By Margaret Hedderman
There’s a point when the search for new music feels like combing sand with a bulldozer. The internet, in all its diverse and uncensored glory, generally produces a list of Top 40 hits about as fascinating as what you’d find with that bulldozer. When the lucky listener happens upon an audio treasure, I can only liken the experience to how it must have felt discovering a rare album at the record store (poodle skirt, bobby socks and all!) Fortunately for me, I’ve known this new find since the old days of Cimarron High.
So many acoustic singer-songwriters embody pretension as their sole virtue – to the point of melodrama. Not so for Mathias Olson. His voice, gravelly, raw and unpampered, is as genuine and honest as the grassy plains of his hometown in New Mexico. Thus far his work has been available only on YouTube in the form of self-recorded videos from his home in Denver. But through these videos, we see a down to earth, honest singer-songwriter who throws open the door and lets us in for good conversation and a beer.
He picked up a guitar at the age of ten and began picking out Nirvana and 90s pop covers. When his stepfather taught him the chords of Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven, Olson “played that song so many times that to this day [his stepfather] still can’t listen to it.”
Through high school, Olson played in a garage band with two of his best friends. Even back then, there was a bit of that traveling troubadour in their act. After busking in school hallways during the lunch hour, Latrine (as they were so eloquently named then) went on the road, playing on benches in Berkeley, beaches in San Diego. Out of that trip came several new band names and a set list of popular songs still requested at performances today.
Olson now plays largely by himself at open mic nights and occasionally at Leela’s, a 24-hour bar and café in downtown Denver. When I asked him recently how he felt his music has progressed over the years, he responded:
“Well, I feel it’s the same for most songwriters and musicians. You always feel like the last song you wrote is your best one. I know that’s how I am anyway. My writing over the years and playing has continuously improved. I first wrote teenage songs full of angst and hormonal emotions. Then I wrote a bunch of songs about drinking and feeling sorry for myself. Now, I write songs about faith, or lack of faith, and… autobiographical reflections on my life. Sometimes I think of a scenario and just write about that (i.e. I wrote a song about someone’s house burning down and losing everything including their child.) I know that’s pretty depressing stuff, but hey people love tragedies for some reason.”
That sort of laissez-faire, hey whatever, attitude is perhaps what makes Olson so approachable, whether you know him or not. At the beginning of his videos, Olson generally opens with a story – as though he was playing around a table full of friends. And that’s part of his appeal. He addresses his listeners as though they’re his friends, not his fans.
I’ve seen him play maybe once, twice at most, a year since graduating high school. Every performance marks an evolution in material and style. Mathias is constantly experimenting – now introducing new instruments: mandolin, banjo, and harmonica. Currently, he is recording a new album in his Denver apartment. You might not be decked out in poodle skirts and bobby socks, but be sure to expect a little bit of that record store joy when its released!