Austin-based singer-songwriter Matt the Electrician—née Matt Sever—met his wife during his senior year of high school. He was playing Charlie Brown in Snoopy!!! The Musical, a little-known sequel to the hit You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. She was Peppermint Patty.
“You really can't write that shit,” Sever laughs.
It's Halloween, and the amiable 35-year-old has plopped his preschool-age son in front of the TV so he can conduct this phone interview in peace. It was either that or trek across town to drop him off with his wife, who was at school with their daughter, a first grader.
“She's a vampire,” he says proudly. His son, on the other hand, pondered at least two-dozen possibilities leading up to the big day. “He wanted to be a table this morning, and yesterday he wanted to be a pirate. He ended up a baseball player from the San Francisco Giants.”
The last-minute costume was easy, since Sever's a fan of the national pastime—the first of his five albums was 1998's A Baseball Song—and his own dad is from San Francisco. Sever was born in the Bay Area, though his family moved to Oregon soon after. It was there that his early interest in music was piqued with a garage-sale horn, but it wasn't until the family moved back to California that Sever had his ah-ha moment.
“I'd played trumpet since I was 5,” he recalls. “My dad played guitar in a rock cover band, and I always wanted to play music, but it never occurred to me to play guitar. Then, during my first year of high school, I was walking across the quad with my trumpet, feeling unpopular, and I looked up on a hill and saw this guy. He had long black hair and was wearing a Watership Down shirt. He was playing an Ovation guitar. He was singing “Sounds of Silence.” And he was surrounded by girls.”
Sever went home that day and asked his dad to teach him. And though he would never be as cool as the guy on the hill—he did play Charlie Brown in a school musical, after all—as a teenager, he says he had a certain Eddie Haskell-like quality that let him get away with a lot.
“I talked nice to people's parents, and I had a nice haircut. There's a name for kids and 20-somethings like me—the ‘non-threatening male.' Nobody believed I'd do anything wrong. I did plenty. I just never got caught.”
These high-school anecdotes give a good sense of who Sever is as a songwriter nearly two decades later. His songs tell everyday tales of being a devoted husband and father while still being a smart-ass with desires that are sometimes decidedly not kid-friendly. It's all done with an appealing sense of humor, especially at his own expense.“I'm stuck in a Charlie Brown complex,” he explains. “I tend to go for the self-deprecation.”
Perhaps that's why he keeps the moniker Matt the Electrician, even though he's no longer wiring houses before shows, as he did in his early years in Austin, where he and his wife settled 11 years ago.
“I used to play coming straight from work, just doing open mics,” he says. “It would be Texas in summer, and I'd have been crawling in an attic all day, covered in sheetrock or insulation with no change of clothes. I was always explaining my appearance.”
When Sever began to develop a rep as a local talent with a knack for clever, honest songwriting and a gruff, smoky voice—assets that have earned him comparisons to Paul Simon and Tom Waits—people would invariably inquire: “Hey, aren't you that electrician?”
Matt the Electrician now pays the bills solely with his music, but Matt the Musician sounds like a children's party act. Plus, Matt the Electrician is just kitschy enough, Sever says, that it stands out among the many other talented singer-songwriters in Austin who bill themselves with first name and surname only.
Sever plays a lot of gigs locally and nationally to support his family, though he says he tries to keep tours shorter than three weeks so he's not away from the kids for too long (and so his wife doesn't beat his ass). Between shows and albums, he sharpens his skills with a songwriting game he's had going for years with fellow Austin musician Bob Schneider and San Diego's Steve Poltz.
“Matt is a consistent worker bee,” says Poltz of his close friend. “He's a good father. He's a good egg. He writes good songs. He's a good addition to the planet.”
All in all, Sever's approach to life and songwriting seem very much in line with a philosophy once espoused by his old pals Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang: “Happiness is anyone and anything at all that's loved by you.” Matt the Electrician opens for Erin McKeown at Acoustic Music San Diego, 4650 Mansfield St. in Normal Heights, on Saturday, Nov. 17. Doors open at 7:30. $15-$45. 619-303-8176.