Santa Rosa Fangs is a stirring, stunning, and cinematic look and listen into the sometimes autobiographical, sometimes fictional journey of the venerable California musician Matt Costa through the tangled groves and grapevines of his home state.
Throughout the album’s twelve songs, Costa illuminates what he has learned and how he has grown in the past 15 years of his career. His music has taken him around the world, allowing him to work with diverse, respected artists and to connect with people everywhere—from his albums released on Brushfire Records to recording with Belle and Sebastian in Glasgow, to penning film scores and releasing a variety of genre-bending EP’s, and to finally coming home to Los Angeles’s Dangerbird Records for his first new proper full-length release in nearly five years. A rebirth in a sense, through his keen pop sensibility, studious songwriting, technical mastery, and a modern-meets-vintage sound bursting with bite, Costa has recorded the album of his career, one sure to reach new shores and sailors alike.
“In the past 15 years of my career, I feel I’ve continually been breaking through, speaking out, and reaching different people,” Costa says. “If one of my songs connects now to someone who didn’t connect before, then we have a dialogue together. That’s the point of music, to have that dialogue and tell a story, and to entertain with a sound that has depth.”
He began the recording of Santa Rosa Fangs over a year and a half ago, though some songs here predate that mark. Over the past few years, Costa had challenged himself to explore new terrain, from the acoustic-fingerpicking/lo-fi garage/experimental sounds of 2015’s EP’s to the acid- washed and reverb-laden soundtrack to the film Orange Sunshine to another complete album that never saw the light of day. Realizing he sought a collection of dyed-in-the-wool songs rather than sonic experiments, in July of 2017 he and producers Peter Matthew Bauer (The Walkmen) and Nick Stumpf (French Kicks) entered a studio to begin work.
“There’s a difference when I sit down to write sonic textures and when I sit with a guitar or piano and write a song,” he says. “These new songs went back to a traditional sense, and when stripped back to their purest form, they still work. They tell a story, the melodies aren’t leaning on anything, and they make instrumentation around them come to life in a new way, but their core is strong. My goal for the EP’s was to develop conceptual ideas, making each one in a short period and with their own concepts; Orange Sunshine was a bigger exercise in that. Now, this record is all of those things I was exercising come into their own. It’s more of a visualized record that takes you into the world of the Santa Rosa fangs.”
The tale of Santa Rosa Fangs centers around a young woman named Sharon, her two brothers Ritchie and Tony, and their story of love, loss, and coming of age in a timeless yet contemporary California. It is replete with long distance love affairs and nostalgic romances woven through the loom of tragedy and time. Interestingly, rather than setting out to create a specific narrative, Costa began noticing a theme in the new songs as he wrote them: an unconscious embodiment of the surroundings in which he himself had grown up. According to Costa, the titular teeth refer to that inescapable feeling of a romantic, tragic, and eternal bite that certain places and events will always hold on us.
“I’ve interwoven my own stories into a fictional idea of what ‘Santa Rosa Fangs’ is, from my own time spent living in Northern and Southern California and years driving up and down the coast, seeing the landscape and where life can pull you within one state,” Costa says. “It is all these things—the ‘bite that is eternal, the smile in the neon’—and it has fangs. They stick with you: the romantic, the tragic, all that. It’s the characters’ story and my story, too, contemporary but still tortured by the past. It’s a window into a time period but spoken as if it’s the present. The beauty of love and loss doesn’t have a date on it; it’s timeless.”
The album follows the siblings as they search for love and meaning in their lives, which are ultimately cut short by the passing of both brothers in unrelated accidents. Sharon, left battling with her own mortality and forced to see through a shattered lens, becomes the story’s grieving, guarded hero and, as Costa says, is “a little bit me, and a little bit everyone.” Similarly, the origin of the characters has one foot in reality and one in the ether. The song “Ritchie” is based on a true family saga, as two of Costa’s cousins were twin brothers who died within a year of each other in motorcycle and car accidents in the early 1980s. Likewise, “Phosphorescent Letter” is the story of a local friend’s daughter who endured a long-distance, online relationship with a boyfriend in Australia; in that dramatic situation Costa saw a through-line for Sharon’s tale. “Because she is so tortured by loss she’s afraid of love, so she sets herself up for a distant relationship, illuminated on her phone,” he says. “It’s a real-love thing that happens frequently these days.”
Other concrete inspirations found their way into Santa Rosa Fangs as well. Costa imagined his creations in a setting similar to that of a Jim Jarmusch film, with dramatic events unfolding around them as they attempt to go about their daily lives as earnestly as possible. He also cites Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska as an influence for its songs and characters as well as its moments of sparseness. Like that iconic record, the cover of Santa Rosa Fangs is a stark black-and-white photograph tinged with deep red text, featuring three youths running along a freeway overpass. It’s not clear whether the trio—Costa’s real-life Orange County neighbors—are sprinting for joy or to escape some unknown entity; Costa hints that to him they are running away from the grabbing hands of time. “The song ‘Time Tricks’ is about that, too: it’s inevitable and coming for you.”
Costa also found inspiration in working with Bauer and Stumpf, whom he had previously admired from a distance and whose music resumes he respects greatly. “I really connected with Pete and Nick and took their lead on several ideas,” he says. “That’s why you partner with someone—you want their input. I shaped things a little differently by listening through their ears than I would have otherwise.” Costa cites “Real Love,” an upbeat, heavy tune written in 5/4 time, as such a moment of collaboration. Originally intended as an acoustic song, he was encouraged by his producers to approach it from a fresh direction. “I had done that sort of thing before, a Nick Drake, fingerpicking type thing,” he says. “Pete and Nick inspired me to take it to a new place. To write a driving rock song in 5/4 is a real challenge, but I had the basis in my pattern and we all drove it home with a really strong beat. On my own I might have stuck with a simpler take, but it felt good to tackle some new ground.”
In another circumstance, Costa again came up with two variations of the same song, but rather than being forced to choose between the two, he simply used both. As a result, “I Remember It Well” bookends the album, first as a rollicking, piano-driven number that sets the record’s tone and pace, and second as a sparser, quiet version to end it. The latter was the initial version and was also the first song written for the album some four years ago. “That song is both the entrance and exit to this world, and also shows the process of how you can take a song, do it two ways, and both can be impactful and give you different feelings.”
No matter how his process or approach may change—in the present moment or in any era of coming-of-age throughout his decade-and-a-half-long career—Costa recognizes that one unique thing in his work will always stay the same: his perspective. “Essentially, what it comes down to is this: I sit down with a guitar, and these are songs,” he says. “I’ve worked hard to understand how to produce them in certain ways. You can try to dress up a song and put a different sound to it, but if the song isn’t that kind of song then it’s not going to work. I’ve had to exercise both of those qualities equally—to know how to develop these sounds sonically, and then when I know sonically where I want it to go, I have to write to that. I guess that knowledge comes with 15 years of songwriting experience. I couldn’t have made this record any other time than now.”
For Matt Costa, the world of Santa Rosa Fangs is the past, present, and future of his life all rolled up into one long stretch of sunlit California coastline.