ENCINITAS — Four years ago, Jason Matkin dreamed of strumming a guitar and singing in front of a large crowd. One problem: He’d never played guitar. And he’d only shared his voice with his bedroom’s four walls.
No matter — Matkin, who is now 16 years old, has quickly transformed into an “accomplished songwriter,” well-known musician Dave Matthews recently said. Matthews came to know Matkin’s music as a judge for Carnegie Hall’s Music Exchange.
Only one of six songwriters from across the nation selected for the music exchange, Matkin will perform at a music festival in South Africa as part of the program in December.
“The pieces are coming together; the vision is falling into place,” Matkin said.
Matkin wasn’t always so passionate about music. His mom signed him up for classical piano lessons at the age of 8. That developed his musical chops, but Matkin wasn’t a fan of the rigid structure.
“The thing that I enjoyed about piano is the sound that came out when I played, although I wouldn’t necessarily hit the right notes,” Matkin said. “I could feel the music. But playing different notes was discouraged. That’s when I discovered music isn’t technical. It’s emotional.”
Matkin only listened to classical music for much of his childhood. But at the age of 12, a friend introduced him to rock bands like San Diego-based Switchfoot. He found solace in the form’s improvisation and personal lyrics.
“I realized I no longer had to follow the rules,” Matkin said.
And that’s when the visions of performing on big stages began running through his head. He took up guitar, playing Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” for a crowd at his middle school graduation. He said it was a big step, though Matkin noted he was still “too embarrassed” to sing.
It wasn’t until he moved to Encinitas with his family from the small, agriculture-centric town of Exeter, Calif. that his songwriting really leapt forward, he said.
Matkin, now a senior at San Dieguito Academy, recalled that it was tough making the transition to North County. For the first time, making new friends required a concerted effort. So, he kept to himself for a while.
“On my Saturday nights, instead of going out and having a good time with friends, because I didn’t have any, I stayed home and played guitar,” Matkin said. And that really helped me advance.”
“At the time, it felt pathetic, but now that I look back, it was crucial to where I am now,” Matkin said. “I never would have embraced that inner musician.”
To fit the secluded times, he dropped his electric guitar and went acoustic. He started listening to artists like folk musician Passenger, paying more attention to lyrics. Matkin also started experimenting with alternate tunings to give his music “more feel,” he said.
“The calmer music fit where I was at,” Matkin said. “It’s so raw.”
His music remained private until last year, when a classmate convinced him to show off his vocals.
“She said I had a good voice,” he said, adding that gave him confidence.
With that boost in confidence, he soon started performing at E Street Café during open mic nights.
“Singing was always something I did quietly in my room because I didn’t want anyone to hear,” Matkin said. “I was projecting (at E Street Café). That was scary, but great.”
From there, he started recording original songs. And at the beginning of this past summer, he entered the Carnegie Hall Music Exchange upon being encouraged by a neighbor. After not hearing anything back, he forgot about the music exchange, until an e-mail from the program arrived in his inbox last month.
“I couldn’t believe it; I was in,” Matkin said, adding that receiving praise from Matthews was the icing on the cake.
“His application was interesting in that he’s only been writing for a short time,” said Chris Amos, director of educational media and technology with Carnegie Hall. “The song he submitted was still very polished.”
As part of the music exchange, Matkin will collaborate with the other songwriters, both from the U.S. and South Africa. And they’ll open for some of South Africa’s biggest acts at the CDMA Route 40 Music Festival in December.
Thus far, Matkin’s approach has been decidedly introverted. But he looks forward to bouncing ideas off others.
“I want to know what we each bring to the table,” Matkin said. “And I’m looking forward to learning new ideas from them.”
Soon, he’ll realize his goal of playing in front of a large crowd, and yet he doesn’t want to stop there.
“I want to do what I love for the rest of my life and make an honest living so I can support myself and my family,” Matkin said, noting his parents have been especially supportive.
Check out three of Matkin’s songs here.