Matt Walden strikes the pose of a typical 20-year-old: He's slouched in a chair, wearing a red-and-black flannel and Vans tennis shoes, his steely blue eyes fixed on the iPhone in his right hand. His left hand combs through his thick mess of blonde hair as he contemplates the words on the phone.
But it's not a text or a tweet or a snapchat or whatever else the kids blast through their electronics these days. Rather, the 2013 Manatee High School grad is picking apart the lyrics of a rap he just wrote about integrity in the music industry.
"I just want to write from the heart and do what I can to make a name," he breathes out.
"Should we make a scratch track?" asks Raven Chapman, the petite 18-year-old sitting at the helm of the production control station at the Del Couch Music Education Foundation, housed inside the Manatee School for the Arts. The artist and the intern producer have had free access to the recording studio for the past six months, where they recently completed Walden's first EP, titled "Life," which will be available to purchase on iTunes beginning July 7.
Eventually, Walden lays the phone down and bounces out of his seat, guitar in hand, and heads into the sound booth. The new song flies out his mouth and into the computer before he and Chapman get back to what this impromptu recording had interrupted: the mixing of a haunting love song backed by the sounds of violins, cellos and sweet guitar melodies.
The stark contrast in the music they're making defies the typical genre confines that audiences are used to. And that's exactly what Walden is going for.
"I don't like this thing called genres," says Walden, who lives in Ellenton. "It puts you in a box, and who wants to be in a box?"
His first original single, "Flipped the Script," which charted at No. 38 on iTunes' singer-songwriter chart in mid-May, shows yet another side of Walden's diversity. It's catchy and upbeat with lots of beatboxing and lyrics that lament a soured relationship. The use of a loop pedal, a device that lets him record and play a sound repeatedly, allows him to be a one-man band and achieve a rich, rounded-out sound.
"When it charted, I freaked out because it was like top 50 for singer-songwriters in the world. It was really surreal," Walden says. "I never thought I'd see my name squeezed between Ed Sheeran and George Ezra and Damian Rice -- all these artists that I'd always looked up to."
It's easy to compare Walden to Sheeran, especially with the addition of the loop pedal. "I want to be completely different," Walden says. "Being compared is a huge compliment, but no one does what Ed does."
Walden, who performed piano recitals in front of hundreds as a child and later taught himself to play guitar and write songs, has been working toward recording an album for the past six years. He's been mentored by Del Couch, who also coached Sam Woolf, another Bradenton singer-songwriter who made it to the top five during the 2014 season of "American Idol."
"Matt is an incredible singer-songwriter," says Couch, who started the music foundation to give any kid the opportunity to record music and learn about the industry. "And he'll tell you right up front: what happened with Sam Woolf kicked Matt in the butt, and charged him to move forward."
Finding his sound
This past spring, Walden started booking gigs around Manatee County, playing mostly crowd favorites and covers of songs by Sheeran, John Mayer, Jason Mraz and others. He plays mostly as a duet with his friend and bass player, Tommy Goldsworthy.
It was late March when he busted out the loop pedal on the stage at Tarpon Pointe Bar & Grill. Like a kid on Christmas morning, he was non-stop, ear-to-ear grinning as he looped a beatbox or a "hey" and blended it all together with guitar strumming, lyrics and Goldsworthy's bass playing.
Up to this point, Walden had been struggling to find his sound, Chapman says, but "once he came into the studio with the loop pedal, I said, OK, that's Matt Walden," she says. They finished "Flipped the Script" in just a few days. Within a couple of months, the five-song EP was done.
The songs on "Life" embrace natural guitar playing, singing and 808 synthetic drum bass, "because when you're driving around you want something to bump to," Walden says. "But it's all very raw."
The tracks range from "Be Someone," in which he sings about the lack of morals in the music industry, to the sultry, seductive "I Wanna," to "Dreams," a song about longing for someone you have to leave behind.
"I try to write as if I'm more mature than I am," Walden says. "I'm a goofball in person, but that's what's going on in my head. I don't want adults to listen to it and go: That's just bubblegum trash. I want them to say: Oh, I can feel that in my heart, too."
Walden's no stranger to the bubblegum, heartthrob world. He's got a social media following of more than 150,000 across all platforms. His fans are mostly teenage girls who discovered him during meet-and-greet events around the South when he appeared with other guys who had found notoriety on the Internet.
Last summer at the three-day Orlando event, CreaTour, he gained tens of thousands of new followers as he performed with YouTube and Vine stars such as Carter Reynolds and Sam Pottorff.
"There were girls who were trying to rip my clothes off," he says. "I was just this kid and no one knew who I was, but I guess I had that look. There were crowds of girls swarming, like, 'He's got fluffy hair, get him!' It was scary, but it was fun."
That insta-fame was intoxicating, but ultimately not the attention he wanted. "I had a little breakdown," he says. "I sat down and really thought about it. If I ever want to do this for the rest of my life, I can't have an ego. I need to be someone who everyone can look up to and become someone who I always wanted to be. So I kind of re-invented myself."
"I grew up a lot in the past year and a half, and it's definitely been for the better," he says. He still posts regular updates online for his fans, whom he clearly adores.
Planning the future
He's been prolific in the recording studio, too. As soon as he and Chapman put the finishing touches on the EP, they moved right on to recording the rest of a full album.
"I've been really impressed with how he has been able to build this into a business for himself a career that he wants to do," says his father, James Walden. "He always had the talent. That's never been a question."
The goal is to finish the full album by summer's end, before Chapman heads off to University of South Florida to study music and communications. Walden hopes to also attend USF in early 2016 to study music business.
"He's ensuring that he's doing all the proper things to move this forward," the senior Walden says. "To what level? We don't know yet. It's just the beginning. But the sky's the limit."
Lately, Walden has been tweeting to his fans about spending long days in the studio wearing pajama pants and missing sunlight. He doesn't have time to skateboard with pals or date, even though he writes an awful lot about love.
"I believe in love," he says. "But I don't want to hurt anyone or waste anyone's time. I'd rather they go and figure out their life. Until I have an established career, I'm not worried about finding The One."
As he's shied away from social media celebrity, Walden has found his focus in the music, becoming verified on the popular music-streaming application Spotify and putting out professionally produced videos on his YouTube channel.
He's planning big things for 2016, with hopes of landing a sponsor or investor who will make it possible for him to book festival performances throughout the year. However, finishing the album recording the summer is the priority.
"You can't do anything without a product," he says. "We need to get the music to the people."
He hopes his work ethic and a demand for his music will spark interest from a recording studio when the time comes.
"I haven't been this motivated and inspired in a while, and things are starting to click," he says. "It's definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's what I've always dreamt of doing."