A long mane of matted hair hung way past his shoulders, and it felt as if every strand was sweat soaked.
Nova Scotian singer/songwriter Matt Mays was in the thick of a four-year hiatus — part vacation, part exile — wandering from Indonesia to California without a set list or his former band, El Torpedo.
He was touring solo in every sense of the word, without a gig to play and just a few song ideas to flesh out and make his guitar howl.
But as he wandered along the shoulder of a Laguna, Calif., road, waiting for a pal to come pick him up, a far different member of the pack came lumbering closer, wild enough to tame the restless young troubadour.
“The title of my new album was gonna be something else, but at this random moment I ran into a coyote and took it as a sign,” Mays says of the prowling creature after which he named his latest album.
“It was 2 a.m. or something, and this coyote came and scoped me out, and came pretty close. I wasn’t as scared as you’d think I’d be. I could tell it wasn’t in attack mode. It moved really slow and calm. But, obviously, it still freaked me out.”
“Coyote” is a call of the wild days of Mays, featuring the sun-drenched vibe of his Californian journeys, along with flavours of Mexican shimmying rhythms on tracks like “Madre, Padre.” But lead single “Take on Faith” evokes the alt-folk of Ryan Adams or Wilco.
For fans, that signals a return to form for the East Coast songsmith, back to the roots of his early, ’70s-style hits like “Cocaine Cowgirl,” after years of less successful, experimental forays like “When the Angels Make Contact” and blander, radio friendly faire like 2008’s “Terminal Romance.”
After the latter disc, El Torpedo drummer Tim Baker and bassist Andy Patil departed, Mays split up the band and began a near half-decade of meandering.
“It wasn’t time yet,” Mays says of the years-long stretch between new material.
“I spent a lot of time in California and really liked it. It’s really free there, a laid-back vibe with generations of surfers, kids and grandparents surfing together. It was perfect. I had to chill out for a bit and write some tunes. There’s no hurry. You can’t rush that stuff.”
Many assumed Mays spent that period licking his wounds, like a maimed canine, over the band breakup. But in fact, he was bruised by a far more intimate split.
“I was in a serious relationship at the time. I got to know California really well because I was dating a girl from there for close to five years, and got to see the whole state from the inside out,” he says of his early hiatus days, before adding that the romance soured not long after he wrote “Coyote” highlight “Loveless.”
“That one came out of nowhere and really scared me. A lot of songs predict the future, and that was one of them. Looking back now, the title and the lyrics of that song make a lot of sense, but they didn’t make sense at the time when I thought I was in a great relationship. That’s the great thing about songs; sometimes they come true and reveal themselves later.”
But the last time he tapped into that surreal level of foreshadowing, it was almost enough to keep him from writing forever.
“City of Lakes,” a haunting cut from his self-titled 2005 solo debut, includes the lines “I lost a friend here in this past year, I miss his guitar playing in my ear.”
“I sang about losing a friend in that song. Then my best friend, who I learned to play guitar with, died later that year. It feels really eerie to sing that line now.”
After all that, a mere breakup or split, a few sneering album reviews, even facing down a predator, don’t seem so dismal anymore. In fact, Mays is content to travel, write and record on his own for now, aside from live gigs with his current backing band and the occasional producer’s credit (especially for up and comers like Charlottetown, P.E.I.’s The Meds, opening for Mays on this tour, whom he lauds for writing such unabashed stream-of-consciousness lyrics).
“I’m really into the solo shit right now, not collaborating,” he says, citing his selection of offbeat album guests like Nova Scotian MC Buck 65 on “When the Angels Make Contact.”
“Having Buck on that song was perfect. But I haven’t written a song that suits that since, or that would suit El Torpedo. It’s gotta be natural.”
“You can’t have solid relationships with somebody until you know yourself,” he adds. “Travelling so much over the past couple of years really helped with that. Especially when I was in Indonesia, off the west coast of Sumatra — I took a couple of flights and boat rides just to get to a beach out there that has some of the best waves in the world for surfing. It’s very, very remote. It’s nice being somewhere so naturally untouched, a really good place to meditate and evaluate your life. I just feel like I don’t know myself yet. I’m on a bit of a journey, sort of figurin’ that out.”
Mays will be appearing in St. John’s Nov. 13 at Club One at 11 p.m.
This is a corrected version.