Matt Voth's chance phone call to an old college buddy last September found his friend down in Louisiana, working for a firm involved with disaster relief there. "Man, you'd be perfect for this job," was all Voth needed to hear and the Portland musician instantly signed up for one of the last remaining positions with his friend's company. And with that, the hardworking Portland bassist found himself stepping out of his everyday life and into the maelstrom of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Working as a go-between for applicants requesting FEMA aid, Voth (rhymes with "both") visited more than 250 disaster sites in his six weeks there. While his official duties involved verifying victims' identities and examining damage to their properties, there was, naturally, some mission drift.
"You're often the only person who's actually coming there, so you end up being almost a psychotherapist, or at least a good listener, absorbing their problems. People doing this end up helping in ways far beyond the job description," he says. That additional work also entailed "doing your best not to internalize their problems, because if you do, you're screwed."
Fortunately, Voth had an outlet to process those emotions and experiences that wouldn't "screw" him: his unconscious mind, and a method he'd recently developed of bringing material from his dream state into the waking world. After years performing as sideman for numerous acts (Scott Fisher, James Low, the Flatirons), Voth had decided at the beginning of summer '05 "not to support anyone's artistic vision but my own."
Over the summer, he says, he developed the knack of "controlling my dreams right before I woke up," enabling him to remember melodies and accompanying images that were coming to him during sleep. When he found himself in the disaster zone, he says, "suddenly this unique, real-life experience was placed in my hands," raw material for the musical dreamwork he'd been doing.
"Three days in, I woke up with this vision: little girl, spotless white sundress, kneeling on the curb, mud puddle, leaning, wearing a golden cross, which was dipping into the water, with trees with downed limbs in the background. And a melody was accompanying that vision. I'm not necessarily a religious guy," he says of the cross image, but he knew inspiration when he found it. "I woke up, recorded the melody on cassette, went to work, and as I drove around during the day, kept it in the back of my mind."
That dream soon became "Crumbling Down," the song leading off Voth's new EP, The Katrina Sessions, which contains four other tunes inspired by those weeks in New Orleans. His first work as songwriter and frontman, the disc unfolds in a smooth, adult-contemporary vein, with Voth's sweet tenor recalling the late Harry Nilsson as he delivers his heartfelt, hard-won lyrics.
Several of Portland's finest players provide the backdrop, including New Orleans transplant Reggie Houston on sax and Paul Brainard on trumpet, harmonizing in sweet, second-line style. Portland's music scene may be losing a great sideman, but it's gaining a promising new artist.
Matt Voth and friends celebrate the release of
Thursday, June 22, at the LaurelThirst. 9:30 pm. $5. 21+.