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June 17, 2002

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He records his albums at home on a Macintosh computer and has a penchant for spilling his guts on his Web site. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is a little disgusted by people who treat music as a commodity.

Moby, right?

No, actually, Jonah Matranga. Maybe you know him as Onelinedrawing. Maybe not.

He's a one-man emo band — and former lead singer of Far — who is, literally, crisscrossing the country and winning over fans one at a time with his intimate, home-recorded songs about heartbreak and sweaty sex. Unlike the arena-rocking Moby, though, Matranga is meeting those fans in clubs, living rooms, on boats, in basements and under piers.

"The whole community aspect is slowly becoming the thing," said Matranga, 32, about the intimate vibe he's established with his fans during his "any-venue-any time" shows. After a series of split singles and EPs, his first full-length recording as Onelinedrawing, Visitor, was released last month. For Matranga, the highly personal music is not only his catharsis, but, more importantly, a way to start conversations with his fans.

"The music helps me through stuff, but it's really about finding people who have similar values and want to talk about them," he said. To that end, former major-label artist Matranga has crafted a Fugazi-like low-key indie aesthetic that encompasses everything from playing the odd living-room gig between club shows to offering a sliding-scale payment system for the merchandise on his Web site. And, instead of trying to find a big-name director to shoot a glossy video, Matranga persuaded his label to get him a video camera and some editing software so he could shoot a clip himself for the album's first single, "Smile."

"I had that weird moment in high school where I was sitting in my room alone listening to Pink Floyd while it was raining outside and I got that sense that I liked music more than people," said Matranga, who grew up in Boston and moved to Northern California following Far's demise. "I felt weird for a moment, but then I realized I really enjoy what happens when people let go of their junk for a second and make something that really connects. That's what good art is for me. That's what I hope my music does for people."

Visitor is a mix of 11 songs Matranga wrote over the past dozen years, making it something of a closet-cleaning project for the singer. The tracks range from the Nick Drake-like opening weeper, "Um ... ," which glumly chronicles his divorce, to the emo-by-numbers, heart-on-sleeve diary entry "Candle Song." Ironically, the "almost stereotypically emo" ballad, written 12 years ago, is the oldest song on the collection, from a time well before the genre was fodder for Time magazine profiles.

"I like songs that make people a little uncomfortable because the subject matter is maybe too personal," Matranga said, admitting to being a bit of a drama king. "I am dramatic and very serious. One of my favorite phrases is, 'Be serious enough to have fun.' But fun is not forgetting about stuff, but digging in and figuring it out without it being tortuous. 'Um ...' is about me being a mess. It's not about trying to make you sad, but me trying to figure out the truth."

Matranga's friend, Dashboard Confessional singer Chris Carrabba, said that honesty is why the songs on Visitor blew him away the first time he heard them. "He's one of the most amazing songwriters I've ever heard," Carrabba said.

That uncomfortable digging Matranga likes mostly takes the form of confessional acoustic ballads, but he said he wasn't afraid of rocking out from time to time, either. The swinging, new wave "Bitte Ein Kuss" (pidgin German for "Please a Kiss") is a fluffy slice of pop about "in-the-bed disco" that lasts a bit longer than the relationship that inspired it. Matranga briefly considered dropping the song — which wasn't even completed before the relationship ended — because he was afraid it broke up the album's otherwise perfectly melancholy mood.

And, if that song doesn't give you time to dry your eyes, surely "Smile" will. The Smithereens-meets-Replacements rocker features a solo from one of the summer's biggest movie stars, R2D2. Like the living-room shows and sliding-scale merch, incorporating the computerized squeals of an $8 R2 toy into his recordings and live shows was another example of Matranga's musical serendipity.

"It's just a silly idea that took off," Matranga said. "If I wanted to make a master plan to sell millions of records I could do a lot better than using a toy. It's another way to give people that moment where they go, 'Huh? What's that?' and they have to listen closer." Matranga sampled the toy's noises and, although he's afraid it's already jumped the shark, he still enjoys performing with his childhood buddy as a type of interspecies ventriloquist act.

"In a way I can't explain, he's been a great companion," Matranga said bittersweetly. "But I think he's probably reached the apex of his career and will probably start a solo project soon."


Gil Kaufman