“Love songs aren’t exactly my bread and butter,” says country newcomer Matt Stell. You wouldn’t know it from “Prayed For You,” his swoon-worthy first single for RECORDS/Arista Nashville that he took straight to No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart last year.
Now, the former college basketball player is close to going two for two, as his second single, break-up ballad “Everywhere But On,” stands at No. 7 this week on the chart.
Both songs appear on his EP, Better Than That, out Friday (Oct. 16). The Arkansas native co-wrote five of the eight tracks, which show off different facets of his personality, including romantic (“Look At Me Now”), mournful (“Everywhere But On”) and playful (“If I Was a Bar”).
Stell revealed to Billboard how “Prayed For You” changed his life, why he’s usually nerding out on some science book during his downtime and what album is spinning on his turntable right now.
1. How did “Prayed For You” open doors for your career?
“Prayed For You” was really what changed everything for me. It turned into a record deal, a song on the radio, a bunch of tour dates, a platinum record and the opportunity to cut and release more music. It’s cliché but it’s true — one song can change everything, and “Prayed for You” is the one that did for me.
2. What do you want fans to learn about you from listening to Better Than That if they’ve only heard “Prayed For You?”
“Prayed For You” is big part of what I do, but it’s a bit of an outlier in some ways. The bulk of my music is more Saturday night than Sunday morning. It’s usually a little more love gone wrong than it is love gone right. We also get after it pretty hard at our live shows and treat it like rock and roll. I think the EP captures this pretty well.
3. How much of Better Than That was created during the pandemic and what challenges did that create?
I’d say around a quarter of the EP was created during the pandemic. At least one song was tracked from start to finish after the initial shutdowns in March as was most of the mixing and mastering. The main challenge was to keep people safe and distanced without the studios feeling too sterile and clinical. It was a hurdle to overcome but when you get to work with really talented people like the ones on this EP it makes those kinds of challenges easier.
4. “Look at Me Now” is sure to become a wedding staple. What about it appealed to you as someone who is single?
I talked about this a little bit before, but love songs aren’t exactly my bread and butter. Even when I’m listening to music I don’t seek them out really. But I moved to Nashville because I love great songs and to me “Look at Me Now” is a great song, plain and simple. I thought so from the moment I heard it. It’s so well written and paints a very vivid picture of a pivotal moment in life. The fact that this song hit me, a single guy who doesn’t always gravitate toward love songs, speaks to how great of a song it is, I think.
5. You co-wrote five songs on the EP. What were you looking for in the songs that you didn’t write?
I’d say the thing that the outside cuts have in common is that first-listen “it” factor. They all are a little different, but fit into the project pretty seamlessly I think. So I guess I was looking for the it and the fit, so to speak.
6. On “Over Yonder,” your duet with Lathan Warlick, he talks about not being so divided by color. What can country music do to further embrace diversity?
There’s no doubt that diverse voices and perspectives make country music better. I think the genre deserves credit for recognizing this and I hope this inclusive attitude is here to stay.
7. If not for the lockdown, you would have been on tour with Rascal Flatts this summer. Which artist have you learned the most from watching perform?
We were really looking forward to getting to be a part of the Rascal Flatts tour this year. Hopefully that’s something that gets rescheduled because those guys are hall of famers. I had the chance to go on tour with Chris Young and Eli Young Band last fall and I learned a ton from them about how to be a pro on and off the stage. I’ve also learned a bunch from watching my buddy Jimmie Allen perform. He’s really great at every aspect of being on stage.
8. What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
I want to say it was Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill CD. I feel like I’m giving myself a compliment with that answer though. It’s an all-time great alt-rock record that I loved as a young country kid. Ten year-old me had great taste. LOL.
9. What was the first concert you saw?
When I was a very small child my mom took me to a Randy Travis concert with Alan Jackson opening. I’m ashamed to say that I totally slept through Randy, who is still one of my all-time favorite artists.
10. What did you learn from playing college basketball that translates to trying to make it in the music industry?
Music and sports mirror each other in a lot of ways. The biggest thing that they have in common is that they’re both team-oriented. Everyone has to be great at their role to have success in both cases. You also have to work hard on your craft to be successful in both cases.
11. Who made you realize you could be an artist full-time?
My mother believed in me even when I didn’t. She probably has the most to do with where I am today.
12. What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?
I’d like to write a No. 1 for another artist. I moved to town with that in mind and I’d like to follow through with that.
13. How did your hometown shape who you are?
I’m from a really small town where my family has lived for generations. I hope I carry the work ethic and positive attitude they all seem to have.
14. What’s the last song you listened to?
I was just listening to the Brothers Osborne’s new Skeletons record. I’m a big fan of theirs and the first track, “Lighten Up,” doesn’t disappoint.
15. If you could see any artist in concert, dead or alive, who would it be?
I’d like to see Prince. I’ve seen some of his concert videos online, and he has to be in the conversation for all-around greatest of all time.
16. What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen in the crowd of one of your sets?
I saw the same girl say yes to an engagement proposal and also take her top off. I can’t remember which came first.
17. What movie, or song, always makes you cry?
I wrote a song about my dad, who passed away a couple years ago. I have a hard time getting through it. Also, videos of troops coming home and surprising their kids get me almost every time.
18. What’s one thing that even your most devoted fans don’t know about you?
I read a lot, and more times than not I’m in the middle of some kind of hard science book by a leader in one field or another.
19. If you were not a musician, what would you be?
I almost quit trying to write songs for a living to try to become a doctor. I probably would’ve flunked out, but I was gonna try.
20. What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
Don’t be afraid to fail. That’s still good advice for my now-self I think.