After putting on a stunning show at Manchester’s Deaf Institute which had the crowd baying for more, Striking Matches are set to return to the city to perform at Manchester Academy on Friday 21 November.
The duo of Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis have seen their stock in the UK rise significantly over the last year owing to an appearance at the Country 2 Country Festival, the success of Nashville which features a number of the group’s songs and a stand out debut album Nothing But The Silence.
We caught up with Striking Matches on their last tour to get their views on music, touring and how they managed to craft such an excellent album.
The C2C experience was obviously a positive one for the duo. “It’s been amazing. That’s a huge reason why we’re here … because we got to do that” says Zimmermann, adding “That was the first time we had ever played here and so we have a lot to thank C2C for.” And they are keen to return to Country 2 Country and repay the boost it gave them, with Davis commenting “we hope, when something goes that well, and when something was that good for you or to you, you hope that the day comes when you can give something back to it. And I would love it, if fate would have it, that one day we go back and are something that causes people to come to C2C and that’s a way of giving back to that festival.”
In fact, fate seems to have played a large part in the success of Striking Matches. Having met and being paired together at college, they haven’t looked back. “It seems like everything we’ve done has been fate. I mean, we met in guitar class!” says Zimmerman before Davis adds “We’ve had several things along the way which almost seem like happenstance or divine intervention and one of those things that we really couldn’t have orchestrated ourselves and wouldn’t have had the foresight to prepare for and just happened that way. Those moments are great because they make you feel like you are on the right path.”
Despite hitting it off straight away and enjoying the experience of jamming together the decision to form Striking Matches was one which took a little time. “It would have been a year or a year and a half” Zimmermann explains. “We started jamming. We’d go over to each other’s dorm rooms and just play something together for fun. We even took separate gigs, playing guitar for other people first and eventually just realised we were having too much fun playing together that even though we’d make a lot less money (she laughs knowingly), I think we knew there was, I know we knew there was something special the first time we played with each other but neither of us set out to be artists so it took some figuring out. Neither of us really wanted the spotlight which might be why we work so well as a duo because no-one has to, we can share it, so it took a little time to figure out ‘yeah, this is what we want to do.’
Once that decision was made there was no holding them back. They started writing pretty much straight away (although both had been writing for some time prior albeit separately). This made for a large collection of songs available, when it came to recording the hit album Nothing But The Silence. “We have been a band for six years and have been writing the whole time so some of the songs are that old” Zimmermann confirms before Davis adds “And before that”. She continues “we both grew up writing songs, so some of the songs were from more of the beginning of our career together and some, including the title track, were finished right before we went into the studio. We were never ‘we’re going into the studio we need to write for the record’ it was more that we had 400 songs to pick from!
Narrowing down the selection was not easy either with Zimmermann admitting “It wasn’t easy because you fall in love with your songs and they’re like your little babies, choosing which ones to send to college!” Nevertheless, they managed it to form an excellent album filled with substance, emotion and no shortage of quality.
And whilst they both hold different influences and inspirations, these backgrounds and outlooks forge to make Striking Matches what they are, and blend into a fusion of high quality writing and recording. “I think that’s one of the aspects that created us in the first place” explains Davis. “That’s one of the things we have never had to try very hard to make happen. It’s almost like how personalities work. There are some people you click with, you meet for the first time, and it feels like you have been friends forever, or some people who despite your best efforts they never understand you, you don’t understand them and it’s a bit of a hit and miss thing. Musicians … I think the same rules apply. You know sometimes when you play with great musicians, and you know they’re good, you respect them, but for whatever reason it just doesn’t work. In order to make it work you’ve just have to try really hard. For us, it’s part of what makes it work, it’s natural, easy and deciding who’s going to play what is not much of a task.” Zimmermann talks of musician’s instinct playing a role too “Some of it boils down to just musician’s instinct. He’s playing something, I’m going to play something which compliments it, doesn’t fight it. But having different playing styles makes that easy. If I’m doing flat picking country thing, he’s going to do something different. I think some of it just boils down to that and having the ear to know. But we’ve been playing for so long that we can almost predict what the other is going to do and that’s fun.”
When it came to recording, they found themselves working with legendary producer T-Bone Burnett. They light up when discussing it. “If you’d have asked us two years ago who our dream producer would be, we’d had said, ‘this is never going to happen but we’d love it if T-Bone Burnett would do it’. He was the first one to say ‘I want to make this record with you’” Zimmermann joyfully explains. Davis is in full agreement – “It was a pleasure to experience that and it still is. Once the opportunity arose, we had a label and were set to go and had the ability to make the record, he was the first one to reach out.”
The theme of fate crops up again when discussing Nashville, which was a huge coup for Striking Matches. “It happened really a couple of months before the pilot ever aired” explains Zimmermann. “We write songs for Universal Music Publishing and the music supervisors for the show and ABC were in Nashville listening to songs they might want for the show for the pilot and the rest of the season and what better place that Nashville? One of our publishers asked them to come by the office and just hear us play and they did, so we got to play three songs for them including When The Right One Comes Along and they were like ‘this is Scarlett and Gunnar’ and we’re ‘No, it’s Sarah and Justin’ but then they told us what was going on with the show and they almost immediately knew they wanted to use that but not how. We played that song for the first time in the Bluebird Café and they ended up putting the scene in the Bluebird. It just came from striking up that relationship. They’ve become big fans and like our catalogue. It’s been a huge blessing, it’s been amazing. It was nice to see some of the songs get a life outside of Striking Matches.”
They do admit that it can be a little “weird, but not in a bad way” as Davis puts it, seeing others perform their songs. Zimmermann adds “It is, especially on TV because you know what you wrote those songs about, but it’s somebody else’s interpretation and the writers of the show’s interpretation, putting it into a plot and a scene. It takes it to a whole other level. We never know what’s going on with the show so it’s always a surprise how songs are going to be used”
When it comes to performing live, Striking Matches are truly in their element and incredibly versatile. As they demonstrated at The Deaf Institute (a venue which Justin Davis described as super-vibey and perfect for what they had planned for the evening), they are equally adept at performing a stunning acoustic set as they are tearing down the house with a full band. Ahead of the gig Davis commented “We’ll be doing acoustic tonight. We’ll be bringing the energy, beating the crap out of our guitars.” He wasn’t wrong. The stripped back set was an energy fueled guitar-driven masterclass demonstrating songs and musicianship of the highest calibre.
Striking Matches perform at Manchester Academy on 20 November 2015.
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Author: Editorial Team
Live Manchester editorial team