Elmhurst’s Like Language fuses different musical worlds for new album

Love might bring us together, but shared passion is what ultimately brings bands together.

Despite Matt and Kristen Murray coming from different musical worlds — he, a musician deeply rooted in the Chicago rock scene, and she, a classically trained vocalist — they found common ground to create the alternative-leaning pop band Like Language.

On Friday, the recently married Elmhurst couple releases “Whatever You Want,” the band’s first full-length album.

Kristen, a choir director at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, is in her ninth year of teaching, having also taught in Arlington Heights after earning a Master’s degree in music education.

“When you go to school for music, it’s all about Bach and Beethoven,” said Kristen. “I think I might have been a little bit snotty, like ‘Well, that’s not music.’ But it’s opened my eyes and kind of made me a better teacher in the sense that, it’s helpful, but you don’t need to be able to read notes on a staff or know your key signatures to be an astounding, amazing musician.”

Matt, who started writing his own songs shortly after picking up a guitar around the age of 14, learned the value of artistic expression growing up in Villa Park with a dad who was a full-time musician and a mom who was an art teacher. His first serious band, the pop-rock outfit Hotel Ahead, played around Chicago, recorded a full-length and a few EPs and toured the region. He followed up that band with a few other projects before Like Language came into focus.

The call came when he and Kristen were commissioned to perform at Matt’s sister’s wedding a few years back.

Courtesy of Darren Vorel

Even though the two were dating at the time, they had never worked together.

“We always had our separate music worlds,” said Matt. “I was always writing my songs alone in the bedroom. … And we never thought to fuse those worlds.”

“But when we were forced to sit down at a piano together, it went really well,” he added. “Somebody mentioned ‘Have you considered starting a project?’ and we said, ‘No!’ We didn’t think it was even on the horizon. But the more we wrote, the more we were like ‘This might be good!'”

Their distinctly different approaches to songcraft create a unique sound on the new nine-song album, three tracks of which have already been released as singles.

“One of the main things we look for,” said Matt, “is something that’s instantly exciting or catchy or meaningful.”

“And since we don’t always play full band on stage,” Kristen explained, “when we write, the songs need to stand alone acoustically or be just as powerful as when you listen to them on the album.”

“For ‘Whatever You Want,’ we do our best to take our ego out of the equation,” said Matt. “We both sing and we both play instruments, so we had to say ‘It’s about the song itself. What’s going to make the song better in terms of who sings where, who sings what?'”

Which meant sometimes one would have to step back and let the other take the lead: Kristen with her refined classical vocals or Matt with his Andrew McMahon-esque radio-ready timbre. “Only a few keys work for both of our voices,” said Kristen, “so sometimes if a song doesn’t sound right in a specific key and we have to move it, it’ll put one of us out of the equation vocally.”

Like Language performed with the Plain White T’s at the Egyptian Theater in Rockford earlier in 2018. – Courtesy of Dan Vasta

The album, produced by Marc McClusky of Fuzzball Recording with an engineering assist from Downers Grove artist Nick Stetina of Invigorate Recording, encompasses the band’s signature poppy vibe, but some of the songs hit a little closer to the heart.

The title track, “Whatever You Want,” has different meanings to both Kristen and Matt.

“With everything going on in our country right now, the divisiveness, the fact that you can’t talk to people who have different viewpoints,” Kristen said. “Right now, there’s a lot of talk and ‘We need to …’ but not a lot of action.”

“When I wrote the chorus, I was at a breaking point,” said Matt. “I had struggled with anxiety and depression for a long time, and that chorus was a cathartic moment. … Originally it was ‘I’ve been living with this too long,’ but we changed it to ‘we’ and it took on a completely different meaning.”

A more uplifting standout on the album — “What’re You Waiting For?” — was practically a stream-of-consciousness creation for Matt. “The producer sent a track meant for something else, and I listened to it on the way home from my corporate job. When I heard it, I wrote the song right away. … You look back and say ‘Wow, that did have meaning in that time.'”

And it did. Since then, Matt went back to school full-time for a master’s degree in clinical and high school social work.

“As you get older, there’s more pressure to stay in your corporate job, have the house with two kids,” said Kristen. “But we’re self-deprecating. We have ideas, then say ‘Oh, that’s not good enough. We’re not good enough.’ And this song is about ‘Just go for it!’ Who cares what people think? Put your music out in the world. Go back to school. Just do what’s gonna make you happy in the end and don’t worry about what everyone else is expecting you to do or to be.”

• Like Language is the featured band on this month’s local music playlist, “Chicago Sound Check 2019v1,”now streaming on Spotify. Give it a listen and check out some of the other Chicago and suburban musicians we’ve included recently in the Daily Herald.

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