Canadian trio Western Avenue shares a remarkable similarity to hit-making group Lady Antebellum, right down to the tight harmonies and arena-rock influences. On the group's self-titled EP (released earlier this year), the band, comprised of Nikki English, Keith Robertson and Matt Williams, only scratches the surface of their potential, demonstrating their strong songwriting abilities and enchanting vocal presence. Their current single is "Wherever You Are," an uplifting ode to destiny and love.
NashvilleGab was able to catch up with bandmate and vocalist Matt Williams about their latest project and what sounds have influenced their artistic direction. The singer also shared what he'd be doing if music didn't work out, as well as what song he wishes he'd written (and so much more).
Nashville Gab: First of all, congrats on the EP, which you released earlier this year. This is the group’s debut, correct?
Matt Williams: Yes. It’s our first EP. Back in 2008, we recorded a three-song demo, but we never really shopped it around or anything.
NG: Did any of those songs make this record or do you still have those in your back pocket?
MW: We shelved two of them for the time being. We’ve actually talked about bringing them back. We still play them live a little bit anyway. The one cut from that demo was “Without Saying Bye” that actually made it onto [this] EP. We thought that it was a pretty powerful song. So, we decided to keep that one.
NG: Why did you wait so long to release this record?
MW: Funny enough, from March of last year, we sat down, the three of us. Basically, we’d been a cover band for five years and just did the whole club scene and theatre scene up here around Toronto. We had been writing in the background for so long, and we’d been putting our own songs into our live shows. We were getting tremendous feedback from that. So, we sat down and were like ‘you know what? We’ve been a cover band for so many years, we might as well go into the studio and see what we can come up with.’
[Adding:] The first song we recorded was ‘Highway Headin’ Out of Town,’ and it got picked up by Canadian country radio. We decided to go back in and record a full EP. It was pretty cool.
NG: What influenced the record?
MW: I think all of our musical influences growing up [are present]. We were all big Bon Jovi and Def Leppard and Taylor Swift fans growing up. We wanted [those] arena-rock choruses involved with it and sing-along verses kind of thing. We were huge fans of those bands, [as well as] Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum. We looked at what they were doing and were like ‘we kind of want our album to [lean] the same way.’
[Adding:] As soon as Lady A made its way onto Canadian radio, we were like ‘oh my gosh.’ We had actually been singing three-part harmony since 2006. We were like ‘holy cow! These guys made it kind of doing what we’re doing.’ That was pretty cool to hear them, and they’re definitely a huge influence on us.
NG: Growing up, you also listened to Tom Petty, too, correct?
MW: Yes! That was when I was 10 years old, and I went to my first rock concert. My parents got me tickets to see Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. I remember as soon as the lights went down, it was magical. A couple weeks later, I basically begged my parents to get me a second-hand guitar. I struggled playing guitar for a couple years, and the first year, I think I wanted to quit every single week. It was pretty painful, but we got through it. I’m glad I persisted and that my parents took me to that concert. [After that,] I knew I wanted to play music.
NG: What is your favorite Tom Petty song?
MW: Oh, there’s so many. My favorite album, obviously, is “Full Moon Fever.” That whole album is unbelievable. There’s one song he does with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin My Heart Around.” That’s probably my favorite song. From an early age, I just loved that male-female vocals going on.
NG: Did you three write all the songs on the EP?
MW: Yes, we did. We wrote them all, and we also wrote collectively with an amazing Canadian lyricist Dave Woods. I think he penned the lyrics to three songs on the EP, “Highway Headin’ Out of Town,” “Wherever You Are” and “What My Heart Had In Mind.” He gave us the lyrics to those three songs and basically sent them to Nikki. She kind of came up with the melody. When we went into the studio, we hashed them out and made those songs our own. We are pretty grateful Dave helped us out with those.
NG: How important is songwriting for you?
MW: I’ve been playing in bars since I was about 18 years old, so for the last 11 years. Playing other people’s songs is OK, but there’s nothing like seeing a crowd sing back your own song. It’s pretty magical. The first time we played “Highway Headin’ Out of Town,” I think we put out a YouTube video just of the three of us playing it acoustically. Then, going to one of our shows and seeing people sing it back to us [was] so inspiring. Now, we’re writing almost every single day as a band and individually with outside writers. I think it’s extremely important, and it’s something we’re grateful we can pursue.
NG: When did you start writing?
MW: I’m going to say even back in high school when I was about 15 or 16 years old. I was a big fan of all the metal bands at the time, like Korn. It’s funny how things come full circle, and now, I’m doing country. It’s really strange. [laughs] So, I started writing and playing in bands in high school. I know Keith and Nikki have been writing probably since a very young age, as well. Nikki, in particular, [started] when she was 16 or 17. She really got into, and I think she submitted a song that she wrote with Dave Woods at the time. She came in like second or third in a John Lennon songwriting contest. That was pretty cool. She kind of knew she had the bug early on, too.
NG: Are you the type of songwriter that has a notepad and pen by your bed?
MW: Definitely. For the most part, it’s just my iPhone. Something that inspires me, I personally live in Cobourg, Ontario, and we have an amazing beach down here. Just going down to the beach and walking around for half an hour (I try to do that once a day), I find it really inspires me. So, I have always have my iPhone with me. That’s where the songwriting process usually starts for me. I take a lyric or a chorus that gets stuck in my head. Then, I go back and start hashing out with a guitar or a piano, [settling on] the mood that that lyric represents. Probably 90% of my songs come from that. There is the odd time that it’s just a guitar riff or something that drives it, and it goes from there. It’s all over the place.
NG: When you write a song, do you ever find it sounding like something you’ve heard before?
MW: Yes! That happens quite a bit actually. We just kind of can it right there. It’s like ‘oh yea, that’s that song.’ Well, we’re constantly listening to music and the radio. It’s bound to happen. There’s only so many notes you can play, too, right? Hopefully, you catch that early on in the process. We’ve been fortunate enough that we haven’t actually gone in and recorded something and then realized [it’s already out there]. That’s probably a good thing.
NG: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
MW: Oh man. It was actually a song…I was probably 16 years old. I played in a rock band, and it was a song called “A Real-Time Woman.” It was just a corny rock song, a sex, drugs, rock-n-roll thing. That was probably the first one I wrote in its entirety and brought it to the band, Right Off the Driveway. It went over really well. [That] was inspiration to keep going with it. That was pretty cool.
NG: How did you three meet?
MW: It was 2006. Nikki was coming down and taking vocal lessons from Tara Lyn Hart, who is a great Canadian musician and had songs all over radio. Tara had a school here in Cobourg. Keith was actually teaching guitar at the school. He did some shows with Tara and was her go-to guitar player. Myself and Keith had taught together at a different music shop, George’s Guitars. Long story short, Nikki had a show that was booked, and she needed a couple guitar players to back her up. Tara suggest Keith, and Keith, in turn, called me. The three of us got together. The first song on her setlist was “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. The way our voices kind of blended together…it was really cool.
NG: Did you know in that moment that you had something special?
MW: It was the goosebumps. A lot of bands do three-part harmony. Things out there are real awesome right now. It was the point where, we couldn’t even really tell where the voices were coming from. There is so much depth from the voices (of the three of us). It was pretty surreal. Even thinking back now, I get goosebumps. We still play “Don’t Stop Believing” in some of shows. It’s where it all started.
NG: As a working musician, what struggles have you faced over the years?
MW: Everyone has day jobs, right? It’s finding that energy to really put in an extra eight or nine hours to your day after you get home from your day job. That was part of the struggle Part of it, too, was just the distance between us. I live about 45 minutes to an hour outside of where Nikki and Keith live. In the winter time, where we live in Canada, it gets pretty snowy. So, it’s tough to get to rehearsals sometimes. Sometimes, it takes two to three hours. Focusing on the end goal, that’s really pushed us through some of those minor little setbacks and frustrations along the way.
NG: You first started playing piano as a kid. Was that on a whim or did you parents make you do it?
MW: Well, I was always involved with sports growing up. So, I played competitive baseball and rugby through high school. Piano actually came from me. There was always music going on in my house as young kid. My mother was a pretty good piano player. I remember me and my sister would kind of sing along with her, like Beatles songs and stuff like that. When I was six, I was like ‘I want to learn.’ So, I took lessons for a couple of years. I just kind of got fed up with the theory side of things. I just really wanted to play songs. So, my patience as a kid was pretty small. I ended up quitting. That was the base for the rest of my musical ventures. Piano is a really good base instrument to learn on.
NG: If you weren’t doing music, what would you be doing right now?
MW: I actually went through school for firefighting. That was about 10 years ago, and I actually got hired as a firefighter. But I realized shortly after that that I couldn’t maintain my music schedule, and that was my main passion. The way the schedule worked is you worked basically every second weekend and nights. As a musician, that’s your money-makers. I couldn’t really make it happen. So, I ended up stepping down from that and taking a business job, Monday to Friday, where I could pursue music. I think if I had to not do music full time, I would definitely go back to firefighting.
NG: What current song do you wish you’d have written?
MW: I probably would have to say…”What Are You Drinking About” by Florida Georgia Line. There’s something about that song that’s just…I’ve always loved an acoustic guitar. I actually just heard that for the first time a couple weeks ago. I’ve fallen in love with it. I think on my iPod it’s just to about 60 listens or something. I really like what they’re doing. It’s almost bringing those Def Leppard, big production to country music.
NG: You recently filmed the music video for “Wherever You Are.” It has a military theme to it?
MW: Initially, the script was something completely different. We’ve been doing a lot of US press for the single, and we’ve been finding that a lot of military personnel have really related to that song. It’s about missing that one they’re destined to be with but they can’t actually be with them. We got some pretty cool emails and feedback. So, we approached the team that was going the music video and said ‘why don’t we do a military theme?’ There’s actually a military base that is about an hour outside of where I am in Canada. We’re looking forward to seeing the finished result. We recorded that a couple weeks ago now. We did our parts on the one day, and then, they were filming the rest of the week with their professional actors. It’s going to be pretty cool.
[On the group:] It’s a partnership that’s had its ups and downs, but it seems to be working.
NG: Do you have plans on releasing an album next year?
MW: We’re actually back in the studio right now doing pre-production on a few singles that we are going to release next year. As far as a full-length album, I don’t believe that’s in our plans right now. We just want to release really good songs and put out another EP probably late next year, early 2015. We’ve got our next singles kind of lined up, and we’re pretty pumped about these next songs. It takes what we’ve done in the past and takes it to the next level.
Grab a copy of the band's self-titled EP on iTunes.
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