California Report – Matt Michienzie

Matt Michienzie – photo © Robin Frenette

Matt Michienzie is a Boston Boy, transplanted to sunny Southern California. Matt is a songwriter, guitarist, mandolinist, and sometimes fiddle player who on his website describes his music as “countrified, bluesified, and grassified.” He has quickly adapted to the California bluegrass scene, and assembled a stellar group of longtime local players leaning towards the progressive side with deep affection for the traditions. Check him out at his shows or many festivals which he is a regular attendee.

Hey Matt, tell us about your band

The core of the band is me on guitar and lead vocals, with Julian McClanahan (fiddle and vox), Chris Jackson (upright bass and vox), and Nate Schwartz (mandolin and vox). All these guys are California guys. So they keep my Massachusetts energy in line. I met Julian a few years ago at the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle contest. We have been playing together ever since. I first met Nate Schwartz, long time CBA member, at Grass Valley, but we didn’t hit it off until we trekked out to Avenal State Prison to play some tunes for the Bluegrass Bridge program, benefitting the bluegrass and musical cultural enrichment of our state inmates. I met Chris through Julian. Bluegrass was new to him when we met, but he’s a genius. And I’m sure he’s going to hold this above me for saying so. 

How do you describe your music?

Well… mainly bluegrass. Although we do like to take risks and try some things that might seem more like a rock show. Maybe groovy bluegrass?

Do you have any releases coming out?

Yes! We have a few songs coming out in the next few months. We have this tune called Mountain Air that Julian and I wrote together. After a day of skiing, he sent me the chorus the next morning, and I threw together some lyrics that I had been working on to wrap up the tune. Julian produced and recorded those songs in a cabin up in Elk, CA. They feature Marty Varner (a long-time friend of CBA) on mandolin and Chris Jackson on the upright bass. We also re-recorded some of the tunes that I have been playing over the years. The sound of the band got “grassier,” and the songs have changed over time. So recording them to fit our current sound was a goal of ours recently. 

What does your summer schedule look like?

We just finished a jam-packed May, at the Long Beach Bluegrass Festival, Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest, and Grand Ole Echo. Next up we have a show with Water Tower at the Americana West Festival in Hollywood before we head to my home on the east coast for some New England shows June 26-30. We got the Sonoma Bluegrass Festival in July with Hot Buttered Duo and the Salty Suites – and then we have an exciting August coming up! We’ll be going to Europe for six shows with the trio (me, Julian, and Chris), including a festival in Cologne Germany (Green Parrot Bluegrass Festival), and another one in Western France (Herbe Bleu Festival). So busy busy… but busy is good, and I’m really excited to spend some time off the grid in Europe with my musical pals.  

Do you recall your first musical memory/instrument?

I think a few memories blend together – but I remember my first performance. Third grade, I believe. I played My Girl (The Temptations)…. and had so much stage fright or maybe adrenaline after the show. I ran off stage into my first green room (an empty classroom, I guess), and let out a ton of tears. Our elementary principal found me and gave me a pep talk… something along the lines of, “You sang your little heart out and everyone loved it.” I started on piano, but to me, it has always been the guitar that I’ve chased. 

What instruments do you play?

Right now I pretty much focus on my flatpicking guitar and also mandolin. Fiddle has been a fun hobby for me, as I used to play bowed instruments in middle school (cello and bass). So it has been fun to get that muscle going again. 

Did your family play music when growing up?

My family is pretty musical. Everyone has their own gifts and talents. I always wanted a family band. My dad can sing, my mom played guitar and danced growing up, my brother Chris was my first bandmate on the drums, and my sister Emily has an angelic voice. My Pap-Pap was the first one to teach me how to play some blues guitar. This is why I love playing in the E position.

I read where you quit your job to dedicate yourself to music. Tell us how that came about and how it is going. Any advice or regrets on that move?

Yes. So I’ve been working my butt off for the last few years in the film industry. Worked on a handful of cool projects and was producing a bunch of commercials with a cool company. But ya, a few too many years spent managing and producing stories for others – I started to lose time to manage and produce my own stories. The skill set translates pretty nicely, when it comes to booking and managing my own band. That all feels the same. But now I get to perform and express myself on stage several days a week and I couldn’t be happier. It was a risk and still is, really. But sometimes you have that voice deep inside that can’t be ignored, it just felt like the right time to finally listen to it. Shout out to my wife, Kiki, for making any of this possible, because I could not do anything without her. And to my family for always supporting and trusting. 

For Me by Matt Michienzie

Who were some of your peers and bands back in Massachusetts?

I did a cappella for seven years… high school and college. That was a major part of my interest and passion for harmony singing. I played in some bands while I was at Boston College, but never really cracked the local scene, until more recently. 

What are some of your favorite venues in Southern California?

My all-time favorite venue in SoCal is Pappy and Harriet’s out in Pioneertown, near Joshua Tree. We had the pleasure of opening for AJ Lee & Blue Summit in February. It was a dream come true to play that venue. 

How does the Southern California scene differ from Massachusetts?

Southern California feels like good, hard, work. We are in the scene grinding every day. Playing any show we can take, especially one with a paycheck and a crowd. But when I go back to the East Coast, it’s more about family and friends. That’s where my people are. In SoCal, we are working to spread the word about our band. When we play in Mass, it’s like a big party for our family and friends.

What fiddle tunes do you play when you pick up your instrument?

On guitar, it’s Boston Boy because I’m always trying to work on my C position…. And well, Boston. And on mandolin, it’s Back Up and Push.

Who inspires you to play and learn more? And why

There’s a long list of people that inspire me to play. But for now, I’ll name three. The first is Scott Gates (AJ Lee & Blue Summit). In short, I would not be playing bluegrass had I not seen him playing at Bigfoot West with the Get Down Boys a few years ago. Scott said, “You should come to this festival in Carlsbad next week,” and it’s where he introduced me to the Gooding brothers and a whole slew of talented pickers. We stayed up quite late talking about our ancestors coming over through Ellis Island. And on top of that, every time I watch Scott play or hear him sing, I go into “hyper-focus learning mode.” I can’t get enough. His energy is unmatched.

The other one is Sam Berns. He was my close friend growing up. He is most well known for having one of the most watched Ted Talk videos where he talks about his keys for living a happier life. Sam had an aging disease called Progeria, and he passed at the age of 17. Google Sam… and his life, and what he stood for, and you will understand why he inspires me every day. Probably my main source of why I do what I do. He shared so much happiness, friendship, positivity, love, and music with the world.

And third… Dave Matthews. My first true and lasting musical obsession. I used to go to a lot of shows with Sam and it’s where we dreamed of playing venues like the 13,000-person amphitheater in our backyard essentially. One time Sam gave me about 3,000 DMB live songs on a thumb drive for Christmas when I was probably 16. 

What styles of music do you listen to?

Everything, really. I keep peeling apart the bluegrass onion. So that is the gift that keeps on giving, and it feels endless. But I also like old-sounding country music, jam bands like the Grateful Dead, and tangential bands to their culture and lore. Oh, and Billy Strings! My wife and I have seen him a bunch of times and we love that entire squad. I have ADHD, and my musical interests are changing day to day based on where I’m getting the most dopamine. Yesterday it was Giacomo Puccini and Italian opera.

What other instrument would you like to learn?

Pedal steel for sure. 

What is more important to you, tone or groove?

Gun to the head, I’m going to say tone. Without a good tone, I’m less interested in the groove. But with good tone, the groove could be lame and I’ll still be interested in the tone. 

Are you an instructor?

No, but call me if you know someone who wants to learn. Happy to instruct.

What is a challenge you have had in the past, and how did you address it?

I truly feel that any bluegrass technique that needs to be reworked, or addressed, can be figured out by showing up. Going to festivals, going to jams, going to shows…the community will make you a better bluegrass picker.

Do you have any new tunes or songs you are learning?

Hmmm… maybe just trying to play my mandolin more like a mandolin and less like a guitar. 

Talk about composition. How do you know when something is done?

I work really well with a team. I know that a song is finished when Julian, Chris Nate, and I have played it enough times behind closed doors, on stage, in videos, etc… the song is the song. But how you play it and how it grows and morphs is a whole other ballgame. I am never fearful to reach out to my musical peers for guidance as to where a song is headed. That’s how we build trust, camaraderie, and a musical conversation. I don’t know, at some point, it just feels “done.”

How do approach an arrangement?

I usually present it to the band in whichever way I think it’ll be best received. Sometimes it’s at a rehearsal, and sometimes it’s right before we play the song on stage. I love it when someone suggests something new to an arrangement. We are always open to adapting, changing on the fly, talking about what worked, what didn’t work, etc. This helps us nail down which song we will eventually perform.

Who are your favorite songwriters and why?

In bluegrass, it has to be Larry Sparks. Maybe because of the way he sings his songs… and boy do those Neumann mics sound fire. And as a kid growing up in Massachusetts, it’s hard to avoid James Taylor. “There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range…His horse and his cattle are his only companions” – some life-changing lyrics I remember hearing in my basement, maybe in 2003 or so. And not to mention the verse about the “turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston”… singing about home is very important to me and something I cannot get away from. One way to my heart is to sing me a song about Boston… or New England. 

What do you do when not playing music?

As you can probably guess, growing up in Foxboro, Mass, I’m a huge Boston sports fan. Love the Sox… love going to any baseball game. I love to travel with my wife, Kiki, and play with our three rambunctious dogs. Oh – and cooking. Like most Italian-Americans, I love to cook… BBQ, stews, Italian food, and whatever.

Matt Michienzie Band Promo

Tell us about your instruments and gear.

I have two guitars in my arsenal right now. My main guitar and gigging guitar is my Bourgeois Touchstone Country Boy. We are lucky to have a sponsorship with Bourgeois. It has been so great to work with a company out of New England. I thoroughly enjoy every guitar, mandolin, and person who is in that shop. I also have a ’72 Guild D-50 Bluegrass Special. It’s got old strings and I like to write softer stuff on this one. 

Is there anything else you would like to say or plug?

Not really. I talk a lot. So come say hi or shoot us a message on Instagram. Thank you to the bluegrass community, especially the CBA, for welcoming me as a newcomer over the last few years. Stoked to keep touring and playing for you all! 

Thanks much for your time Matt and see you soon I’m sure.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is a California based author, mandolin picker, and composer who writes the California Report column for Bluegrass Today. He grew up in the Ohio Valley right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto rivers dump into the Ohio. His articles, Morning Walk album, and video are available on streaming sites and his website at