Matt Zarley :: Making Dance Music Meaningful
It’s a tale as old as time. Boy wants to sing and dance. Boy comes to New York City, works hard and realizes his dream. Boy makes good -- and becomes a pop star in the process. Matt Zarley was "always obsessed with music," he said in a recent interview. The out-gay musician’s first influence was the ’70s duo The Captain & Tennille, but Whitney Houston was his biggest. Calling her the "gold standard," Zarley said the singer’s passing affected him deeply, especially as he had an opportunity to work with his idol on the film Cinderella. "No one was better," he said.
Born in the Midwest, Zarley grew up in California. Like so many of the stage-struck, he was young -- just 17 -- when he made his way to New York, where he auditioned in an open call, along with 400 other dancers, for the national tour of Cats. "I was so green," he said. But "a week later they called me, and I got it." The new high school graduate was about to join the life of the Broadway gypsy.
After appearing in several Broadway musicals, the ruggedly handsome Zarley began turning his attention to singing and songwriting. "It was that boy-band era when I was starting out," he said, the frenzied days of mega-popular ’90s boy bands like 98 Degrees and the Backstreet Boys, and breakout singers like Justin Timberlake. He released his first solo album, Debut, at the turn of the millennium. The appropriately titled work showcased Zarley’s versatility and commercial appeal with a series of songs not unlike the big-name boy bands. Debut featured the solid R&B/pop vocals that dominated radio and the soppy ballads that brought young girls to tears.
Dealing With a Changing Industry & World
But Zarley didn’t win over mainstream listeners. "I had crazy expectations," he said. "The album, to me, was really strong. Working on it was nothing but joy, but there was so much happening in the world." Not to mention the music industry, which was in the midst of drastic changes wrought by the Internet. File-sharing sites like Napster -- and, eventually, the primacy of iTunes -- were wreaking havoc on record labels and music stores. And then 9/11. "I kind of got lost, and nothing ever happened," he said.
He took some time off before returning in 2008 with Here I Am, this time as an independent artist. "It’s more expensive, but I’ve gained a lot more doing it all myself," he said. "That is so rewarding." The creative process is what excites Zarley. "If I had a label, I don’t know if I would have that same sort of outlet."
Here I Am consisted of more modest and personally crafted tunes. Zarley paired the launch with a club-ready set of remixes. Those for the lead single, "Here I Am," were produced by some of the best in the business, including Love to Infinity and Solar City. For their day, these remixes had every bit the feel of a summer anthem, with lush productions to complement his soulful vocals.
"I don’t really think of myself as a dance artist," Zarley said. "I was a Broadway dancer before I really started singing and writing, but I know that if I have a strong pop song that can be remixed, I’ll get more bang for my buck."