Matt Dorrien isn’t sure how he feels about being thought of as gloomy. Undoubtedly, Dorrien’s new record, In the Key of Grey, his first release for Portland’s Mama Bird Recording Co., is an introspective, confessional crusher, apropos of a harrowing yesteryear breakup. His songs are delivered in brutal lyrical transparency, and steeped in the traditions of iconic songwriters like Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman or Irving Berlin. That combination of vulnerability and nostalgia was purposeful, with the resulting 10-song LP offering some of the most downright mega-sad compositions you’ll ever hear.
Still, Dorrien is more than just a brooding crooner.
“I was definitely in an almost despondent state,” he tells, “so I think the songs reflect that, for sure. I feel like the most meaningful art and music has been stuff that’s come from a heartbroken or devastating place. Even in writing, I think what’s been the most genuine and honest is stuff that’s been from the fire and rain in life. So, in a way, who fuckin’ cares? I guess I am a sad sack.”
Dorrien’s last record, 2014’s Confederate Burial, was self-released under his old moniker, Snowblind Traveler. That record’s expansive guitar-folk found an audience in more historical, literary and Tin Pan Alley-inspired circles. While it also reveled a bit in melancholic flourishes, it was not as direct as Dorrien’s current work.
For In the Key of Grey, Dorrien understood that the songs he was writing were coming from a more intimate source, which precipitated ditching the Snowblind Traveler veil.
“The type of songs I’ve been writing lately—and the fact that I’m always alone when I write—it felt like I could shed that moniker right now and people could connect with it more when they have a face,” Dorrien says. “It seems more intimate with the person’s name attached to the project, and I wanted it to feel that way.”
The new record’s sentiments are executed brilliantly from the onset, with album opener and lead single “Baby I’m So Lost” setting the stage with the simple but powerful line: “Baby I’m so lost without you / From now on I’ll always be blue.” The subsequent “Underwear Blues” executes an illusion of ascending from the pits of despair with buoyant ragtime piano, only to drag you back to reality as Dorrien delivers lines as unabashedly pessimistic as, “I know you’ll probably only love me then just desert me / Baby, I wanna know is that what you’re gonna do?”
In perhaps one of the more devastating songs from Dorrien’s repertoire, “I Can’t Remember,” he expertly traverses the hopelessness of a post-breakup funk, when it’s hard to get out of bed and you’d rather shut out the whole goddamn shitty world. You can practically hear the eyes-half-closed malaise in Dorrien’s voice as he sings, “Where did things go wrong? / How’d we even end up here? / I can’t remember.”
Feeling unhappy yet?
“I’ve had my fair share of bouts with depression and anxiety,” Dorrien admits. “I think that’s kind of why I’ve poured myself so thoroughly into art and music. It’s cathartic and it’s a therapy for me to exorcise these demons. That being said, I enjoy life. I enjoy my friends, and hanging out. But when I sit down to write a song, I’m trying to be as honest as I can be, and a lot of the time it’s a way to deal with whatever emotional or physical stress and tumult I’m going through.
“At this point I’m okay with being as raw as I can be in music.”