Matt Costa didn't launch his music career by conventional means. In fact, the 24-year-old literally fell into the business. In 2003, the Huntington Beach native shattered his leg in a skateboarding accident. With 18 months of rehabilitation looming ahead, Costa picked up a guitar to pass the time.
Five years, one crude demo, an independent album and a couple of friends-with-benefits later, Costa is releasing his second album (Unfamiliar Faces on Jan. 22), well on his way as a rising star in the singer/songwriter world.
It wasn't long ago that Costa—at one time an aspiring pro skateboarder—would have scoffed at the thought of becoming a protégé to No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont and “surfer light” titan Jack Johnson. Then the accident happened.
At the time, Costa was far more interested in skateboarding in and around Huntington Beach than attending school or something infinitely worse, like getting an office job. After the accident, Costa took a music class at a community college, but it didn't take. He soon realized that the classroom wasn't where he was going to find the kind of music he loved and wanted to create.
“I just started learning from records,” Costa says. “I learned by listening and playing along with records [by] The Kingston Trio, early Donovan, Travis, early Beatles, Rubber Soul.”
Costa recorded a rough demo that eventually found its way into Dumont's hands. Actually, Costa unwittingly put it there. He was hanging out at Ruca, a Huntington Beach clothing store, when Dumont showed up.
“I mentioned that he should check out my music, [which] was playing in the store at the time,” Costa says. “They had one of my CDs there, and I gave it to him. I didn't even realize who he was until afterwards.”
The two became friends, and Dumont eventually helped Costa record a self-titled EP. The five-song album built enough buzz to clear the way for Costa's proper 2005 debut, Songs We Sing, produced by Dumont. Along the way, Costa says, Dumont dispensed advice about negotiating the pitfalls of the industry—like “keeping the honesty in what you do, being genuine, doing what you think is right.”
The music eventually grabbed the attention of Jack Johnson, whose path to singer/songwriter stardom is eerily similar to Costa's. Johnson, once a pro surfer, turned to music while recovering from injuries he suffered in a wipeout at Hawaii's Banzai Pipeline. Johnson discovered Costa's music through a mutual friend—filmmaker Emit Malloy—with whom he was collaborating on a surfing video.
“They wanted to use one of my songs in a film,” Costa says. “They already put it in there and had it all set up, and they asked me if they could use it. It kind of started there—when they got my music, they started asking for more of my songs. Jack liked it, I met him, and he came to see me play.”
Johnson liked Costa's music so much he rereleased Songs We Sing on his Brushfire label. The collaboration resulted in Costa earning an opening spot on Johnson's tour. Costa toured extensively in support of Songs We Sing—making appearances at festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits—before heading to Sacramento to write and record the new album in early 2007. Like the EP, Unfamiliar Faces was produced by Dumont and released on Johnson's Brushfire Records.
Costa credits such disparate influences as coffee, wine, “life on the Mississippi,” romance films, favorite books, a wooden pipe, a box of old 45s and “dirty laundry” for the work that went into Unfamiliar Faces. He'd already developed a strong following for his gentle, country and folk-tinged style but expanded further with the new album, adding piano and other instruments.
The album is bookended with the peppy companions “Mr. Pitiful” and “Miss Magnolia,” and power pop mingles with folk on “Emergency Call.” On “Trying to Lose My Mind,” he sings about the panic attacks he had while recovering from his skateboarding injury—partially a response to medication.
A different kind of panic began to set in as Costa scrambled to handle all aspects of his career and reconcile them with his skateboarder D.I.Y. ethos. That is, until a friend set him up with Press Here Publicity to promote his music. It was either that or therapy, Costa says.
“I told my friend who helps me do shows and merch that I needed help,” Costa says. “So, instead of sending me to a psychiatrist, he got me hooked up with a PR company.”
Publicists. Tours. Jack Johnson. Tom Dumont. Opening shows for bands like Modest Mouse, Pinback, The Vandals and Built to Spill. Features in Rolling Stone. Glowing reviews in Fader and the Los Angeles Times. It's been five years since the accident, not even three since Costa really started getting serious.
“And now here we are,” he says casually, “on to record number two.”
Matt Costa plays at 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31, with Delta Spirit at The Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd. 619-232-HELL. www.mattcosta.com.