Indigenous

Mato Nanji, the longtime leader of the South Dakota-based Indigenous, is a Native American artist who was born to play the blues. He pares his musical approach right down to the bone on The Acoustic Sessions (Vanguard, June 8), the seventh full-length album under the Indigenous nameplate, in a series of strikingly intimate and immediate performances of songs handpicked from the band’s first decade of existence. These captivating performances transcend genre, locating the heartfelt, powerfully understated expression at the core of Mato’s writing.

“This album is a collection of some of my favorite songs that celebrate 10 years of releasing albums, starting with Things We Do in 1998 and finishing with Broken Lands in 2008,” he writes in his notes to the The Acoustic Sessions. “I wanted to do something special to thank all the Indigenous fans out there for supporting us from the beginning, and for the continued support as we open a new chapter with this album. Every song that I have ever written began with the acoustic guitar, so it only felt natural to create an acoustic album. For me, everything has always been about making music. It is who I am and who I always will be. I am honored to have the opportunity to share a part of who I am with all of you.”

The plainspoken, heartfelt eloquence with which Mato explains his inspiration for making this album can be found in every song penned and every note played by this refreshingly humble and earnest artist. On The Acoustic Sessions, Mato revisits, in chronological order, 10 linchpin songs from his body of work, stripping away everything but their musical and emotional essences, joined only by producer/multi-instrumentalist Jamie Candiloro (Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson) and his wife and songwriting collaborator Leah Nanji, who sings backing vocals, with violinist Lisa Germano (John Cougar Mellencamp) contributing to certain songs. The spare settings serve to isolate Mato’s lived-in, character-rich vocals and burnished guitar lines, which are totally of a piece with his writing.

In these songs, the natural imagery of rain falling and winds blowing across the badlands of his native South Dakota set off Mato’s recurring themes—notably, a traveling man’s yearning for home and the powerful bond between two people who were meant to share their lives together, their bond made more precious by the inexorable passage of time. From the opening “Now That You’re Gone,” originally recorded for Things We Do, his band’s first national release, to the tender “Eyes of a Child” from the recent Broken Lands, Mato captures life as he’s lived it, in a way that anyone who has a heart will naturally relate to.

“I really enjoyed working with Jamie, Mato states. He’s a cool, laid-back guy, and he has his own studio in L.A. which is where we made the record. I just flew out, went in there with my acoustic and we laid ’em down, with Jamie playing drums, bass and some other things. I wanted to do a different style of acoustic record, rather just guitar and vocals. I wanted to stretch it out and experiment with percussion and different feels. And because it was just me, Jamie, and Leah, I was able to focus more on the details.”

The album closes with a rousing yet poignant performance of a song he’s loved since he was a teenager—Roy Orbison’s latter-day classic, “You Got It” (written with Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty). “I’ve always been a big Roy Orbison fan,” Mato says. “He was one of the guys my parents always listened to. This song took me back to when I was growing up, so I decided to take a crack at it. It was fun to do something different, but of course it’s still got that bluesy, soulful influence.”

Not coincidentally, the lyric of “You Got It” directly reflects Mato’s own values system in passages like, “Every time I hold you, I begin to understand/everything about you tells me I'm your man.” Compare them to these lines from “Come on Home,” which he co-wrote with Leah: “So please take my hand/Show me what, what you need/and put all your worries behind/’Cause right beside you is where I’ll be.”

A member of the Nakota Nation, Mato picked up his love of the blues and learned guitar from his father, Greg Zephier, a musician turned spokesman for Native American rights, while growing up on South Dakota’s Yankton Reservation (he and Leah now live in nearby Sioux Falls).

“A lot of Indians who live on reservations seem to be drawn to country music,” Mato points out, “but I’ve always felt more of a musical and emotional connection to blues. It’s definitely got that feel, the kind that makes you feel better about the situation you’re in and the negative things that are going on around you. That’s what I got out of blues and all the musicians I grew up listening to. But I think a lot of Native Indian people can connect with it.”

While he confirms that Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughn are primary influences, Mato’s biggest influence was his father, who died in 1999. “My dad got it going for me,” he says. “He brought the records home, and when I was trying to learn guitar licks off of Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn records, he’d be able to hear it once and show me how they did it.

In the band’s original lineup, Mato was joined by his brother Pte on bass and their sister Wanbdi on drums and vocals, along with their cousin Horse on percussion. All three siblings had grown up surrounded by music, thanks to their parents, who listened to everything from B.B. King and Buddy Guy to Santana and the Eagles. When they’d shown an aptitude for music, Zephier showed them the ropes, and when they’d honed their chops on their respective instruments, the kids formed the group. As Mato recalled, “My father said, ‘Somebody has to step up and sing—you can’t be an instrumental band.’ So I said I’d give it a shot, and that’s where it started.”

They recorded five full-length albums and a pair of EPs together before deciding to take separate musical paths. Having fronted the group as well as writing most of the material, Mato retained the Indigenous name, and recorded the albums, Chasing The Sun and Broken Lands. “I just felt it was the right thing to keep the Indigenous name going,” Mato explains.

In a very real sense, The Acoustic Sessions is not only a fitting way to close the first chapter of the Indigenous story; it also leads definitively to the beginning of the next one.