On Jan. 6 when the United States Capitol was being attacked by terrorists, Crys Matthews, who calls D.C. home, was in the recording studio in Bethesda, Maryland. Close, but a safe distance from the violence.
“It was a short studio day that day,” Matthews recalls from her D.C. home. The city issued a curfew and everyone hurried to make it home by 6 p.m. “It was very surreal.”
And when you listen to her EP “Battle Hymn for an Army of Lovers,” the influence of that awful day reverberates through every song. The title track begins, “Change is coming once again except this time it feels like the world’s about to end. White robed devils in plain sight. Angry protests in the street night after night.”
The song “We Must Be Free” responds to those who use “All Lives Matter” to negate “Black Lives Matter.” The next track, “One and the Same,” takes on the claim that the Confederate flag is “heritage not hate.”
“Battle Hymn for an Army of Lovers” is the perfect soundtrack for 2021. Except it was released in 2017. So, is Crys Matthews psychic? No. But she is Black.
Black people, Matthews says, have been warning about things like white supremacist violence forever.
“We’ve had our eyes open the whole time,” she says. “We’ve had no choice.”
Oh, and Matthews has written the soundtrack for 2021, by the way. “Changemakers,” “an entire album of social justice music,” comes out March 26. Beforehand, on Friday, March 5, Matthews will play a virtual show hosted by The Ark in Ann Arbor.
“It will definitely feel like a Crys Matthews show, you just won’t get the hug at the end,” says Matthews, who is among an LGBTQ-focused lineup of virtual performers that the city’s longtime nonprofit music venue is hosting in March, including country trailblazer Brandy Clark and crooning icon Rufus Wainwright. “The Ark has been such a staple in our community. It’s such an institution. I’m really grateful to be able to play for them virtually.”
Now, back to Jan. 6: Matthews was not very surprised to see the way that day unfolded. “That’s what 45 had been telegraphing,” she says, referring to disgraced President Trump. “When people tell you what they’re going to do, you should believe them.” And Trump never hid the fact that he would not accept the election results if he were not the winner, nor did he hide his racism and support of violence.
But Matthews welcomes everyone wanting to combat racism and promote social justice no matter how late to the game they might be.
“I’m glad people are finding their way to the table,” she says. “We need more allies.”
Matthews’s music helps to recruit those allies. Her songs encourage confrontation with tough issues. But her songs are also “drenched in hope,” as she put it. In the great tradition of folk music, Matthews brings listeners in with sweet sounds that grab them by the heart, and just as they are cradled in her soulful voice and her deft handling of an acoustic guitar it’s as if Matthews says, “Now that you’re here, we’ve got some things to talk about.”
Take the song “How Many More” from the “Changemakers” record, for example. It begins with the gentle plucking of guitar strings and then in comes Matthews’s sonorous voice. It’s tempting to just sit back and soak in the song’s simple beauty, but then you hear the words. And those words are people’s names. And those people are Black. And those people are dead.
Watching, again and again, Black people, often unarmed, killed at the hands of the police in this country and the seeming indifference to these deaths by the public at large, made Matthews feel helpless. Until she realized she had a platform. As a folk artist, her audience is predominantly white. And so she decided that while she had people’s attention, she was going to facilitate a conversation.
“Everybody has George Floyd’s name on their lips,” she says. “Everybody has Breonna Taylor’s name on their lips. But do you fully grasp the scope of how pervasive this problem is?”
Matthews began the Don’t Forget My Name Project to help keep the victims of police violence from becoming mere statistics. And she wrote “How Many More.”
“To just say all of those names, I could have been singing that song for 30 minutes for how many names there are,” she recalls. She wants people to hear the song and listen to all of those names and ask themselves how many more people have to die before it stops. “I wanted to drive that point home in a way that had not been driven home, that has not been driven home for many people.”
Another powerful song from “Changemakers” is “Call Them In,” a tribute to John Lewis. She wrote the song after the Civil Rights icon passed away in July.
“The thing he did so beautifully after enduring all that brutality and cruelty during the Civil Rights Movement,” she says, “was that he still worked constantly to seek and find allies to better shore up the coalition.” In other words, he called out injustice when he saw it, but he also invited people to become allies to the cause.
“It’s so easy for us to do that work of calling out injustice but it’s very hard to take that next step,” she said. “Let’s have this conversation. Let’s make this change.”
Matthews acknowledges that things are difficult right now on multiple levels. The pandemic has made it impossible for her to play music to live audiences, for example, something she looks forward to doing again once it is safe.
That’s not to say Matthews hasn’t used her art to create something beautiful during the pandemic. Matthews and Heather Mae, a fellow social justice artist and her partner on and off the stage, wrote and recorded the song “Six Feet Apart,” which Matthews describes as a “gorgeous pandemic power ballad.”
“Just because I can’t kiss you underneath the moonlight doesn’t mean you have to feel alone tonight,” Matthews and Mae sing in gorgeous harmony. The song is simultaneously hugely expansive and fiercely intimate.
“This is such a scary and surreal time,” Matthews says. “But there are all these gems of beauty happening around us.”
Tickets for Crys Matthews’s virtual show for The Ark start at $15, and once purchased prior to the concert can be viewed for 72 hours after the 8 p.m. start date. For more information, visit theark.org.