Death is all over singer/pianist Matt Munhall’s new album, 700 Miles.
On “How Did I Ever Get This Far,” the singer pictures himself standing at the pearly gates, while “When I’m Gone,” envisions those left behind to deal with the aftermath. Then, on “Heart of a Man,” a father races home to his dying daughter, counting down the miles on the highway (“700 miles … 300 miles … 100 miles”) and praying she can hold on long enough for him to say goodbye. “Momma starts to panic, voice is shakin’ on the phone,” Munhall sings atop delicate piano chords and a lush bed of strings. “Before the sun goes down I’ve got to make it home.”
In an early October interview, Munhall, 31, said his focus on the afterlife was inspired, in part, by a new life. Four years ago the singer’s wife, now his ex, gave birth to their son, and caring for the infant reminded him how fragile humans can be.
“You can drop dead at any time,” he said matter-of-factly. “I was raised Catholic and remember reading about how St. Jerome kept a skull on his desk as a reminder that, yeah, we’re all going to die.”
Even so, there’s nothing morbid about 700 Miles; as the album title suggests, Munhall remains more interested in how we spend our time on the journey than that final resting place.
In the past, Munhall’s songs tended to be more autobiographical, and he said this time around he made a concerted effort to take on different points of view. “Heart of a Man,” for example, was written from the perspective of a close friend who lost his daughter to a congenital heart defect (“She taught us a lot with her smile and her attitude and her strength,” Munhall said). Even songs rooted in personal experience gradually morphed, taking on new and unexpected forms. “Reaching Out to You,” for one, started as an exploration of divorce (the song’s narrator finds himself adrift in darkness) before evolving into a treatise on the redemptive power of faith.
“I think I’m getting older and I’m starting to look outside myself,” said Munhall, who grew up with eight siblings and first embraced music as a means to find much-needed solitude. “I’m not just focusing on what’s happening to me anymore.”