Matt Hires didn't believe it. Who would? Think about it: You work in a cabinet shop. Your small-potatoes local band just broke up. And then out of nowhere a guy sends you a MySpace message — not a letter, not an e-mail, but a MySpace message — claiming to be an A&R rep from Atlantic Records. You know — Ray Charles. Led Zeppelin. Aretha Franklin. That Atlantic Records. "I figured, what the hell, I'll call up the A&R dude," Hires laughed, telling the story over a beer before a recent show at New World Brewery in Ybor City. "When I dialed the number, and the secretary picked up and said, 'Atlantic Records,' I was, like … this is for real."
Yep, it was for real — and it was the first step in a year that saw the 22-year-old Tampa singer-songwriter release a live EP, land songs on Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, and open for artists like Dave Matthews Band, Marc Broussard and O.A.R.
On Saturday, Hires will headline a solo acoustic showcase at the South by Southwest Music conference in Austin, Texas. After that, he's setting sail on the second "Mayercraft Carrier," a music cruise headlined by John Mayer. He's counting the days until his debut solo album drops in June on F-Stop, an imprint of Atlantic.
Even by plucked-from-obscurity standards, Hires' breakout year has seemed to go by in a blur. "I don't think I was really prepared for it," he said. "It was always something I hoped for, but I didn't necessarily have a backup plan, so I'm glad it worked out."
In 2007, Hires was working in a cabinet shop and playing with a local trio, Brer, that was playing to tiny crowds of friends every other week. "It was kind of a rough time for the band," he said.
But Brer had two things going for it: (1) Microwaveable, a preternaturally polished album of sing-along singles waiting to happen; and (2) Hires, whose songwriting chops and perfect pop-rock yowl made him sound like the second coming of Counting Crows' Adam Duritz. When the band broke up, its songs, including Hires' sweet gem Honey, Let Me Sing You a Song, remained up on Brer's MySpace page.
Atlantic A&R man Gregg Nadel doesn't remember how he came across Brer's MySpace page. All he knows is Honey immediately stuck in his head. "I was driving around for a bunch of days listening to it. I couldn't stop listening to this one song."
Nadel flew to Tampa to meet with Hires, and they hashed out the beginnings of his deal. First up: Live From the Hotel Cafe, a four-song acoustic EP released in October that includes a stripped-down version of Honey.
All the while, Hires was writing songs for his debut LP, tentatively titled Turn the Page, with producer Erik Rosse, best known for his work with Tori Amos, Sara Barielles and David Archuleta.
"We have our eyes on certain artists and audiences that we think will click with Matt," Nadel said, "people that we're thinking about getting him out on the road with. We think the Mayercraft is a good opportunity for him to play in front of a captive audience that'll potentially be fans.
Hires, for his part, is looking forward to heading to sea with Mayer.
"It's actually over my wife and I's one-year anniversary, so I'm glad it worked that I get paid to go on a cruise," he laughed. "I play four shows over five days, and that's pretty much. The rest is just hanging out."
Two of Hires' new songs have already made their national debut — the passionate, pulsating On a Perfect Day popped up on the Feb. 5 episode of ABC's Private Practice, and Turn the Page, an acoustic ballad, appeared on the Feb. 19 Grey's Anatomy. "I guess they kind of like my music over there," he laughed.
Playing acoustic music suits Hires. He performs barefoot onstage, and his set at South by Southwest will just be him and a guitar. But the new album is mostly with a full band, and will be a little poppier than Microwaveable, he said. They're looking at promo opportunities with music blogs and iTunes, and he expects he'll be touring a lot this year, either on his own or in support of a bigger name.
"I've spent the last couple of months here in Tampa; I like just being able to hang out. But I am getting a little antsy to get out and do something," he said. "It's cool waking up in a new city every morning, playing music every night. It's not a bad way to live."