Matthew Levine: Notes on A House Divided

Matthew Levine is an award winning songwriter and composer

Matthew Levine is an award winning songwriter and composer

Have you ever wondered about the thoughts of a composer as he creates new music? I have always found this a fascinating question to ponder. And since I have the bounty of having a friend who is a wonderfully talented composer, I asked him exactly about his thoughts behind his music.

But rather than me trying to introduce  Matthew Levine, let his music introduce him to you. You can buy his CDs at CDBaby and Special Ideas! Do buy his music — not only you would be inspired by it but Matthew can use the cash as you can see below! So, here is Matthew Levine in his own words:

I had classical piano training from 9 to 16 year old. From16-18 I played in a rock band and a jazz/rock band that were occasionally rivals. At 17 (1975) I went to Orange Coast Community College where I took music classes. There I met Jamie Findlay, the now renowned Jazz guitarist, who then was in the jazz band. At the time neither one of us were Baha’is. We would meet again years later in Los Angeles as Baha’is.

At nineteen I attended firesides in Newport Beach and soon became a Baha’i and, almost immediately after, moved to Hollywood to pursue a songwriting career. I had several songs published and collaborated with several famous songwriters such as Amanda McBroom (The Rose) and Alan O’Day (Angie Baby) but nothing ever translated into profits. I began writing my own lyrics and was introduced to David MacKechnie, a professional lyricist who took me under his wing. As the music business became stupider and more expensive, I was left behind. I had been attending Baha’i meetings at the Willows in Beverly Hills almost every week for several years which kept me spiritually grounded, relatively speaking. So I decided to write what I felt like writing which were songs with a spiritual bent. I also wrote some choral pieces.

By the time I was thirty I was tired of trying to record music on a waiter’s salary, if you could call it that. I went to Platt College or Graphic Design and took a ten-month crash course. After I graduated I worked for Smiland Paint designing brochures and paint can labels. Six months later, I had no reason to be in Los Angeles and packed my belongings in my Toyota pickup and headed up the U.S. coast with no plan other than to visit every Baha’i I knew and decide where I wanted to live and then look for a job. I sold my first cassette recording, The Big Idea, and a bunch of my demos and Baha’i calling cards to pay for gas and food.

By the time I got to Washington, I stayed with Kurt and Leslie Asplund, two true patrons of the arts. We hit it off swimmingly and they offered for me to stay with them so I could write music. So I did for a year and a half. The Asplunds and I and six other Baha’is formed a jazz a capella group called Tapestry directed by Tim Strong and we performed at various functions. My time in Washington was perhaps the best time of my life.

After 1.5 years in WA I decided to borrow money to make an album of Baha’i-inspired music. The result was A Sacrifice to Thee. At the same time I recorded a few new songs and added them to the one on The Big Idea and produced a second CD, the new incarnation of The Big Idea. I did this because I was planning a cross-country trip perform my music via “living room concerts” and two albums would pay for more food and gas than one album. Both albums had numerous problems in the recording process mostly related to not having enough money to do it right, but it was either cut some corners or not do it at all. Besides, I had an ulterior motive–to meet a woman and get married.

During this 100+ city tour, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, I met Jia-Yi Cheng. The next day I was off to a new gig. My schedule was being prepared by Rose Wendel and I often didn’t know where I was scheduled to go until the night before, so Jia-Yi, who wanted to hook up with me, found me through the internet (this was 1995). She drove about 1,000 miles each weekend for three weekends in a row to spend time with me while I traveled through Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. While at the Green Lake Conference I got sick and Jia-Yi nursed me back to health just in time to share the stage with other Baha’i musicians such as Seaforth and Jenkins, Jaimi Findlay and Red Grammer. Jia-Yi and I hit it off and I proposed to her at the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette before my gigs were too far for her to drive to. When I got back to Washington, I moved my stuff to my parents’ house in California and was off in a few months to Asia where I did the same living room tour in Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines. While In Taiwan, Jia-Yi toured with and translated for me.

On the way back from my tour, I stopped by Taiwan again and we got married having already received consent from our parents. Back in the U.S. I moved all my belongings once again from California via my Toyota pickup to Indiana PA where I lived with Jia-Yi for a year-and-a-half while she worked for her doctorate degree in English specializing in literature from minority women writers (mostly Latin and native American women). I worked doing freelance graphic design and as a waiter at the Train Station Restaurant. After a year-and-a-half, Jia-Yi received her degree and got job offers from the University of Texas and a new University in Taiwan. We chose Texas. During those ten years we had two beautiful children, Dana and Andrew (now almost 8 and 11 y.o.) while she taught and I worked as a graphic designer. We got tired of Texas so Jia-Yi went on the job market while I went the University of Houston to get a music teaching credential. After a year, we realized that we couldn’t afford for me to go through the six year teaching credential program so I opted for a 4-year music composition degree with the plan to get a teaching job afterwards while I continued at night taking the required classes. During my senior year, I wrote a string quartet called, “The Prophet of Shiraz” which won first place in the undergraduate yearly composition contest. The month of my graduation, Jia-Yi received a job offer from College of the Canyons in Valencia, California. We moved there the summer of 2005 and found apartments in the same complex, one for each of us (we started a year of separation).

In Valencia, I found it almost impossible to find work. I taught piano at a local performing arts studios part-time, worked at the LA Times as a graphic designer for a ten-month contract, lived off of unemployment for six months, had to then take a job as a security guard at a warehouse, there were layoffs, six months more of unemployment, and that’s where I am now. No money, no job. Welcome to 2009.

The songwriting business over the last 30 years has been inherently expensive. Those that haven’t been able to work full time at it and don’t have expendable income to record or buy recording equipment–necessities of the businesss–are left in the dust. I was only able to afford my own recording equipment three years ago at the age of 47. I’ve only been able to spend about 5% of my life, if that, writing and recording music. I wish it were otherwise, but considering what I had to work with, it’s amazing I produced anything at all. Being a Baha’i has saved my life. Knowing that my life is not about my music but about spiritual growth I am greatly relieved, for God gives us numerous catalysts for growth every day, regardless of our circumstances. If along the way, someone enjoys my music, that’s the icing on the cake.

Notes on “A House Divided”

I asked Matthew Levine to share some background stories about each song in this remarkable CD. Here they go:

A House Divided was conceived as a world anthem. It is more of an occasional song rather than the kind you listen or sing to while doing the dishes or driving down the freeway, although I have been known to bellow “O say can you see…” with my car windows rolled up and the kids in the back seat, but that’s only if they’ve been naughty. I mostly whistle to jazz or blues.

I wrote A House Divided in the ’80’s but wasn’t totally happy with it. About 20 years later I realized it needed a bridge and a single chord change in the chorus. I would have liked to hire a rock band to do it but, not being man of means, opted out of necessity to sequence all the tracks except for two of the guitar tracks and the vocal tracks. The four-bar guitar solo near the end was pieced together from eight takes (you get what you pay for—in my case, nothing). The song was recorded on 72 tracks and mixed at Westlake Studios, but the engineer forgot to mix in some critical instruments so I mixed his “stems” with the missing tracks on my computer. Again, you get what you pay for. Considering the difficulties, it didn’t come out half bad.

On the Fence was inspired mostly from personal experience.

Seven was written and recorded about 15-20 years ago. I think I was subconsciously trying to emulate my favorite songwriter, Joni Mitchell. The bass part before the second chorus was played spontaneously by the engineer as we were getting ready to mix. Again, you get what you pay for–in this case $300/hour.

The Mother Tongue was also written and recorded about the same time as Seven, this time thinking of Sting. My good friend, Greg Hofmann–who wrote the song (the only song by another person I’ve ever recorded) Mr. Bones on my previous album, The Big Idea–helped me with the lyrics. He’s a devout atheist but we both are into protecting the environment.

The Hunter was written in the early ’90’s during a walk around the neighborhood when I lived in King County NE, Washington at the home of the illustrious Asplunds–true patrons of the arts. I remember passing a llama farm.

Children of the Amazon, another environmentally themed tune, was written…I don’t know, a long time ago. My friend and mentor David MacKechnie wrote the lyrics to the bridge. At the time I was listening to a lot of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell and, apparently, it shows.

Trio was written in 2004 during my tenure at the Moore’s School of Music at the University of Houston where I was working towards my bachelors degree in music composition. It was recorded at KUHF Studios by a fellow composition student and performed live by other fine student instrumentalists.

The Man Upstairs is one of my personal favorites. It was inspired by the many child martyrs of the Heroic Age of the Baha’i Faith.

Wherever You Are was written by David MacKechnie and me in the Cretaceous period: my inspiration came from a series of Baha’i martydoms in Iran; David’s inspiration came from the death of his good friend and collaborator, Jerry Fielding, the Hollywood movie composer. I wasn’t planning on putting this song on the album because I hate my original recording, but a number of people close to me insisted that I include it. So, three days before the album was scheduled to be mastered, I rearranged and recorded it just for them. They returned the favor and bought a few CD’s. So what do I do with the rest? Any ideas?

Beautiful was inspired by an idea I had after I had done two recordings of Baha’i prayers featuring my son, Andrew. I wrote a script and recorded Andrew speaking one phrase at a time. The tune was built around the script. The initial chord pattern avoids the root altogether giving it that shifting, unsettling, mystical feeling that one gets when you bump into someone you’ve never met before yet you know her name.

A Home That Forever Will Stand was written about 15 years ago while I was living with the Asplunds in Washington. My friend, Greg Ives produced it in Portland where he had access to good gospel singers and engineer Chris Huston who used to be friends with John Lennon. Since then it has won four awards in various songwriting competitions.

5 Responses to “Matthew Levine: Notes on A House Divided

  • mark wilkins
    11 years ago

    Hey Matt. I believe you are the same Matt I knew way back during your hollywood days. We arote a few songs together. I am still writing. I have a lot of spiritual things happening too. I am one of the most quoted on a popular spiritual website. I still live in the L.A. area. get in touch, maybe we’ll meet and catch up. Mark Wilkins

  • mark wilkins
    11 years ago

    I am unsure what moderation is.

  • mark wilkins
    10 years ago


    I’ve got a CD copy of several of the songs we wrote together for you.
    Call me at (661) 298-5918
    Mark Wilkins

  • Sandie Richey Edmonds
    10 years ago

    Hey Matt,

    Did you go to Newport Harbor High School? I went to High School with a Matt Levine who was active in chorus with teacher Suzanne Haig(sp?). Even then he was a great in music (and card tricks). One of the few genuine people at Newport Harbor that I liked. He sang barbershop if I recall (so did I, Sweet Adelines). Is this you??If so, do you remember me – the pizza girl – Sandie Richey? If this is you, I knew you would go far in music and I would love to hear from you. My email is I would love to hear from you! Sandie

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