A board member since 2016 and dedicated volunteer performer since 2007, Matt Jaffe recently sat down with staff producer Marian Hubler to talk about his life as a musician and why he finds it so rewarding to give back to Bread & Roses. A singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, he has contributed to our organization by performing institutional and benefit concerts, recruiting other volunteers, and lending an important perspective to our ongoing mission. He has been a particularly inspiring role model for our younger audiences by encouraging teens to pursue their own artistic passions.
Q. What inspired you to start playing music at a young age?
A. I owe my music education to my mom Elisabeth Jaffe. She was persistent and enthusiastic in encouraging me to learn to play the violin. When I was sometimes less than enthusiastic, she took the initiative to keep me focused and motivated. Eventually, the guitar captured my heart as I noticed a few violins in the bands that lit me up -- U2, the Rolling Stones and the Talking Heads were early offenders. I wanted to emulate the lead singers of those bands so I taught myself the instrument and started writing my own songs that I eventually set loose on the unsuspecting audiences of “open mics” in Fairfax.
Q. How did you come to volunteer for Bread & Roses?
A. My involvement with Bread & Roses stemmed from my “open mic” days. My friend Norm Weintraub, first suggested I play an open mic and also invited me to perform a Bread & Roses show with him at The Cedars of Marin. Norm is an absolute beacon of generosity and he represents the greatest extent to which music can be selfless and communal, erasing the assumed line between performer and audience. I'm fortunate to still play gigs with Norm several times a week and will always appreciate his making me aware of B&R.
Q. How did you come to be the youngest member of our board of directors? What has that experience meant to you?
A. It's been a privilege to be privy to the brain trust. The board is replete with individuals who exude warmth and wisdom (and plenty of musical talent to boot.) My road to the board felt like an organic sequence from volunteering, to becoming familiar with the staff, to being granted insight into the decision-making process. I simply hope that I can give back as much as I have gained from the experience as a board member. It feels like an education on topics to which I would otherwise be oblivious, and in this day and age of the music community, a holistic approach is not only advantageous but necessary.
Q. What memorable moments do you recall from your years as a volunteer performer?
A. Part of why I value B&R shows is that I don't assume there will be an easy connection to the audience, compelling me to be more vulnerable and proactive in establishing one. I have played many shows for juvenile halls, which require significant energy for ice-breaking. And even then, it can go unbroken. But that makes it all the more special when the emotional bridge is established. It can come down to a single audience member who breaks the tension with a question or a single song that leaves a unique impression. I'm admittedly nervous at the outset of those shows as my usual performance strategies can be not only futile but detrimental. It forces me to reassess the heart of live music and what it means for music to be empathetic outside of the familiar context of a nightclub or concert venue.
Q. Why do you think music is such an important force for healing?
A. Music is a powerful way in which we can establish identity. In moments of questioning various life choices, I can rely on a walk with earbuds to reaffirm my conviction in my selfhood. In college, I felt deeply unsettled by my surroundings, and strolling the campus while listening to X's Los Angeles quieted my self-doubt and reminded me that circumstances are ephemeral, but identity can be unflinching. Often, it is in private that music is most powerfully soothing as it is a conversation in which joys and fears can be reflected back on oneself through the prismatic mirror of songs. This conversation can happen in a live music setting; since the privacy is mental and not physical, personal catharsis can take place anywhere.
Q. You have a new recording coming out soon. How has your songwriting been influenced by current events and what do you see as your role in making a difference as a contemporary songwriter?
A. My new album is made up of pandemic-era songs, but not ones that are about the pandemic. Though live music suffered from the quarantine, songwriting flourished giving newfound time to focus on craft. With this album, I tried to find a balance between the atmospheric synth-driven sound of my last album and the guitar-driven rock of my earlier work.
Just like listening to music, writing music is an internal conversation. I write primarily to help me expel or explore my own thoughts. What the music does thereafter is, in a sense, gravy. That said, if the gravy includes somebody else relating to the conversation, that is the greatest success. I am proud whenever my songs behave as a vessel for someone else's comparable thoughts. I try to write about my specific experience, but not so specific that the music can't be relevant to a broader interpretation.
Although most of my songs aim to connect on a more intimate level, occasionally an event beyond me is too powerful to go unaddressed. For example, the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando compelled me to write the song "Raise the Dead" in a way that felt almost outside myself. Unlike certain songs that take months, even years, it was done in a day, a testament to how music can be healing and perhaps is most urgently produced when it needs to be.
For updates about Matt’s latest recordings and upcoming gigs around the Bay, visit https://www.mattjaffemusic.com/shows.