At the conclusion of his 15 minutes of fame, Chicago singer/songwriter Matthew Santos had reason to take a long, deep
look inside himself.
In 2007 Santos performed the vocal parts on “Superstar,” the Grammy–nominated single by rapper Lupe Fiasco. In part because of Santos’ breathy, upper–register singing, the insanely catchy song was a massive hit, licensed for numerous movies and TV sports shows, and ultimately selling over a million copies through both downloads and physical media.
Fiasco and Santos opened prestigious world tours for Kanye West and Rhianna, and during 2008 performed “Superstar” on Letterman, Kimmel, Ferguson, MTV’s TRL and even Ellen. You couldn’t blink and miss Matthew Santos.
That’s all behind him now.
“Playing in front of 30,000 people a night, causing riots in stadiums because people wanted your autograph — this shit gets to your head,” Santos says. “This shit really messes with a person’s head.”
He’s back in Chicago now, playing the clubs as a solo and with his band. Most importantly, Santos has a new album, Quickly Disappearing, on which he reverts to the soulful singing and brilliantly evocative guitar and piano playing he’s best at.
The album, Santos says, represents him embracing his “core values.”
Writing and recording it, as simply as possible, “was going back to my values as a musician, what I valued stylistically as a musician,” he explains. “The past two years I’ve been sort of slowly descending from this whole ‘Superstar,’ Lupe Fiasco debacle, and just becoming grounded again. Becoming a normal human being.”
Santos plays the Sentient Bean May 12. He’s on a solo tour because, frankly, it costs too much to take a band out on the road.
Still, he’s a full–time musician, which he’s happy about. “It isn’t glamorous, but I’m scraping by,” he says with a laugh.
Santos concedes that he didn’t make a lot of money from the Lupe Fiasco fiasco — “If I knew then what I know now, I would have approached it all very differently” — but he’s glad for the experience.
If only for what it taught him.
"I was receiving special treatment from complete strangers; when you’re hot the industry begins to orbit around you,” he explains. “Not only did I take it all for granted, and just assume that this is how it was going to be for the rest of my career, it separates and alienates you from the rest of the world.
“It’s not like it messed with me psychologically and everlasting, it just sort of elevated me, in a sense, and inflated my ego, and took me out of my normal head space. It just took me a bit to get back to the ground and realize why I was doing this. And what was truly important to me.”
Born in Minneapolis to a Danish mother and a father whose lineage was both Spanish and Filipino, Santos originally planned to be a painter.
“Ironically, I was at an art school when I realized that music spoke a little bit more directly to me,” he says. “Visual art is almost like a meditation for me. It becomes this entertaining conversation in my head, like a thought process unfolding — making a mark and then reacting to it.
“But music is just more direct. Even though music without lyrics can be as open as an empty canvas in itself, and just sort of a vibe that can be interpreted in any way, I found that when you add lyrics it gives it a signpost. You’re creating a very specific setting, a very specific vibe that can be universally accepted as an emotional experience. People can listen to a song and immediately connect with it.
“So I feel like music has the power of cutting through the bullshit, and getting right to the heart. It inspired me so much more than visual art did.”
One of his earliest musical influences was Jeff Buckley, the enigmatic singer/songwriter who died tragically in 1997, at the age of 30.
“He’s able to bring the music to another level of intensity,” Santos gushes. “On almost a spiritual level. It reaches within you. It just touched me on such a level that I couldn’t not be completely entranced by his music and his voice.”
Over time, Santos says, he found his own, true voice — but the similarities between his tone and phasing, and Buckley’s, are unmistakable.
So much so that Mary Guibert, Buckley’s mother, came to a Santos show in Los Angeles, sat in the front row, and afterwards encouraged the young Chicagoan to audition for a new Buckley bio–pic. She had the script (tentatively titled Mystery White Boy) couriered over.
“They wanted a video audition,” says Santos, who admittedly hadn’t acted since an elementary school play. “I submitted a couple of videos, singing, and they got back to me and said they chose someone else.”
The role went to actor Reeve Carney, one of the stars of the Broadway Spider–Man musical.
“To be honest, I kinda feel like the guy they chose for it was pre–destined for the part,” says Santos. “He’s Bono’s little .... I don’t want to say little bitch ... he’s Bono’s guy, and Bono wrote all the music for that Spider–Man thing, so he’s got a titan of a contender in his corner.
“So I don’t know if they were just humoring people or not, having them submit, but I kind of felt that way.”
For all Matthew Santos knows, it might have been another fiasco.
Where: Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave.
When: At 8 p.m. Saturday, May 12