When Matt Giraud returned home to Kalamazoo in 2009 after finishing in the top five of American Idol Season 8, he was expecting a celebration of music and a few speeches. But for some reason, the last thing he expected to do was perform at his own party.
"Came home to Kalamazoo, 6000 people showed up for my homecoming. I wasn't even gonna sing. Played with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, 9000 people at Arcadia. I mean this was life-changing craziness from playing down at Zazio's at the Radisson and begging my ten friends to show up," he says.
But he did. It was a fitting moment for a guy who was no stranger to giving the people what they wanted through music. Before America got to know his name, Matt, a graduate of WMU, had a regular job playing piano at Monaco Bay. He wasn't even planning to audition for the competition until he heard that a colleague was taking his daughter to Louisville, Kentucky to try out.
"I was playing at Monaco and friend of mine who used to date one of the piano players was taking his daughter down to audition - good friend of mine. It was like Sunday night and he said 'Yeah, I'm taking her down Tuesday for her birthday - and I said 'That's so cool - would you guys mind if I came? I'm not working Tuesday or Wednesday. And he said 'If she's cool with it!'" If he wouldn't have mentioned it to me or if she wasn't going I wouldn't have went," he remembers.
He made it through numerous auditions, and landed a spot in the top thirteen, beating out thousands of competitors from around the country. While competing in the finals, his song list included hits from greats like Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. He made it to fifth place, toured the country on the Idol tour, and gave performances on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "The Today Show," and "Ellen."
"It's like this huge blessing, gives you all this stuff, and then they kind of just say 'Thanks for coming, and have a good one.' And you're just like 'What do I do now?'" he says of life after the show. "Thank God I had good people around me, good agents, good local managers around here wanted to help me out. I did really well. Got to play a lot, make some money - and it was good."
It's now been five years, and the Dearborn-born, Ypsilanti-raised singer has remained focused on keeping his career in forward motion. He's continued performing around the country, and has collaborated with jazz singer Anna Wilson and songwriter Jim Brickman on new recordings, all while maintaining a spot performing at Monaco Bay upon his return. But last year, after calling the Mitten State home his entire life, he decided it was time to move on.
"I wasn't writing much, I wasn't doing anything. It was almost like I was retired when I wasn't playing. I was like 'Well, I'm doing okay, my hometown loves me, I can play here.' But I wasn't having these dreams of really getting out and playing everywhere," he admits. So I got a little bit lazy and - I don't know, I just kind of had to change. I started going to Nashville, started writing songs, making friends, started going down there every few months. I'd come home - I'd miss home, but I finally decided to give this a shot."
Since relocating to Nashville, Giraud has been splitting his time working on new music and performing in Michigan and Tennessee. Last year he released a new EP, "Live at River City," and will perform in Kalamazoo at the end of the month at Warner Vineyards. He's come a long way from his early days of singing in the church choir and mapping out his future through Disney movies - but, like the characters, he knows the power that can come from taking a chance and putting his talent to work.
"As I saw 101 Dalmatians growing up, I thought that was such a cool lifestyle - that he sat in his house and wrote on his old piano in rainy London, and it was just him and his dog - and I was like 'What a cool life that must be,'" he says. "It wasn't an office job, 9-5. And it was funny because I didn't write songs or want to write songs, but I had an attraction to that lifestyle. You know I do the artist stuff - I perform and travel and do all that fun stuff and get to pretend I'm a rock star every once in a while."
Giraud performs at Warner Vineyards on July 26.