Welcome to Emerging Country, a Billboard series where we highlight an up-and-coming act who is making a splash in the genre. This week’s pick is country singer-songwriter Matt Stell, who is breaking onto the scene with his heartfelt single “Prayed For You.”
Matt Stell was always surrounded by music, whether it was listening to mid-’90s albums he purchased himself — like Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, Hootie & the Blowfish’s Cracked Rearview and Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? — or hearing the classic counry artists like Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Ernest Tubb at his grandparent’s house. He never seriously thought about pursuing a career in music until college though.
“I don’t remember at that time thinking I would do [music] really, but music just makes me feel a way that nothing else does,” he tells Billboard over lunch at his new label headquarters Sony Music Nashville. “I guess I assumed it did that for everybody, and then I found out, ‘No, I have this passion for it.’”
Stell’s mom bought him a guitar for Christmas when he was 12, and he laughs as he admits he played it that morning and then “promptly put it in a closet.” Years later while playing basketball at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, he was on the deserted campus for winter break and asked his mom to bring him the guitar.
“I got it and then sat in front of my computer, and I started trying to learn how to play old country songs and blues songs and bluegrass tunes, and all the things you can play on an acoustic guitar,” he recalls with a smile.
The Arkansas native eventually relocated to Nashville — where he has lived for nearly six years and signed a record deal with Barry Weiss’ RECORDS/Arista Nashville, following some time in Texas where he was writing with local acts. While he’s seen success penning songs with artists like Casey Donahew, Stell is now enjoying his first hit single as a lead artist with “Prayed For You” — which hit a new peak of No. 3 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart this week (dated Oct. 5).
Below, Stell speaks with Billboard, sharing his backstory as an artist and songwriter.
When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an artist?
I started playing music in college, and I started learning those songs that you learn on an acoustic guitar. It wasn’t too long after I could rub four chords together that I started writing songs, and I fell in love with the singer-songwriter thing. I think even before I would have admitted it to myself, that’s what I wanted to do.
The learning curve was so steep, because I started late and everybody was so good and I was not. There was a point where I knew that I was going to give this a real shot after college, but even from just when I started, I think I probably deep-down knew.
When was your first public appearance?
It would’ve been the college apartments or frat house things at my college. I remember one of the first shows I ever played, there was a venue that opened up near my school that catered to Red Dirt or Texas country music. I think that was the first show that I ever had playing out live at a writers round type of thing playing original music. I remember that pretty vividly. It was pretty great, and I was hooked at that point.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
Among the first songs I ever wrote, I wrote a song called “Sheepskin Road.” I wrote it from the perspective of my great uncle and where I’m from. That was one of the first songs I wrote. It’s a song that I still play from time to time. That was followed by a bunch of songs that I do not play.
Who’s career do you admire most and would like to pattern yours after?
I was always big into the singer-songwriter thing, especially when I stumbled across singer-songwriters that were writing about things that I could relate to. I always loved Merle [Haggard] and Waylon [Jennings]. There were some Texas artists that I was really into at the time, like Hayes Carll and Charlie Robinson and Stoney LaRue. I spent a lot of time trying to do what they did which is good to a point, but then you have to figure out how to do it in your own voice and in your own way.
Who is your dream collaborator?
I’d love to do something cross-genre. I love a lot of rap music. It’d be fun to do some kind of collaboration with some of my favorite rap artists, like, 2 Chainz or Kendrick [Lamar]. It’d be cool to do something with a pop diva like Katy Perry or Christina [Aguilera]. Right now I’d love to do something with Lizzo. Anything that’s different that you feel like 1 +1 might equal 3 with, I’m interested in that kind of thing.
What’s the story behind your single “Prayed For You?”
I wrote that song with my manager/publisher, Ash Bowers, and another great songwriter here in town, Allison Veltz. We were waiting on Allison to get to the write. She was running a little behind and she called and said, “Hey, I’m behind, but I got this title.” She had just met who’s now her husband that week and she had this title, “More than I can fathom, didn’t know you from Adam, but I prayed for you.” We started writing it backwards from there and tried to infuse it with our own experiences and wrote a song about a character that’s a lot like me that’s way luckier than he deserves. The song, it’s about a relationship, but it’s also about persevering long enough to let good things happen, whether it’s a relationship or whether it’s a job or family or school.
That first verse talking about, “Never been one to ask for help/ If I need a mountain moved I’d move it myself.” That’s sort of been my M.O. It can be good to have that mindset, but it’s also important to understand that no one ever gets anywhere on their own and that there’s so much luck involved with anything and so much circumstance involved and all you can do is just be prepared for when it happens. That still rings really true because I wrote that song before all this popped off. So that [line] becomes truer and truer every day. I think about songs in terms of characters and the guy in “Prayed For You” was very similar to me.
What’s the most autobiographical song on your EP Everywhere But On?
There’s some lines in “Everywhere But On” that are super autobiographical. I spent years in a trailer, driving all around the South and Midwest playing this music. There’s a line in that song, “My mail’s still going to mama’s house,” and to this day I have mail that goes to my mom’s house that she has to bring to me. That’s super true. The second verse talking about all the different jobs that I’ve done, especially when I moved to town and I couldn’t tour as much. I was having to do other things to make money besides music so there’s a lot of truth in that song.
What song of yours best describes you as an artist?
“Reason Why” is a song that sonically and vibe-wise, if left to my own devices, I like big, dark sounding songs that almost sound like arena rock but with country instrumentation: Arenacana I like to call it. Those are the types of bands I want to go see. It’s actually a positive song, but it comes from this heavy, dark place sonically that I really, really love.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about your career?
The best piece of advice that I’ve followed has been, this is so clichéd, but it’s so true: you have to figure out who you are as an artist and be that. Along with that comes a lot of other lessons like who you are and who you like are not the same thing. And, if you try to be something that you’re not, it comes off a way that you don’t want it to. With me, I’m not Jason Isbell, I can’t be. There’s only one of him and he’s awesome. Even if I want to be like him, it just comes off as some kind of facsimile.