Listen to Matt Costa's "Cold December" while you read:
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By Forrest Reda

Matt Costa

Matt Costa is in Europe for the first time as a traveling musician, on tour with Jack Johnson and Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO). It's 4:30 in the afternoon in London but 7:30 a.m. in Malibu, so when the phone rings, I'm still sleeping. When his publicist offered me a 10:30 a.m. interview, I didn't ask what time zone. Apparently, all clocks in the media world are set to New York time. Luckily, Costa is a resident of Huntington Beach, CA and understands my plight. He even apologizes. When Costa tells me he's in London, I think of a perfect starting point for my interview, but my groggy brain trips me up and I can't think of the name of D.A. Pennebaker's landmark documentary about Bob Dylan's first trip to England, so I tell Costa he's like Bob Dylan, in that old documentary...

Costa bails me out, "Don't Look Back?" His tone is so reverent that I can't tell if I've committed blasphemy by being tired or if it's one of Costa's favorites, or both. "I do feel like [Dylan] here. There are some parallels, like the venues that we are playing, at least tonight, are very similar to the ones that he played. And on this trip I got to meet Donavon as well."

"I know it sounds pretty crazy," he says with a laugh. "In the documentary, Dylan's like, 'Who is this Donavon character?' When he finally meets him, they play some songs together. I've been a big Donovan fan for a long time, and I'm really glad we were in the same hotel. I bumped into him coming out of an elevator and had this great little talk with him."

Matt Costa by Josh Miller

Costa sounded sincere, and I believed the synchronicity. If anyone is going to run into Donovan on his first trip to London, it's Costa. After breaking his leg skateboarding, Costa turned an 18-month rehabilitation period into a crash course in guitar and songwriting. Eventually, Costa recorded a demo that he passed to his friends, who passed to their friends, with a copy eventually finding its way into the hands of No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont.

Later, Dumont would record a demo for Costa and introduce his music to Jack Johnson, who invited Costa on his first US tour in the summer of 2005. Those who missed him on that tour were exposed to Costa sitting in with Johnson on the DVD Jack Johnson and Friends: A Weekend at the Greek, or perhaps on Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies, the soundtrack to Curious George.

The 23-year-old troubadour is a wiry mop-top, perpetually in need of a shave with an intense presence that pales only in comparison to his huge voice. Costa is a throwback to the substance-over-style days of old, when songs were about the lyrics.

When I asked Costa about his musical influences, he mentioned not only songwriters like Tim Hardin and Sandy Denny, but John Steinbeck's books and the coastline of Central California. "That area has really been an inspiration to me," he said. His song "The Ballad of Miss Kate" is loosely based on the character of the same name from Steinbeck's East of Eden.

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