Matt Duke
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Matt Duke

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The best kept secret in music


"Ryko Goes To School"

New York-based Ryko Distribution is betting that a class of college students can provide records to penetrate the marketplace. The distributor recently inked a deal with Mad Dragon Records, the student-run label of Philadelphia's Drexel University.

Mad Dragon, which is part of the school's music industry program, began two years ago and released "XYX," a compliation of work by singer/songwriters Trisha O'Keefe, Matt Duke and Julia Othmer.

Rkyo will rerelease the CD May 24, and marketing director Connie Kirch says the distributor is settling up in-stores throughtout the Northeast.

"The students are just in heaven," program director Marcy Rauer Wagman says.

Kirch says it was Ryko's legal department, which is based near Philadelphia, that tipped her and Ryko president Jim Cuomo to the Drexel Program.

"Jim and I went down to Philadelphia and did a seminar on what distribution does," Kirch says. "There's like a dozen students in the class, each with a different responsibility for the label. One kid was the tour manager, and one did radio promotion, and I was thinking, 'Wow, you're better staffed than a lot of independent record companies. I don't want to say it's a totally altruistic thing,b ut we thought we could help perpetuate this whole notion of getting kids involved with music." - Billboard

"Duke's musical set uses improvised lyrics and displays abundance of original work"

By Lauren Mazur
Staff Writer

Last Saturday night, a fresh new voice electrified the air in the Undergrounds Coffeehouse. Matt Duke, a solo acoustic guitarist/vocalist hailing from Philadelphia, played a varied and interesting set to an enthusiastic audience.

Duke, a college freshman who began performing during his sophomore year of high school, began his set with an original, "Strange," which immediately made both his extraordinary vocal control and enjoyment of performing apparent. As Duke played, his body became infused with the energy and emotion of the music, transforming him from a rather soft-spoken, modest individual into a fervent conveyer of passion. One of the highlights of the evening was an original piece entitled "Listen to Your Window." This unique song, written about a stalker, sent chills and intrigue through the audience with its vividly creepy musical imagery and emotional vocals.

Duke's casual and candid style fit perfectly into the Undergrounds atmosphere, with its soft purple and blue lights and relaxed ambience. He has been playing coffeehouses for a while (his favorite being the Daily Grind in New Jersey), working on his own unique sound. His musical favorites and influences include Jeff Buckley, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, and Silverchair.

Duke impressively covered Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" and Bright Eyes' "Lover I Don't Have to Love." Duke later performed beautiful covers of Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" and Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl."

The most enjoyable part of the show occurred when Duke allowed the audience to pick topics for him to use in improvisational songs. The subject of the first improv song was Duke's mother eating a Popsicle and watching Monday Night Football, the second concerned eating ice cream on the ski slopes, and the third commented on the smell in the hallway outside Undergrounds. With lines such as, "One time I tried to eat a Popsicle with my dad/This experience was very bad/He said, 'Screw this I want a beer'," it is apparent why the audience had contracted the giggles. Said Duke of his improv, "It's just cool to see them get your mind working, see how many words you can spit out and make rhyme...If there's one thing that I always want to do it would be organic rap, but I can't do that because I'm not black, so I guess the closest thing I have to it is improv." The set concluded with "On the Seaside," an emotional and expressive ending to a highly impressive performance.

Duke's modesty shows offstage when he says of music, "This is the only thing that I can do quasi-well in life, so I want to kind of stick with it, I guess." The folks who had the chance to see Matt Duke perform last Saturday would likely agree that indeed, he should stick with it.

- Pipe Dream

"Music veteran in a novel duet"

A year ago, alt-pop singer-songwriter Jules Shear had finished his ninth solo album, but had no label to release it.

At that point, many of the students working at Drexel University's MAD Dragon Records had never heard of Shear. "If you'd told me 'Jules Shear,' I'd say, who?" Drexel junior Chris Rupp said with a laugh.

"But if you'd told me, have you ever heard 'All Through the Night' by Cyndi Lauper, or 'If She Knew What She Wants' by the Bangles, I'd say, yeah, but what's that got to do with Jules Shear? Then when you hear a little more background, it's more like, oh, that guy."

This month, that guy has put out his new album, Dreams Don't Count, on MAD Dragon, and Rupp is the project manager in charge of the release. It's a match of artist and label that came about through a blend of coincidence, coercion and blind faith.

Dreams Don't Count matches Shear's typically well-crafted songs and less-than-pretty, Dylanesque voice with elegant arrangements for cello, violin, accordion and his own acoustic guitar.

Over the course of his critically acclaimed career, Shear has been on more record labels than he can remember: "Five or six" by his count, but actually 10 before MAD Dragon, going back to the '70s, when he released albums with the Funky Kings, and then Jules and the Polar Bears.

In addition to the hits he wrote for Lauper and the Bangles, Shear's songs have been recorded by the Band, 10,000 Maniacs, Curtis Stigers and Alison Moyet. Born in Pittsburgh, Shear, 54, was also the first host of MTV Unplugged.

How'd he wind up at MAD Dragon?

The label, founded in 2003, is an outgrowth of the Recording Industry Operations courses in Drexel's music business program, which will graduate its first full class of 43 students this spring. Previously, MAD Dragon had released two albums: a compilation of Drexel student artists and one of local singer-songwriters such as Matt Duke.

Though it's not the only student-run label - Columbia University and the University of Connecticut have them, for instance - MAD Dragon has an unusual distinction: It signed the first national retail distribution deal for a student-run label with Ryko, the respected independent distributor.

"As a result of that [distribution deal], we realized we had the opportunity to attract even more established artists," says Marcy Rauer Wagman, who is Drexel's music industry program director.

Last summer some professors and students "were batting about different names of who could be a nice linchpin artist for us," Wagman says. "Who is a great singer-songwriter - because that's the genre right now we are dealing in - who has not had the recognition that we think he or she deserves and who we just love?

"And everyone said, Jules Shear, he would be great; wonder what he's doing?"

Oddly enough, she says, a Drexel professor was friendly with a musician who was doing the string arrangements on Shear's latest album.

Wagman had her own Shear coincidental connection: With Tommy Conwell, she had written "I'm Not Your Man," the hit from Conwell's 1988 debut album Rumble; Conwell recorded one of Shear's songs on that album, too.

Shear happened to be in Conshohocken working with the Hooters' Rob Hyman on a different project, and Wagman arranged to meet with him to explore the possibility of working with MAD Dragon. "He was absolutely intrigued by the whole thing," Wagman says.

Shear admits he was skeptical at first, but he was quickly persuaded to license the album to MAD Dragon. It seemed like "a good idea," he says, by phone from California, "because the enthusiasm was there... . At this point in my career and the way the music business is, if you expect enthusiasm to come from anywhere, you're going to be probably mistaken. Real enthusiasm, that is. And these guys, everyone who I met there, seemed genuinely enthusiastic to do it this way. And I thought, geez, that's something you can't buy."

"We were all very excited, because obviously Jules Shear is a big name in the industry," said Drexel senior Kate Sherlock, who heads the MAD Dragon music publishing department. "To have a chance to work with someone like himself is just a huge deal for college students... . We're all very excited and working very hard because we want to see it do well as much as he does."

Shear met with the Recording Industry Operations class a few times. Wagman says as many as 50 students have been involved with the release, from radio promotion to tour booking and graphic design to videography.

"I've been involved with just about everything," says Rupp, who hopes to continue with Drexel's fifth-year M.B.A. program. "Choosing a graphic designer, helping to facilitate what the graphics should look like for advance copies and for the real album; helping to set up where to go with radio, what markets to target; doing press releases - writing his bio is one of the first things that I had to do, helping to decide how to pre-digest the music for everybody, how to promote it... ."

Sherlock's goal is to place one of Shear's songs in a television show or movie. While the work is an outgrowth of a college course that the students take for credit, it has greater implications.

"We work for free 24 hours a day because it's very exciting for us and we're learning every day," Sherlock says. "Courses do end: This recording class that I'm in right now, RIO we call it, will end in three weeks, but obviously my role as the head of the publishing company won't end. I consider this a job for me, although I'm not getting paid. This is a real artist with a real career, and I can't just stop, and I don't want to because I want to see it through to the end."

Wagman says modest sales of 5,000 to 10,000 CDs "would be a success" for the independent label and Shear. Since MAD Dragon is a nonprofit label, Shear earns a higher percentage than typical on each $11.98 album sold. The school's proceeds go toward the music industry program.

Shear, who will play World Cafe Live on April 14, backed by Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian of the Hooters, says he's being "enthusiastically naive" about working with the student label.

"I've turned over my work to real record labels and that didn't... work out too well. I'd rather turn it over to these kids because hopefully they're learning something, and that's an extra added attraction for me. I'd rather be doing that than having a bunch of old guys: They're not going to be learning anything." - The Philadelphia Inquirer


Floating Mass EP- 2003
Mad Dragon Records 'XYX' Compilation- 2005
'Winter Child' LP to release September 12th, 2006...



Feeling a bit camera shy


Twenty-one year old South Jersey-bred singer/songwriter, Matt Duke, is due to release his debut LP, Winter Child, through Drexel University’s student-run record label, MAD Dragon Records (Ryko Distribution) on September 12, 2006. Winter Child was co-produced by Stewart Lerman (Loudon Wainwright, Dar Williams) and Steuart Smith (The Eagles, Shawn Colvin) at The Shinebox Studios in New York City. The record features contributions by accomplished musicians, including Marshall Crenshaw, Brad Roberts (Crash Test Dummies), Suzzy Roche (The Roches), Steve Holley (Wings, Ian Hunter) David Mansfield (Bob Dylan, Bruce Hornsby) and more.

Duke began playing piano at the age of seven, and by ten he developed a deep love for the arts. Inspired by artists such as Van Morrison, The Band and Pearl Jam, he taught himself how to play his mother’s vintage guitar. Duke spent his high school years at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s Prep, where he was exposed to Ani DiFranco, Ben Harper, Tool and Damien Rice. Impressed by their poignant lyrics and musical ambition, Duke threw himself into writing and began performing at coffee houses in Philadelphia area. By the winter of 2004, Duke recorded his first demo, which fell into the hands of Marcy Rauer Wagman of Drexel University’s Music Industry Program and the newly-formed MAD Dragon Records. Subsequently, MAD Dragon Records recorded four of Duke’s songs for inclusion on XYX, a compilation of twelve tracks from three artists that toured as a songwriter-circle to promote the record.

XM Satellite Radio’s “The Loft” (Channel 50) received an immediate response after adding all four of Duke’s songs from XYX into its rotation. Duke’s songs were among the most requested at The Loft, joining Bruce Springsteen and Ben Harper for six weeks at the top spot. Mike Marrone, The Loft’s Program Director, said that his listeners had an “overwhelming positive reaction [to Duke’s music] from the very first spin.” Marrone also described Duke as the next big “break out act” for 2006, recommending that Lee Abrams, Chief Programming Officer of XM, play Duke’s songs for an executive music panel he moderated at the 2005 MUSEXPO in Los Angeles. The buzz surrounding XYX and Duke’s emotionally charged live shows helped MAD Dragon Records secure national distribution through Ryko Distribution. In late 2005, Duke entered the studio to record his debut LP, Winter Child for MAD Dragon Records.

Winter Child is a crowning moment in the development of Duke’s budding career and is laden with Duke’s signature songwriting style - extraordinarily beautiful melodies infused with unconventional song structures and intricate rhythmic textures. Duke’s lyrics tackle a number of topics ranging from self-destructive behavior (To Whom It May Concern, Listen to Your Window), to

casualties of inner city violence (One Small Bird), to the mourning of a loved one (Don’t Ask for Too Much) and the Apocalypse (Tidal Waves). Tidal Waves, one of the forthcoming singles from Winter Child, and one of the closing tracks, Yellow Lights, channel Duke’s commentary on religion and politics, while Ballroom Dancing displays Duke’s penchant for great literature with his ode to Hemmingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”

Commenting on Winter Child’s evolution, Duke states, “Getting the songs to translate [from solo acoustic arrangements] was an amazing process, but it certainly took some thought.” Duke continues, “We [Duke, Lerman and Smith] didn’t want to overdo it, so our real task was to see just how far we could go before we would pull back. It was very much like splashing paint on a canvas.”

Winter Child’s veteran producers, Stewart Lerman and Steuart Smith, helped provide a perfect balance of color and texture for each track. Duke enthusiastically states, “We worked to build around the essence of the song…the arrangement and selection of instrumentation was a well-thought out process.” Smith’s psycho-guitar talk box juxtaposed with Duke’s off-beat burlesque piano on Listen To Your Window; Smith’s intricate guitar voicing’s on Oysters and subtle harmonica solo on The Love We’ll Never Know; and the gorgeous string arrangements from Rob Morsberger on One Small Bird and Yellow Lights are all built around the framework of the song.

Duke reminisces, “We had quite an incredible time taking these songs places that we could only imagine.” The result is Winter Child, an intriguing, colorful and thought-provoking record that builds a platform for Duke to continue his musical exploits for many years to come.