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"...the main thing is that Matt Epp is simply one of the best of a generation of fine songwriters emerging in this country over the last decade or so, and carrying forward the torch of Canadian songwriting that goes back to Lightfoot, Mitchell, Young, Cohen and Cockburn. It’s what we’re really good at."
—Gary Cristall, Vancouver Folk Music Festival
There are geographies of darkness within each of us. Monstrous thunderclouds, black as pitch, gather and roll over vast Prairies; great lakes pulse and seethe and swell as their depths swallow up every ray of light that pierces their waves. It was into this psychic terrain that Matt Epp walked to harvest the lush, haunted Americana of Shadowlands—an unflinching portrait of the artist dropping his guard to explore and embrace his own twilight wilderness.
Shadowlands isn’t the end of a journey, but instead Epp’s first steps crossing the threshold, into a place from which he has no intention of turning back. It’s not the kind of trek you embark on without guides, and he’s got a swarm of winged familiars—ravens, falcons, and the great horned owl that rests tattooed on his chest—that soar alongside him. As the ghostly “Uncharted Waters” floats along, it touches on the true story of a spirit that Epp met in the woods years and years ago. All these characters are essential to the saga, not only manifesting in the slums and inner sanctums of Shadowlands, but also residing in the regions of Epp’s physical world. Geese return home on album centrepiece “North Country,” the song most evocative of his real life surroundings. It addresses the strain of time and place on a relationship, meditating on the trials of love as a translunary saxophone solo howls into space. The incendiary “Runaway” sparks the odyssey, as the voices rise above a relentless, driving groove and feral guitar solo, symbolizing the muses Epp has spent his life doggedly chasing, atop his road-worn motorcycle through storm after storm. The natural world, with all its connective tissue—peaks and valleys, rivers and streams, lush greenery and desolate wastelands—is a forceful presence from beginning to end.
It's Epp’s spellbinding songwriting gifts that tie the sonic landscapes and narrative of Shadowlands together, creating a country that shuts out cynicism at its borders and welcomes earnest swells of hope with open arms, even in its darkest moments. Bright, pulsing organ carries him through a house fire of heartache during the poignant, Ryan Adams-indebted country of “Hit The Ground;” he rages against social and environmental injustice in an acerbic, unadorned tone on the battle cry of “Unnatural,” recalling Neil Young’s pointed activist anthems; and courageously confronts God with the same spiritual fearlessness of The Man in Black over the dusty slink of “Mercy.” The corporeal helpers that brought Shadowlands into this world—a rogues gallery of world-class tune-slingers—managed the feat over some fateful spring nights nestled in the hills of Nashville, Tennessee at Dark Horse Recording, the birthplace of albums by Faith Hill, The Wailers, and Mastodon. With pedal steel magician Aaron Goldstein at the helm as producer, Epp’s award-winning songwriting is transformed, arriving with a more powerful force than it ever has before, and blazing a new path for its author.
Photo by Jen Squires