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  • Yasmeen Khalifa

Born without sight, but with an ear for music

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

High top Converse tap on the concrete floor, a foot pedal glistening just inches in front of his feet. Intricate tattoos traverse up his arms, transforming his skin into a canvas of artwork. A vibrant red strap adorned with personified suns crosses his chest. Hanging from the embroidered strap is a pristine white guitar with a splash of marbled maroon. His eyes are shut softly behind his wire frame glasses as he lets the words of a song take over.

This is Matt Raker, a local musician.

Though Matt had a rocky beginning to his life, being born blind, the universe had a different plan for him. At only three weeks old, Matt underwent three surgeries on each eye to remove the full-coverage cataracts obstructing his eyesight. Now, he has glass lenses in his eyes, a pair of glasses and his sight.

Born into a family of musicians, Matt was bound to delve into the realm of music at some point. And he did, at the young age of three. While other toddlers were learning to walk, Matt was learning harmonies with his mom, Keisha Raker.

“It was always something [singing] that he and I shared together,” Keisha says. “We would take long road trips back to West Virginia, and to pass the time away, we would sing. It was fun!”

With her father’s side of the family heavily involved in bluegrass music and string instruments, Keisha was immersed in music her entire life. Keisha started singing when she was a teenager in high school. Her love for music stemmed from church and blossomed into a career as a background vocalist in studios. Now as an area coordinator for a home health agency, Keisha has passed the baton off to Matt.

“He always, always loved music,” Keisha says.

When he was eight years old, Matt graduated from singing to also playing instruments, after Keisha gifted him a small keyboard for Christmas. He quickly mastered the keys and learned his first-ever song - a country ballad by Keith Urban. From there, Matt’s keyboard skills evolved into a passion for piano.

In the meantime, Matt conducted some independent research. He decided it was time to hone his music taste on his own.

“Fourth grade Matt found out about Green Day,” Matt recounts. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool. So cool,’” he says in his imitation of a deep, raspy, “cool” voice.

About a year later, a friend of Keisha’s gave Matt his first guitar. And then it was on to songwriting when he was 13.

“In middle school I got into skating really hard, and there was a lot of Indie music revolved in skating,” Matt says with a slight smile. “So that was a whole other world and genre of music that I had never heard, and they were all having a good time, all the time. And I was like, I wanna do that!”

While in middle school, Matt also learned to drum and joined his school’s drumline. He continued to pursue drumline throughout high school and even picked up ukulele along the way. His love for music only continued to snowball, growing greater and greater in magnitude. There was no stopping him.

“It just makes you feel good,” Matt says. “It’s just been something I’ve been truly, truly passionate about for a long time.”

When he was 16 or 17, Matt found his one true love- the electric guitar.

“Now he doesn’t wanna play anything else!” Keisha says with a laugh.

Within the same time period, Matt played his first gig. It was at Wright’s BBQ. Keisha couldn’t have been prouder. She says that from that moment forward, she knew he was going to be busy with music, and music alone.

Like most high school graduates, Matt went to college following high school. But after a brief time, he withdrew because he hated it. He knew his true calling was music and yearned to work on it full time.

While Keisha hoped Matt would attain a college degree, she supported his decision, knowing where his passions truly lied.

“I always knew that this is what he was gonna do,” Keisha says. “Yeah, no doubt.”

From that point, Matt focused his energy on music, frequently playing gigs at restaurants and venues like Dakotas, True Vine and The Grove. All the while, he remained a solo artist, occasionally playing with one-gig bands. That would soon change, though.

Two years ago, Elbert Wright, Keisha’s friend and a long-time Tyler musician, saw a video of Matt playing at The Foundry and was mystified by his sheer talent.

“I love his music,” Wright says. “I love the fact that he’s not afraid to be different.”

He contacted Keith Jones, a friend and local bass player. Together, they set up a rehearsal with Matt to get a feel for their potential compatibility.

It was a hit. Matt was no longer a one-man band.

“I’m like an 80-year-old man, and they’re like really, really hip old men,” Matt says. “It was really good.”

The band describes its style as a blend of jangle pop, an indie sub-genre of pop that features dreamlike tunes and surf rock. Jones is often found on bass or, occasionally, the cello, while Wright plays the drums. Matt is the vocalist and plays electric guitar.

The band has been a vital component to the pivotal wave of new music in Tyler. As Matt points out, the major genres played in Tyler were predominantly classic rock and country. The growth of downtown Tyler has brought in a plethora of live music venues, giving artists like Matt more outlets. Coupled with the persistence of artists like Matt, Gorgeous Jetsen and Street Waves to get new genres into Tyler, the music scene in the city is ever-expanding. Genres such as surf rock, jangle pop and psych rock are sweeping through the town and becoming more prominent.

“It’s bringing more young people to gigs and stuff because like they’re like, ‘Oh! Music like this does exist in Tyler,” Raker says. “Bands like that are getting more and more gigs all the time, and it’s really cool to see the scene kind of like growing little by little. I’ve seen more house shows, like punk rock shows, are happening now.”

The trio has gained traction and draws an increasingly large crowd as its following grows.

“I hope it goes to the toppermost of the poppermost,” Wright says. “All the way! It’d be awesome. But we’re having fun right now, I mean the band is gelling and coming together and coming together as friends.”

Matt says he hopes to be able to make music his sole job in the future. He currently works at The Foundry.

“Being like super, super big or super, super famous has never ever been a dream of mine,” Matt says. “I would just love to do it enough to live on it.”

Matt has taken his first major steps toward becoming a full-time artist by working on recording music. Last year, he released his first EP on Spotify and other major music platforms, titled “Phases.” Prior to “Phases,” Matt composed a different EP for a year, but upon nearing its completion, he realized it didn’t match anything in his life anymore. He scrapped it and started fresh. Inspired by Boy Pablo and Mac Demarco, “Phases” is an introspective view into Matt’s internal struggles. It features six songs: “Hair,” “Forevermore,” “Talk to Me,” “A Means to an End,” “Out of Your Head” and “Phases.”

The album was created in Matt’s bedroom using some baseline equipment. He set up a mini-studio rig on his desk and got to recording. Matt’s friend, Tim Frost, did all of the mixing and final process editing.

“It’s crazy to see where it’s reached and where it’s been,” Raker says, smiling. “I’ve had other people in Tyler I’ve never seen before tell me they know who I am, and they’ve listened to it which is really, really crazy. That’s cool.”

On March 17, Matt released his newest single, “Anymore.” It is among three singles that will ultimately lead to the release of a ten-song album titled “Changing Pace.” Matt plans to launch the album by the end of the year.

While his lyrics and enchantingly raspy voice draw people in, it’s his welcoming personality that invites them to stay. In the midst of shows and after sets, Matt likes to introduce himself to show-goers and thank them for sticking around.

“That’s my way of connecting, literally, with them,” Matt says.

His humbleness is a known hallmark of his personality.

“He has a lot of humility; I think that’s probably one of his best qualities,” Keisha says. “He’s a really good person. He’s got a great heart and he loves people … If I had to choose between the person and the musician, I’m more proud of the person that he is.”

Like most moms, Keisha claims to be Matt’s biggest fan. She says that every time he gets on stage, she’s proud.

“I’ve supported him with just emotional and moral support since he was a child, encouraging him to learn and love all genres of music,” Keisha says. “From buying instruments to trying to be at every show and just encouraging him to follow his dream.”

His girlfriend of four years, Ivette Reyes, might be a contender for Matt’s number one fan, though.

“I like that he does it for the sole purpose of expressing himself and for fun,” Reyes says. “It’s never been his dream to be a big, mainstream rock star. That’s how you know his intentions are pure.”

No matter what it is that captivates people with this up-and-coming artist, Matt encourages people to come out and see what he’s all about for themselves.

“Get out and go to gigs and shows and experience live music in Tyler,” Matt says, the corners of eyes crinkling as a smile materializes.

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