Matthew Santos was 25 when he joined the Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco on a world tour, opening for Kanye West and Rihanna. He got a chance to see fame and fortune up close—but on his new record, This Burning Ship of Fools, out in March, he’s decided to aim for the depths of the heart rather than the top of the charts.
“People found me through ‘Superstar’ [the hit song on which he accompanied Fiasco], but I don’t really make that type of music,” says Santos, who is releasing the new album on his own label, Love Sick Fool Records. “I hope people are pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed.”
Santos grew up in Minneapolis under the sway of both his acoustic guitar–playing folkie uncles and the ’90s R & B superstars Boyz II Men. He came to Chicago to study music composition at Columbia College Chicago and wound up living in the recording studio of a friend whose clients included Fiasco, a then-unknown rapper. The two hit it off, and Santos contributed soaring vocals to songs on Fiasco’s first two CDs.
He probably could have made a career out of repeating the hip-hop grooves and vocal hook blueprint of “Superstar.” Instead, he has refined the sound of his previous three records, his supple voice gliding through jazz-soul melodies over rippling guitar and piano. He does make some concessions to modern rock styles on a few songs with the help of his four-piece band, which adds surging energy and emphatic choruses. “We try to entertain, but what’s most important is that the emotions are deeper,” Santos says.
The emotions on This Burning Ship of Fools range from hope to wrath to loneliness as Santos plumbs subjects including community (“The Good Life”), the music industry (“Wide Eyed Firefly”), and romantic desirability (“Drop a Coin”). “The basis of a lot of these songs is the desire for happiness and fulfillment, whether it comes from a human being or something else,” he explains.
For Santos, fulfillment comes from touching a few people deeply more than millions fleetingly. “I hope people become passionate about the record,” he says, “and that it gives them a chance to express themselves in ways they don’t have the words for.”
Photograph: Ryan Robinson