“These people don’t know what they’re missing,” the woman simpers as we look down the aisles of Criminal Records. She’s the kind of lady who says everything with authority — and, dressed as she is in a black evening gown and fancy jewelry, I believe every word. “She’s gonna be huge.”
We’re both here to see Mattiel, aka Mattiel Brown, who’s setting up on the store’s corner stage with her band — Jonah Swilley and Randy Michael of Black Linen and the back-to-basics production crew InCrowd man guitar and bass respectively, while Jordan Manley, also of Black Linen, sits in on drums. I’ve just come in from the slackening rain, which cleared out the sidewalks on the way over. Not even the punters were out on Euclid when I hustled into Criminal. When I first meet the lady standing alone by the stage — Lisa, I believe her name was — I admit that I’d yet to actually hear Mattiel live. “WOW! Really?! Where have you been?” she exclaims.
Funny she should ask, because hours earlier, under the clearest of clear blue skies, Brown met me at 8ARM for a brief chat. She chose this hip joint on Ponce for our rendezvous point because she could walk here from work — i.e., from the headquarters of the newsletter service MailChimp, where she’s employed as a designer and illustrator.
Ostensibly, we’re here to talk about Mattiel’s rockin’ debut single, the first fruits of a record deal with California’s esteemed slack masters Burger Records. And we will, along with how she set foot into the InCrowd and found her niche in a sprawling city of kids “too cool” for her craft. However, as Brown herself notes in our interview, both her artistic talents are inextricably linked.
“Design’s always been a part of everything,” she tells me. “If I don’t have control over the look and feel of a project that I’m the face of, I feel very insecure. So I really need to have a say in how everything looks.” As we’ll learn in the interview, that managerial confidence has guided Brown in several walks of life — from maintaining her stoic aesthetic, to forging new friendships, to even managing her own skin.
If you hadn’t heard Mattiel or her bluesy garage output, you wouldn’t suspect she was a rocker from a glance at her portfolio. Her minimal poster designs pop with slick, modern curves and deconstructed concepts; one very Chris Ware-esque gig flyer features a woman dissected into parts as she does household chores. That modern edge also shines through quite literally on her designs for MailChimp, which include neon signs throughout the building.
As with many artists, Brown first saw design as a viable career path through her mother, a professional set decorator. “I grew up with her doing paintings, and doing hand-painted signs for sets,” she reveals. “She’d do anything that they needed to get done. So she was freelancing and doing that through my whole childhood. And she was always really supportive of my creative impulses.” Brown’s mom also turned her on at an early age to Aubrey Beardsley, a controversial illustrator about town in 19th century London who was close buds with Oscar Wilde and other aesthetes. And in recent times, she’s also drawn inspiration from Steve Powers, the modern folk artist who painted the mural on Kurt Vile’s Walkin’ on a Pretty Daze.
Brown’s journey at MailChimp began in 2013 as an intern under creative director Ron Lewis. “He kept me around for three months, and then another three months,” she explains. As Brown continued to impress her superiors, she migrated up to part-time for a year, then moved up again to her current full-time position in 2015. In that time, she’s helped design ad campaigns and office spaces, alongside other artists in house and guests invited to MailChimp’s headquarters, such as the aforementioned Powers.
I’d always assumed that working full-time in a busy company would challenge creative types to eke out time for their personal endeavors. However, MailChimp has never held Brown back from writing or performing music. “I just make sure that I’m doing the work that I need to be doing, make sure I’m producing consistently there,” she says. “They’re very supportive of any creative ventures that their employees have outside of MailChimp. They want them to have side hustles, they want them to be creatively involved in the community or in their own stuff.”
A rock and roll refuge
At Criminal, Lisa and I watch Brown belt out her tunes. I’m struck by how ordinary she looks on stage — she’ll sometimes dip down on one knee, but otherwise she has no flashy tricks or sultry demeanor to hide behind. The Mattiel up there — the one who stares straight at us the whole time, never flinching, not even during the knee bends — is the same Mattiel that always looked right at me whenever I asked her a question at lunch.
Before Brown embarked on her own project with Michael and Swilley, however, she was first a selective fan of rock and roll. “I would sing in the car a lot, in high school, to anything I was interested in,” she says. “It was like the Ramones, or the Rolling Stones, or the White Stripes, or folk music, or Bob Dylan. It wasn’t really more than that. It was just in one area that I was obsessed with.”
That devout listening paid off. Recent single “Whites of Their Eyes” is as badass and boisterous as they come, a gritty lo-fi stomper with vicious fuzz. Turns out, the style-savvy Brown looked up to Jack White for more than just the attitude; in all her press shoots, she reps no-frill outfits in either red or black, each with a forward-facing baseball cap. “[White is] very good at visuals and marketing, and I admire that about him,” she says. “He pioneered the whole outfit to stamp a logo on the band, by wearing all white or red.”
During Brown’s rock obsession in high school, back when she still lived outside of Atlanta, she tagged along with some friends to catch a show in the city. There, in a band called the Booze, she encountered Renaissance man Michael for the first time. As Lisa informed me later in Criminal (she was, after all, his mother), the multi-talented guitarist had played and toured in bands for most of his young adult life. When Brown befriended Michael, he was getting set to jet off on a West Coast excursion with Atlanta soul man Curtis Harding.
While he was gone, Brown migrated into the city and started looking for her own crew to make noise with. But for a rock and roll refugee, the scene looked grim. “I didn’t know anyone else in Atlanta that was doing the music I was interested in,” she tells me. “It was very much a scene of ‘too cool for rock n’ roll,’ and mostly shoegaze-y stuff.”
Meanwhile, Michael had been chewing on the notion of writing more songs for other people. He’d recently co-written a few tracks for Harding’s new album, and started riffing the idea of a songwriting collective and production company with future partner Swilley on the road. The stars were already aligning.
When Brown learned that Michael was back in town in the summer of 2014, she messaged him on Facebook about hooking up to jam. Michael and Swilley were already stewing over the concept of InCrowd, but this sealed the deal, so they arranged a late-late night session, with a Donavan cover to test the waters. From there, the InCrowd collective took flight, and Mattiel joined Michael and Swilley on stage with Black Linen.
Designing an album
From our interview with Michael last year, you’d think InCrowd could bash out a whole album in an evening. “We cut everything live here, even the vocalist tracks with the full band, to two-track tape,” he told us. “Everything is mixed whilst the band’s recording, so once I hit the playback button, there it is… it forces you to come up with something on the spot and commit to it.”
For Mattiel, however, her debut album has been in the works since 2014. The songs themselves came together within a year, mostly during her daily commute. “I’ll take a CD that they’ve burned for me into my car, and I see what works,” she explains. “I do like when it’s quick, but sometimes I’ll sit on something for a couple of days.” She likens the process to her work in graphic design. “You usually start with a rough idea of what you want, whether it’s a design piece or a song. You really don’t know what it’s going to turn out like. You throw the things together, see what works, and then you make decisions — whether or not to go further, or to stay at a point where things have peaked. I’ve kicked myself for doing something great and [then] going too far and messing up a bit, or thinking about it too hard.”
As for the Burger alliance, Swilley connected Mattiel with the esteemed slackers. But, as with the White Stripes, she’s admired the label’s total aesthetic for years. “They don’t take themselves too seriously, [and] their branding is really fun,” she says. “They’re not trying to be anything but what they are.” Likewise, when we speak about the Burger Beach Bash, the label’s festival on Coney Island where Mattiel was slated to perform, she admits to being most stoked to explore the kooky carnival environs where her idol Powers has crafted several signs.
The hardest project
Around this time, I decide to click off the recorder, so Brown can properly dig into her avocado toast. Yet, as we continue to chat casually — I believe I mention that I studied health and medical journalism in Athens — she suddenly exclaims, “Oh! Do I have a story for you, then. Did you read the Creative Loafing article?”
Why yes, I did, and I knew what she was alluding to. At the end of that aforementioned interview, the writer asked Brown about what inspired the lyrics to the two songs on her single. For “Count Your Blessings,” Brown said she was consoling herself during a rough period with her skin, caused by a certain topical cream. Prior to our chat, I had ruminated over whether or not I should ask about that condition — does she want to talk about it? Does anyone want to be identified by their past illnesses? But Brown is eager and willing, so I flip the recorder back on. Only now, as I type this, do I realize that the following story — wherein Brown correctly diagnosed herself against her doctors’ advice, and rectified a disorder they refused to acknowledge – aligns with her managerial instincts as a designer. Turns out, of all the visual projects she’s ever strived to actualize, the most difficult vision to attain was her own clear and healthy skin.
Since a young age, Brown managed small bouts of eczema with Desonide, a steroid-based topical cream. And for most of her youth and teenage years, everything seemed fine. When her doctors switched her prescription to a type of hydrocortisone, however, the rashes started to spread to places on her body that they’d never broached before. “The dermatologists that I would go to would just say, ‘OK, keep using this cream,’ and kept prescribing it, and prescribing it,” she says. “And I thought, this is weird, I never had a rash on my neck. Why is there a rash on my neck, that I now have to get rid of with this cream again? This is really getting strange.”
So instead of applying the cream again to these inexplicable rashes, Brown decided to try an experiment: she shelved the medicine, and waited. Three days later, her face erupted into boils. “It was awful,” she recalls. “You’d go out in public, and clearly people could tell there was something wrong with you.”
Within a few months, however, the outbreaks subsided. Then, after a similar period of calm, the flares relapsed. Thus, for two years, Brown rode through this cycle of solace and disruption, with the flares diminishing ever so gradually until they finally faded out last August. The entire time, she kept her hands off the cream.
These periodic outbreaks were part of the withdrawal process from topical steroid addiction, a rare side effect of steroid-based creams like Desonide. When Brown couldn’t rid herself of the persistent rashes that emerged after the switch to hydrocortisone, she started digging online for answers. Eventually she hit on “Steroid Addiction,” the first comprehensive review on the subject by Dr. Albert Kligman and Dr. Peter Frosch from 1979. That led her to the International Topical Steroid Addiction Network (ITSAN), an organization devoted to supporting others like Brown who had been misdiagnosed and ignored. Those resources, along with a more progressive dermatologist in Marietta, convinced her that she was on the right track.
Still, two years was an agonizingly long time. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, in my whole life,” Brown tells me. Dealing with horrible rashes that everyone could see was just half the battle. As the cycles persisted, she also lapsed into depression. “I was really a wreck at about one year into my withdrawal, and I had to see a counselor,” Brown told skin health blog Preventable. “I was in a very, very dark place and couldn’t sleep, hated having to go through the day, and was in a lot of pain – I was so depressed. Worst experience of my life was the mental toll this took on me.”
Yet, Brown persevered, and has since healed within and without. Even from our close proximity, I can’t detect any blemishes on her face. She talks briskly about the ordeal, with no lingering doubt or agony about her actions.
I don’t recall what I said after she told me that — something inept, I’m sure, to assure her that I’ll fit the skin story in. “Everything informs the artist,” or some weak platitude lie that. But the less obvious take-away is her unflinching work ethic — for, in the throes of her harrowing withdrawal period, Brown was both ascending as a designer at MailChimp while making in-roads with InCrowd.
Back in Criminal, I hail Brown after her set, but we don’t talk much. And that’s fine. I don’t expect more than a nod. As I walk out into the clear pink evening, I contemplate Lisa’s prediction, that “she’s gonna be huge.” And the skeptic in me doubts this, given the ironclad gates to stardom in the music industry. But when you factor in what Brown has overcome, and the sheer will she’s harnessed to establish her own sound and image — well, she might just break through yet.