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Class of 2017: Matt Umland

usually don’t take solicitations for picks, but when your editor texts you at 1 a.m. and says, “Matt Umland is playing some otherworldly stuff by himself at Little Rock right now. He’s got to be in the Class of 2017,” and you realize that Umland is one of the dependable forces behind beloved local indie rockers Tin Armor, it’s time to investigate.

What Umland does currently is an entirely different beast than what he’s done with Tin Armor for the past decade. It’s more like he’s become a flannel-wearing progenitor of blue-eyed soul, or a late-night quiet storm on the AM dial—say Michael McDonald, Donald Fagen, or Steve Winwood.

Take for instance, “Magnet,” which has been hiding on the Internet for over a year now. While you wouldn’t mistake it for the D’Angelo cuts which Umland calls a direct inspiration, it does have all the touchstones of neo-soul.

It’s a hybrid of the classics and modern genre-bending visionaries like Frank Ocean and James Blake. Then again, you might also mistake it for ’80s-era Hall and Oates, or any number of yacht rock heroes.

“You’re starting to see this weird blur in music, where the idea of interesting, engaging production is becoming central to all music,” says Umland on what attracted him to his current aesthetic. “I think that mix of ambience, experimental, and the emotive use of voice, can flow under this umbrella of R&B and sensible pop music.”

For those not expecting this left turn, no worries. Tin Armor is still around (with an album complete and ready for release) and Umland is still a member; but the lengthy hiatus allowed for him to explore his more sensual side—navigating through one-man slow jams.

“For a very long time, I’ve only made music with a group of people,” says Umland. “I just wanted to try to do a musical project that was just me—it’s been a decade since I’ve done that. I’ve also become very interested in music technology, like modular synths and Ableton—software and hardware. I’ve been doing that for fun. And with that I wanted to make R&B and have it be just me.”

Opposed to the rough-hewn, three-chord jangle of Tin Armor, as a solo artist Umland has focused on production and craft. His knack for sound design is nuanced and sophisticated. In the wrong hands, what Umland does could be seen as hokey or inauthentic. But given the amount of time and effort and sleight of hand Umland uses in his first batch of recordings—all by his lonesome—it’s more than evident that he’s projecting from a very real and sincere center. There’s the same attention to detail in his live show as there is to his arrangements in the studio. Playing solo adds yet another layer of depth and difficulty, but it’s a challenge Umland thrives on. In the same set, he’s prone to play a number of different instruments backed by his compositions, something Umland eventually wants to eliminate.

“Nowadays I feel more beholden to having a good sound system,” says Umland. “I never used to care about having a good sound system, but now I want to be effective in more settings, and be able to have a live set where I play more instrumentation. “

So far, there’s no real plan to expand this project into a full-blown band. He’s determined for the project to exist under his own name and keep it that way. While it’s a labor of love for Umland, to him it’s high time for everyone to start hearing what he’s been working so long to achieve. An EP will be released this summer, followed by an album by the end of the year.

In this new generation of disposable music and internet consumption, soul music is soul music wherever it comes from. And according to Umland, his soul comes from a place where there are no limits to what can be accomplished and what soul can sound like. Sugar is sugar whether it’s brown or white.

His EP is set to drop this month. For more, visit soundcloud.com/mattumland.

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