After half a decade away, singer-songwriter Matthew Hornell is returning home to stay.
Hornell’s passionate delivery and contagious energy made him a mainstay of the St. John’s music scene around the late 2000s. Originally from Grand Falls-Windsor, Hornell made a move into St. John’s to study at Memorial University and ended up taking the music community by storm, blending folk traditions with elements of rock and country.
Shortly after, Hornell made another move. This time to settle in Halifax, NS. After getting situated, he went on to record a solo second album called Have it All, in a similar style as his debut, but showcasing growth as a songwriter and treading new creative bounds.
Recently, Hornell released an EP of bluegrass music called Matthew Hornell and the Strangers, featuring a traditional repertoire of blazingly picked tunes, tender ballads, and Hornell’s unmistakable voice.
At a time of political unrest, with leaving bright in the minds of the general public, why return home now?
Well sir, I feel some of my answer lies within that question. In a time of political unrest and bright minds leaving … that’s why I’d like to return. It seems like there is a lot happening. A lot to be involved in. I have been away for over five years, and the island has been busy. A lot more gentrification of certain areas, an increased sense of centralization and people moving into the city from smaller communities. Also, new endeavours and projects of others have enticed my desire to return.
How did you transition into making primarily bluegrass music, and how has it changed your approach to songwriting?
I have always had an interest and love in “string band” music. Way back when (and before I played under my name) Katie Baggs, Ben Rigby, Jonny Bungay and I played as the group Dead Language. We had some fiddle tunes, banjo tunes and old time tunes. Then years later in Halifax, the friends I made and pickers I admired were all playing bluegrass. I was then on a cross Canada tour and had only 3 CDs. One was an issue of an old bluegrass album. I learned the tunes. I loved them. Started to feel the stories. Loved the harmonies, and really it has greatly informed my guitar playing and singing as of late. In terms of songwriting, I feel I’ve been slowly working up new material that is important to me. But primarily I’ve been collecting and sharpening the tools I’ve gathered.
What are the first things you look forward to when back in St. John’s?
Well there are a few different things I enjoy when I return. #1 is time with my friends and family. The stories, the laughs. The “put me in my place” of it all. Dies for some good food, homemade soups, bit of game, pint of Storm, the crowd at the Ship. Fred’s (past place of employment/best place).
How has Newfoundland shaped your songwriting?
I’d say if Newfoundland has shaped my songwriting it’s because it has shaped me as a person. The stories I’ve heard, the sayings, the language, the “joie de vivre,” the values (often silently held) of honour, community, resilience, and honesty. The people I’ve encountered in my life, many of them here on this island, have shaped who I am as a songwriter. That and Ron Hynes.