Working hard to ‘have it all’

With a new album and an Eastern Canadian tour underway, Grand Falls songwriter Matthew Hornell has an exciting summer ahead.

Singer-songwriter Matthew Hornell released his sophomore album Have it All in February and recently embarked on a tour that will take him through Newfoundland and much of Eastern Canada this summer.

With 10 dates across the Island, the 26-year-old Grand Falls-Windsor native is looking forward to returning home again, having lived in Nova Scotia for the past two years. Hornell says Newfoundland pulls him in, so it seems right that he start his summer adventure here.

Embarking on his tour with a new sound and a new band, featuring Andrew Sneddon on steel guitar and Matthew Gallant on percussion, he is hoping to attract new fans and see familiar faces during his months on the road.

The dynamic folk singer has evolved since his earlier musical projects in St. John’s, first as guitarist for Dead Language, then as songwriter, guitarist and lead vocalist for his own band, The Diamond Minds. His successful debut release – 2010’s self-titled Matthew Hornell and The Diamond Minds, an indie-folk album with a strong Newfoundland influence, lyrically – brought he and the band to the fore of Newfoundland’s folk music scene. The album won a handful of MusicNL awards and set high expectations for the young songwriter’s eventual sophomore release.

High expectations, big change

Have It All differs stylistically, serving as a transition from his established mandolin and acoustic guitar sound to a lap steel and more bluesy vibe.

The new record, released last February, was recorded in May 2012 with producer Diego Medina at The Old Confidence Lodge in Riverport, Nova Scotia. The tracks were recorded live off the floor, allowing Hornell to exhibit his raw musical abilities and poetic intricacies with over-editing or overproduction out of the way.

“A lot of people spend so much time trying to record, so it’s grand and it’s bigger than what they can do live,” Hornell said in a recent interview.

The now seasoned performer stressed that the musical transformation between albums was not intentional. “I knew I couldn’t do that first record again, so I needed to step away from that,” he explained, saying he feels as though he’s at the top of his game nowadays.

Beyond his musical abilities, Hornell’s lyrics are charmingly spun into tales of pioneers, criminals and lovers – a much more serious, solemn and heartfelt album than his playful debut. He admits that, “a lot of the material for [Have It All] came through troubling places,” which allowed his writing to grow and mature.

The album takes quite a different journey than any of Hornell’s previous work, especially since moving to Nova Scotia and teaming up with bluegrass band Modern Grass, who played no small part in influencing Have It All’s instrumentation and style. Hornell’s enigmatic and evocative lyrics are pure poetry, bathing listeners in stoic images, poignant finger picking, and soulful vocals, from the opening track Witness right to the final, title track.

“I’ve been dying to get this right…”

The album cover for 'Have It All'. Photo courtesy
The album cover for ‘Have It All’. Photo courtesy

The 10-track album opens with blues ballad Witness, which could charm any listener into lying on the stand. Featuring Andrew Sneddon on lap steel, the track sets the entire tone of the album.

“I’ve been dying to get this right,” Hornell admits in the first line of Times of Trouble – the honest words of a lonesome man letting go and saying goodbye to his abstract worries, in a breathy seductive tone, backed with the soothing vocals of Nova Scotia musician Jennah Barry. Despite mumbling and stumbling over some lyrics in the song, the sentiment is clear.

Midnight contrasts the overall continuity and concept of the album but is a welcome change, featuring a much more up-tempo beat and backed with electronic drums, leaving it as the album’s stand-alone pop song. It will make you grin and yearn for a summer romance all year ‘round.

With verses like, “It’s the winds we remember and the chills come December, gather warmth in the whisky,” Salt in The Air conveys nostalgic emotions of creating a simple life and love near the ocean. It’s one of the most memorable songs on the album.

Saint Andrews, a traditional instrumental folk composition featuring fiddle, bodhrán, and uilleann pipes, would make anyone away from Newfoundland long for home. While I waited the entire song for lyrics, I was somewhat disappointed to not hear poetry from the talented wordsmith.

Hornell discussed having mixed reactions and reviews on the new record, considering the enormous difference between this and his first album. He has gotten better reviews than he anticipated as he considers his latest album isn’t “a la mode” with his previous style, or what’s currently popular.

Already looking ahead

He’s already looking toward the future, and revealed he has two more records “right on the tip of the tongue,” he said, explaining he is looking to explore a more electric, rock and roll sound for one project, and some traditional and old folk songs for the other. He also looks forward to the day he is established enough to move back to Newfoundland and purchase “a cabin around the bay somewhere” in his home province.

Hornell will not only be hitting Newfoundland on this tour, but also venturing across the Maritimes, Quebec, and Ontario, cultivating and entertaining fans. He is planning a further tour across the Prairies later this year, alongside friend and musician Jared Klok, who co-fronted popular St. John’s folk group All the Wiles with Katie Baggs.

Hornell and friends will play three shows in St. John’s this time around: July 12 at Harbourside Park, then later that evening at the Rock House, and July 14 at the LSPU Hall Second Space. Joining him for the St. John’s shows, in addition to his Nova Scotia companions Andrew Sneddon and Matthew Gallant, are former Diamond Minds members Josh Bourden and Paddy Byrne.

“They know how I breathe, or lack thereof. They can read my body language, and they can carry the tune,” Hornell said, evidently excited about reuniting with his old band mates on stage.

The Island tour also includes stops in Stephenville (July 4), Corner Brook (July 5-6), Woody Point (July 7), Rocky Harbour (July 8), Grand Falls-Windsor (July 9), Gander (July 10) and Port Rexton (July 13).

For more information, visit Hornell’s website, In the meantime, here’s a recent vid (for the song ‘Crimes’) to tide you over.

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