Matt Hopper was feeling right at home. He was onstage. He was in Alaska.
The hard-traveling Hopper returned to his AK roots last month, packing a new album, "Jersey Finger," and two months of tour dates around the state. He knocked out a series of solo shows in June and today embarks on a dozen July gigs backed by a band.
Now based in Boise, Idaho, Hopper, 31, comes back to Alaska as often as he can afford. New CD and T-shirt sales will help fund this trip. Upon arrival, he practically jumped off a plane and went straight to work, throwing a CD release party at the new Tap Root Cafe.
"I've got a new record out," he said to a crowd of friendly faces, "and I'm gonna play it for you now."
He played "Jersey Finger" from start to finish -- 11 songs of his guitar-driven songwriter-pop adventures in love, travel and rock 'n' roll (along with some well-placed pianos, trumpets and flutes). The album is also a showcase of his evolving guitar and vocal explorations, which he has made steadily since departing Anchorage in 2003 when he became a full-time musician and touring artist Outside.
Hopper slowed down just long enough between recent Fairbanks gigs and a series of band rehearsals in Anchorage to participate in an e-mail interview. He talked about why he exposes his heart on his records and how a hand injury fueled his new album.
(Contents of this interview were edited for space.)
Play Magazine: Welcome home Matt. What are some of your favorite things about returning to Alaska?
Matt Hopper: The vistas, mountains and drives around Alaska are visually stunning, and to go away you just appreciate them more when you return. Other than that, it's all about the people -- Mom's home cooking, riding motorcycles with Dad, a haircut from my sister at The Beehive in Wasilla ... and getting to see people from the Alaska music scene.
Play: You landed in Alaska, played a "Jersey Finger" CD release party, then hit the road for shows in Homer, Talkeetna, Fairbanks and even Carlo Creek. How have the gigs been?
Hopper: It's definitely time to tour when you release a record; you've got to give people a chance to hear the songs, buy the album, maybe a T-shirt or something to help defray the expenses of living as an artist. ... My favorite moment of the tour was playing during set breaks for the Denali Cooks ... James Glaves and I pulled a psychedelic magic show with our guitars and next thing you know the singer and drummer from the Cooks were shredding with us on "Wolf Eyes."
Play: Well-traveled singer-songwriter, Richard Swift, produced "Jersey Finger" and played many of the instruments. You even recorded at his place in Cottage Grove, Ore. Why did you feel so comfortable partnering with him on such a personal project?
Hopper: It was easy to take direction from him because I respect him and his ideas about music. He can play piano, drums and guitar better than most and is a top-notch songwriter. ... Watching the guy work in the studio, you realize what an honor and a treat it is to be in the same room with an engineering and songwriter master.
Play: So a Jersey finger is a tendon injury in the finger that often occurs in sports like football. Sounds painful. What does "Jersey Finger" mean to you and why name your album that?
Hopper: I'd been in touch with Swift (who has also produced Letitia Sadier of Stereolab, Damien Jurado, Jessie Baylin), sending off demos and generally gearing up for a two-week session in January. I arrived, set up my gear, had some good walks and talks about the record and on the morning we were to start recording, Swift got the jersey finger injury. Time stood still ... (until) I returned in late March to track guitars and record vocals. ... The injury defined the recording sessions and that's how I will remember my time making these songs come to life in the studio.
Play: There are prominent themes in your songwriting - women/love, Alaska and music. Let's talk love: The new album covers the excitement of meeting someone cool and flirting ("Animal Instincts") to breakups ("Last Goodnight"). How personal are these moments?
Hopper: All of my songs tend to have a little bit of personal information woven in. ...Songs often start lyrically as poems while guitar riffs are birthed often through therapy: it's a great stress reliever to play guitar for awhile. I also like writing within universal theme frameworks -- it's easy to write about women and love; these are subjects I know better than the situation over in Afghanistan.
Play: Now let's talk Alaska and your new song "Denali." At one minute and 49 seconds, it's a snapshot of the state at its coldest, darkest and toughest, but you also capture a unique beauty that only Alaskans can appreciate. This song is as personal as any of your love songs, isn't it?
Hopper: "Denali" was one of the only songs I really had to work hard to finish for the record. It was an older demo ... I loved the music but didn't care for the melody and lyrics I had come up with. After we recorded the music, I just sat in the studio for hours and essentially wrote a poem over the top of the music. The poem had a focus -- it was going to be about Alaska, filled with short, descriptive lines. I think it turned out nicely and is one of the more adventurous songs on the record for me vocally.
"Jersey Finger" is available at Matthopper.com and at Metro Music & Book Store
Shows this weekend
Wasilla: 9 p.m. Tonight and Saturday, Mugshot Saloon (251 W. Parks Highway ), free
Anchorage: 7 p.m. Sunday, Bernie's Bungalow Lounge (626 D Street), as part of Bernie's Fourth Fest, $10 for full show from 4 p.m.- midnight
By Josh Niva
Daily News correspondent