dark days/bright lights by matthew castilla

Dark Days/Bright Lights is my first album review where lyrics weren't the focus. I thought it would be challenging, but I was able to turn up the volume and drift away. I wasn't able to make Matthew’s album release party in January, due to traveling, so I first heard it on iTunes at home. Matt came into my family by way of marriage and has always embraced us with love and support!

Intro (feat. Dr. John Murillo III) perfectly sets the tone for this soulful album. It briefly touches on various aspects of life, with a recurring theme of light and darkness that‘s effortlessly tied into religion. It's poetic. With a seamless transition, A Calling opens with a soft beat eventually lending way to Matt playing the saxophone and man does he kill it! The instrumental may have no lyrics but that doesn't stop him from beautifully conveying emotion. I still get chills listening to it. In that moment, I realized this album was something serious and that he was definitely put on this Earth to make music. The upbeat Get up and March opens with rap verses by Zaafir and Jack Preston. Again, Matt delivers a soulful sax performance, weaving in and out of the beat flawlessly. Dark Days, a personal favorite of mine, feels very transparent. The first time I heard this song, I was in tears by it's end. I can't explain how or why, but I was overcome with emotion. I Need Your Love didn't help me regain control of my emotions either. With another seamless transition (something I die over), it's serious but somehow lighter. He seems to come to terms with his dark side, while acknowledging he still needs love. Something we all can relate to. Just because we are imperfect doesn't mean we're unworthy of love. It reminds me of a favorite quote of mine:

"Anyone can love a thing because. That's as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them, too. That is rare and pure and perfect." -Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man's Fear

When I first heard this track, I had to listen on repeat. I couldn't believe my cousin created such a masterpiece. I knew he was talented from hearing previews, but to have someone present a full body of work that tells a story with few lyrics - man. Wow gets even lighter, as if he found a love to uplift and support him that leaves him in awe. We all need a calm in our storm and that's what this song reflects for me personally. By the end of it, it feels like you're soaring. The Test and Trials opens with "I'll never be untrue" and it feels like victory. You know that moment when you can finally emerge from the darkness with valuable lessons learned? When you've made it to that treacherous mountain top and you finally take in the views? Yea, that's what this feels like. As he stated in the beginning, it's about "bearing the dark". I'm beyond proud of my cousin for this masterpiece and his openness.

Be sure to connect with him on Instagram & Twitter before checking out our interview below!

BRIANA: Your album introduction is heavy and contains a lot of gems. Who delivered the spoken word on it? Where is the content from?

MATT: That’s a funny story actually. The introduction is done by a young man by the name of Dr. John Murillo III. I’ve known him for several years back to my time living in Boston. I was studying music while he was working on his PhD in Providence at Brown University, focusing on African American Literature. Our mutual friends would always joke, “You’ll be great friends because you both live in promoting pro blackness and anti-racism!” They were right. The intro captures that part of our friendship. I told John, essentially the goal of the introduction is to bring the listener into a world of trial and tribulation. One where we focus on blackness and going through extremely hard times to conquest. He took that and ran with it after I told him he had freedom to create. So he used his brother Josh as an example, rife with Destiny references, too.

BRIANA: What inspired you to make this album?

MATT: My truth. I was inspired to tell my story with my composition, production, and sax my way. I made a promise to myself and my dad, actually years ago back when I was in high school, that one day I’d become a recording artist. After he passed away I realized, “Dude, you haven’t held up your end of the bargain”. So I began to write through my pain. Each track takes you through a different stage as there are various mountains to climb. In it I think of being a young black man and the trials I faced as a person of color. I think about mental health. Emotional health. Spiritual health. Physical well being in stressful situations. I want you to hear the album and it challenge at least one of those areas in your life.

Matt & his dad <3

BRIANA: I imagine creating this was healing for you. The tracks are filled with so much emotion. Were any of the songs hard to make?

MATT: Haha. That’s a rough one to answer. Being transparent, the hardest to create was “Wow”. This track, I spend time building on being triumphant. That’s why I build on top of layer after layer. I was in the middle of thinking if I conquered anything or did I imagine this whole thing. I had to take a deep breath before I gave this one the okay.

BRIANA: How did you finalize the album title?

MATT: The goal was to address transition. When you’re sad it’s easy to wallow in that sadness. Like if you’re going through a bad breakup, you might find yourself listening to Kanye’s “Heartbreak” or Adele’s “21”. This shows something different. It shows a transition from challenge to victory. So, I said to myself, the beginning is Darkness, the end is Light. I wanted you to know what you were getting yourself into before listening so, “Dark Days / Bright Lights” was born out of that approach.

BRIANA: How did you choose your album cover?

MATT: I started creating a concept for what this would mean to me. I wanted this to be intimate and personal. I reached out to a good friend and artist out of Salem, MA named Maura O’Connor. I knew instantly after seeing her ink work I wanted her to work on this project. It was a labor of love, after she listened to the record she knew it meant a lot and asked for what I wanted in it, beyond my concept. I sent her the photo of me with my dad that I wanted incorporated, other images of hands joined together, my Castillademusic crest (logo) I created that uses a chess piece, Lights shooting up in the sky from a single person, and the famous photo of Ali in the boxing ring after a knockout. The photo is in the frame as a black and white photo. You can see where a lot of this albums influence will come from. The single candle is the single light that shines the brightest in darkness. The chess piece not just in reference to my crest, but also in reference to getting ready to do intellectual/emotional battle, which also ties to the Ali photo.

BRIANA: What made you choose the order of your tracks?

MATT: Following the intro, it really is about climbing that mountain. Moving from Darkness to Light. Each song is slowly but surely doing that, and it took me a couple of days to figure that out.

BRIANA: This is an album of few words, which is rare these days and refreshing to be honest. Did you intentionally pick song titles that in totality would create a story line?

MATT: Good eye and ear there. Yes, actually. I have almost a script written out to what each track should convey. For me, after that was written out, I said what would get the point across to the listener. Each title is descriptive in where I’m taking you.

Matt playing the saxophone

BRIANA: Did you leave any songs off of the album? If yes, please email them to me immediately! Lol just kidding.

MATT: Ha, definitely. One of the hard parts of writing and producing is making those choices. It’s like an interior designer having to choose paint colors, furniture, and decor that goes to their clients taste and style. I left around 9 off of this record. I had more I wanted to do with them from a perfectionist stand point and I realized the message was getting lost and a bit overwhelming, for me at least.

BRIANA: “A Calling” feels upbeat. Was that intentional? If so, why?

MATT: It definitely was intentional. Sometimes you feel called to do something in your life. And when it’s time to make it happen slouching ain’t gonna cut it. I wanted to show you can be tackling issues and carrying out things that you are supposed to be doing in your life and the lives of others. (Things won’t always go well).

BRIANA: “Get up and March” is fun! How was the creative process for that? How do you know the featured artists?

MATT: That one was just where I said let’s have fun and bring hip-hop all the way to the front. The artists are two awesome rappers and friends, Jack Preston of Atlanta and Zaafir of Boston.

BRIANA: “Dark Days” and “I Need Your Love” BURIES me in my feelings. What are the messages within those songs?

MATT: Yeah they still get me in mine too. “Dark Days” is really about being in the heat of a difficult time. For me it was my battle with anxiety and depression. It feels like you are suffocating and drowning in those moments and no matter how you yell or scream or shout only some things can get you out. “I Need Your Love” is what happens when you find that inner peace you’ve been searching for this whole time. For me, it was a strong relationship with God and recognizing that downpour of love, even in sorrow. This is when you start to find joy. It’s tough because you can find joy in tough times. For me I found Joy even when my father passed away or my mom got sick but I watched her fight. I said, there is beauty in struggle when you get to a destination. Here’s the journey of joy. Sometimes you want to just say “Can I get someone to love me?” We are all afraid of loving one another genuinely, but doing so takes us to another place. This is what my place looks like.

BRIANA: How did you get into music?

MATT: Both of my parents were musicians. My dad was an amazing piano player and my mother is a great vocalist with a background in Opera. They both were educators at HBCU’s (Historically Black College and Universities) as choral directors. This is where my musical beginnings took shape. I heard black voices singing Classical music, Gospel music, Jazz, and Negro spirituals all in one concert. So many sounds and I wanted to hear more. Then on Sundays, I would be at the church where my father pastored in Jackson, MS and try to play the things I heard by ear. This was capped off after I snuck into my brother Isaiah’s room and listened to all of the cd’s he had. From Kanye West’s early mixtape, to Marvin Gaye, to Stevie Wonder. It was a whole new world with this music, but Kanye’s music and production stuck with me (one of my many nicknames is yeezy, as you know Bri) and influenced me the most. Then randomly it felt like my parents told me I had an audition for the APAC school (performing arts) on a Saturday. I was confused because I felt like I hadn’t said it was something I wanted to try, but they knew. I ended up learning how to read music and play piano, which led to me wanting to join band. I figured I’d be like the cool guys I saw in Jackson States band and play drums. So I taught myself how to drum. When it was time to audition in middle school, my mom blew my plans apart by telling my band teacher (one of my favorite instructors ever) Jennifer Tucker, “He can read read music, place him wherever you need him”. My heart sank cause I knew she had ended my dreams as a drummer. This was my saving grace. Ms. Tucker replied, “He can read? Great we really need a saxophone player!” I had never thought about saxophone. But, this was one of the best things she could have done for me. I fell in love with it. This led to me excelling in jazz fests, competitions, churches, and learning to compose. I ended up going to Berklee College of Music and getting a degree in Film Scoring in 3 years. This was important for me as I learned how to paint pictures with my music. Then going to Tufts University for my Masters in Ethnomusicology and Composition where I learned how to really take different cultures into consideration. All of this made my music what it is today.

Matt's mom & dad <3

BRIANA: What will your legacy be?

MATT: Hopefully an inspirational one. I have this strong desire to make something great that lasts. I want you to listen to my music now and say I can listen to this 10 or 20 years later. Impact is the goal. That kid that wants to have that moment I had when I snuck into my brothers room and listened to his scratched CD’s...I want others to have that feeling.

Matt's older cousin, Fred, older brother, Isaiah and himself

BRIANA: You're strong in your faith. How does that tie into your work? Especially the introduction which includes biblical references.

MATT: I’m someone who believes that if God gives you a certain talent, you have a responsibility to refine it to its best possible form. This takes lots of time and work. I think you have to do the same thing with exercising your faith. For me they go hand in hand, my music and faith. When I stepped into the ministry I wanted to make sure that I still used my music to be a source of comfort. When I think of what's influenced this album, several things come to mind; God, Family, Loss, Dreams, Struggle, Hope, Politics, and Risk. Dark Days/Bright Lights functions like a stairwell. The Dark Days of depression, fighting through the self-doubt, and arriving at the next step of acceptance to whatever opportunity God has placed before you. Being determined to overcome what's next despite being tested and put through trials. Conquering what's in front of you. And basking in it, enjoying the place you've made it to. What follows is what you do with the wisdom you've gained and have to offer to a new chosen generation.

Stream the album out on iTunes!

"I am my own muse.

I am the subject I know best.

The subject I want to better." 

-Frida Kahlo