Mt. Joy's Matt Quinn on 'Surreal' Success, Dropping Out of Law School and Writing No. 1 Hit 'Silver Lining'

Mac Kotas
Mt. Joy

Perhaps what’s most surprising about the whirlwind success of the Los Angeles-via-Philly folk group Mt. Joy is that neither founding member of the band moved to the West Coast to pursue music, nor did they even see it as a primary concern at the time that they blew up. Yet, less than two full years after they spontaneously dropped their first single “Astrovan,” the band has toured with The Head and The Heart, played on Conan, dropped a full-length album and had a single hit No. 1 on Triple A radio.

This was unexpected, to say the least, for frontman and songwriter Matt Quinn -- who was actually only a couple of months into law school when the single began racking up hundreds of thousands of plays on Spotify. The Philadelphia native had moved out to L.A. to follow his girlfriend and was attending night classes while working a full-time job -- as was high school buddy and bandmate Sam Cooper. “I think our story is weird because it's not like we went to L.A. to be a band,” Quinn told Billboard. “I wasn't there for music in any particular way. I just happened to write a song while I was in L.A. that has success.”

Cooper and Quinn were only fooling around with music on the side when they recorded “Astrovan” alongside current Mt. Joy member Michael Byrnes at a friend’s house and uploaded it online in Sept. 2016. It was about one month later that Quinn realized he had to drop out and “try this music thing.” 

While sitting in the green room at Conan, the band realized it had been almost exactly one year since they played their first live show. On the band’s whirlwind success, Quinn said “it's been pretty surreal … There's this feeling of ‘What's going on here?’ It's a really good feeling. The last year of my life feels like a lifetime's worth of events have happened.”

Some of the songs even predate the band itself, like breakout hit “Silver Lining,” which Quinn began writing on his own in college. He said the song was a reaction to “a period of though time in my hometown -- really just a lot of bad news, an untimely loss, and death and drugs.” The song was shelved for a while after Quinn had written it, but when the band was tasked with creating a full-length album after the success of “Astrovan,” he decided to bring it back and rework it with the full band.

Like a lot of Quinn’s writing, “Silver Lining” has a message: “Let the music play you through the pain” and “Tell the ones you love you love them.” Raised on ‘60s and ‘70s folk music -- “the popular music of the era in a lot of ways” -- he has always “really admired music that takes a position on things that are happening in society.” In turn, as a musician, he feels a responsibility to “influence people to do the things that we think are the right things to do” because in “the climate of the world we live in today there's a lot, it seems, that needs to be fixed.” He praised counterculture songwriters and icons like Bob Dylan and Neil Young (whose “Ohio” he cited as one of his favorite protest songs), explaining that during their era of folk, “there was a voice that was trying to say more than a catchy hook.”

Of modern folk music, Quinn that “the goal is really not so much to revive folk as a genre, as much as it is to try to make music that people can really get behind regardless of what genre they prefer listening to.” That’s what he sees happening with a lot of his favorite artists, like The Head and The Heart -- who helped show Mt. Joy the ropes this past year -- Jim James and Jason Isbell. “There's a lot of really great bands making great music right now … Just go to a festival and sit at the main stage. I guarantee you'd see a couple folk acts right now.”

Other musical heroes for Quinn include Dr. Dog and Bruce Springsteen -- both of which he associates with Philadelphia (despite acknowledging the fact that the latter is not actually from there). Although he primarily makes music in L.A., he believes that he has been affected by the “blue-collar rock-and-roll” of his hometown. “The music that comes from there seems to reflect that honesty and rawness that the city has … A lot of people can really connect with that because the majority of us aren't outwardly glamorous, whatever that means.” He also calls the city “a great support system” for artists.

This idea of a community that supports fellow artists actually continues to influence Mt. Joy’s aesthetic, as well. Steve Girard, who is behind all of the band’s artwork so far, was Sam Cooper’s roommate in college. After flipping through Girard’s sketchbook, Cooper and Quinn jumped on the opportunity to showcase his work. “I just like the idea of using [art from] someone who we really feel is talented, and adding that to the collective of what we're trying to do,” said Quinn. Among other pieces, Girard created the buffalo image that appears on the band's merch, as well as the self-titled album's cover art. 

Mt. Joy may be a young band, but it seems as though they have a pretty fleshed out idea of what they want to accomplish and how they are going to do it. After a summer of touring -- both in the U.S. and the U.K. -- what Quinn says they are most excited to do is start putting ideas together for a second record. For a group that thrives on momentum, no break is necessary.