From the Field: In the Studio with Striking Matches

By Lauren Tingle

Striking Matches’ Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann came together in a trial by fire. It was 2007, and the two were music majors at Belmont University in the same guitar master class with a professor who had a fun initiation for the first day. Two-by-two, freshman pickers were paired together to improvise live, on the spot in front of the entire studio.

“You don’t know anybody,” Justin recalls. “Everyone was crashing and burning as expected. I remember a group of guys I was sitting around. We were joking, ‘Well, we should be ok as long as we don’t get the girl over there.'” At the time, Sarah was the only female in class.

“Up next, Davis … and … Zimmermann.”

“Great,” Justin thought. “I’m dead.”

Taking the floor, Justin asked Sarah hopefully, “Do you know any blues?”

That’s when Sarah whipped out her slide. Turns out, she’d played the blues all her life. “She proceeded to leave everybody’s jaw on the floor,” Justin said, “including mine.”

The two continued to bond over a mutual passion for blues, country, Motown, Memphis and Muscle Shoals. As Common Thread, they showcased their catalog around Nashville writers’ nights, building a quick local following with their natural exchange on guitar and angelic vocal arrangements. Fellow Belmont students offered to film a music video for their original tune “Not the One,” which eventually led to their discovery.

Four years, more than 35 Grand Ole Opry performances and eight Nashville syncs later, and Justin and Sarah are standing next to award-winning producer T Bone Burnett and I.R.S. Nashville founder John Grady as Striking Matches at an invitation-only preview of their debut album Nothing But the Silence. Music industry pros are gathered in the tracking room at Nashville’s House of Blues Studio A where Sarah and Justin recorded the 11-track collection live over four days.

In the opening remarks, John recalled a phone call from colleague Mark Brown suggesting he check out “Not the One” online. John said, “I watched the homemade video made by Belmont students, and thought, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good.'”

“That night,” he continued, “I went to speak at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music as part of Jim Foglesong’s The Business of Music seminar. I looked out and Sarah was sitting in the front row, auditing the class. I said, ‘You’re really talented.’ She blushed and called a security guard. I met Justin the next day and we’ve worked together ever since.”

“We did not aim at a genre in making this music,” John explained. “We just made music. To me, it’s already a triumph.”

“Grady and I have been working together for some time,” T Bone started. “We did the O Brother Where Art Thou? album together. I must say, it was heroic the way he got it out. It was an obscure bluegrass film that opened in two theaters on Christmas day. Then in January, Grady ordered 400,000 records for inexplicable reasons.”

“It sold millions,” T Bone continued, “but without that belief right from the beginning, it never would have happened. Grady was great at that, and we’ve had little adventures and misadventures together since. Striking Matches is one of the adventures.”

“These days,” he added, “with all the arts going … there’s almost no reason to make a record other than the absolute love of the art form. I feel like in this transitional period we have to be trans-media. I’m doing more work in film and television than I am in the record business. You get a framework for things that enable you to get it out in front of people.”

“This was just a record I did because it was a record where you weren’t looking to make hits,” T Bone said. “You just made music. Fred Eltringham was on drums, and Michael Rhodes is probably one of the most prolific session bassists of all time. Another thing that appealed to me about Justin and Sarah — they had a complete sense of their own music. They arranged their music well as musicians.”

“I remember sending you a work tape of ‘When the Right One Comes Along’ for Nashville,” John said. “You called and said, ‘Who are these kids, Grady? This is the only music I’ve heard since I got here that I liked.'”

“There were other things I liked,” T Bone interjected. “I like Hillary Lindsey, Natalie Hemby, Sarah Buxton and Kate York. There are some amazing women writers in this town. But Striking Matches sounded like something we could put on the show — played by not actual musicians, but amazing facsimiles.” The crowd laughed at the joke.

“And we went from there,” John picked up. “When we talked about making the record, I remembered T Bone leaned back in the middle of the first couple days and said, ‘This might be the easiest record I’ve ever made with a new artist because they’re so prepared.'”

The floor was handed to Justin and Sarah for closing remarks. Justin started by thanking those in the room for their participation. He said, “It’s taken a very long time to get to the very beginning. We’re ready and excited.” Sarah added, “Two years ago, if you would have asked us who are dream producer was, we would have said, ‘T Bone! But it will never happen.’ And here we are today about to present this record produced by him, and we couldn’t be more grateful and thankful for Grady for staying by us and believing in us for so long.”

T Bone extended an invitation to join him in the control room to experience the album over what he considered to be “the best monitors in town.” Stationed behind an oversized 80-channel console, Sarah took a seat in an office chair, while Justin stood listening with a fist propping his chin.

The opening gypsy swing “Trouble Is as Trouble Does” immediately had heads all over the studio bobbing as Justin and Sarah exchanged verses chronicling the reckless adventures of a trouble-bound couple. “Make a Liar Out of Me” is a straight up blues number with Justin singing of a lovesick man fighting the temptation to reconnect with someone who broke his heart.

Featuring a melodic nod to Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” the title track is a moving hymn of two exes exploring another chance. Shawn Colvin mandolin and Spoon rock guitar set the pace for country single “Hanging on a Lie” as Sarah sings of a woman calling out her man on his double-life.

Breakup anthem “Never Gonna Love Again” showcases a funky New Orleans second line backbeat and blues guitar in the style of Natalie Merchant’s “Carnival.” Ballad “When the Right One Comes Along” is a beautiful reminder that the timing of a forever love is completely out of one’s control.

Support from friends does little to heal a broken heart in the hooky rocker “What a Broken Heart Feels Like.” The mandolin and guitar in “Miss Me More” resonate Fleetwood Mac’s “I Don’t Want to Know,” while “Like Lovers” has Sara and Justin playing two lovers engaged in a dramatic last stand. And a past love that was probably never meant to be is missed in the Triple A single “Missing You Tonight.”

Ballad “God and You” is a moving finish. Organ and accordion faintly fade in and out as Justin and Sarah sing, “It took the two of you to show me; Love is real and hearts are holy; And I ain’t meant to be some lonely island; If love really lasts forever; We will always be together; And nothing changes that not even dying; There’s a wall around the soft spot of my soul; Where I don’t let too many people go; In fact the only ones who’ve ever broken through; Are God and you.” The final notes played out like an inspirational reward, ending an incredible journey that took the listener through the deepest chambers of the heart.

By the final note, the last remaining folks in attendance crowded the control room. Justin and Sarah then shook hands and answered questions on their history and their music. A trade picture was snapped with John, T Bone and promoter Tom Moran. Then management and handlers started wrangling folks out the door so T Bone could prepare for his next session. A few bearded musicians were already at work wheeling road cases down a long hallway.

Before parting, No Limits Nashville stole a few questions with Sarah and Justin on the start of what’s shaping up to be a promising career.

Talk a little about the recording process. Recording live seemed to come naturally to you. I would have required at least a year to rehearse.
J: We had been playing these songs live for years so the arrangements were already there. We wanted to make it consistent. If you come see us live and you listen to the record, you’re going to hear very similar things. So, it was really important to capture a performance. That was what T Bone was all about. That’s the benefit of recording it to tape. You’ve got to play it all right. It’s got to happen then and there. I don’t know if we can record any other way now because it was so much fun.

It forces you to be confident when you walk into the studio. You have absolutely no choice but to be good.
J: It puts a really interesting pressure on you.

Talk about the title track. I understand that was a late addition.
S: We wrote that with a really talented writer and friend Bonnie Baker, who’s awesome. It was an idea that Justin had with the lines, “There’s nothing but the silence in between us that hasn’t already been broken.” We thought, “That’s so amazing! We need to make that into a song.”
J: It was stuck with me for so long, but I wasn’t sure how it was supposed to go. I only had the line. I really didn’t have the music or anything. I just kept it around for six months or maybe more. It had been in my notebook, and I would write it in different places to see if it would come to me then. It was amazing how fast it all kind of seemed to pour out of us for how long it stayed in my head.
S: It was the one song on the record that made Grady say, “This song has to go on the record! No ifs, ands or buts.” I think it was best fit to be the title track. It clicked.

You strike me as crazy creative all the time. How do you keep that going? Do you read a lot?
J: Coffee! I like to read a lot because I think that’s just refining your arsenal of words, and listening to music or going to shows. That’s some of the most inspiring stuff.
S: I love experiencing music that’s outside the genre that you find yourself in — even if it’s old music, new music or just listening to different things. I love Taylor Swift’s new record. Anything different keeps you sharp. It keeps you wanting to go different directions and try different things. That’s my favorite thing to do.

How did that apply to making this record? I heard a range of musical styles.
J: We’ve pulled from so many places throughout our lives. Our influences are innumerous. We listen to blues, country, bluegrass, soul, R&B, Motown, Memphis and Muscle Shoals. It all becomes this amalgamation of sounds over the course of recording. It happens too quickly when you’re in the studio. The song becomes a vibe. It becomes a feel, and if it feels good to you, you’ll think in hindsight, “Oh yeah! That kind of reminds me of this!” Usually when you go in and say, “I want to do something that’s kind of in the style of Fleetwood Mac.” It usually never happens. You try to force it, and it just doesn’t happen. So, you usually try to let the song become what it’s going to be in the studio and then almost make the comparison in hindsight rather than aim for something.

I love the way you guys blended it all together. The drums give the music a heartbeat! Talk about taking the best live take out of three.
S: A lot of times, we’d maybe do it twice and then come in, listen and see where we were. Then we’d go back and do it one more time. On “Never Gonna Love Again,” we were playing it down, it was a completely different feel than what I had imagined. I remember shaking my head to Justin thinking, “This is so wrong.” When we went back into the control room and listened back, I thought, “Oh my gosh! This is so right!” And we took the first take. There were several songs we took the first take because there was an element of imperfection that we loved. Fred Eltringham and Michael Rhodes, who played with us, had the songs for maybe a week. But a lot of them were just guitar vocal work tapes. So, there was a lot of room for imagination.
J: Also, we trusted T Bone. You could always tell he was looking for something very specific. That’s all you want in a producer is to bring somebody in you trust to go with their instinct and be the tie-breaker in a vote if we’re leaning one way or the other. He was really crucial in that. We probably wouldn’t have picked some of the songs where we took the first take just because it was the first take. We thought, “Well, we probably played it better in subsequent takes.” And T Bone said, “Yeah, that’s the problem. Everybody played it too well. There’s none of that rawness that’s so brilliant.” That’s what I love so much about records by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. There’s that little element of imperfection where you hear their humanity shining through.

And it seems like you guys know a lot about heartache.
J: Everybody knows what a broken heart feels like.

Right? That’s such a beautiful song, too.
J: We’ve had our share. And you don’t forget them. What do you do? Some people get it out in their own way. We write.

What is it about that subject you love so much?
S: There’s an element of our songwriting that’s telling a story that we’ve never experienced. But I think my favorite songs we play or have recorded are ones that are personal in one way or another. That’s what it is to me. It’s that personal connection to every one of them.
J: Love is the universal emotion. It inspires so many other emotions. Love can be the best thing in the world or it can be the worst thing in the world. Love inspires grace, patriotism, sadness or anything. It’s this place from which other things stem. If you use love as your compass, you get all these other feelings you can talk about. But it all seems to originate with that.

What are your plans for radio?
S: The country single is “Hanging on a Lie.” And then we’ll have a Triple A single as well called “Missing You Tonight,” which is toward the end of the record.
J: If were up to us, every song would get a shot. We’ll see. For now, it’s going to be those. We’re just excited to hopefully let people hear as many as possible. The title track is an incredibly special one to us. So, we hope that eventually that will get a shot and each one has their moment.

‘Nothing But the Silence’ is available for pre-order via iTunes, Google Play and Amazon. The collection lands March 24.