Elim Bolt’s Johnnie Matthews might be a rookie bandleader with a raw singing style, but armed with new material from the group’s debut CD, “Nude South,” the Charleston-based songwriter already is creating some of the most welcoming, retro-powered rock ’n’ roll the local music scene has heard in ages.
A few years ago, Matthews was situated on a family farm in Elim, handling bass guitar duties for Sequoyah Prep School, a straightforward pop/rock group based in Florence.
These days, he’s settled in the Holy City and in charge of his own group and his own music.
“I got my chops and street smarts within the music industry with Sequoyah Prep School, but I started taking more of an interest in writing about two and a half years ago,” Matthews said. “I was living on the family farm by myself when I realized that I wanted to be in control of writing my own songs.”
Matthews bolted from Elim in 2011 and landed in downtown Charleston hoping to find new musical opportunities and projects with which to collaborate.
He soon hooked up as the bassist-on-call with Brian Hannon’s perpetually casual indie rock band Company (aka “Co.”), which was a nice change of pace from Matthews’ previous situation, he said.
He also felt the urge to try his hand at writing songs and singing them himself.
An all-night songwriting session at his old farmhouse in late 2010 got things rolling. Matthews composed his first proper song by sun-up, a slow-rolling country love song titled “The Now.”
“I usually start out with songs on an acoustic guitar on a back porch,” Matthews said. “I never record or write down anything because if it’s really good, I think it’ll simply come back to me. I’ll be able to remember the good stuff. Sometimes, a song I’d been working on five months ago pops back up when I’m on the porch with a guitar.”
Encouraged and inspired, he quickly worked up a solid batch of tunes and reached out to musical friends — Ryan Zimmerman, Christian Chidester, Jordan Hicks, Amber Joyner and Conor Donohue — and they added instrumentation to his guitar and vocal parts at Zimmerman’s home studio.
Matthews compiled six of his strongest originals on a solo EP titled “Felix.” The twangy guitars, rich harmonies and rhythmic rumble of “Felix” foreshadowed the dense, wall-of-sound style of Elim Bolt’s “Nude South.”
Elim Bolt took shape piece-by-piece over the past year and a half as Matthews wrote and recorded new material. Zimmerman provided several drum tracks along the way while Chidester handled bass guitar, Hicks played lead and additional rhythm guitar and Joyner sang harmonies. Drummer Michael McCrea joined in during the sessions, as did organist Dan McCurry of the local indie-pop band Run Dan Run.
“I was initially just bogged down, trying to record the record when Dan reached out to me with some cool ideas,” Matthews said. “He helped me organize tracks, and he eventually started adding organ to a few things at his home studio, Apartment A. It all happened naturally. Then we signed on with his Hearts & Plugs label.”
McCurry originally organized Hearts & Plugs in 2007 with friends and bandmates as an arts collective, a virtual home base for like-minded musicians and artists. Last year, he rebranded it as an independent record label.
Hearts & Plugs will release Elim Bolt’s seven-song “Nude South” online and on CD on Tuesday.
From the tearful, reverb-soaked opening song, “Only You,” to the dreamy-drowsy waltz of the closing track, “Blue Jays,” Nude South works from a foundation of classic pop stylings with soaring melodies, close-knit harmonies and clever arrangements.
Matthews’ unusually accented vibrato and rich baritone drenches every song, from the slow-rolling, heartbreaker ballads to the loud and noisy rompers.
“Even before I started singing lead on my own, my vibrato actually kept me on pitch and helped me hold notes when I did backup singing with Sequoyah,” Matthews said. “But now I’ve gotten better. I don’t rely on it. I might have overdone it a little bit before, but I know my voice a little better now. I’ve only been singing lead for two years, but I’m finally at the point where I don’t listen to my voice and cringe.
“We’ve been calling it indie crooner-rock,” he laughs. “I grew up listening to a lot of older rock ’n’ roll. People compare my voice to Roy Orbinson, but I never really listened to a lot of Roy. I’m not a fan of the shredding rock guitar thing. I just wanted it to sound like a welcoming wall of sound. I want it all to, like, hit you.”