By BRUCE DENNILL
Prettier Than Matt is a two-vocal, ukelele and guitar, folk and Americana-playing duo based in Columbia, South Carolina. Jessica Skinner, fan of Dolly Parton and other iconic country singers, and Jeff Pitts, Metallica and Bon Jovi enthusiast, share the singing, and the latter shares more details of his collective’s activities and inspirations.
You speak in another interview about the importance of “… treating yourself like you’re a big band”. Your music easily competes with the likes of Lady Antebellum on a songwriting (Anymore is a particularly strong single) and performance level, but your sales and fan/follower numbers don’t yet compete. How are you trying to make the numbers reflect the quality more accurately?
When I said that, I meant in relation to approach and preparation. I’m also a bit more traditional in that way, because these days the industry is a bit different – some bands put out videos for every single song. We are completely independent and we simply want to grow each year. We don’t have an expectation to match the numbers of a Lady Antebellum (though that would be nice). We just want to follow a process: record a CD, pick a single, make a video, push the song, release the CD and let it sell well in our local town, all the while touring it the best we can regionally and nationally as the year goes on.
What are the benefits of working the way you do – having the ability to go on large state or cross-country tours, having a strong YouTube presence, being able to play any kind of venue and all the rest of it – without having the hassle of label politics, gossip, getting mobbed by groupies and so on?
I won’t pretend being mobbed wouldn’t be fun – ha! But we essentially just have a job that we love. We get to tour as we wish, write as we wish, and so on, all while answering to no one. We have had a label offer, but it was a small label and it didn’t offer anything we weren’t capable doing with modern musician tools like CDbaby, digital records and just playing a lot of shows. We hope to grow the numbers on YouTube and our ultimate goal in 2017 is to get some music placement on film and TV. That’s “the dream” for me in 2017. Getting signed isn’t what it used to be when there was true artist development.
On the other hand, what are the challenges? How is income affected? Do you need to work other jobs? Any other issues?
We are both full time musicians. Jessica teaches voice at a Columbia music school called Freeway Music. I spent my time not playing managing the administrative side of our duo. I book, plan, work on our web presence – all of that. But neither of us have done other jobs in the last four years. Income is strong, and as long as we don’t take a step back, we are happy. We get to do any kind of show, from all originals to all covers, rock clubs to coffee shops, so the money is what we need it to be. Even on tour we pick up well-paid cover gigs at times to help pay for the hotel rooms.
The ukelele is not a common lead or high-profile instrument in popular music. What role does it play in the way you write your songs or arrange songs early in the production process?
They’re cute! You hear them in commercials a lot these days and we treat it no different than we would a rhythm guitar. That goes for live and recorded music. I do guitar work over it – leads and some rhythms – but we don’t have any tricks in the studio. We leave it as it is. Jessica does play a “drop G” tenor ukulele, which is a little warmer sounding than the typical ukulele sound you expect. When it comes to writing, some songs are inspired by the uke, like Anymore, and some by the guitar, like Taken Away.
Many forms of roots music – folk, country, gospel, Americana – have become fashionable again. That said, many mainstream charts don’t reflect the popularity of these genres (the Billboard Top 100 is packed with R&B and hip hop, for instance). Where do you think you fit into this landscape?
We fit in to pop, rock and country easily. It seems calling it Americana is the way to go, because it blends those styles successfully by definition. I think the singles market is long gone from rock, while country and pop fair a little better, but I believe these genres (on a mainstream level) keep up their popularity level wish album sales and tour numbers. Bon Jovi is on tour now and very few bands, singers and groups in the Billboard Top 100 will pull their numbers with tickets sold. Adele fills the arenas! Paramore sells a lot of records. Taylor Swift fills the arenas and stadiums. U2 and Metallica need no help with numbers. I have found it funny that hit singles don’t always reflect what people put money towards concert-wise.
What sort of interest have you had from outside the United States?
Honestly, not much yet. We want to reach out and get out of the US at some point, but financially it would be very difficult to do that right now. Hopefully people like this interview.
You count songwriters and some more intellectual talents among your influences – not artists who are necessarily middle of the road pop stars. What have you learned or taken from these people beyond perhaps a superficial similarity in musical taste and style?
I pay a lot of attention to bands I have always listened to live. I watch them onstage. We may be acoustic, by my performance inspiration comes from Eighties and Nineties rock. I wanna “rock out” basically. Ha! Don’t let the acoustic guitar fool you! I’ve always always paid attention to interviews and professionalism. If something is going wrong with a show, a recording, an interview, I want to make sure I’m not the problem. I want to be someone you can count on. I can’t speak for Jessica here, but I’d say she feels the same. And her love for Ingrid Michelson and Dolly Parton definitely comes through in her voice.
What about being an influence? Other than an appreciation of your music, what do you want people to take from listening to you?
Since we are more local and regional to the southeastern US, we only really see any influence here. I can’t say it’s much, but we have seen a lot of guy/girl duos around the past few years, yet when we started in 2010, they were few and far between. I believe ukuleles have become really popular in general, but I’m happy we got a head start on that trend, because Jessica was the first ukulele player I had ever seen on the local level. And since Jessica teaches, her influence is great with the kids she helps everyday. I’d love people to take the idea that hard work pays off and there is no formula that can’t rock! There is an Avett Brothers lyric in a song called Headful Of Doubt, Road Full Of Promise that says “Decide what to be and go be it.” The first time I heard that line, it changed my life and ever since, I’ve been what I want to be. Anyone can do that and it certainly isn’t a music thing.
Better Left Said has been described as the work of “… a mature songwriting duo with a true sense of what they want to say.” Do you agree with that assessment – is this where you’ve been aiming for?
Yes! We haven’t mastered the art of writing songs that don’t personally relate. We know what we want to say and each song comes from a real place. I’m happy to have read that!
Where to from here? How do you build on this collection and listeners’ appreciation of it?
I believe there is no better way to reach people that to play right in front of them. So we will continue to play our butts off regionally and also get out and tour here and there. The only new method we have been using is working to get placement, like I mentioned before. Our goal is to make a good living doing what we love. Any more than that and it’s an awesome plus. Little by little, I wanna reach every person in the world. That’s a tall task, but I’ll keep trying! We’d had success and we are successful when it comes to our goals. So we’re simply building on this.