Matt Rouch has found his sound. After years of performing in rock bands on the East Coast, he moved to Denver two years ago to take a job in environmental science with the Bureau of Land Management. He had planned to focus only on his work, but when he saw the city’s booming music scene, he couldn’t resist the pull to continue writing and playing music.
And Rouch’s newfound alt-country sound suits him. In songs like “Walking Out of Tennessee,” from his debut full-length, last year’s The Beautiful and the Damned, he sings in a higher-pitched croon reminiscent of contemporaries like Jonny Fritz, while on other songs he commands a more traditional country sound.
“When I first started out, I listened to the Decemberists, and I wanted to be Colin Meloy,” says Rouch. “I dressed like him, I talked like him, and I tried to write like him. I couldn’t do it, but that’s what inspired me. The Avett Brothers are the best at that genre — alt-country with indie folk. I wouldn’t be making the music that I do without those two bands.”
Rouch’s childhood in northern Virginia also impacted his music: “It was a rural experience, and I got a good taste of that country and bluegrass.”
Another thing that Rouch got a good taste of in Virginia was whiskey. While plotting his move out west, he wondered what kind of whiskey he might find. He was pleasantly surprised.
“Being from Virginia and having made quite a few trips to Kentucky, I’m a huge bourbon fan,” says Rouch. “I was worried about that coming out here to Denver. I knew there were a ton of Colorado beers, but I didn’t know about whiskey. I was very pleasantly surprised that Colorado has some great whiskey. So I’ve been sampling all the local distilleries. If I could be sponsored by a distillery someday, that’d be my dream.”
That dream just might come true. When he first got to Denver, Rouch began playing at open mics; he has since steadily worked his way up through the local scene. He hired musicians to help record his album, and now he often plays with a full band, dubbed Matt Rouch & the Noise Upstairs. With the group, he ramps up the rowdier rock components of his songs, promising lively shows, especially with Alex Fostar absolutely shredding the violin.
“There are a lot more opportunities and more support for local musicians here versus back east,” says Rouch. “Like in D.C., where I used to play — there are only a handful of places where locals can play. In Denver, there are hundreds of places.”
Rouch also noted that the local scene has become saturated with new talent. In this crowded scene, a lot of his success has come from the strong content of his album. “Riders From the Hillside” is one of the more traditional country-style tracks.
“That’s an old song that I probably wrote seven or eight years ago, when I was still in my Colin Meloy phase,” says Rouch. “It’s a narrative story, more of a wordy song. I was watching some old cowboy film — I can’t remember exactly which one — and the idea to write a dark cowboy story came to me.”
There’s also a literary bent to his songwriting; he’s a big fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The title The Beautiful and the Damned was taken from Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel, and one of its songs, “This Side of Paradise,” shares a name with another of the author’s novels. While the songs don’t have many direct connections to the literature, themes present in Fitzgerald’s work resonate throughout Rouch’s songwriting.
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“I think the novel [The Beautiful and the Damned] really encapsulates the stories on the album — all of these flawed, empty heroes,” says Rouch. “I love digging deeper into Fitzgerald’s other stories, because everybody just knows Gatsby.”
On the album’s first single, “Adelaide,” Rouch’s moody writing, juxtaposed with more upbeat instrumentation, is at its best. The song is about being spurned by an ex-lover.
“My first kiss in high school was with a girl named Adelaide,” says Rouch. “She was a very nice, sweet girl, and would not be anything like the girl in the story, but it’s no fun to write happy love songs all the time. I get more of a kick out of writing gut-wrenching ones.”
Matt Rouch & the Noise Upstairs, Tuesday, September 19, $20-$25, Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway, Englewood, 303-789-9206.