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More Than Just A One-Man Band: Matt Lorenz, The Suitcase Junket, Is A Modern Troubadour

The Suitcase Junket is a one-man band that defies neat categorization.

Part folk singer, part showman, part old-fashioned troubadour, western Massachusetts musician Matt Lorenz — who performs as The Suitcase Junket — has become a festival favorite.

To say Matt Lorenz doesn't like to waste things is an understatement. He takes old guitar frets and hammers them into earrings. He converted a box of junk into an instrument.

“It's basically an old cheese box that I had full of bones and silverware,” he said, using his foot to shake the box and create a crunchy sort of percussion. “The bottom cymbal is the wooden box, the top cymbal is all these objects hanging off of an old 8 mm film reel."

On stage, Lorenz wears ratty yellow loafers he got 15 years ago, already used, at a repair shop — kept together with shoe goo. And he found his guitar in a dumpster.

“It had this weird, buzzy, growly sound,” he said. “It only sounded good in an open tuning. And I, you know, sort of fell in love with the limitations of it.”

In short, Matt Lorenz is highly resourceful — in music and in life.

I met him at his farmhouse in Leverett, Massachusetts. He was on break from touring, putting logs into an outdoor oven so he could boil sap into maple syrup. He chopped the wood himself to keep the fire going.

On break from touring, Matt Lorenz feeds an outside oven to boil sap for maple syrup.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR
/
NEPR
On break from touring, Matt Lorenz feeds an outside oven to boil sap for maple syrup.

But despite his bohemian setup, Lorenz is no ragtag indie musician. He's signed with Northampton record label Signature Sounds, plays about 200 gigs a year, and has a publicist and a booking agent.

Lorenz just released his seventh album, Mean Dog, Trampoline, produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos.

Yet even his new album is partly a product of his off-beat recycling methods, including lyrics that came from a homebuyer's workshop he once attended. 

“I found notes from it and they were completely incoherent,” Lorenz said. “It looked like I was mostly drawing little imaginary creatures, and writing down the occasional word, without any reference points on the page. But being someone who doesn't like to see things go to waste — even, you know, my own idiot scribblings — I scraped them together into a tune.”

Matt Lorenz sits at a large contraption of homemade and traditional instruments.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR
/
NEPR
Matt Lorenz sits at a large contraption of homemade and traditional instruments.

The resulting song is called, appropriately, “Scattered Notes From a First Time Homebuyer's Workshop.”

Among the lyrics:

The money comes down and The lenders come up With the health, the stairs And the safety danger sanitation, leaky windows and loans attractive terms, the grants will come and go….

But a mean old dog And a trampoline Is alright with me

“The mean dog and the trampoline, which is sort of the chorus of that song, are two things that insurance companies apparently really don't like you to have,” Lorenz explained.

Lorenz has been making music since he was a child in southern Vermont, taking piano, violin and saxophone lessons. At Hampshire College, he created a major around experimental music. He spent a few years working on farms, painting houses, and playing in bands on the side. By 2009, he was making a living as a solo performer.

His latest incarnation, The Suitcase Junket, is a nod to his sentimental collection of old suitcases. Lorenz IS the junket: a one-man band who strums a guitar while sitting at a large contraption of homemade and traditional instruments.

He's not exactly sure how to describe the musical style of The Suitcase Junket — though he tries.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xa_ph8o2Zc

“I call it swamp yankee music,” he said, adding that the swamp is a place where some things go to decompose, and other things come to life.

His music has hints of southern rock and soul, as might be played by what he calls a "northern swamp person — sort of like independent, a little bit grumpy, but you know, throws a good party, you know, likes people around a couple times a year," he said with a chuckle. "Or maybe I'm just describing myself."

Even so, he does write a lot about relationships, including on his new song, "Everything I Like."

“Like a lot of songs, it ends up having sort of themes of love and not being able to communicate with the person you love,” Lorenz said. “And this sort of confusion and mystification that is people knowing each other.”

These days, he spends a lot of time alone. At first, becoming a one-man band was a financial decision. It was expensive to pay travel costs for a full band. Then he grew to like performing solo.

“I think it helped me grow as a musician and a performer a lot faster, having no one to lean on,” he said.  “You know, being up there [on stage]. ‘OK. You have to tune right now. Are you going to say something? Best try to make it interesting or humorous or something.’”

And performing solo, Lorenz said, gives him the freedom to play a song differently partway through.

"And you wouldn't have a band, you know, throwing their hands in the air [saying], 'Well, what's this guy up to again?'" he said.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_24Gx5Wa_g

But one challenge of a one-man band is not coming across as a gimmick.

“It's hokey. Sometimes just saying ‘one-man band,’ you can see people sort of cringe a little bit,” Lorenz said. “And the reason it has that reputation is because you get people who … aren't necessarily saying anything. They're just making a bunch of noise. And fair enough. [But] I like to think that I'm saying things as well as making a bunch of noise.”

Sometimes at the end of his concerts, for what Lorenz calls a "musical palate cleanser," he'll step out from behind his contraption and play acoustic guitar. One of his favorite closing tunes is an Irish-style ballad he wrote called “Red Flannel Rose.”

“And it's a really nice moment,” he said. “Everything is stripped away. And then there's also just a song in a room.”

Lorenz — The Suitcase Junket — is touring with his new album until next February, when he takes another break for maple syrup season.

Check out the NEPR Spring Music Series here.

Karen is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998. Her features and documentaries have won a number of national awards, including the National Edward R. Murrow Award, Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) Award, Third Coast Audio Festival Award, and the Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize.
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