By: George Varga
“I want someone to pinch me.”
It was a simple request, and one that was easily granted. But when Ashley Matte got her pinch a split second later, the priceless look on her face — sheer delight mixed with “Are you kidding me?” incredulity — conveyed what happens when dreams and hopes become a happy reality.
That’s because the pinch was delivered by multi-Grammy Award winner Sarah McLachlan, whose music profoundly changed Matte’s life 13 years ago and inspires the singer-songwriter to this day.
It was McLachlan’s VH1 televised performance in 1997, during the first Lilith Fair women’s music festival tour, that inspired Matte (then not yet 14) to pick up a guitar, become a singer-songwriter and pursue a career in music. Moreover, McLachlan delivered the pinch while seated next to Matte at a news conference backstage at Chula Vista, Calif.’s Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre, where the first Lilith tour in 11 years played on July 7.
Adding to Matte’s fantasy-come-true experience, she was sitting with McLachlan and four other Lilith artists not just as a fan, but as one of the event’s performers. Having been selected as the winner of Lilith’s “Your Stage” competition, which enables a local artist to perform as part of the festival when it visits their city, Matte had delivered a well-received set with her band that concluded less than an hour before the news conference began.
“Sarah’s been my inspiration since I started playing music, so this is amazing,” Matte, 27, said in response to a question at the news conference, as McLachlan, 42, beamed.
“She’s in awe,” said Jan Matte, Ashley’s mother, from the front row of the news conference, video camera in hand.
Nearby, Ashley’s younger sister, Kelly, a 23-year-old teacher, clicked away on a digital camera. Kelly and Jan had flown in from Louisiana, where Kelly was born and raised in Morgan City (home of the 75-year-old Shrimp & Petroleum Festival).
“We’re very proud of her,” said Jan Matte, a veteran nurse. “Ashley’s done all this on her own.”
She certainly has. But not without causing some trepidation for her parents when, at 19, she decided to move to San Diego and pursue music on a full-time basis.
“After two years at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Ashley told us that she was quitting school to ‘follow her dream,'” Jan Matte recalled. “It was unexpected for us — and traumatic. But she’s extremely brave and determined. And she has a lot more guts than her dad and I ever had. She’s exceeded our expectations.”
Quitting college wasn’t hard for Matte, who’d enrolled as a music major despite being entirely self-taught and not being able to read a single note.
Undeterred, she used her talent to perform complex vocal parts in class. (“I was singing from memory and they thought I was sight-reading,” she said.) The fact that Matte was earning $1,500 a night singing Top 40 cover songs and classic-rock hits in Lafayette clubs helped fuel her decision to quit school. Her ability to write well-crafted songs suggested she might one day rise to the level of McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Jewel and the other artists she discovered via that pivotal VH1 Lilith Fair telecast in 1997.
If she could make it in Lafayette, the 19-year-old Matte surmised, she could make it anywhere. So, in 2002, not long after she paid a visit to friends in San Diego, she loaded up a U-Haul and headed west.
A year after moving here, she released her debut album, 2003’s “Colors.” Her second CD, “No Number, No Address,” came out last year, and several of its songs have earned airplay on leading San Diego radio station KPRI-FM. Her songs deftly draw from country, rock, blues, folk and more, enabling them to fit comfortably in a variety of musical settings.
“I’ve been here eight years now,” she said, “and am very lucky to make my living entirely from music.”
A resident of San Diego’s rustic North Park neighborhood, Matte had been at Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre more than four hours before her July 7 Lilith Fair performance began. During that time, she ate lunch backstage with her mom, sister and the members of her four-man band. This was followed by a sound-check on a canopied stage facing Cricket’s east entrance. Then came the preshow wait for Matte and her group, which is led by guitarist Rod Quevedo, her main musical partner.
“I’m excited,” said Matte, who usually plays solo or with an accompanist. “No one in San Diego has seen me with my band since our CD release gig a year ago at House of Blues.”
Together, she and her band sat in half of a 15-by-15-foot tent that served as their dressing room (fellow Lilith performer Dana DeLory had the other half). As Matte tapped her cowboy-booted feet in time to the music and typed updates on her Facebook page on her iPhone, she and her bandmates honed their harmony vocals on “Welcome Me Home,” “Wherever There May Be” and the other Matte originals they would perform in less than two hours.
“I’m feeling something right now!” said Kelly Matte, as she clicked away on her camera.
Ashley, who happily primped as she posed for Kelly, responded as only an older sister who dotes on her younger sibling can. “Wow,” Ashley deadpanned. “I’m so happy for you.”
Kelly grinned. “Mom’s hanging out with all your friends,” she said.
Ashley looked aghast. “Oh my god!”
At 3:30 p.m., a stage manager appeared to escort the musicians to the stage for their 3:55 p.m. performance.
“We love you, Ashley!” a fan yelled.
With only 30 minutes to play, Matte and her band made every note count. They delivered their seven-song set with poise, earning an enthusiastic response from the audience of several hundred.
“You guys excited about Lilith Fair being back after 11 years?” Matte asked her cheering listeners. “I know I am!”
After the set culminated with the Southern rock rave-up “In This Room,” Matte stood by the side of the stage to sign autographs and pose for photos.
“I thought her songs were amazing and I loved her voice,” said Carla Rodriguez, 27, who attended with her friend, Christina Saiz, 28. “I would totally buy her album. In fact, I will buy her album.”
Saiz nodded in Matte’s direction. “I’ve never heard her before, either, but she was a great introduction to Lilith Fair,” Saiz said.
Matte’s professional introduction to Lilith, which she attended as a teenage fan in 1998 and ’99, was just beginning. After the news conference, she bonded backstage with fellow Lilith performers Miranda Lambert and Brandi Carlile. At the end of the night, she joined McLachlan and the other Lilith artists on stage for a grand finale, replete with leg kicks.
Matte had such a good time that a follow-up interview the next morning had to be postponed.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a voice today and I don’t even think you’d be able to understand me,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I usually teach an afternoon music class downtown at the Hard Rock Cafe, but I didn’t teach today. My students knew I was playing Lilith, and they all said, ‘Yeah, you deserve a break.'”
It was a short break. That night, fueled by “lots of hot tea,” Matte was doing her weekly Thursday solo gig at the Prado in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Buoyed by Lilith Fair, her dreams and hopes burned stronger than ever.
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