by Eric Althoff
Just before lockdown last year, Matt Tarka finished tracking a few original songs he’d planned on releasing throughout 2020. Despite the marked effect of the pandemic on the music scene, Tarka committed to completing production of his songs in the midst of the uncertainty, and the result is a thoughtful, honest, and inspiring collection that continues to win over current and new audiences alike.
“My vocal part and drum tracks, as well as my acoustic guitar parts, were all pretty much a done deal,” Tarka said from his home in Lititz, Pennsylvania. “Then I began some remote collaboration with a musician named Rich Stine, who supplied a lot of really great bass, organ, and some lead electric guitar parts on a variety of these songs. It was very much a hybrid approach, and done in a very safe manner.”
Among Tarka’s new songs is “Good Morning, Sympathy,” a poppy, upbeat tune absolutely baked with a certain sense of much-needed optimism. Tarka said he started composing the song in the confusing days following the 2016 election, taking the form of a narrator who believes there is still a reason to hope. Tarka collaborated with Low Watt Recording in Savannah, GA, where he has recorded two previous EPs.
“I think ‘Good Morning, Sympathy’ was kind of a reaction to the aftermath of what had happened—or what could be coming down the line,” Tarka said of his composition, adding that another inspiration behind the song was a sympathetic human he happened upon while walking the streets in the days following the divisive election.
“Someone saw me downtrodden on a cloudy, gloomy day, just buckets of rain coming down that morning,” Tarka recalls, adding that the person “got my attention and said, ‘Hey, everything is going to be all right.’”
“I remember thinking – here’s a sympathetic human walking down the street and trying to pick me up on my feet. Let me hold on to that. As soon as I got home from work that day, I began thinking about the day’s events, and ‘Good Morning, Sympathy’ was born.”
Tarka’s other recent singles include “Crowds” and “Heartbreak & Euphoria.” Tarka touts “Crowds” as a companion piece to “Sympathy,” and says that he never really wrote political songs before.
“‘Crowds” was my attempt at a demented nursery rhyme of going along with someone blindly and trusting that person’s instincts and intuition—even if they may not have someone else’s best interests at heart,” Tarka said. “Or had sinister intentions.”
Tarka grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he was able to enjoy both the famous chocolate factory and its attendant amusement park, which Tarka describes as “kind of a weirdly charmed life.” His musical heroes include Cher, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, Carole King, the Grateful Dead, and Neutral Milk Hotel. He attended college in Scranton and then moved to Washington, D.C. for a while.
“I spent the majority of my time in D.C. in and out of one particular band that sort of resided in the world of MySpace in the 2000s called Colonel Potter,” Tarka said of his time playing in the capital region. “That was a great little passion project, very enjoyable.”
When Colonel Potter reached its terminus, Tarka started writing his own material and making demos. He started shopping his music to clubs, accruing believers one at a time.
Around 2008, Tarka decided to pursue more of a solo career, and has continued in that vein ever since. He moved back home to Pennsylvania, which is only a few hours’ drive back to D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia, so he’s still able to share his music with larger crowds.
“Mostly I played solo acoustic shows, but then, if I had a record release party, I would call up my friends to see if they wanted to start up an ad hoc band to give this a fuller sound,” he said, adding that he also collaborates on other musical projects as he’s able. He also has a day job working for an educational nonprofit called the POGIL Project (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning), which promotes STEM education and finds new ways to encourage kids to learn.
Like the rest of the creative community, Tarka’s livelihood as a musician was severely impacted by the pandemic and the lack of live shows. “My income has certainly been limited with music. I’ve been able to make a little bit through streaming, but it’s certainly not paying the rent,” Tarka said. “I felt lucky I was in the studio when I was. Since we had to work remotely, it has taken a little bit of extra time to…fill out this particular batch of songs.”
As a means of engaging with other artists during the lockdown, Tarka came up with an ingenious model of releasing five songs wherein they would be paired with cover art created specifically by crafters in his community.
“What I wanted to do was highlight independent artists who are doing their own thing,” he said, adding he was particularly interested in having female artists design said artwork—including Kerriann Curtis, whose uniquely crafted image is paired with “Good Morning, Sympathy” everywhere people stream or download music.
“To complement all of these individual releases, I’ve been putting together some virtual art galleries on Instagram Live with a 30- to 40-minute Q&A with the artists who designed the cover art,” Tarka said. “Basically taking any questions people either have about somebody’s artistic approach with the cover, or questions about the songs themselves. It’s been a fun, interactive way to talk about art as a whole.”
Tarka hopes to be able to play live again soon. In the meantime, he has enjoyed connecting with artists on his podcast, “Cover to Cover Conversations with Matt Tarka,” which he began in 2019. During the podcast, Tarka and special guests discuss the impact a specific record had on them.
In addition to three singles dropped thus far in 2021, Tarka has two more slated for the fall.
“I’m just excited to have some music to share. It’s been challenging to release any new music during a pandemic, because traditionally, you might go out and have a release party or something along those lines,” he said. “I’m hoping to get out there when it feels really safe for me to play a couple shows and promote some of this material. I’m excited about what’s on the horizon.”
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