Matthew Stephen is an American musician in a unique position of having spent significant time over the past few years in Ukraine and neighboring Romania. So much so, that last month he flew to Romania to help some Ukrainian folks cross the border into an AirBnB he rented for them.
Recently, before the Russian invasion, Stephen has also written songs about and inspired by Ukraine: “The Fire” and “Blue and Gold,” which we will share with you just below.
“The Fire” is a song about the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine that was also the title track of Stephen’s recent album, just released a month before the invasion, in January. The video below of “The Fire” is also brand new.
“Blue and Gold,” also released recently, is a song of Ukrainian resistance.
For obvious reasons, in light of recent events, these songs and the video are very timely today. We had a chance to interview Matthew Stephen this week. Here is what he has to share:
Americana Highways: Are you in or near Ukraine now? Tell us more about your recent trip to that region.
Matthew Stephen: Not right now. I was in Bucharest, Romania and Dusseldorf, Germany last month checking in on some friends who fled from Kiev and Kharkiv. Kharkiv being the more dangerous route as that family had to travel all the way from the east near the Russian border to the west. The Kharkiv group left when their residential neighborhood started being shelled by Russian invaders.
They fled north to Dnepropetrovsk then gradually made their way west calling ahead constantly to make sure the roads were safe. A journey that normally would take a day took four instead, and they spent their nights under constant air raid sirens.
When they got to the west they had to decide whether to go north to Poland or south to Moldova. I directed them to a friend’s in Moldova and they crossed the border in 30 minutes. By comparison, they would have been in a four day traffic jam getting into Poland. It was to the extent that we were trying to figure out how many minutes in an hour they could idle their car to stay warm. Luckily it didn’t come to that.
To put it all in context, when they got to my friend’s house in Moldova a person came up and rang the buzzer on the apartment – the 4 year old clutched her mother because she thought it was another air raid siren.
AH: Are you in touch with Ukrainian musicians or others in the music world nearby?
MS: I don’t know any Ukrainian musicians (I did use a bandera – which is an ethic Ukrainian lute type instrument in “Blue and Gold”) but I have some buddies who are in a hard rock band in neighboring Romania – Days of Confusion. Unfortunately I was in and out of Bucharest too quickly to say hi last month. Following those guys around for a week in 2015 is partly what got me back into writing and what started the album The Fire.
AH: Do you live in the U.S?
MS: I live in Tampa currently. I grew up in Arlington County in the DC area. My family and most of my friends’ families growing up were all pretty hardcore ex-military. For example, my dad was an A6 copilot/bomber in Vietnam turned FBI agent and my best friend’s dad was a Green Beret, also in Vietnam, turned CIA agent. While I was not in the military, that influence is definitely in my music.
I suppose I was always interested in Eastern Europe because I grew up thinking they were the bad guys. Some are. Most are not. And Ukraine is a country desperately trying to shake off the past influence of Russia and the USSR. If you look at their past 100 years, from WWI to WWII to holodomor (the forced famine that Stalin created and killed 7M Ukrainians), their relationship with Russia has brought them nothing positive.
AH: How are you affected by the Russian War right now?
MS: Well in travelling I made a lot of friends in Ukraine. And since starting to promote the album that has taken a back seat to helping friends in Ukraine. At one point, last month, I had rented two Airbnb’s (on my own dime) and had 9 people staying in them in Romania after I helped them flee Khrakiv for their lives; Khrakiv being almost as destroyed as Mariupol, which is completely destroyed. And I flew over to check on them, buy them groceries and fix their car and take some of the load for a couple of weeks.
As I mentioned, they got out via the Moldovian border and stayed with one of my friends there (who is recovering from brain surgery) for a week.
It’s been a rough few weeks and when I got there they were shell shocked. I realized early on they had no friends or family outside of Ukraine and that when the war started I was their only outside support. So I did all I could do. I accept repayment only in borscht.
The kids in this one family are 4 and 9. Their father died in a car accident in 2018. I am motivated largely by visions of their future and am trying to get the family here to live with me. For now they are safe and I am calmer, but there is little normal or routine [for them] at the moment so we are searching for a long term solution.
Of all the American songwriters/singers out there, I have to be in the top 1% of them invested and/or involved or with first hand knowledge of what is really going on in Ukraine.
These girls are lucky, there are a lot of Ukrainian single moms who don’t know a Matt. If they stay behind you can see for yourself what happens to them. I’m pretty sure what’s come to light thus far is only a fraction of the horrors that will eventually unfold.
AH: How would you suggest to Americans here at home that they might be able to help the situation?
MS: Great question. I obviously take a hands-on approach to refugee management. If you want to have the biggest impact you can sponsor a family with a program that just opened April 25. I’m currently applying to sponsor the family from Kharkiv that I put up an the Airbnb in Bucharest.
If anyone reading this has a spare bedroom and makes a good living you can fill out a form I-134 and submit in the “Uniting for Ukraine” USCIS portal.
If you don’t know any Ukrainians who need or want sponsorship you are free to contact me – I know dozens I can personally vouch for. They are all good people, many with children, who lost everything and are living on government assistance in various places in Europe. While they aren’t in harm’s way, they are also quickly falling into a chasm that could lead to a lost generation. What America can offer them is a restart and I believe more so than Europe. Specifically, individual sponsorship and sleeping in an American spare bedroom is more productive and healthy than sleeping in a Swiss military barracks or an unoccupied Italian vacation home in the middle of nowhere (I have friends in both).
If that’s too much of a commitment, I totally understand. The Ukrainian Red Cross https://www.icrc.org/en/donate/ukraine is direct aid and here is a link to a charity review resource.
You want to avoid the charities that take large management fees. https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=9366
AH: What prompted you to write your song “Blue & Gold” that was just released last month?
MS: I was in Kiev in 2014 and 2015 before and after the “Maidon” revolution. I stayed blocks from it actually. “Blue and Gold” was one of the first songs I wrote during that time. On my first trip, I sensed the tension in the air and saw the protesters. I left, it boiled over. On my 2nd trip I couldn’t help noticing the Ukrainian flag, which is blue and gold (for blue skies and gold wheat fields) tied around everything. And the shrines made out of ripped up cobblestones in the city center (Maidon).
Ukrainians may not have much, but they got a sense of freedom after the Maidon revolution kicked out the last Russian sock puppet (75M house on a 22k/year salary). And what they do have they are proud of – chiefly their freedom after so much oppression – the last 100 years have been brutal to their country. So the song is a reflection of that sentiment and observations of their spirit. When I wrote it I did so off a feeling that as of late has been resolved:
[ Photos of the Maidon shrines by Matthew Stephen:]
“Slava Ukrainia,” which you may have heard, means “Glory to Ukraine.” The response is “Heroem slava” which means “Glory to heroes.”
Russia can rape, pillage, blow up, destroy and send toy soldiers to kill men, women and children on the instructions of a mad man; and it may kill almost everything except for the one thing it can’t – the spirit of the Ukrainian people.
That’s what “Blue and Gold” is about:
AH: How did this cover photo come about, for “The Fire”?
MS: I had been searching for an idea on the cover when the wildfires in California broke out. This image caught my attention:
It was a cross between beautiful and violent. I did my best to reproduce it with some friends where graphic artists. For some reason none of the sparks seemed real. So I did some more research, called up a photographer I knew in Richmond and set about it doing it without photoshop. I went to Home Depot and bought the biggest fire pit they had, set it up in my large empty back yard, the photog came over and set up the lights and when my producer Elliot showed up it had gotten dark and he was like, “what the hell are you guys doing?”
I said we were doing the album cover. Grab the leaf blower. Elliot said “What do you want me to do with the leaf blower?” I said, “Aim it at the fire, kick a bunch of sparks and then blow them past me… Try not to cover me in sparks.” It took an hour and I got covered in sparks but we got the shot.
AH: Wow! What’s the story behind the song “The Fire”?
MS: My friends and I rented a car and driver to go from Odessa, Ukraine to Bucharest, Romania all across western Ukraine. The day before we’d toured Chernybol. We told our Moldovian driver our story and he just shook his head and told us the story that made up the song. “I’m Anatoli, I’m from a small village Corbu, Moldova. I was 16 years old when the accident happened. The Soviets came in our village and took 50 men, all who had families to fight “the fire.” They brought them back two weeks later and within three years they were all dead.”
That story stuck with me until I got into the studio and it just poured out and wrote itself. All 80 tracks. (laughs).
The song is the story from the back seat of the car as it was translated to me by my friend’s wife.
AH: How was the video made for your song “the Fire”?
MS: The video was made in Richmond, Virginia on a stage in a music venue there in the height of Covid. It was largely shot in a couple of days with a lot of actual footage taken from Chernobyl archives spliced in. Helen Kruger did the video production.
Thank you, Matthew Stephen, for talking to us. Learn more about Matthew Stephen and his music, here: https://www.matthewstephen.com
Sometimes we look within to find our demons. In “The Fire,” Stephen shines a spotlight on the demons outside of us.
Words really fall flat in trying to describe the level at which Matthew Stephen captures abject fear of injustice and suffering here in both the song, and the video. The video hits home with the reality of the destruction and the terrifying effects on human beings with its use of real black and white footage. Watch and enjoy the passionate, powerful video here: