SINGER-songwriter Matt Eckstine made a name for himself as the engaging, inviting, and versatile frontman of The Accomplices, Savannah’s beloved Lowcountry string band.
For six years, the group swept up awards and hearts with their roots-inspired acoustic originals, releasing two studio LPs, two live albums, and an EP.
On February 3, 2017, the band said farewell-for-now as bassist Zach Smith and fiddle player Colleen Heine moved across the country to start a family (the couple’s first little accomplice is due any minute now!).
With his band on hold, Eckstine took a look at his musical career, aspirations, and sound. Now, he’s releasing a solo album of original songs, signifying a fresh start for the musician. Stripped down to vocals and acoustic guitar, his self-titled CD features favorite Accomplices tracks, some familiar Eckstine solo tunes, and new material, too.
These days, he’s gigging with a backing band that features Marc Chesanow on bass and Vuk Pavlovic on drums. As a part of his summer residency at Tybee Island Social Club, Eckstine’s oceanside album release party will be a laidback and fun event for all.
We spoke with the singer-songwriter on the new turn in his career, dialing it back to dial it up, and his optimistic, original music.
It’s interesting hearing Accomplices songs stripped-down on your album. Why a solo LP now?
I did it for a few reasons. I was kind of scared and needed to try something.
There were actually 16 songs. I did all my favorite songs that I wrote...anything that was a “band” song, like that song on the last record, Colleen sang but I wrote, I didn’t record any of that stuff. These songs are the ones I was hoping would stand on their own lyrically.
The other thing is, these are 16 recordings I can give to Marc and Vuk and Susanna Kennedy or Jay Rudd or Cory Chambers, whoever, and they can hear that song without hearing some other bass player, some other drummer.
Also, I want to do singer-songwriter shows in Nashville; I’m very interested in what Jason Isbell did after The [Drive-By] Truckers. I need to brand myself as Matt Eckstine, and I’m in it for the long-haul. I can call it Matt Eckstine, I can have people join the band, the drummer can move away, I can get a new drummer.
And you never know. Somebody could buy your song. You do a record like that, a producer can be like, ‘I can change this around. This is a mold of a song, this is a demo. Let’s sculpt it for someone like Taylor Swift now.’
I want to explore different avenues of music. I think this record is a great kick starter for a solo career, and I can do anything from there. I can walk in with a guitar and nothing else.
When you found out that Zach and Colleen were moving, what were your initial thoughts? Was [going solo] the first solution?
This was what I did immediately. I didn’t know what else to do. ...It’s just trying to harness that energy and keep that Accomplices momentum. I felt an urgency to do it.
Was there ever a thought of keeping a band as The Accomplices?
Me, personally, I was talking with my girlfriend and friends...I just said, ‘It’s not in my best interest to present new material to this project.’ I basically was like, ‘Okay, I can see the shore, it’s about to crash, but I guess I gotta get back out and do something.’ I’m solo now, it’s Matt Eckstine now, and the people I play with are great hands. It’s not even about how awesome [they] are—more importantly, I want it to be a lot of fun.
The goals aren’t the same. World domination: that was The Accomplices’ thing. I believed in that. I just want to try to put that into me now. I want to keep it professional and fun, and the people I play with, they’ll become family.
You mentioned a possible transition to electric guitar.
I wanna rock! The new song “This Heaven,” when I play electric, it’s got this jingly-jangly alt-country electric sound. I’m hearing stuff differently with electric guitar. It’s got a little jolt to it, a little grit—which, to me, feels more Savannah anyways.
It feels good to show a different side of me. The Accomplices was cool because everybody had their thing—it was literally 25 percent, 25 percent, 25 percent, 25 percent. I’m interested in going 100 percent. I’ll write the song, bring it in, and I want to hear what people do—I don’t want to tell them what to do, but at the end of the day, it’s my song. That’s straight from Bruce Springsteen’s book, that’s how he talked with his band.
From before The Accomplices, during your time in the band, ‘til now, have you seen your songwriting style transform?
Not really; I know what I’m good at. I love Townes Van Zandt and John Prine and Bob Dylan, but I just can’t make a character up and write about it. I wish I could!
I write about healing myself, how I feel about a situation personally, how I feel about the world. Naturally, I tend to have a glass half-full perspective on life. I have that feeling on stuff 90 percent of the time; I think when I’m doing it, I want to heal myself, and I want to heal other people that have gone through the same thing. I’m optimistic even in the saddest songs I’ve written. Sometimes I can get a little tongue-in-cheek and happy because something made me laugh, and I’ll get a line, like in “One Orange in the Tree.”
I’m trying to break the mold a little bit with rhythm, but as far as lyrics, I think that’s always going to be how I see and feel.
That’s what I want to do: something cool and good with my life. If I went back and worked doing what I used to do—my family has a tire business, and tires are awesome, they get you down the road, we need them!—but this is my tire. This is what makes me feel good, and this is my product. I think that’s an honorable life.
Was it ever a question for you? Did you ever consider doing something different?
I knew I wanted to do it when I was really young...I went through a lot of struggle with it. My family was like, “This is a bad idea, you need to stick with college,” and I just failed out of college left and right. I wasn’t focused on it, I couldn’t get past it...it was almost like I went in knowing I was going to fail.
I felt this pressure of society that [playing music for a living] is not smart—and it’s not smart! It’s a horrible idea! It’s the worst thing you could ever do! It’s the only thing I’m qualified to do, and I’m good at performing, making money in the corner of a bar on River Street, and I love doing that.
I have no desire to live anywhere else. I’d thought about moving to Asheville, trying some new stuff, but why would I do that? It’s like going to Portland and trying to open a coffee shop. It’s saturated. I’m definitely here to stay, and I’m going to build whatever empire I can here. I’m going to build a new hotel on River Street and start over again! I’ll play on the rooftop bar! That’s my plan!