Matt Cusson

Matt Cusson

4/19/24, 10:54 AM
Matt Cusson

Alumni Spotlight

Matt Cusson


my Music

Grammy-nominated musician Matt Cusson ('98) was recently helping clean out his parents' house when he unearthed his high school yearbook. There, in print, was his prediction of where he'd be in 20 years: "On tour with Brian McKnight."

That dream came true faster than predicted. Matt toured with the R&B performer for about 10 years as an opening act, background singer and piano player. After stints in LA and New York, he is now back in the Berkshires with his wife, Lisa, and his three-and-half-year-old daughter, Lila.

"No matter where we are, we always come back to the Berkshires," says Matt, who was born and raised in Pittsfield. "Twelve or so years ago, I signed a record deal and they put me on a 30-city tour that started in California and ended in Maine. So we ended up on the East Coast and never went back."

Matt's musical interest started at around age six, when he began tinkering on his family's piano. The son of a classical pianist (his mother Patricia) and a songwriter (his father Craig), he and his siblings grew up with music filling their home.

"My whole family is music junkies. I'm 10 and 12 years younger than my brother and sister, so I was like this little melting pot of all this different music and these different experiences," he says.

When I turned seven, that's when I fell head over heels for Stevie Wonder. To this day, he's my ultimate. I got to play with him a few times, which was a dream come true. He had a song called 'Ribbon in the Sky.' I sat down at the piano one day and started playing it. I don't read music, so it's all by ear. I think I freaked my parents out.

As his piano skills grew, he began playing drums and singing, his bedroom an imaginary stage.

"That was every day of my life — pretending I'm in a concert in my bedroom, whether I was four years old in front of stuffed animals or 10 years old in front of an imaginary crowd," he recalls.

By the time Matt reached high school, he had two passions: basketball and music. He excelled at both, but at 5'9," he knew his odds of a professional basketball career were slim — and his heart was in music. Not sure where his passion would take him, he decided to attend BCC. His father, a BCC alum himself, convinced him it would be a great place to earn some credits while figuring out his career goals.

"It worked out perfectly, because I got to play basketball on BCC's intramural team and I got to figure out this music thing," Matt says. "That's when I started to do little shows around the area. It gave me that boost." Every day when he got home from school, he went home, locked himself in his room and played music, wrote songs and recorded them.

"I applied to one school — Berklee College of Music in Boston — and thankfully, I got in," Matt says. "I didn't graduate BCC with the best GPA, but it was that gateway that got me to Berklee and got me doing the music thing."

After just two and a half semesters at Berklee, luck was in the cards for Matt. Brian McKnight's music director, who was planning to produce a demo for Matt and knew he was a huge McKnight fan, tipped him off that the performer was going to be in town and stopping at the school.

"So I went, and after just a couple hours of hearing him talk and sing, a friend of mine said, 'I want to hear Matt sing.' I was like, oh God, don't make me sing in front of all these people," Matt remembers. "One of the things I do to this day when I'm nervous is I just sit at the piano, put my head down and play. I did that, and halfway through the song, Brian got on the phone. He was calling his wife and his manager to say, 'You gotta listen to this kid sing.' I literally dropped out of school that day and flew to his house in LA the next day."

That auspicious start to his career led to Matt moving to LA for a couple years, then to New York for a couple years, then back to LA to do a TV show. Over the last 10 years, he and his wife and daughter have spent most of their time in New York. He says he's practicing "living in the now," especially as a father, while continuing the hard work it takes to advance his career.

"It's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of right place, right time," says Matt, who has toured with Christina Aguilera and India. Arie and has collaborated with James Tayor, CeeLo Green, Dua Lipa, Boyz II Men and many others. "The dreamer in me said I'm going to make it happen somehow."

Matt is quick to credit his roots for his success.

The great thing about BCC was that they challenged me enough academically to do the work, but I also got to get into the music stuff.

That's also where he met music professor Ellen Shanahan, with whom he's still in touch. "She's an amazing teacher. She opened my eyes to, 'You can be a musician.' It was an awesome opportunity to truly figure out what I wanted to be."

Matt's father, also a songwriter and piano player who plays by ear like his son, directed the choir at BCC for many years. Bob Boland, then a beloved theatre professor for whom the Robert Boland Theatre is named, took him under his wing, and together they wrote BCC's alma mater.

Last November, Matt had a special opportunity to honor his dad at the BCC Alumni Music Fest. By then, he had gotten a Grammy nomination for his arrangement of the Bee Gees song "How Deep Is Your Love," performed by the a cappella group Kings Return.

"I had gotten my Grammy nomination in music arranging, and my dad was also a music arranger. He arranged the alma mater in four parts for the choir, and I arranged it in eight or nine parts," Matt says. "We played the song. It was such a special night. He clearly had the music in him."

But even with the glamor of a Grammy nomination comes the other side of Matt's career — the tough side. The self-doubts, the perceived failures, the what-ifs. He struggles with anxiety and depression every day, but he talks about it openly in an effort to help others with anxiety and depression.

"A few years ago, it hit me — I'm supposed to be a rock star. I'm supposed to be Brian McKnight," Matt says. "It's hard to call myself a failure, but the fact that my dreams didn't come true the way they were supposed to — that is one of my biggest challenges. It really messed me up for a long time, but I kept going."

When several major label deals fell apart before he even turned 25, Matt says he was thrown into a complete depression that eventually required hospitalization. "I wrote nothing but depressing songs," he recalls. Ironically, one of those songs won the John Lennon Songwriting Award, proving to Matt that failure is part of the process.

"That's kind of an ongoing thing in my brain, the thoughts of 'you're a failure.' It's just a part of entertainment — there's so much 'no,' he says. "I'm an extremely insecure person with imposter syndrome every day of my life. But somehow, I'm still going and making an awesome living making music. It's a weird feeling, a weird juxtaposition to feel like a failure and be nominated for a Grammy."

A self-proclaimed dreamer, Matt says it's those dreams that keep him motivated to keep creating, to keep making music.

"Even now, I still have dreams. The cool thing about art is that I'm never satisfied — there's always more I want to do," Matt says. "Music is a lifetime of learning, a lifetime of experiences, constantly trying to get to whatever level you want to get to. You have to wear a lot of hats if you're going to have a career in music."

Today, Matt is doing things he never imagined he'd do. He's mixing music for Comedy Central and HGTV. He's scoring music for movies, TV shows and commercials. He arranged his first song for the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall. And, when his third album is released later this year, he's planning on a mini tour.

"My goal is to put my fingerprint on as many projects as I possibly can," he says.

His newest song, "First Me," includes the verse, "I'm starting to see I'm right where I should be / The best is still yet to come."

"That's kind of the message I'm giving to myself, moving forward," Matt says. "There's nothing else I'd want to do but music. It's the fight inside my body and brain that never lets me relax, but it also motivates me. I've got no choice but to keep going and push my music as far as I can."