The heartache behind Vertical Horizon's breakout 1999 record Everything You Want? helped the group tear up the charts with hits like title track “Everything You Want,” and “You’re a God.” But nearly 20 years later, the group is no longer dwelling on the sorrows of the past: After decades of self-imposed misery, frontman Matt Scannell's sluggish journey to harnessing happiness has produced the group’s brightest record yet.
Even so, the optimism on the album, titled The Lost Mile, isn't necessarily something Scannell and Co. were hoping for when going into making it.
“A lot of these songs are love letters and glass-is-half-full songs, and I don’t feel particularly comfortable with that,” Scannell admits. “I have an inherent dislike for snappy, happy, the-world-is-great songs because I think reality is never black or white -- it’s always a shade of gray. So, if you tell me everything’s perfect, I’ll call you on it, and I don’t want to be the guy who then turns around and makes a shiny, happy record. But at the same time, I’ve learned not to manufacture the emotions that inspire my songs and that if I’m in a good place, to honor that. If I’m not heartbroken, I don’t want to artificially insert myself into that place.”
Scannell suggests that given the choice between being happy and unhappy in previous years, he'd choose unhappy simply because he found it easier to write songs when he was down. “[I was] blowing up relationships, thinking, ‘Things are really good, I gotta break up now,’ or, ‘How can I do something bad that will bring drama in?’" he recalls. "Now I realize songwriting’s important, but not that important. If I can be happy, I want to be happy -- it sounds trite, but it’s true. I’m happier than I’ve ever been and more comfortable in my own skin and as a writer.”
Naturally, part of Scannell’s newfound joy and somewhat reluctant switch from songs hooked on hurt and heartache to stories of hope and love, is love itself. Having endured divorce, these days the 48-year-old Massachusetts native is thrilled to have found a partner who compassionately grapples the often perilous life of a musician.
“I’m in a really great relationship and she’s a woman who really supports and understands my crazy life and being a songwriter," he gushes. "She understands the mercurial changes in mood and gets that if I’m standing, staring out the window, I’m probably working. That can be a hard thing to get.”
The romantic undercurrents are evident in the first single, “I’m Gonna Save You,” partly inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and the notion of heroes sweeping in to save the day. Given his history of cynical reflexes, Scannell’s the first to admit that it’s a concept which at times makes him shudder.
“It’s very much a knight in shining armor idea and sometimes that drives me crazy," he says. "Other times I think it’d be nice for someone to just come in and save the day. Sometimes complete disregard for reality and the absolute faith in one’s ability to overcome adversity can be unfounded, but also wonderful. This song comes from this place -- thinking, ‘There’s no question in my mind that I will absolutely take care of you.’ It’s nice to love someone enough that you can throw everything else away and go, ‘If that’s what you need, I will give [up] everything for you without hesitation.’”
While his songwriting themes have taken a turn, so have his musical forces. Scannell notes The Lost Mile veers from the group’s guitar rock path, deriving more from old records and artists who inspired him during his earliest days as a musician, like Depeche Mode, New Order and The Cure. The result, he says, is the “most selfish” album that Vertical Horizon has released, created with complete disregard of commercial viability or radio-friendly song formats and being released independently via digital platforms, with FLAC files available on the band’s website.
“A lot of these songs are six minutes long and that’s because at times it was like, ‘The intro’s not done yet,’" he explains. "I’ve had times as a songwriter where I was encouraged to write within the confines of a certain format, and I know how to do that from a structural place, but this was like, ‘Lets purposely burn that house down, break away from it and let the song do what it wants to.’ There’s an inherent beauty to [music that’s] coming from that authentic place.”
In a first for Scannell, many of the tracks on The Lost Mile were written on the piano and what he sees as his “ineptitude” translates to captivating and whimsical instrumental breaks like on the beautiful closing ballad, “Save Love.”
However, guitar remains his passion, having received his first one at the age of seven and quickly developing a love for the life-changing instrument. Promising his parents that he would study something other than music as a plan B, Scannell completed a Bachelor of Psychology at Washington D.C.’s Georgetown University, then worked at an adult daycare center for Alzheimer’s patients. But having founded Vertical Horizon with former member, Keith Kane, during college and starting out performing at local clubs, Scannell remained “consumed” by music, so plans for grad school and becoming a therapist were inevitably abandoned. Little did he know, that his music would one day bring a form of therapy to fans around the globe.
Following two albums, the group signed with RCA Records and shot to fame with Everything You Want, with the title track reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming one of the most played singles of 2000. Go, Burning the Days and Echoes from the Underground followed, but more than 25 years since the band’s formation, Scannell remains the only original member – on The Lost Mile, Sean Hurley played bass, Ron Lavella drums and Scannell keyboard and guitar, while the touring band has Donovan White on guitar and Mark Pacificar on bass. He admits multiple lineup changes took their toll during the early days.
“I was a very insecure frontman and if things weren’t done exactly how I thought they should be, I got really frustrated and was extremely possessive of my music,” he confesses. “So, at first it was very threatening to have different people coming and going, but over time I’ve realized it’s the most wonderful thing to have people infuse the music with their energy. I used to be glass-is-half-empty, threatened and precious about every little thing in my career and music, but now I appreciate the variety that different people can bring to the band.”
The beauty of exploring different musical partnerships is further evident on The Lost Mile with the track, “I’m Not Running,” which Scannell wrote with Richard Marx (who sings harmony on the song) for Duo, a collaborative acoustic record the pair put out in 2008 and later followed up with Duo Live. The two have become close friends and were joined by Hugh Jackman for the 2012 PBS special A Night Out With Friends.
“We both stayed at Richard’s house, so spent a decent chunk of time together and Hugh is just absolutely lovely -- so enthusiastic, open and engaged. Sometimes you get guys who are passionate about music, but maybe not very good, but Hugh is naturally gifted musically. I saw him walk on stage and he had charisma beaming off him like a supernova!”
With plans to tour The Lost Mile later this year, Scannell also hopes to continue playing shows for the Armed Forces, a nod to the many pals who have served for the U.S. while he indulged in his musical dreams. “It was always a regret of mine,” he admits. “I was on a different path, but I always desperately wanted to show my gratitude and appreciation for the men and women who make very difficult choices, lead an extremely difficult life and are ultimately responsible for every freedom that we enjoy.”
The shows have taken the band to Iraq, Afghanistan and Guam and left Scannell with powerfully-moving memories, the tales of which seem absurd on paper, but are validated by the tear welling in his eye as he concludes one story.
“On that first trip to Iraq, a tank driver came up and said, ‘Thank you so much for playing for us. I realize now that I need to get help.’" he recalls. "I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I was watching your show and noticed my face felt strange. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was aching, so I asked my friend, ‘Does anything look weird on my face? Did we go through something today that might be reacting with my skin?’ He kept asking if his face looked weird and his friend said, ‘Yeah … you’re smiling.’”
That memory is something that Scannell holds with him as he thinks about the optimism he's bringing with The Lost Mile. While it may be a new and somewhat unusual musical venture for him and his band, there's something magical about the potential impact it has: “In that moment, I thought, ‘Wow. If I can give this guy who hasn’t had one in a while, a smile … that’s worth everything.’”
The Lost Mile is available on digital platforms on Feb. 23, but is now available in an exclusive stream for Billboard readers below.