Matt Mauser is a songwriter, solo artist, pop/rock bandleader, and Sinatra-style crooner, having spent more than two decades onstage and in the writing room. A lifelong resident of Southern California, he was an all-American swimmer during his younger years before shifting his focus to music.
During a local show with his Orange County-based party band, the Tijuana Dogs, he met fellow athlete, Christina. The two married and began raising a family, with Matt pulling triple duty as full-time family man, daytime Spanish teacher, and nighttime musician. He even combined his love of music and academics into a unique educational project, Rockin' the Class, which taught children the fundamentals of Spanish through a selection of songs Matt had written, performed, and recorded.
These days, music isn't just a job; it's also a source of therapy for Matt, who lost his wife in the January 2020 helicopter crash that also killed NBA great Kobe Bryant and seven others. Kobe hired Matt to create the music for an educational podcast called "The Punies." Kobe and Christina also worked together, coaching a girls' basketball team at the Mamba Sports Academy. Their loss was tragic to an entire world of basketball fans, and it was unspeakably tough for Matt.
With songs like "Lost," Matt Mauser is once again using his music to teach lessons and inspire joy. Written during the aftermath of Christina's passing, the song reaches out to those who've experienced similar losses in their own lives. Those who grieve don't have to grieve alone. And Matt Mauser, during the most challenging season of his life, hasn't lost his ability to bring people together through his melodies, messages, and music.
The one-time All-America back-stroker — who holds the unofficial and unchallenged record for swimming around Southern California’s landmark Huntington Beach pier — picks up his guitar.
“This was my first song,” says Matt Mauser, leader of the Orange County-based Tijuana Dogs and featured soloist in Sinatra Big Band shows, just before he hits the first chord.
“I was 8,” he says, as a reminder, before he opens up in an uncommonly joyous, for this part of his life, rendition of “Cut it Out.”
“Cut it out, oh baby, cut it out.
Quit your foolin’ around and get out of town.
Cut it out, get off my back.
Get on the train track and give me back my Cadillac.
Cut it out. Cut it out ….”
He rocks back in gentle laughter. “It’s really a stupid little song. Very much an 8-year-old’s song.”
Even so, his full voice pulls it off, just as it has for the 42 years since, as he has fashioned a career as one of the West Coast’s most-sought-after events and party singers. And his two decades or so as a Spanish teacher, before he gave up teaching for full-time singing, allow him to perform bilingually, a plus for a guy who lives to help diverse audiences have fun.
He halts the conversation briefly as his three children – Penny Rose, 12, Thomas Rey, 10, and Ivy Sparrow, 4 – begin to rise and get going for their summer day activities.
“They really miss their mother,” he says, softly after he addresses each of the trio, asking them what they are planning for the rest of the day.
“Christina was such a help to me,” he says, eyes moistening. “She started out helping by going out on the beach in her bikini, handing out flyers for the shows. She was truly dedicated to helping me grow the band any way she could.”
Christina Mauser – who died this winter along with Kobe Bryant, Kobe’s daughter Gianna, and six others in a helicopter crash while traveling to a basketball tournament at the great former Lakers’ Los Angeles facility – was 38, a devoted mother and a former physical education teacher who had been hired by Bryant as an assistant coach.
She also, according to her widower – who takes long breaths to steady his voice – was the brains behind the growth of Matt’s musical success, both with the Tijuana Dogs and with his Sinatra-style shows.
“The Tijuana Dogs were getting bigger and bigger,” Matt says, in reference to the work his wife put in as a manager by booking, promoting and making arrangements.
“Moves like Mauser” – a catchphrase adapted from Adam Levine’s “Moves Like Jagger” – has caught on among his fan base, the folks who appreciate his non-stop performance style as front man for the Tijuana Dogs.
Probably ought to note here that while he has a reputation for Sinatra-style phrasing, he’s not imitating The Chairman of the Board in the big-band shows. Matt’s just using his big, flexible voice to delight, much as he does when he takes on Ozzy’s lyrics when covering Black Sabbath’s “Crazy Train” at a Dogs’ show.
While he celebrates his career, Christina’s death hangs over the conversation, at least in part because the children occasionally reappear. “It’s very sad around here,” he says. “We’re all very sad.”
As he sits in the living room – a mile to the beach if he walks along the Santa Ana River Trail that passes his cul-de-sac – he picks up the guitar again. This time it is to sing “Lost.”
“Hey, did we fly too close to the sun?
Was it wrong to think that love was fun?
Around. Broken pieces left on the ground
Only echoes to be found.
Like a boat on the sea I’ve been tossed….”
The pain wins out this time, and he cuts short the lyrics, filling the melancholy air inside the Mauser house with “Da-da-da-da-das” instead of the lyrics that are so raw, just months after the helicopter crash that took the love of his life and the mom of his children, who like dad are feeling “Lost.”
“I think I wrote it two months after she died. March. Early April. I just woke up and I wrote it. It took five minutes. It just came to me.”
He admits to inspiration from such sources as Bruce Springsteen – “I heard that song ‘I’m On Fire,’ and I said ‘He’s on fire, what is it I’m feeling now? I’d rather be on fire than lost.”
And the third line about the “broken pieces” is a semi-lift from James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” the timeless tale about the death of a friend named Suzanne, which includes the line “Sweet dreams and flying machines and pieces on the ground.”
Matt says he also added a dash of the crooner/big band sound of one of the standards he sings – “Call Me Irresponsible” – into the mental blender while “Lost” was being composed, and those soft, mournful vocals came from his mouth. And tears from his eyes.
Even as he talks about his desire to get back out there – he has played a few dates with the Dogs and he wants to do his Sinatra-style show, in English and in Spanish, as soon as possible – he can’t shake the shadow of January 26.
“She woke up,” he recalls of the day Christina and others were flying with her boss, Kobe, to the basketball tournament.
“She had to be there early,” he says. “I had a show the night before. I was tired, so I didn’t get up. She came over and kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t even acknowledge, and she said ‘love you’ and that was it.”
When he finally did wake up, he was surprised there had been no texts from her. That was odd.
Then came the phone call from his band director, telling him of the crash that had shaken the nation, for whom Kobe was a cultural hero. As that news broke, the others on the aircraft also were identified. Christina was among them, of course.
“From then, my life was never the same,” Matt says. “I had to tell my kids. … Everybody started showing up at my door.
“I was in a coma. I don’t know how I got through the day.
“It brings you to your knees, and you don’t even know where to go.”
The man who began writing songs at 8 and mastering the guitar at 15 admits that his professional stock in trade up to that point had been “mostly about fun stuff. Girls. Goofing around. In those songs I’m happy. I’m joyful.
“I’m not joyful anymore.
“My life is different, and it’s a very sad chapter. And it’s learning to live with loss and continuing on with the loss of your best friend, the mother of your children, your business partner.
“I’m just lost. The song ‘Lost’ is pretty accurate as to how I feel.”
Christina also was his biggest fan. In fact, the two met because she was at a Tijuana Dogs show with a date.
Somehow their eyes met amid the music and the fun in the crowded room. The night ended when Christina’s date was cut short and she returned to meet the former swimming champion and front man with the sparkling eyes and the heart-filled voice.
It was a partnership of destiny.
The two then taught together at Harbor Day School, she in P.E. and he in Spanish. It was at that school that they met Kobe Bryant, a proud “Girl Dad,” an active school parent who even accompanied Matt and his class on a field trip to San Diego.
“We just hit it off,” he says of the hours spent sitting on the bus next to one of the NBA’s greats. That connection, of course, led to Christina getting the job with Kobe, and Matt writing songs for Kobe’s “The Punies” podcast, designed to teach children life lessons in a fun way.
Losing Bryant was difficult, numbing. Losing his life partner, the woman whose beautiful eyes and his own met across that dance floor, remains physically and emotionally devastating.
He does have one reason for happiness, or at least a major consolation: A song he recorded with daughter, Penny, complete with a video session which Christina attended, saved his little girl’s life.
Penny was supposed to go with her mom to the basketball tournament that morning. But that night, she was scheduled to sing that song “Green Bike” with her dad during a performance.
Because of those plans and the fact she didn’t feel well on that Saturday, she stayed home with her father, resting for the show that never happened.
“Just think, if she’d not stayed home with me, I would have lost my wife and my daughter,” Matt says.
He strums a snippet of “Green Bike.”
No, he’s not been able to recapture the laughter in his spirit or his songs since that day. But he’s determined to work his way up.
“It’s about getting back,” he says. “I’ve done a couple of shows, and it definitely helps me. I want my life back. I don’t want to give up….
“It’s painful as shit, but you keep pushing on. Maybe through my music and my grief I can reach people,” he says, adding that one thing he’d like to help through his music and his time is the Christina Mauser Foundation, which is designed to help women in sports and single moms. “I know what it’s like now to be a single parent.”
The long-ago All-American swimmer for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo looks at the time. He’s got to get to the pool, where he daily works out with a coach and other swimmers. It keeps him in shape, mentally and physically. It’s therapy.
So is the music: “I want to put together a really intimate show that tells my story and what I’ve been going through,’’ he says.
And no, it won’t be about death, though that is the impetus.
“My story is much deeper,” he says.
But then, he can’t help but think about his children, who all need his attention once he gets back from his swim.
“Life’s hard enough, and then to go throughout life without a mother? It’s just not right.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but I’ve got to take care of my kids.”
And the best way he can do that is through his music, like his next Sinatra-style song “When She’s Gone.”
"Now the coffee pot’s set to a cup, just for one.
My new morning routine when the day has begun.
When you wake up and she’s gone,
The silence gets louder,
just thinking about her. …
All of the things you’ll go through when she’s gone."
Matt adds, quietly: “She was a great mother and friend. I really miss her.”