Matthew Rolin gives up on the Browns, finds himself as a musician

Andy Downing
Matthew Rolin

The Cleveland Browns have offered Ohioans little reason to give thanks over the past, oh, six decades or so. But for folk guitarist Matthew Rolin, at least, the team’s ongoing dysfunction proved a boon, leaving the former Clevelander ample time to practice his instrument while his friends watched the Browns get knocked around on TV most weeks.

“I got to a point where I had to stop caring about the Browns or I would just be severely depressed every Sunday,” Rolin said in an early October interview in Olde Towne East. “But it was this ritual to go to a friend’s house every week for the game, so I would take my guitar over and sit on the porch [on the days] when it wasn’t freezing. … Toward the end of the season people would come outside and be like, ‘Jesus Christ, man. You’re getting really good.’”

Growing up in inner-city Cleveland, Rolin, who relocated to Columbus' Old North neighborhood in January 2018, played in more traditional rock bands. But following a mid-2016 stretch where it seemed everything was crumbling — the band Rolin was playing in broke up and a romantic relationship reached its conclusion — he decided it was time for a change, leaning into fingerstyle solo acoustic guitar rather than performing alongside others as he had in the past. A weekend trip to Chicago acted as further catalyst, and near the end of 2016 Rolin departed Cleveland for the Windy City, where he further immersed himself in the form, driven by contemporaries like Chicago’s Ryley Walker and Virginia’s Daniel Bachman, who led him back to genre masters such as John Fahey.

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Through it all, Rolin played continuously, first mimicking the hand motions he picked up studying YouTube videos and then eventually developing his own style once he had committed these movements to muscle memory.

“You don’t think about [that process], I guess, but it takes a long time and is very frustrating and boring,” said Rolin, whose new, self-titled album was released digitally by the Feeding Tube label earlier this month (a vinyl pressing is due in December). “But I’m the kind of person where if I say I’m going to do something that seems sort of impossible to me, I’ll put everything else in my life on hold and be like, ‘I’m not going to let myself down. I’m gonna do this.’”

Rolin traced this drive to an adolescence where he was often told that he couldn’t accomplish certain things. “And I was always like, ‘Why? Why can’t I?’” he said. “So I’ve generally just pushed myself into places that are maybe uncomfortable in order to prove to myself I can do something. … But I just really liked [playing folk guitar], honestly, is the real answer. I thought it was beautiful, and I was blown away by the amount of sound you could get out of one instrument, and I wanted to figure out how to do it.”

By repeatedly pushing himself into uncomfortable places, Rolin somehow emerged with a new full-length that sounds both naturalistic and wholly at peace. Built on dense, fluttering leaves of guitar notes, the album conjures the feel of autumn (aka those 17 hooded sweatshirt-appropriate days between 90 degree temperatures and the winter's first frost), particularly immersive album opener “One Day I Will Be Free,” which builds over nearly 12 hypnotic minutes, and “Two Fourteen,” which begins amid ambient traffic noise captured outside of the Old North apartment in which it was recorded before moving into a more ethereal, genteel space.

The album’s warmer, enveloping tones start at Rolin’s fingertips. Rather than metal fingerpicks, which he said create a more metallic, scraping sound, the musician utilizes a plastic thumb pick and applies acrylic nails to his other playing fingers, which prevent nail breakage and allow him to create softer, comparatively calming notes in line with influences like English guitarist James Blackshaw.

“He plays this really classical style, as opposed to that more Appalachian, country thing, which I also love,” said Rolin, who will perform alongside dulcimer player Jen Powers in the improvisational Powers/Rolin Duo at Dirty Dungarees on Sunday, Nov. 17 (the solo guitar songs populating Rolin’s album are more carefully composed, in contrast). “The way he plays, it sounds very fluid, almost like classical meets the waves on the ocean. … I probably tried to rip that guy off more than anyone.”

For Rolin, who described himself as the anxious type, the music also has a welcome calming effect.

“I like to over-analyze and worry about every single aspect of everything, and if I’m really getting in there and playing, I don’t think about any of that stuff,” he said. “It really is one of the only times in life when I feel at peace.”

Dirty Dungarees

7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17

2586 N. High St., Old North

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Powers/Rolin Duo