later meet Al at a They Might Be Giants/Young Fresh Fellows show at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, CA.
I took an ROP Graphic Arts class at Harbor High School, then when that class ended, I ended up in Creative Writing class taught by Jim Weir where I decided to write a book of poetry as a special project. A fellow student, Jonathan Fesmire, encouraged that and showed me his Novella entitled “Open Your Eyes” that he had been working on, thus started my friendship with him. I was also getting various poems published in Catztales at this time.
Jonathan Fesmire invited me to write songs with his group of friends who I had seen around and soon enough, myself, Jon & Anthony Fesmire and Chris & Phil Harrington were all writing together. When Chris was a Senior, Watsonville High School shut down a play he was going to be in called “One Trick Pony,” which led to him discover a new idea brewing in him… “I got it, we’ll write a play!” which turned into a musical entitled “Stop Running Away!”
To be fair, it wasn’t totally written by students. Jon was in a Script Writing class at Cabrillo College and I was just invited to participate in the show more as a lyricist. Thus, this was my first real experience working in not only a band but writing lyrics that others would sing. From that moment on, I was hooked.
Above Photo: Singing in Stop Running Away, 1988.
My father was involved in Freedom Rotary and I applied to be a Summer Exchange Student in 1988. In my application, I noted that my goal in life was to be a Professional Songwriter. This is my first memory of writing it down as something I really wanted to accomplish in my life. I worked on a song with Barbara Buday who had been staying in Northern California as an Exchange Student from Hungary and a bunch of us sang the song we wrote in front of the Rotary Convention in the San Jose area. I stayed in Liege, Belgium with the Collard Family. It was a wonderful, enriching experience.
I wrote a song for my brother Russ Gray’s wedding that I performed at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church called “The Marriage (Russ and Lori’s Song)” which was my first official recording studio experience. I got the idea to write the song for their wedding from Kenny Loggins, who I read did the same thing for his brother. I’ll never forget laying down the tracks for the song with the producer that day we recorded it. That was such a great experience!
I would eventually join ASCAP and the Northern California Songwriters Association (which seems to be West Coast Songwriters now). I remember going to an ASCAP special event with my Aunt Donna Sargent in Los Angeles, CA. We stayed at the Beverly Hilton. Something I will never forget is seeing all the Songwriters perform their own songs. Legends like Sammy Cahn, Steve Allen, Smokey Robinson and many, many others. It was a magical night to share with my Aunt and I am very grateful to her for taking me along.
Anthony Fesmire and I won a special prize one night for performing one of our songs. Anthony, while he was at Berklee eventually arranged one of the other songs called “Encore,” which he turned into a regal, almost ROYAL theme. I loved that arrangement and have it on cd somewhere.
In June of 1992, I moved down to Los Angeles to pursue a Music Business career. I attended Trebas Institute of Recording Arts in the Penthouse floor of 6464 Sunset Blvd, and it was quite an adventure! Ex-Arista Records A&R Executive Ritch Esra (now Owner of Music Business Registry) taught me so much about the business and he was definitely one of the main people I looked up to when I was there. Other teachers like music veteran Steve Shore and especially the Songwriting/Music Publishing Guru John Braheny had taken me under their wings.
During my Second Term, I got an internship with Sony Music in the Epic Records Media Relations Dept under Director Julie Farman. Epic’s top artist at the time was Michael Jackson, but a new band that my friend Eileen Chauvet had told me just hit and that band? Pearl Jam! There would be a new band on the Epic label named Rage Against The Machine – and THOSE guys were so powerful and so great. Ann Glenn (who has since gone on to a great industry career) and I worked hard on that media campaign for Rage’s debut cd where we blasted out those press packs to everyone in the business.
My internship with Epic came to a close, and I ended up working as a Temp through London Services based on other people’s recommendation as the one that Sony Music used at the time. I worked as a Temp for one of the best Creative Directors ever, Bobby Colomby, who had been involved in my favorite Jazz singer/songwriter’s career and that person was Harry Connick, Jr. I asked Bobby while I was there if he would listen to my demo. He agreed, but he was quite hesitant about my work. I realize now, I probably broke a major rule in Temphood, but I took that shot. At least I tried.
After that, I got another internship with NARAS – The Grammys Host Committee (under Liz Heller) and soon enough, I was attending Industry work breakfasts and making contacts. But something slipped inside of me and in a panic due to many things going on all at once, I drove home in the middle of a really bad rainstorm when our water was disconnected on Harvard Street in Santa Monica.
I never completed my studies at Trebas Institute in Hollywood, but they soon closed so I never got to go back there. They asked me to, but it all just seemed like I needed to get to work. Steve Shore had mentioned in my Artist Management class about how what impressed industry folks is people who just did the work. So I went to work.
My first job back home was at Pizza Hut as a delivery driver with Chris Harrington. He soon left and I drifted in and out of jobs for several years.
Phil Harrington and I started writing songs for a project we initially called “funfolk” but eventually we decided on “Matt & Phil’s Band.” A video I put together for one of our songs, “Overcast” is here. When I was living in Los Angeles the second time, I found out that my Father-In-Law’s cousin is Carol Farhat from Fox. I sent her one of the demo cd’s that I put together of some of our songs and she did listen to the demo. She said to just keep doing what we were doing. That was quite encouraging of her and I never forgot her for those kind words. As we explored our options with the songs, we also drifted into other avenues.
Above video: “Love On My Mind,” a song Barbara Lopez and I co-wrote as performed by Vocalist Elise Everett, Barbara Lopez, and her Jazz Combo band on KPIG in Watsonville, CA.
Barbara Lopez, a piano composer at Cabrillo College, started writing songs with me because we were introduced through Anthony Fesmire. While the collaboration did not last, a few of our songs remain. A different video I put together on YouTube for one of our songs, “Love on my Mind” is here.
Phil eventually worked with many bands along the way as a drummer and songwriter. His latest project I’m pretty excited to promote here is Purcella & Pixie Media.
Eventually, we didn’t necessarily part ways, but we have kept our options open, thus me striking out as a writer and trying to get something strong going as a lyrics and melody specialist.
In 2002, I was living with my wife Melanie in Silverlake and she encouraged me to go forward with my music and songwriting, so I attended Songsalive! to attempt to regain what I lost and met up with Ritch Esra there. I met a whole new group of Singer/Songwriters and participated in a Songwriting Camp and it was so fun. I played a song and got feedback on it. Some loved it, some didn’t, but it felt good to be going in a direction that aligned with my music goals.
The awesome ASCAP writer Lisa Aschmann (Nashville Geographic) and I wrote a song together called “I Couldn’t Agree With You More,” but it has not been demoed yet. She sent me a cassette back as a scratch demo. You can listen to it here.
Writing lyrics, to me, is being like my Grandma, Jenne P. Gray, in the chair by her old fireplace mantel in the family cabin in LaPorte, CA to work on her USA Today Crossword Puzzle or crochet a blanket. She no longer is there, but it is vivid in my memory and as I sit here in my front room and work on the latest lyric, I think of her and that focus.
I think of my Grandfather, F.W. Gray who played his guitar and banjo in a combo group during the Depression Era, and who was a strong influence to me to research the older songwriters. We would sit around a campfire in front of the cabin and just enjoy life, singin’ Old Country & Western songs and he sang a song called “Jack Ass Blues,” that we found out later he didn’t write. He had a stack of old sheet music that I poured through and really learned about song structure and lyrics, and when I started researching old songwriters like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin and many others, I found my passion in life. writing songs that people would enjoy.
My end goal has always been writing songs that people would enjoy. Since lyric writing is my specialty, my crutch is depending on others to bring in the theory and work with me on the arranging of my musical ideas. This is changing, I am looking at ways to increase my musical knowledge to include being able to write the music to go with my vast amounts of lyrics that I come up with regularly.
Thanks to Janet Berry Landrum’s suggestions, I have been a Writer Member of BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc). since 1994 and since I’ve created a Music Publisher Company Name with ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers) called “Grandma’s Mantel Music,” so my idea is to move over to ASCAP in the Spring of 2018. But I figured out for myself is not to wait until 2018 to make my dream happen.
Writing lyrics now is really important to me, getting stuff down now is a key part of my life, presently. Life is too damn short to wait around for others to make it happen for me, I gotta do what I gotta do as Garth Brooks once sang.
My father, Kenneth D. Gray was a strong influence in my life. As a Life Coach, he coached people from all walks of life to excel and push themselves to be the best that they could be. He always wished that I could have success in business while he was alive and so did I. He passed away from cancer in August, 2016. Before he passed away, I told him I was in the process of getting my music widely heard on Spotify. I told him of a few projects I had been working on and that was my way of just letting him know I was going for it!
Everybody needs a cause or two they’d like to see get as much funding as possible. I’ve listed three in my Essential Links section: American Cancer Society & The Make a Wish Foundation in honor of Dad. The last one, The Andy Vargas Foundation, has a special memory attached to the reason.
Andy Vargas had approached me when he was still at Watsonville High School while I was at Trebas. Gary Rojas introduced us with the thought I might be able to get his demo tape within Sony.
I gave Andy’s demo tape to a man named “Reese,” within Epic Records and while they weren’t quite ready for Andy, he still got discovered. It was through a chance meeting that his mother Diana had with Carlos Santana at his bank (where she worked at the time) that perked Santana’s ears.
Carlos brought Andy into the Santana Family as a singer, he became a standout within the touring band and he created the Andy Vargas Foundation which provides mentorship to inner city youth. I am very proud of Andy and happy to promote his cause here.
These days, I have been submitting songs to American Songwriter contests and looking for ways to get my music out there. I feel if I am going to write songs, I will make sure they are put out into the universe.
Something I wanted to add here is that I am open and looking forward to collaborating with others. It would be ideal if it’s someone who is a composer/songwriter and is actively writing and recording new material. Please contact me if you are interested in collaborating! Looking forward to hearing from you!
Also, if you’d like to connect with me on Facebook, please do so!
I currently reside in Bloomington-Normal, IL with my wife Melanie and our two beautiful daughters, Grace Marie and Annie Jean. If the stars align, I could see us moving down to Nashville so we can enjoy the fruits of my labor. Heck, maybe Melanie might even enjoy it down there on Music Row!
Matthew Kenneth Gray (mkgray69)