Nashville country duo Striking Matches talk working with T-Bone Burnett, new album Nothing But The Silence, and Takamine guitars.
Dynamic guitar duo Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmerman of Striking Matches are the new kids on the alt-country block. The Nashville-based pairing proffers propulsive guitars and songs which are infused by rock, blues and a bit of country. Their debut album Nothing But The Silence expands on the promise of the music first featured in TV show Nashville (the duo contributed many numbers throughout the series over the last few years). They’ve played the legendary Grand Ole Opry more than a dozen times and garnered critical praise on their maiden trip to the UK to appear at 2014’s Country 2 Country Festival (they also appeared at 2015’s event).
Acoustic spoke to the earnest and savvy 27-year-olds as they were promoting the new release. With a ubiquitous buzz surrounding the compelling album and the wildly positive reception to Striking Matches as a live unit, the band is well on the way to stardom.
Tell us where you’re from and how you two met.
Justin: Sarah is from outside of Philadelphia and I’m from just north of Atlanta, Georgia.
Sarah: We met at university in Nashville where we both were attending as guitar majors. It was the first week of school and we were both in our “guitar seminar” class, which is basically where all of the guitar majors get together and nerd out on guitar stuff. At the time no one really knew each other.
Justin: Sarah and I both had just moved to town and so we knew no one. The deal was that in order to introduce ourselves to the rest of the class, we had to pair up with one of the other first year students (a complete stranger) and improvise something on the spot in front of the upperclassmen. Sarah was the only girl in the class at the time and I remember no one in the room full of boys wanting to be paired up with “the girl.” Sure enough though, I was paired up with Sarah and I asked her, “Do you know any blues?” Of course never having heard her play before I wasn’t aware that she’d been playing blues basically her whole life. So she pulled out her slide and made pretty much everyone’s jaw drop, including mine. We ended up getting a gracious applause out of the class and the teacher. It was really apparent that there was just “something” there when we played together. So from then we began working together.
Who are the people who influenced your guitar playing?
Sarah: Growing up, I listened to a lot of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Chicago, Steely Dan, John Mayer; all kinds of different stuff. When I started getting into country music, I fell in love with the Dixie Chicks. I’m also a huge Patsy Cline fan – she’s my favourite! I think our music definitely reflects our influences. It’s fun because we have so many different influences from different genres that we like to play around with them all. One day we’ll write a country-rock tune, the next a folksy singer-songwriter type duet, and maybe the next day a country swing song. We’re always trying to break out of the box a little bit, so tapping into some of those influences really helps.
Justin: I was into country music from the start as my folks listened to it. My influences always tended to be guitar players such as Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Vince Gill, Lindsey Buckingham, Django Reinhardt, and Richard Thompson. I also got into classic rock like the Eagles, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Country always had my heart and soul though. The songwriting and subject matters of country music always hit home and reached me the most.
Sarah: Guitar-wise, Joni Mitchell for me was huge because of her crazy alternate tunings. I also love James Taylor and ditto for Richard Thompson.
Justin: We also want to give a shout out to Colin Linden who is a Nashville session guy and old school blues player. He’s great and is huge influence for us.
Do you always do your songwriting together?
Sarah: You know what, every song is so different. Sometimes one of us will have a lyrical idea, and the other will come up with a musical idea to go with it, or the other way around. Sometimes we’ll be in a room with a third person and come up with something out of thin air that day. Everything we’ve written has been at least the two of us, but sometimes with one other person.
Justin: Sometimes we’ll start with a jam or a melody that one of us will have in our head and then we’ll work up from there. Other songs will come from a lyric idea that we can’t get out of our heads.
Sarah: ‘Trouble Is As Trouble Does’ started out as an acoustic guitar lick and then we both worked on it to get it where it is now.
Justin: We love writing with other people, but something different always happens when we write as just the two of us. We tend to be able to go to different places because we can write a song based around a jam that we might’ve played one time in a show when we were just “riffing” off each other.
What guitars do you play?
Sarah: We both play Takamine. My main guitar is a TAN45C model – it’s my workhorse. Justin uses an ETN 70C which I don’t think they make anymore. We play different parts, so mine has a different tone to it.
Justin: Sarah’s sound is rounder than mine. Mine is a little bit sharper so that we sound different. We have different sounding guitars both acoustically and electrically. We both are collectors now and we have a number of Takamine instruments. My brother-in-law made me a guitar from scratch that is a prized possession of mine – I only play it at home.
What alternate tunings do you use?
Sarah: On one of the songs ‘Never Gonna Love Again’, Justin tunes down a half step and I play a lot of funky tunings. I play slide on that which kind of makes you play more open tunings.
What was it like working with T-Bone Burnett as your producer for Nothing But The Silence?
Sarah: He’s very laid back; he doesn’t dictate. We had the arrangements pretty much set in place before we even went in to make the record. There are a couple that were new, but most of the songs we’d been playing live for so long, we knew what we wanted to do with them and where we wanted them to go. ‘Never Gonna Love Again’ went through some big changes. We’d made a demo of it, so I had the rhythm and the feel of it in my head. T-Bone wanted to take it somewhere else; the word he used was “tribal”. I just remember sitting in the studio during the middle of tracking, shaking my head and thinking, “This is so wrong. I hate this.” But when we got up and went in the control room and listened to it, it was a different story. I loved it! From the time it took to go from the main room to the control room, I completely changed my tune
Justin: It was a little scary at first when you hear where he wanted to go with it and when it all made sense, it felt really great. T-Bone is someone who you can trust and his experience brings him the respect that he so deserves. If he makes a suggestion, you just know that it’s going to be worth doing. We learned that, obviously.
Did you write at all in the studio with T-Bone?
Justin: We had written most of it beforehand but we moulded it in the studio. We’ve worked with a lot of great writers like Hunter Hayes and Bonnie Baker. So we do write with other people. Thankfully, we were all on the same page throughout which was lucky and we had a good rapport with him.
Any challenges thus far that you’ve had to overcome in terms of being in the music business?
Justin: We always have tried to be different and within the industry, being different can sometimes be scary to people. But we trusted ourselves because we were having fun and audiences were getting it. We always wanted to stay true to ourselves so that has been one of the biggest challenges.
Finding your voices as songwriters must be a learning curve over the past five years as Nashville is pretty conservative…
Justin: It’s tricky to be different there and we’d be asked to play fewer guitars on songs or to keep our songs shorter, but we stuck to our guns and we had the right people in our corner supporting us. If we didn’t have that, I don’t know what we would’ve done.
Your music is multi-genre, are you getting radio play on different types of format?
Sarah: We didn’t set out to make a one-genre record; we were just going for whatever format we could reach – we’re up for anything.
What inspires you to write?
Sarah: We listen to all kinds of stuff musically – lots of old stuff which is very inspiring.
Justin: Lyrically, life experiences we’re going through or the issues that our friends are dealing with inspire us.
‘Trouble Is As Trouble Does’ illustrates your sublime fingerpicking talents.
Sarah: I remember sitting down in my room with my acoustic guitar and I had written that line on ‘Trouble Is As Trouble Does’ – all of a sudden, I just started playing the riff. I don’t know where it came from, but I had a capo on the third fret, and there it was. I played it for Justin and he loved it. It became the song that starts our shows, and it kicks off the record.
Justin: It’s become a nice introduction to who we are. It’s us both going at it on this one lick; we start playing it in unison and then I go up an octave. We’ve tried to see how fast we can play it – sometimes it gets pretty crazy.
Do you both play the mandolin?
Sarah: Yeah, we both do but I played it on the record.
Did you two play most of the instruments yourselves on the album?
Sarah: Yeah, it was basically just the two of us playing everything except one song where T-Bone hopped in on acoustic guitar – that was great.
Do you have any practical advice for budding songwriters and performers?
Justin: Any chance that you’ve got to perform, do it. Play anywhere you can. Don’t worry if it’s in an empty place because just being onstage as often as you can is experience. The more you play, the more live experience you have, and the better you get.
Striking Matches’ Nothing But The Silence is out on now.