Music That Makes a Difference 2018

Music That Makes a Difference 2018

CNN Music & Art

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

CNN Music & Art

Eddie Van Halen donates guitars to public schools

Eddie Van Halen

CNN Music & Art



Finally, a music video with soul and backbone that makes a statement worth caring about. A collaboration between a John Steinbeck-inspired singer/songwriter, a cutting edge documentary filmmaker and an artist who says Basquiat straightened out his life. The song is called “Sunshine.” You won’t see it on MTV because it’s not a cookie cutter. Jessica Simpson isn’t skating around, Christina Aguilera’s cleavage is nowhere to be found and the US Weekly supporting cast stayed home that day. Instead, it features a guy, a guitar and an evolving mural. It’s one of the most artistically creative music videos in years telling a hell of a story about choice – a choice between acceptance and the hope of a sunnier tomorrow.

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Matt Costa wrote the song. It has a simple vibe – just an acoustic guitar and his voice singing the melody and harmony. “Sunshine” is a toe-tapper, but after a couple listens, you’ll find the words don’t match the music. It’s not a happy Disney ditty. Instead, it’s about life’s complications, and how even the good things that add up can be overwhelming. “The melody is really up beat,” Costa says, “but I was feeling like something that should be bringing so much joy to me was kind of sucking the life out of me. Instead of the sunshine helping my garden, it was drying it out.”

With the song’s deep meaning, video director Emmett Malloy had his hands full. “I didn’t want to go do something sitting on a beach with the sun,” Malloy says. “That’s just not where Matt is. He’s a bit more of an arty character. I wanted something that had sun and the feeling of it, but was a bit more of an artistic expression.” When he closed his eyes and really listened to Matt sing, Emmett envisioned art being built in the background. So Malloy turned to the clothing and lifestyle company RVCA (Roo-ka) looking for the right fit. The SoCal business blends surf, skate and street culture and is a melting pot of artists, musicians and filmmakers. Costa and Malloy met through RVCA connections, and that’s where they found the final piece to the “Sunshine” puzzle in the art of Matt Gordon. For the last ten years, the Northville, Michigan, artist has painted the same surreal characters; many wind up on RVCA shirts. They are doll-like figures with names and backstories. The creatures seem to be upbeat but have this weirder, darker side as well. “His art is a bit sinister, it’s almost on the verge of scary,” Malloy says. “I was more enamored by the quality of his work… the detail, the color and the landscape. I was like, ‘Holy shit, this guy’s the real deal. This is like some amazing stuff.'”

With the team in place, Malloy found the perfect spot to shoot the video – an old, abandoned mansion in downtown Los Angeles. It’s frequently rented out to shoot horror films, and, of course, is owned by a family that sells rosaries, Bibles and other Christian supplies next door. “The guy said, ‘I don’t care. You can do whatever you want to it. I don’t even care if you paint it back to the way it was,'” Malloy says. “It was kind of a creepy house so I think we may have brought it to life a little.”

The video begins with Costa asleep. As the sun rises so does Matt. A guitar is thrown at him and he goes for it. Bright lights wash out the L.A. skyline through the window focusing all the attention on the rickety old bedroom. As he moves about the room, so do the thrift store-purchased props. A doll that looks very much like a well-dressed baby plays a miniature piano. As the song goes on, a vivid landscape takes shape on the walls. The mural appears to be painting itself. “We did it with old Bolex cameras and did it more like stop motion style animation,” Malloy explains. “It’s so simplistic, one of the first little film tricks I learned. Matt Costa was on one side of the camera, Gordon would work on the other side, and we’d split the screen. Gordon would paint for three to five minutes, clear him out, shoot a frame and put Matt Costa in there, and the painting had evolved that much further.”

At first, it’s green grass, a blue sky day and a nice, old cottage. But all that pretty turns to pretty strange when the characters are brought to life. “It looks like kids you knew in elementary school made into these crazy characters hanging out on tire swings,” Costa says. During a musical interlude in the song, you actually see Gordon painting a separate mural of his crazy critters in time lapse photography. The depth and intrigue in the art rivals the song itself and is the point of the whole thing. One of the creatures above Costa’s head in the video is a pink rabbit named Stink Eyes that looks an awful lot like Bea Arthur. “Stink Eyes is always being chased by flying cobras in my dreams,” Gordon says. “You see, I have these recurring dreams of all these characters that kind of haunt me in my sleep.”

Gordon is an interesting character in his own right. He made lots of money designing an interactive CD-Rom for the Ford Escort ZX2 in 1996. His handwriting appears on the car’s bumper. “I took that money and learned how to paint,” Gordon says. Initially he did the drug thing, thinking all artists have to be permanently plastered to be great. But then he watched a movie about Jean Michel Basquiat and decided he didn’t want to die. So he kicked drugs and developed a style that’s almost impossible to copy. Some of his artistic themes have included how porn music would sound to squirrels and crystal meth at a West Virginia Waffle House. “I use one-haired brushes,” Gordon explains. “It takes a year or more for me to finish a painting. The more detail the better. Having my own style is important to me.”

It’s important to Matt Costa as well. Before it was guitar rifts, hooks and melodies, it was ten stair rails, switch stance and kick flips. Costa was on the pro skateboarding trek until he shattered his leg doing a crooked grind down a steep railing when he was 18 years old. He turned to the guitar to help his pain go away and the rest is history. His sound has a Donovan uniqueness, Van Morrison polish and Nirvana modernity. Like Bob Dylan, words matter to Matt Costa. And the words of John Steinbeck are what move him most. He wrote “Ballad of Miss Kate” about Catherine from East of Eden. In “Sweet Thursday,” Costa sings: “Sweet Thursday is calling me back up to Monterey.” The history of Cannery Row intrigues him. “I wrote a song that kind of encompassed all of the characters’ journeys whether it’s from the Dust Bowl to California or characters like Danny in Tortilla Flat on this quest of self-discovery or coming into their own.”

That refreshing attitude is exactly why Emmett Malloy signed Costa to his Brushfire Records label. “Matt Costa is an artist who wants to think about the long haul,” Malloy says. “He’s not interested in compromising his integrity.” Malloy, alongside his cousin Chris, are well known for their cutting edge surfing documentaries such as “Thicker Than Water,” “Out Cold” and “A Brokedown Melody.” They feature surfing legends like Kelly Slater, Tom Curren and Rob Machado. Malloy met Jack Johnson filming one of those movies. Jack and Emmett became quick friends and created Brushfire to give great musicians like Matt Costa an outlet. Malloy has always heard the entertainment industry calling his name. As a kid he held his own talent shows, studied journalism at Santa Clara University and broke into the music video industry in a big way a few years ago. Since then he’s directed videos for the White Stripes, Metallica and Black Eyed Peas. They’re all great in their own ways, but Malloy says there was something special about “Sunshine.” “The beauty about the making of “Sunshine,” was that there were no label people with all kinds of opinions and agendas running around. It was just us. I knew right away that we had done something pretty fantastic. It felt different, and it felt very real and genuine. It hasn’t been seen a lot on the MTVs of the world, but it’s one of those videos that will stay pretty relevant and timeless. Timeless record and timeless video.”

The video ends with Costa silhouetted by a flood of light streaming in from the window. He drops his guitar pick to the floor and it fades to black. It’s three real and honest minutes where filmmaker, musician and painter combine to make a powerful and original artistic statement. “One hundred years from now,” Costa says, “when people look back at it, I know I’ll still be proud of it then.”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

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