We had the good fortune of connecting with Kenli Mattus and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Kenli, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
I grew up in the Tri-state area on the East coast, basically a suburb of NYC in Northern New Jersey. My family has a bit of a rags to riches story and so growing up, I went from living in a middle-class town to moving to a few towns where everyone’s parents were working all the time being successful, usually being entrepreneurs. They were working A LOT. What our parents didn’t provide in quality time, they made up for in material things and comfort, but as anyone knows, quality time is huge for kids and I figured out early that when I sang, I got attention, so I sang all the time.

Another part of my upbringing that impacted me was the fact that my mom sacrificed her artistic dreams (she wanted to sing too) to make sure we were financially secure, so she encouraged me and my artistic/creative dreams. I didn’t really understand that I wasn’t going to be a giant, pampered rock-star right out of the gate and I spent a lot of my energy promoting myself, my bands and my music.

One day, my self-centered LSD (Lead singer’s disease) was challenged by a chance concert I played at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. I realized that singing to those in need was WAY more gratifying and magical than singing to get attention. I spent the next 23 years volunteering in hospitals about once a week and I’ve played personally to over 30,000 people helping to grow a non-profit from having 1 program in 1 hospital in NYC to over 50 in many cities including Nashville, D.C., South Florida, Philadelphia and then LA.

Having those experiences in the hospital, including occasionally digging in a little deeper writing and creating with patients in hospitals over the years led to my co-creating Play It Back Songs powered by Teen Cancer America (The charity of The Who in America). Since 2018, we have logged over 600 hours of studio time writing and producing adolescent and young adult (AYAs) cancer survivors’ songs. We’ve created over 60 songs so far, they are in many styles. Fortunately the years of writing, producing and performing music allows me to cross genres, call on a large network of amazing music professionals to contribute like (Benny Blanco, Portugal. The Man, Mike Posner) and make great records with AYAs.

I was awakened into the gratification of using my love of making great songs to help and bond with young people who have been through some really tough cancer experiences. Play It Back Songs taught me that the song always heals. It heals me, the AYAs, their families and anyone who hears the stories and music. Now we have a community of many AYAs who collaborate and get to commune with each other and many other extraordinarily successful music people. Play It Back Songs has a life and rocket-ship momentum of it’s own and I’m in awe of how it all happened.

Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My art has morphed from being a way to make people stop talking in a bar and pay attention to my performance, to collaborating with professional recording artists and young cancer survivors and patients. I became good at identifying what sound and songs would work for recording artists/singers, they walk in the studio, talk about life and we make songs. The singers are the “presidents of the songs” and I am there as a facilitator. I serve the artists, that is my art. I fill in where I’m needed. Melody, lyrics, guitar parts, arrangements, piano, drums, cowbell…anything and everything. If I can’t do it, I reach out to my friends who can. I’m like a metaphysical matchmaker between artists and the songs they have been waiting for. I learned some tenets along the way: giving is way better than receiving, the well never runs dry if you are having fun and being humble in the light of creativity, many stupid/crazy/bad ideas lead to some good ideas. Perfectionism is mostly fear of being judged. Egoism is a dead end but it’s good to know your value. It’s hard to plan for something great so have to teach yourself how to spot it.

I want the world to know that sometimes combining more than one area you’re passionate about can create a whole new thing you never noticed was right in front of you the whole time. I volunteered playing music from room to room in hospitals for over 20 years and also pursued a professional life as a musician. When I started to aid those young people in the cancer world with my musical and creative abilities, I felt my legacy as a human take shape and it is the most powerful driver I’ve ever had. Meaning is fuel and we all can decide what gives us meaning.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I live with my wife/best friend and she does a lot of the planning and I like to keep things simple, but if any of my friends came to Santa Monica to visit, they’d have to come to Ocean Park beach, meet the locals and get on a surfboard, I’d take them to The Lake Shrine to walk around the lake and feed the geese, we’d hopefully be able to go to an LA Kings game, we’d eat at Uovo for pasta, Bay Cities for sandwiches, Sunny Delight for Omusubi, Urth Caffe for Coffee and dessert and we’d crosstown for Homestate tacos if we were willing to brave any traffic…and we’d definitely go hiking in Kenter canyon. If live music is back, we’d check out the Troubadour. The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Hilary Gan at Teen Cancer America deserves credit trusting that I could take what I did with some cancer patients occasionally and make into a thriving program that helps countless people. Her creativity and vision is astonishing and she is constantly helping challenge any perceived limits of Play It Back Songs. She props me up when I have doubts and her belief in me has propelled me to keep going and make those asks of people I used to be afraid to “bother” all in the effort to help young cancer patients.

Website: https://teencanceramerica.org/play-it-back-music-program

Instagram: @playitbacksongs and @teencanceramerica

Other: We haven’t started our IG or any real social media because we are under the Teen Cancer America umbrella and they wanted to do our IG, but we think it’s time to put our IG out there as well.

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