Mt. Joy frontman Matt Quinn reflects on success, creativity, making mistakes and his time at Northeastern
Mt. Joy’s rapid rise is a success story in the music industry, but the journey for Matt Quinn and the band started at Northeastern. Ten years and three albums later, Quinn looks back on the moments that have defined his path to indie rock stardom.
Since Mt. Joy’s 2018 self-titled debut, the indie rock band has skyrocketed to success, playing some of the most iconic music festivals in the U.S. and sharing tour billing with artist like The Shins and The Head and the Heart. Photo by Jeff Hahne/Getty Images
When Heavy Elephant released its first album in 2013 with Green Line Records, Northeastern University’s student-run record label, Matt Quinn thought the band would hit it big. At the center of the album was “Silver Lining,” a folk-rock song that Quinn, class of 2013, thought would be Heavy Elephant’s first big hit.
The song failed to take off and Heavy Elephant is no more, but years later, in 2017, when Quinn re-recorded and released “Silver Lining” with the debut album for his new band Mt. Joy, the song became a viral hit and went to No. 1 on the Billboard Triple A charts. As of this month, the song has been played just under 150 million times on Spotify.
Mt. Joy is a remarkable success story in the modern indie rock scene. Known for their folk-infused yet stylistically flexible indie rock, Mt. Joy has played Bonnaroo, the Newport Folk Festival and Lollapalooza, some of the biggest music festivals in the country. They’ve opened for The Head and the Heart, The Shins and The Lumineers. It’s also a story that started at Northeastern.
Quinn’s arc from music industry major recording an early version of “Silver Lining” in Ryder Hall to indie rock hero playing sold-out shows across the country is suffused with the lessons and experiences he found early on at Northeastern.
“At the time, I certainly didn’t know where things would end up, but I had a great experience and I learned quite a bit about the music industry that I am really grateful for now,” Quinn says. “In terms of how the industry is set up, in terms of the various players and the structure from a business perspective of how the music industry operates, I learned a lot of valuable business lessons that I still think about now when I’m going into signing record deals.”
After graduating in 2013, Quinn pursued a career in copyright law, angling for another entry into the music industry. He worked at a Boston-based law firm and then moved to L.A., where he attended night classes at law school. It’s also where he reconnected with Sam Cooper, a friend and songwriting partner he knew from high school.
They started recording music under the name Mt. Joy, which was inspired by a mountain near their hometown of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. They pulled in producer Caleb Nelson, found Mt. Joy bassist Michael Byrnes on Craigslist and recorded a quartet of songs, including “Astrovan.”
Originally intended as a “joking song” about a Deadhead Jesus, “Astrovan” took off on Spotify and convinced Quinn and Cooper that Mt. Joy was more than a one-off experiment. They brought on drummer Sotiris Eliopoulos and keyboard player Jackie Miclau to record some additional tracks, including “Silver Lining.”
For Quinn, it was a rare second chance, an opportunity to learn from his mistakes.
“I literally had the song that ultimately is a gold record and has success by a number of metrics, and it didn’t work,” Quinn says, noting his failed attempt at marketing and sharing the song. “I should’ve held onto it and found people and really done different things, but you learn from that and say, ‘Alright, I get another crack at this, literally with the same song, which is unusual.’”
Second time’s the charm.
With viral hits like “Silver Lining” and “Astrovan,” Mt. Joy and its 2018 self-titled debut skyrocketed to success. Although he was a few years removed from Northeastern, the lessons he learned back in Boston suddenly became “invaluable.”
For so many musicians, that’s the dream. You want your songs to find as big of an audience as possible. But the music industry is not easy to navigate and there are plenty of pitfalls for an up and coming band, and Quinn had learned enough about the music industry to help the band navigate the early days of its success.
At Northeastern, Quinn had co-oped at a record company that is now the parent company of Mt. Joy’s record label: “I literally worked in the building,” Quinn notes.
“I really felt comfortable in terms of what a record label was,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s a negotiation and you own something and they’re trying to buy it from you.”
“But I think sometimes the price can be driven down because of the aura of ‘I want to sign a record deal,’” Quinn continues. “That comes from a lack of understanding of what exactly that company is trying to do to your ownership of your art. Understanding the players and what their goals are and having a broad view of what the music industry was, that was hugely helpful.”
Quinn has an unvarnished view of what success meant for Mt. Joy at first. “It didn’t mean that I was immediately wealthy,” he says, but it meant playing 200-person venues, not 10,000-person stadiums, and making hundreds, not thousands, of dollars.
“There was definitely a period of time where you saw the light at the end of the tunnel, but you had to dig in and realize it was a multi-year arc to get to where, ultimately, we’ve been able to get in the last couple of years,” Quinn says.
With success comes expectations, the kind that weren’t there when Quinn and Cooper were recording “Astrovan” in 2016 as a joke. Suddenly, Quinn and Mt. Joy had to think about balancing fan expectations with where they wanted to push the band creatively.
Quinn acknowledges that this mental calculus is unavoidable when a band becomes successful. However, he’s tried his hardest not to have it impact his creative process and what artistic avenues the band has explored, while trying not to “go out there and make white noise with primal screams in it because you’re pretty sure that won’t work.”
“You’re aware of it but to the extent that we have been successful making songs that people relate to, it’s always been about chasing something that doesn’t really have anything to do with anybody else,” Quinn says. “I really do feel like the best creativity is an introspective journey and trying to dig something out that excites you.”
I truly am a believer—even in this space of bazillion songs—that a truly great song … will resonate, will find its way to the right people and success will be there for you.Matt Quinn, vocalist and guitarist for indie rock band “Mt. Joy”
Even since Mt. Joy found success in 2018, the music industry has changed dramatically. Relatively unknown artists can shoot to super stardom almost overnight by posting music on TikTok. There have never been more avenues for people to get their music into the world; there has never been more music.
But at the end of the day, Quinn says his advice to burgeoning musicians is simple: “Just make songs.”
“Be patient, make songs, and the beauty of that is eventually you’ll have a song, hopefully, that is just undeniable,” Quinn says. “Once you have the product, then you become an entrepreneur and you just go conquer and get it in front of people as much as possible.”
“I truly am a believer—even in this space of bazillion songs—that a truly great song, which is easier said than done, will resonate, will find its way to the right people and success will be there for you,” he adds.
As he learned with “Silver Lining,” it won’t always go smoothly. Mistakes are a necessary part of the process, especially for a generation of artists who are finding sudden viral success on social media.
“It’s important to make mistakes because if you get thrown right in, you don’t want your mistakes to be in front of 50,000 people at Lollapalooza,” Quinn says. “You want to fail so that when you get put in big situations, you’re not trembling with fear because you don’t have the tools to succeed.”