The first words you hear on Todd Mathis’ new album are “If you’re gonna hit me / Hit my right side, please.” That’s the jarring opening couplet of “Right Side,” the song that ushers you into Learning to Do the Harder Thing, a largely acoustic, thoughtful meditation on how the right path isn’t often the easy one.
“Learning life’s lessons the hard way is not necessarily always the fun thing,” Mathis says, “or it might not even be what you think to be the right thing at the time. But somehow in your gut you know that it probably is the right thing to do. I think a lot of lyrics were coming from that perspective.”
The second song on Learning, “Tomorrow” further explores the album’s theme of finding one’s own way in life, even when that way means breaking free of what you thought you knew.
“There’s a line in ‘Tomorrow’ that goes, “Funny how we used to believe what we used to believe,” Mathis offers, “and then you go into the next song, ‘It Ain’t Me,’ which talks about not believing the things you might have been brought up on and just finding your own way in the world.”
The collection isn’t a concept album, per se, but Mathis clearly ruminates on some big ideas throughout, accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and a small group of musicians, including bassists Chris Paget and Darren Woodlief, fiddle player Jim Graddick and guitarist Zach Bingham.
The album’s gentle sound and introspective tone are a long way from the raw and raucous, country-tinged rock that Mathis played with his former band, American Gun.
“I wanted to stretch myself creatively and work with different people,” Mathis says, “and I wanted to play acoustic guitar. I’d never done a record where I just played acoustic guitar. Everything that I’ve done in the past, there’s the blazing electric guitar on there, and me just playing crunchy Neil Young-type chords. But I wanted to sit down with my acoustic and focus more on the softer side of things.”
Mathis and co-producer Carl Burnitz worked on the album for about two years at High Fidelity Recordings in Columbia, typically recording on Monday nights.
It’s somewhat surprising given the result, but Mathis says he had to make himself start recording, and that his Monday-night routine was the way to do it.
“I got into a funk there for a while,” he recalls, “and I made a plan to go to the studio for three to four hours once a week and record something and make myself practice my craft.”
Mathis had plenty to work on once he started, though, including an instrumental ambient-rock project called Interruptions of the Mind, a covers album featuring songs by other Columbia musicians, an EP of acoustic country tunes and more. And that’s in addition to the production work he’s been doing with country singer Bentz Kirby and the folk-Americana duo Admiral Radio.
So if Mathis didn’t feel like recording an introspective acoustic folk song at his Monday night sessions, he’d simply work on another project and revisit those songs later, taking his time to get Learning right.
“There’s tons of stuff that I’ve done in that period of time that will probably never see the light of day,” Mathis says, “but I just took some of the some of the best of what I had and then made this album out of it. I worked specifically on those songs for the last four months.”
As it turns out, being able to take his time helped make Mathis’ new album what it is.
“When you’re able to go back and listen to something you did after you’ve let it sit for a month or so, you’re able to self-edit a lot more,” he explains. “If it still clicks with you after a while, maybe you’ve got something, and if it doesn’t, maybe it’s best just to let it be and move on.”
Mathis will play an album release show this weekend, but there might not be too many more chances to hear him live after that. He says he’s far more interested in producing and recording right now than he is in playing shows.
“Behind-the-scenes work is what I’m focusing on right now,” he reveals. “American Gun used to play at least 50 shows a year, but I’m 43 years old; I’m not trying to do that anymore. Four or five shows a year would be good for me, because I’m always going to have other projects going on.”
What: Todd Mathis & His Only Friends Left
Where: Curiosity Coffee Bar, 2327 Main St.
When: Saturday, Feb. 15, 7 p.m.
With: The Runout
Price: $8 ($5 advance)
More: 803-357-2889, curiositycoffeebar.com