- I’m Matt Roth (aka. Major Matt Mason USA). I’ve been making music and curating art for over 20 years, mostly with my band Schwervon! and various solo projects as well as through my organization Olive Juice Music. I’ve met a lot of interesting people along the way. I’ve decided to compile a series of conversations with some of the artists who have moved and inspired me the most. Some are better known than others. All of them are remarkable. -
Barry Bliss is responsible for some of the most powerful and heartbreaking contemporary folk songs of all time. He was born in Portsmouth, VA at Maryview Hospital, in a maternity ward since torn down. I first witnessed his transformational performances around 1999, at the Sidewalk Cafe in New York City, the city he still calls home. His agile, revivalist, delivery cross sectioned with a message laden with equal parts Hank Williams and Allen Ginsburg is truly unique. He’s created over a thousand songs, roughly 200 of which have been written down at one time or another. As of late, his recorded solo efforts span roughly 8 albums. The latest one is entitled Life Is Fair.
MMM: Assuming you are speaking about yourself, you say in the song Sasha on your latest album (Life Is Fair) that you were: “Born with a gift and that gifts must be used to help people and hence pay a debt.” Can you be more specific about what you consider your gift to be and how you are choosing to help people with it? Also where does this debt come from?
BB: On a form level, my gift is my ability to spontaneously write melodies that can be quite intricate. I can write 5 part harmonies on the spot. That’s a gift. I didn’t work for it. My ability to sing well is also a gift. I had it as a child. I didn’t work for it.
The way that I am helping people with it is pretty simple. Unlike most pop “stars” and unlike people worried about having a music career or becoming famous, or entertaining folks, I am using this gift to quite frankly tell the truth. I am presenting things that need to be looked at that people do not want to look at. It is usually me singing into a mirror, but then it can apply to anyone listening.
It’s not ALWAYS me singing into a mirror, but a lot of the times it is.
This is Hell, Matt. I am here to show people a way out of Hell. I can only do that by setting a good example, part of which is using my singing talent to spell stuff out.
Hard to explain and maybe impossible for a mortal mind to technically understand the concept of original sin, but basically we are born in debt—-karmic debt. There is not a being on this planet that does not have a karmic debt. That is the sole reason anything manifests. It’s physics, if you’d like to look at it that way. These aren’t guesses, it’s just what I know. I don’t know why I know it, but I suspect it’s because I open myself to the truth. I am brave that way. When I open, I open. If a demon comes in and takes over then it does, but I open fearlessly. A demon doesn’t come in, but I rise understanding things. My guess is most people these days hold onto some belief and never let go of everything. I let go of everything daily.
So, like everybody else, I have a karmic debt, and my gifts are exactly what I must use to pay it. Luckily, doing the right thing is a joy. It’s all quite serious. I would say the chances of people listening to my music, and thinking of me as a great singer/songwriter/shaman/whatever during my lifetime are very low, perhaps non-existent and I am just not willing to accept that yet. on the other hand, I have no doubt people will realize that my stuff is sincere and deep after I am not around anymore.
Thanks for asking. Very few people ask me anything out of any sincere questioning or interest in knowing my answer. Very few even notice me….at all.
Some do, and they think I am joking and silly. Maybe 10 see me as a serious person with something to say.
MMM: I like how you’re combining the Eastern idea of Karma with the Western idea of Original sin. You say that we are all born with a debt that we must spend our lives repaying. I think some people feel the exact opposite like they were put on this earth to reap the worlds benefits. You lead a pretty humble existence. Do you think modern society is too entitled?
BB: Well, society, to me, by it’s very definition, is insane. I don’t really consider sane people to be part of society. That having been said, yes, it strikes me that a lot of people lie to themselves in order to justify a selfish and cowardly existence. Supposedly, that dude Jesus said something like “Pull the log out of your own eye before attempting to remove the splinter from another’s.” I agree. I have lived many lives lying to myself and doing damage, so I am not qualified to judge, but in this lifetime, I was born aware of a lot of things, and I was born with some sort-of deep understanding about how it is and why it is the way that it is, so I have a great deal of responsibility. We are not entitled to anything in the absolute sense. Life is not a game and reality is not a joke.
Gandhi was pretty right on. Live a life of self-sacrifice. That’s the only way to help others.
MMM: Where does love fit into this plan of a life of sacrifice?
BB: It’s not a “plan”. Anyone who has love in their heart knows no other way except the way of effortless self-sacrifice. When love is in your heart, you have no choice in the matter. There is no other option. You don’t try to make it so. It simply is so.
MMM: Nice. Sorry I didn’t mean that it was “your” plan. I just meant in the “big picture” kind natural order of things. You clearly believe that life has a purpose. Not like we’re just bouncing around for no reason out here. Right?
BB: Right. While I am pretty much typing off the cuff, I am aware this will somewhat represent how I see things, so I couldn’t let the “plan” thing go. It’s becoming the most extensive interview anyone has ever done with me by myself.
photo by Herb Scher
MMM: What do you think about when you’re playing?
BB: That’s hard to answer. I would say that when I am performing the idea is to keep my mind empty. If I lose mindfulness though I begin to think of what I will eat later, or someone in the audience looking at their cellphone instead of me, etc.
MMM: You are clearly inspired by certain philosophies: Jesus, the teachings of Gandhi.
BB: I agree. It’s pretty clear.
MMM: Are there particular artist that influence you stylistically?
BB: When I was a teenager and a young twenty-something—it was 3 people, plain and simple. 1. Johnny Rotten 2. Ian Anderson 3. David Bowie. I left music in 1989. I did however, do chanting—Sikh stuff and Buddhist stuff mainly. When I started listening to secular music again in 1992 it was Garth Brooks and George Jones to my surprise. Now, it is more varied.
MMM: The way you sing is very original. It’s somewhat spontaneous and even acrobatic at times. But there’s something classically folk or even country about most of your basic song structures. Do you know where that came from?
BB: That’s good to hear from an honest peer. I enjoy riding on the wings of my voice in a sense. I like it when it swoops and circles and goes straight. It’s always unexpected what happens. It is a gift. You really can’t learn that. It happens spontaneously. I am also horrible at some things—like car mechanics.
Basically, I am a singer. I have an instrument that is like a solo instrument–like a sax. My playing is just to back it up really, and my song structures are for the most part very typical song structures. It’s like a dancer in a very simple room. The voice is the dancer and the sing structure is the simple room. I have often wondered if maybe it wasn’t just laziness, but whatever.
The country thing I don’t know. I was born in the South, but suburbia–and mostly people were listening to Journey and Yes and AC/DC and Rush as far as I could tell. Country has generally been, in my mind at least, older people with more life experience that have lost before. Country music is about people that have fucked up many times, but what I never liked about it was when the singer just stayed stuck or sang about misery oin present tense. The misery is in the past (and it was all self-made) in my songs.
I am also horrible at some things…………
The voice is the dancer and the song structure……………
MMM: I had a teacher once that told me that all good art is about loss. Do you think that’s true?
BB: Maybe. I mean, loss could be so many things. Loss of innocence because we are no longer innocent would be a biggie. Personally, my lyrics reflect my attitude, which is, for lack of a better word, positive. My art might come from me due to the loss I mention above, but it’s all about returning to the place of innocence. Loss of all fears may be my main underlying theme. You let those go, and you lose them. I haven’t let all of mine go, but I am moving that way and that’s mainly what I sing about.
MMM: I saw a recent interview with John Lydon and he says we will soon not need government. Would you agree?
BB: If you supply me with a link I will check that out. I am not sure what the context was in which he said that. I will say, I generally find Lydon egotistical.
The way I see it, people started from scratch, and they decided to have a government. In reality, there is only nothing, or anarchy, or chaos, but, having free will, most have chosen to have government. It’s illusory. It doesn’t exist. There is a game most play in which people pretend it’s real. If we don’t need government, then we never did, and if we did need it, we always will. I, personally, can do without it. Now, one can say to me, “No government, no laws? You wouldn’t last 5 minutes before a crazy man would stab you to death”, and for all I know that’s true. If I did what I liked, I wouldn’t last 5 minutes before the government began the process of killing me, perhaps very slowly.
Society (The masses) demand government. They create it. Take it away and they will create it anew. I know very few people like myself that don’t vote, so I know how many still believe that the government is worth investing in. If someone asks me why I don’t do what I like, why I am so angry due to my own resentment at not doing what I like, and why I am so cautious about when I break laws and when I speak my mind, the answer is simple. Fear. That’s how the government gets you to play your part in the machine and it’s how they get you to play your part in destroying the planet. They hold a gun to your head, or the threat of solitary confinement or the threat of an enforced labatomy, or the threat of lethal injection, and they say “Obey, or else”. Gandhi, in his own way, said, “Well, I’ll take the ‘or else’”. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. basically said “Do what you choose, but I have a truth to tell.”
I don’t care about fame. I want it, I really do, but I can live without it and I don’t care about it. Most people think I am a bum, and it hurts my feelings, but nothing can be done about it. My only goal, is to let go of all of my fears, so that I can use all of my talents and abilities to show everyone on this planet yet another example of what a free man looks and acts like, that it may inspire others to do the same, so that hopefully one day we can all be free. As far as I am concerned, no human being has the right to persue any other goal. I know I don’t.
MMM: I think Bukowski said something like ” (I don’t hate people.) I just feel better when they’re not around.” Do you like people? Would it be fare to say that people are your muse? Do you feel connected to the people that take in your music and your message?
BB: I certainly am not into hating anyone, even Dick Cheney, but I have no problem with disliking people if I don’t find them admirable. I like everybody that is honest. Sometimes people that seem really rude are actually sweethearts, and I have a great respect for those people.
According to one dictionary source: “2. muse — a. A guiding spirit., b. A source of inspiration.” My guiding spirit is within. As for a source of inspiration, that’d be any person that I admire.
Who takes in my music? Very few folks know anything about me. Over the years a few have said they have been touched, pretty much exclusively, so they say, by my passion and honesty. Most apparently find me mediocre, or terrible, and/or crazy. Do I have a message? I sort-of hope not. David Bowie once said he was the message. What does that mean? Maybe it means “I am living a real life and so setting one example of how to live right.”
Look, I am close to 50 years old. I thought when I was young I’d become a rock start and then be killed before I was 30. I am completely surprised by how this has turned out so far. As a teen I thought everyone past around 28 had sold out. Now, I am having to admit I was mistaken about a lot of stuff. I always knew I was a talented singer. (Also, my blood relatives poured the compliments on from when I was a baby until I left home at 18.) Now, it’s hard to not think I was wrong about that too. How does a guy do music as much and for as long as I have and still have 10 people show up when he plays every 2-3 months, if he has a lot
of talent? I ask people to explain it and rarely do they even attempt it.
I am either crazy or just so extreme and/or honest that most people
find it too challenging to listen to. I welcome any readers to comment or, if they know of my work, critique it.