With their T Bone Burnett-produced debut album, guitar-wielding duo Striking Matches creates an unexpected and unique sound that defies easy categorization. The music of Striking Matches—Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis--occupies that sweet spot at the intersection of country, rock and blues, where all of the elements blend to form an authentically raw and rootsy sound that has a timeless and international appeal.
Indeed, their songs including “When the Right One Comes Along” and “Hanging on a Lie” have been featured on ABC’s hit drama series Nashville and recorded by the show’s stars Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen, and attracted an international fan base. Their first performances in London produced sold-out shows and audiences with a deep knowledge of their lyrics, even before the release of their first full album. Their debut self-titled EP was named among iTunes "Best of 2012" and received national attention from outlets such as NPR, the BBC and The Wall Street Journal.
“The Nashville TV show was definitely a big break for us,” Sarah says. “It was the first time we had any national or international attention. That opened the door to a lot of fans finding us here in the U.S., but even overseas when the show came out in the U.K.,” she says.
Striking Matches is the debut artist on the newly revived label, I.R.S. Nashville, and has toured with Train, Vince Gill, Ashley Monroe and Hunter Hayes.
“Our music is best left up to interpretation, but we hope it represents an amalgamation of everything that has influenced us over the course of our lives, which comes from rock and roll, country and blues, and we fall somewhere in between all of those,” Justin says.
Although their debut album is a perfect fit in the landscape of today’s commercial music, it also stands out from the rest of the pack with its driving rhythms and simple yet artful production that’s designed to showcase the compelling harmonies, honest lyrics and innovative guitar playing. They had a hand in writing all 11 songs on the album, which captures the high energy and spontaneity of their popular live shows.
Of course, that’s not surprising, given that both have built a musical foundation on guitar playing and gravitate toward guitar-driven music, such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Steely Dan, Patsy Cline, Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins. Justin is known for his fast, intricate playing, while Sarah was influenced by the blues guitarists who strive to make every note count and last. “I have always found Sarah’s guitar playing interesting because it seems to complement mine,” he says.
Both shared the same dream growing up, even though they came from different backgrounds and regions. Justin was raised in Atlanta by parents who work in the medical field. “While they didn’t play any music, they had really great taste in music and that helped set me on a path that I am forever grateful for,” says Justin, who was raised on music such as Sam Cooke, Petula Clark, Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Motown greats.
He began writing songs at age 10 and has been playing guitar as long as he can remember. But he looked like a late bloomer compared to Sarah, who was raised outside of Philadelphia and began playing clarinet in second grade, violin in third grade and guitar in fourth. Her father was a musician who repaired woodwinds and other instruments in a downstairs studio, so she was immersed in music and was influenced by the Dixie Chicks. “They proved to me that a girl can play just like a guy can play,” she says. “They were my inspiration for being a lead guitar player.”
Both decided to pursue their dreams of having a career in music by moving to Nashville. Their paths crossed when both decided to attend Belmont University in 2007 and major in guitar, so they attended the same guitar seminar class and were randomly paired together by their professor early in the semester.
“It was a room full of guys and we were saying, ‘Well, as long as we don’t get the girl, we’ll be all right,” Justin recalls. “They called my name and Sarah’s. I thought, ‘Great. It’s all over now.’ I said, ‘Do you know any blues?’ She pulled out her slide and proceeded to leave everyone’s jaw on the floor, including mine. It was one of those ‘we should do that again’ moments.”
And they did just that. They began performing songs by Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss and Keith Urban, which led to writing together, which resulted in their first public performances at places such as the Bluebird Cafe. While they continued to perform with others, they loved the music they made together most of all. “This was always where we were having the most fun,” he says. “It was the most fulfilling. It was a dynamic of complement that didn’t exist anywhere else.”
Sarah won a scholarship to take a songwriting course at Vanderbilt University, and one of the guest speakers was veteran music executive John Grady. “He sat down, looked at me and said, ‘I know you,’” Sarah says. “The day before, someone had shown him a video we put on YouTube and he liked it. We started talking and got back together the next day. I think it was fate.”
After discussions with several labels, they accepted the offer to be the first artists on I.R.S Nashville. “I don’t know that there is a cooler label that I would want to be a part of,” Justin says. “It has such a history and it feels right.”
The duo was also thrilled when they heard that famed producer T Bone Burnett, who produced their favorite Grammy-winning album Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, wanted to work on their debut project. “The environment in the studio was all vibe,” Sarah says. “It was really relaxed. T Bone has a way of making you feel super important and everything you are doing is right, and if it is not, he will guide you to where it needs to be. He knows how to bring out the very best of us.”
The best includes songs such as “Hanging on a Lie,” which they reinterpret with grit, a distorted mandolin and a mid-song jam session, as well as the organic and honest “Nothing But the Silence,” the guitar-centered “Trouble Is As Trouble Does” and “Make a Liar Out of Me” and groove-oriented “Never Gonna Love Again.”
“We haven’t written our best song yet,” Justin says. “We are so proud and grateful for everything so far, especially this record, and the sky is the limit for us. Creatively, we started writing songs while we were in the studio and especially when we finished. There was no resting. We are still hungry.”
Adds Sarah, “We have more to say and we want to be heard.”