Matty “Graven” McKechnie Reflects on Career and New Album Jaybird

“I can’t believe they tried to play The Hip off stage with their own music,” says Matty McKechnie the day after the Juno Awards. Though he joins the chorus of a disbelieving nation, he’s speaking as a true musician still climbing the mountain path carved out by people like Gord and the boys. The thing is, he's fine with never reaching the peak of fame so long as he still has the music. 

McKechnie is probably best known as Graven, a soulful singer/song writer who was a contender for CBC’s Searchlight music competition in 2015. His lyrics are like poetry, not surprising when you consider he started his musical career as a rapper from Nepean, cutting his teeth on old school hip-hop rhymes will also listening to classic rock. Though the first record he ever owned was Springsteen’s Born in the USA, it was rap that first really gripped him, inspired by the poetic wordplay of LL Cool J, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. With the words of these hip-hop tic-tacticians in mind, he started recording cassettes as MC Man of Steel.

“The songs never went anywhere, and are still in my parent’s basement, but it was an important creative project for me,” reflects McKechnie who says he was really just a normal suburban white kid living in the community of Trend-Arlington.

“I think rapping was something that scared me, but I loved the device of rhyme, and I could write pretty well, so it became a bit of an after school obsession. I would steal open beats on a dual cassette tape deck, and then rap over those looped beats on another tape deck into the condenser mic.”

Not a popular kid, he spent a lot of time being transported to the other universes music could bring him to byway of his headphones. Bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Smashing Pumpkins were early influences and, of course, Bryan Adams. The drum and guitar in “One Night Love Affair” sent chills up his spine.

“I was influenced by women in music as much as men. Aimee Mann is one of my favourite songwriters of all time, and when I first heard her songs my mind was transported to a new stratosphere. The way she captured redemption, beauty and sadness really moved me in a profound way.”

He would eventually drop his MC moniker and take up piano, then bass…then the guitar. His knack for playing multiple instruments remains today, learned from experimenting in what he calls a lot of attempts at forming a band. A lot! There was Natural Bridge that played two original songs and about seven covers. Their big gig was at a summer camp in Westport. Then there was the post-grunge Kanata basement band Stir-Fried Gypsies. They only played one live show. His follow-up project, Crushing Shelbyville, released an EP that a few friends picked up but that group too just fizzled out. That’s when he got serious about releasing his own music and started out on the road that would eventually lead to Graven.

“I think I just knew that there were songs inside of me that needed to get out,” he says, telling Ottawa Life that even at 40 fame isn’t something he thinks about. To McKechnie, it’s all about the music, continuing to learn with each climb up or stumble down. Where it leads is incidental because, as Springsteen wrote, "between our dreams and actions lies this world". That's where the life is. 

Photo by Dan Neutel

Discovering producer and Super Friendz bassist Charles Austin one end of the millennium day watching Much, McKechnie decided to risk striking up a correspondence in an effort to learn about home recording techniques. Worst case scenario, he’d receive no answer. The best case scenario is that, after hearing his music, Austin would invite him to record with him. Showing how it’s always better to follow the dream then it is to simply just have it, the risk paid off and McKechnie was off to Halifax to get his lessons first hand.

“I had some money saved from working at camp, and I drove out east in a rented Jeep with my friends Justin Paisley and Tony Arsenault. They would kill time in the city while I would do long sessions with Charles,” he says remembering some of the best advice he’d ever receive from Austin one night walking up Barrington Street:

“I think you really need to get a band together and play these songs live. They’re good,” Austin said, pushing the then 24-year-old to get more ambitious.

Next came The Dirty Hustle, three musicians from Kemptville (Ben Mullin, Steve Gaw and Justin Purvis) that joined McKechnie, now calling himself Graven, to really shape the music he was trying to create. The Graven sound is just as much a stripped down acoustic ballad as it is a “crunching guitar riff, a thick layer of base, and a blasting snare and washy hi-hats” all working in tandem with McKechnie’s ability to craft a good story. With the band, it all just seemed to click into place.

Since 2000, Graven has put out 10 albums, the endurance only showing the dedication McKechnie has to his music and the creative process behind it.

“I do have a lot of songs and I guess it's the model I've seen from my heroes – to keep working and releasing material, and to track my progress through the releases. My friend Joel Plaskett is someone who I've learned a ton from over the years in his hard rock work ethic, and he is someone who, in his mind, is usually three albums ahead of the one he is releasing. I would say I'm about one album ahead, and that method has worked well for me, and it keeps me pushing forward and growing.”

Album 12 may be on the horizon but it’s number 11, JayBird, that McKechnie is focusing on now. It’s one that stems from a very distinct time in the musician's life following the passing of guitarist Jay Smith. Though he’d only known him for a few days, he witnessed the sorrowful fallout in Halifax’s music community from the loss.

“A whole community of my friends was shredded. That whole situation was weird because I was seeing what my friends from Halifax were going through, and I was a bit of an outsider to all of it. I only knew Jay for a few days, and only had one real conversation with him where we talked smilingly and lovingly about a mutual friend. I barely knew Jay, but I knew him long enough to know that he made an impact on everyone around him.”

After seeing an image created by journalist and musician Paul Myers of a bird flying away, McKechnie was struck by how Smith was like many people who come briefly into our lives: “a blast of colour and light and sound and beauty and mystery and joy and, an instant later, they are gone”.

The soon to be released album will see a live debut Saturday night at Irene’s and promises to continue Graven’s lyrical flair with songs like “Big Lake, Sky Summer”, “In the Woods of Me” and “Lone”.  Here, McKechnie walks the ridges of an alt-country landscape planting seeds of folk-rock along the way. What sprouts up are songs he calls his “thickest”, “crunchiest” and “folk-rocky-est” to date.

Watching The Hip being played off stage Sunday night at the JUNOs, in a crowd full of screaming Shawn Mendes fans, the 40-year-old was perhaps thinking of what options one really has once making it to the top of that mountain. You either hold your place, head downward or look behind you at the new up-incomer pushing dirt over your footsteps.

“The music scene can be pretty ageist, but once you hit a certain age, I think you're just doing it to get better. The musicians who I aspire to be like are well into their 40's and 50's and beyond, and they keep getting better with time,” says McKechnie, who maintains his music rests above any image that may or may not have been carved out for him over his career. As a songwriter he heeds his own advice: write and keep writing and keep writing still.

“It's easy to get sidetracked with image and persona and lots of surface garbage. I think it's very hard to balance fame and music at the same time – because sooner or later, one of those focuses will take over. In the end, if I'm un-famous but remembered as a good musician, I'll be happy with that.”