Matt Maeson's Debut Gig Was At a Chick-Fil-A Open Mic. Now He's Got a No. 1 Alternative Smash

Matt Maeson
Matthew Reamer

Matt Maeson

The Virginian discusses "Cringe," one of the year's biggest hits on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart, as well as its follow-up, the newly debuted "Go Easy."

Breaking a song is often a time-consuming process, but rarely does it take well over two years to make a hit. Not that Matt Maeson's complaining.

"Cringe," the 26-year-old Virginian's multi-genre breakthrough single, had somewhat of an unconventional trip to the top of the Billboard charts. Originally released in November 2016, it wasn't until nearly two years that the song impacted a chart, when it debuted at No. 38 on the Adult Alternative Songs airplay list, eventually peaking at No. 7 in January. Seven months later, it was the No. 1 song on the Alternative Songs airplay ranking, a distinction it held for four weeks.

Maeson knew something was up right off the bat, despite the Atlantic Records artist having to wait a bit to see the returns on Billboard's charts. "We dropped that song and it immediately had some success on streaming services; it got on the U.S. Viral 50 chart," Maeson tells Billboard. "Especially with a big record label like Atlantic, taking chances on artists that no one knows about yet is not the best choice for them, so it took a while for 'Cringe' to do its thing organically and keep getting more and more listeners. And then finally there was a breaking point of, 'All right, let's push this song and see what happens.' And then it did."

Maeson has experienced a rise to stardom that includes more than just a slow-building single. Growing up, he wasn't allowed to listen to secular music; his parents were musicians in the Christian music realm, playing in a pair of heavy metal Christian acts, Holy Warfare and Neverthirst. Eventually they moved on in the mid-'90s to a musical prison ministry called Life on the Verge, which is still going strong today. 

It was playing with Life on the Verge -- after a debut gig at a Chick-Fil-A open mic when he was 16, one Maeson says he won "not because I was good, but because everyone else sucked" -- that Maeson says he discovered the effect music can have on people, even those incarcerated.

"[I was] seeing the difference music could make in people's lives in such a dark place, and how influential music could be on those guys," he recalls. "Like, they walk in sluggish, just like, oh, I've been in prison for 30 years -- obviously, not in the best mood. And then by the end of it, [they're] on their feet, clapping, having fun, it's like, wow, man, music really does have the power to completely shift your atmosphere. I brought that kind of attitude to every show I did after that outside of prison, and it's been great just to see how music can help people.

Eventually, Maeson branched out to secular music; he says the first such band he heard was Linkin Park's "Numb," which led to a binge of the band's material up to that point, followed by a move into more of the pop punk realm of the mid-aughts. Years later, when "Cringe" began making the rounds on streaming services, Maeson was surprised at one thing about the song's trajectory that didn't quite add up compared to most releases.

"I saw the consistent amount of streams it was getting, and [it] was getting higher, which I don't think is normal for most people for a year and a half after you release a song, the streams keep going up," he says.

The lightbulb moment occurred in July 2017, when Maeson opened up for Jaymes Young at Portland, Ore.'s Hawthorne Theater, when he says he "could hear everyone singing ['Cringe'] back." Mind you, this was when the song was still over a year off from its radio debut.

"Cringe" eventually remained on Billboard's Rock Airplay chart for 42 weeks between December 2018 and October 2019, a product of its success at two different radio formats over an extended period of time. Maeson sounds relieved when he discusses the follow-up single, "Go Easy," which debuts at No. 40 on the latest Alternative Songs chart, dated Dec. 7, meaning he finally has a song not "Cringe" to promote.

"Three years later," he says with a laugh. "Hopefully we'll be doing this one for three years, too."

Maeson's 2019 hasn't just been about "Cringe," though -- in fact, even "Go Easy" is just a piece of the puzzle. After releasing a pair of EPs, his debut album, Bank on the Funeral, was released in April. Then, in October, Maeson released a stripped-down version of the album featuring fully rerecorded tracks, a byproduct of the fact that, despite the fact that a full-band version of "Cringe" was the radio single, a different take on the song released early on is actually the most-played version of the tune on Spotify, with nearly 41 million global plays to the original's almost 31 million.

"We wanted to do stripped versions because I write all the songs that I write by myself, or at least 90% of them," Maeson says. "We wanted to do a version that was closer and a little more intimate, because up until that point, that's all I'd done live was play acoustic, and we wanted to capture that feeling.

"When you have a bunch of stuff going on, it takes away from the simplicity of just a vocal and a piano," he adds, discussing why he thinks the stripped edition of "Cringe" often outpaces the original. "I feel like you listen to the lyrics more, you listen to the tone of my voice more, the keys move you in a way sonically too. Some people gravitate to that more than the big, produced stuff."

Regardless of the version, the success of "Cringe" eventually pushed Maeson to No. 4 on Billboard's year-end Top New Rock Artists chart for 2019.

Maeson recently wrapped a headlining tour, with his only shows remaining in 2019 coming as part of large bills sponsored by alternative radio stations in Los Angeles (KROQ) and St. Louis (KPNT). He says he'll head out on another tour in 2020, albeit smaller than in 2019. He's also been writing -- "there's probably 4,000 voice memos in my phone of little ideas or full songs or half songs," he says, and he's even done a recording session with James Flannigan (Kodaline's "All I Want," Carly Rae Jepsen's "No Drug Like Me"), with whom he wrote multiple songs for Bank on the Funeral, and British folk/blues artist Foy Vance, who's signed to Ed Sheeran's Gingerbread Man imprint.

"Just being able to make a living off of music is awesome; that's always what I've wanted to do," Maeson says. "I've been broke for so long. This year specifically is when I've actually started to have a financial foundation and I can be on the road full time and not have to worry about it. ... I don't have to work a desk job anymore. "