“I’m lucky: I’ve got a great and fun hobby playing music,” says the happy-go-lucky Matt Portella as he talked music, his bandmates and more ahead of his Jan. 25 show at The Vault in Berlin (Camden County), which will also feature Ari Hest.
An attorney by day and a musician by night, he has been performing throughout the Philadelphia/South Jersey/Jersey Shore area since his college and law school days. He possesses talent accompanied by a great sense of humor and an infectious personality — a great combination for an entertainer.
So how did he become a singing lawyer?
“I’m a South Jersey guy: I grew up in Cherry Hill and I live in Haddonfield,” he said. “My incentive to be a lawyer was my father. My father practiced law and I really enjoyed the stories that I’d hear from him at the dinner table or when we were just hanging out, and I thought that would be a very good means of income for me because my father and I had the same personality.
“But I also wanted to be on stage doing theater or acting or playing guitar, and what really caused me to want to play guitar was Ace Frehley of Kiss. I thought the Kiss show and the theatrics and the glam were very cool and I thought that Ace Frehley was a cool persona onstage and I really liked his playing: I thought his playing was just good, basic, R&B-based rock ‘n’ roll. So that’s what caused me to really want to be an entertainer, but inspiration wise it was The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and John Denver. They were the earliest that I remember listening to while growing up, and that’s because of my mom. That’s what she was listening to.
“I just wanted to be creative, so I started writing when I was in college and it was a great outlet for energy and songwriting. I try and mix all of that into my shows: a little bit of theatrics, obviously not of the Kiss level but the entertainment value of it. So I’ll tend to talk a bit between songs, to try and make people laugh, to get them to enjoy the night and hopefully also enjoy the music that I’ve written.”
“My music is singer-songwriter, all original, acoustic-based pop/rock/folk mix. I’ve been playing since the sixth grade but didn’t actually start playing out until college, and then law school … I really got into playing. It has kind of morphed; I played bars for maybe 15 years or so and really enjoyed it. I pretended that every show I was playing was in a big stadium or concert venue and I would do three or four hour gigs of cover material.
“Then in 2008 I wound up opening for Kevin Bacon’s band, The Bacon Brothers, down in Ocean City, at The Music Pier. A friend of mine who is a musician said, ‘Well, you can’t do covers, you’ve got to do all originals, so it’s time for you to release a CD.’ So my first CD came out and since then it’s been no cover gigs anymore; it’s been mostly original stuff. The first disc was released in ’08 and it’s called Stripped and then the second one is called Fractured Image and that was 2013, and now I’m working on another one.”
Fractured Image introduced Portella to some industry insiders and heavy hitters within the Philadelphia area music scene, resulting in some very good fortune. A one-time solo act, he suddenly found himself with well known bandmates.
“When I was doing the second record,” he said, “I wanted to just lay down some rough tracks in the hopes of, at some point, putting together a full CD with a full band, because my first CD was just solo acoustic. I had called a buddy of mine to see if he knew anybody that had a studio so that I could just kind of get in, lay down some tracks and get out, and he is friends with Fran Smith Jr. (of The Hooters). So I called Fran, told him what my ideas were and he said, ‘Why don’t you come into our studio and we’ll just write and lay the songs down and do the whole CD now instead of just doing a rough draft?’ And that turned into the full project.
“When I play live I mix it around, depending on the venue and how I’m feeling. I’m either solo acoustic or I’ll do a duo with Steve Butler, who is in Smash Palace and who also does In the Pocket with Dave Uosikkinen from The Hooters. He and I will either do an acoustic duo unless we’re feeling fancy that night and maybe Steve will play electric instead, or we may mix it up a bit. So I’m either solo, duo or if I’m using a full band, Steve is with me and Dave Uosikkinen will be on drums and then Fran Smith Jr. will be on bass. I’ve got one song recorded that I’m committed to on the new CD with Dave on drums, Fran on bass with Steve on guitar, but due to my profession it takes me a while to get the CDs out, due to a constant juggling of time. But I like it (laughs).”
Portella says that even though he is a part-time musician, “I’ve got friends who are full-time musicians who have made it and have really put out phenomenal, stellar stuff, and for me to be brought into that realm of people and musicians and artists … I shake my head in disbelief sometimes that I’ve been so lucky and blessed. Sometimes I pinch myself. I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I just did a show with Dave Mason. I just did a show with Jeffrey Gaines and now I’m doing a show with Ari Hest.’ ”
Hest is an international touring musician who happens to be a favorite of Portella’s.
“I’m really excited to do this show with Ari because I’m such a fan and really just love his music,” he said. “Ari is a cool guy. I met him in Philadelphia a couple of months ago; I’ve been a fan of his for years, which is how this show evolved. I love his music, his album Twelve Mondays is one of my favorite albums; there’s not a bad track on that record. So I’d seen him in Philly at a show and just started chatting with him and then asked if he’d be interested in playing The Vault and he was; we communicated, got the show together and we’re ready to give people a good time that night.”
Portella is no stranger to the venue, either. He has performed at The Vault on multiple occasions and has a deep appreciation for the history housed inside the building as well as the man responsible. The Vault is home to the remnants of the RCA Victor catalog including some of the original equipment used to press the first vinyl records at RCA’s Camden plant, sheet music, pictures and more. Those attending the show will not only hear great live music but can also view these museum pieces.
“I love The Vault,” Portella said. “Graham Alexander, who has put that all together, has really done a phenomenal job with bringing back vinyl and Victrolas and getting music back to its roots and back to where it came from. To me it’s refreshing. It’s like the circle of life — it’s like the circle of music and it’s really incredible what they have done. They just opened a huge studio at the Victor building in Pennsauken and I told Graham that I want to come see it and record there. I’ve seen photos and it looks phenomenal.”
So what can those who plan on attending the show expect?
“You’ll get me and Steve and I believe Ari is bringing another artist with him and it’s going to be an evening of just cool chill music. Ari and I are going to be a nice mix. He’s got a wonderful stage presence, phenomenal voice, incredible music and sometimes I come out like a bull in a china shop when I hear the excitement from the crowd (laughs), and, depending on the night, my energy will skyrocket.”
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