Matt Harlan Sees Simple in a New Way

Matt Harlan’s album Bow and Be Simple embraces seamless storytelling with equal measures hope and hurt. Stark humanity peppers his pages.

“She might as well have told him, ‘Jack, you ain’t good for nothing’/as he answered with his hand and left her lying still,” the deep-browed Houston-based songwriter sings on “The Ring.” “She married up a mean one, he don’t take no direction/Temper leads him where he needs to go.”

Harlan does not write about mindless Saturday night revelry. Instead, he elegantly captures Sunday morning redemption and regret.

“I think it all comes down to writing songs that are about actual issues and not about wanting to have some material thing or a party song,” he says. “The songs I like come from real people’s experiences and about actual issues. It’s not trying to fit some pre-defined image about going out to the clubs and drinking beer.”

Take the timeless title track: “I will bow and be simple and try as I can/To suffer the children and walk like a man,” he sings, “through high times and low lows with luck wearing thin/I will bow and be simple the best that I can.”

“I like to joke that ‘Bow and Be Simple’ was written to play at Unitarian Universalist church services but that’s not too far off,” he says. “I caught the tail end of this classical instrumental on the public radio station, and they said the name of the piece was ‘Bow and Be Simple.’ It was inspired by an old Quaker hymn. I immediately thought it was interesting that ‘simple’ has taken on different connotations since then.”

Bow and Be Simple, which follows his flawless Rich Brotherton-produced debut Tips and Compliments from 2009, comes with clear goals: Find heart and extract emotion. Show we’re in this together. Learn.

“I think people are looking for lots of things from folk music, but a lot of it is just finding a familiar feeling,” he says. “There’s resonance with our own history that you don’t always see in the fragmented digital world. You don’t know what to trust anymore, and everything becomes about branding and pre-set themes. I just want to come back to what the stories are. Plus it’s a lasting kind of music. It perseveres. When your iPhone dies, your guitar will still work.”