After a false start, McCabe’s Guitar Shop resident instrument-fixer Matt Bradford finds his creative rhythm with “Broken Hymns”

By Bliss Bowen

Matt Bradford went from repairing broken instruments to fixing broken songs

Matt Bradford went from repairing broken instruments to fixing broken songs

“Hear me out, I shouted out loud
I’m not just a memory
So late in the night is a harsh red light
While you’re burning down my dreams
Be careful
’Cause I break easy
It’s only lonely if I let it be”
   —“Break Easy,” Matt Bradford

A few notes sound on an electric piano; the low thrum of a bass joins in, accompanied by a tastefully restrained drum and a Dobro that starts unloading conversational licks and slide-embellished heartache like a jilted lover commiserating with a bartender. That Dobro is the most prominent voice on Matt Bradford’s recently released album “Broken Hymns” — as it was on 2013’s “No Reason to Cry,” a grooving, mostly solo acoustic set. But Bradford, familiar to area musicians via his work repairing stringed instruments as luthier at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, realized that despite their moodier, more inward nature, his new songs called for a band. He didn’t have to look far for players.

“I started working on it in April 2014,” Bradford recalls. “I had recorded some stuff all by myself, and I got everything done and mixed and mastered, and it wasn’t good. So I went back to the drawing board and I ended up recording with [bassist and McCabe’s instructor] Denny Croy and [drummer] Steve Mugalian. It’s hard to find two guys who are more badass.

“We went over to Grandma’s Warehouse in Echo Park [and] tracked six songs in one day. We were just cranking. Not only are they great players, but they are workers. They are grinders. They don’t need breaks; they’re just like, ‘Let’s do it.’ I came home and did Dobro, guitars and vocals in my apartment. Then I went to Marty Rifkin’s studio and he played pedal steel. Marty’s one of my heroes. Because we play similar instruments, it’s been a blessing to get to work with him, but more importantly, to get to talk with him. He’s always upbeat, always happy, always pumped about music, and he plays with Bruce Springsteen, one of my favorite songwriters of all time.

“Can’t get a better band.”

Bradford also recruited backup singer Leah Kouba, whose smooth, sultry tones complement his rougher vocal textures.

“I love her voice; she’s killer,” he enthuses. “It’s always sad to watch these wonderful musicians sitting in my cramped little closet in the middle of summer, where it’s like 9,000 degrees, sweating and uncomfortable, but just awesome singing and playing. Everybody on the record — I’m so impressed and humbled to be around them all.”

Some dark nights of the soul fueled songs like “Stronger than the Song” and “Going to Hell,” about a disaster-prone friend “who just can’t seem to help himself.” Yet the album was a labor of love. There was a time when the idea of making it, or any music at all, seemed beyond reach. Bradford was performing steadily as a “professional guitar player” when severe tendinitis sidelined his rock dreams in 2003. “I totally could not play anymore,” he says.

Even though he couldn’t play, Bradford still had music left inside. He studied lutherie at Musicians Institute, started working for Bill Asher building lap steels and, elated by the discovery that playing one didn’t hurt his hand, built an instrument for himself. By 2007 he was playing Dobro; a couple of years later, he started writing songs. He’s been an in-house luthier and teacher at McCabe’s for eight years.

By the time he self-released “No Reason to Cry,” he was making the rounds of pubs and songwriter nights across greater Los Angeles. Now he plays once a month at O’Brien’s in Santa Monica, and he’s been gradually expanding his performance radius with gigs in Malibu and the Inland Empire. He studies songwriters whose craft he admires: Springsteen, Jeffrey Foucault, Noah Gundersen, Ray LaMontagne, Joe Pug, David Ramirez.

He’s trying to get into the promotional swing of things in advance of his record release show Saturday for “Broken Hymns.” He’ll open for ex-Angeleno duo Smooth Hound Smith, friends who’ll be celebrating their own new release, “Sweet Tennessee Honey.”

About three months ago, he began posting regular videos on his Instagram and Facebook pages — “Sunday licks,” “Friday licks,” etc., teasing snippets of his nimble fingerpicking and slide work — in addition to uploading videos to his YouTube channel. He jokes about how his Instagram page was “completely useless,” but his motivation for revamping it is serious: Like most independent artists, he’s striving to maximize his assets on a minimal budget with social media.

“I recorded a lick once and I got a really good response,” he says. “So I try to do it every day. If I’m sitting around, I pull the phone out, record something and upload it real quick. It seems to be helping.”

Matt Bradford opens for Smooth Hound Smith at 8 p.m. Saturday at McCabe’s, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $15. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit mattbradfordmusic.com.

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