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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  A Few Clouds


Matt White: UW grad makes good
UW alum hits the top of the pops

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Matt White's major-label debut brims with the kind of easy melodies and love-struck lyrics that recall John Mayer and James Blunt. But the New York singer-songwriter has something else going for him those other famous guys don't.

He's a former Madisonian.

White, 27, clocked four years here (1998-2002), earning a degree at the UW.

"I lived in an apartment on State Street above Zorba's," White explained during a phone interview last week. "I had a piano that I had rented from one of the Madison malls, and that was the year I bought my first electric guitar."

White recalls playing gigs at Restaurant Magnus and the City Bar.

When he graduated from the UW in 2002, White returned to New York and dedicated himself full-time to writing pop songs. He busked in subways and appeared at Manhattan pubs and coffeehouses.

Geffen Records took notice in 2005, once White had acquired 50,000 MySpace friends. The label signed White after hearing an MP3 of his song "Miracles."

"It took me a couple of years to make the first album," said White. "I figure you only get one shot like that, and I had to make the best of it."

Best Days was released last fall, and the title song charted on the Billboard Pop 100.

The best tracks on Best Days venture beyond standard radio-friendly fare. "Play" is a sultry blues-pop number that finds White howling with falsetto desire. White's childhood training as a classical pianist shines on the charming jazz-pop track "Love."

White began playing piano when he was 3. That wasn't unusual in his musical family. His grandmother, Shirley Kesselman, was a bandleader in the 1930s and played violin and piano, too.

Still, White credits his time in Madison for giving him his first big musical break.

"I dressed up as Shrek for Halloween on State Street, and a couple of years later I was trying to get my song on the Shrek the Third soundtrack," he said. "So I e-mailed that picture off to the guys at the production company, and right after that they put me at the top of their song credits."

To this day, White has strong feelings about Madison.

"Of all the towns I play, I most look forward to coming to Madison. Those were the best years of my life."

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