It is the early 2010s. You’ve heard people at school talking about a gig at a town hall-esque venue you can’t now remember the name of in your tiny Oxfordshire town. A school band is playing, and on the bill as well is someone called Matt Maltese. You don’t go to the gig because you don’t know anyone to go with, it’s on a school night, and you’re like 14 and therefore far too socially awkward to even consider going on your own. Fast forward eight years or so and the very same Matt Maltese is fresh off the release of his debut full-length Bad Contestant on the cusp of his 20s. You’re sent the track ‘As The World Caves In’ and remember that little gig in that tiny Oxfordshire town, thinking to yourself that it’s like jazz – being more about the gigs you don’t go than the ones you do. You then realise that’s obviously stupid. Fast forward another four years. Matt Maltese’s name is invoked once again by your editor, and the dim spectre of your teenage discomfort rises with it. You go to listen to that song you were sent in 2018 and see it now has 123 million streams. Wanting to tie up this oddly pervading loose end, and feeling like you owe it in some ambient way to your Beiber-fringed 14 year old self, you leap at the chance.
Released following a series of demos and an EP that betrayed a wisdom beyond his years, alongside a sheer songwriting talent, 2018’s Bad Contestant saw Matt set sail on the choppy waters of the music industry on a major label steamship. A wry balladeer by trade, each of this record’s eleven songs is sprinkled in some way with existential cynicism and romantic melodrama. The album’s opener, ‘Greatest Comedian’, features Matt at his most Cocker-adjacent – schmaltzy, glitzy, full to the brim with a sense of swaggering romance. Occasional choruses of backing vocals inject an element of winking camp to the songs on which they appear – the “looking backs” on ‘Sweet 16’ being my favourite example – and the production work of Jonathan Rado gleams throughout. But for ‘Less and Less’ coming at the album’s midpoint, the quirks are temporarily suspended and the irony is rolled back. Revealed is the sincerity that you can sense at the core of these songs but that up to now has not been fully tangible.
Bad Contestant is a big ticket exhibition of new talent and a major label A&R success story, therefore faintly bearing the fingerprints of figures other than the shaven-headed young crooner whose name is on the cover. By contrast, his sophomore effort Krystal is a far more personal affair self-produced across a four month stretch of near-isolation. The absence of Bad Contestant’s specific flourishes allows the more delicate songs on Krystal to breathe in time with the vulnerability they radiate. Opening lyric “new day / wet shave / this is a different face” communicates this contrast better than I could here. The newly-single despondency of opener ‘Rom-Com Gone Wrong’ gives way to the lushly produced title track and its sweeping declarations of complete infatuation. With the whispered intimacy of closer ‘When You Wash Your Hair’, the pieces of the heart pulverised sometime before the album opened have been swept up and reconstituted. While it beats anew, a silvery keloid scar is left behind to slowly fade.
We’re taken up to the present day with the stepping stones of lockdown EP ‘madhouse’, and the three singles Matt has shared from his upcoming third album, Good Morning It’s Now Tomorrow, releasing October. With these newer offerings comes a palpable and infectious confidence – a feeling that the glamour and schmaltz of his debut, via the very personal production tunnel of Krystal, has developed into balladry that quietly and patiently displays his lived experience. Within his insight there’s the indelible impression of an individual’s gained knowledge, presented in impeccably-crafted songs without arrogance or conceit. Not to imply that he didn’t before, but having experienced some of the undulations of a career in the biz already and on the cusp of his third album it’s clear Matt Maltese knows exactly what he’s doing.
How’s your day been?
Day’s been ok. Lots of rain. Probably one of the wettest weekends I can remember since being in London. And then there’s the IPCC report that tells us the world is even more fucked than we thought. So a pretty miserable day, can’t lie. It’s just a mad thing to deal with – constant reminders that your race is fucking up and it could all be the end. But then I wrote music as if none of that was happening. I’ll probably do the same tomorrow.
This question has probably been asked of you multiple times recently so it’s probably going to be quite irritating, but I’ve got to know – 123 million streams on ‘As The World Caves In’ thanks in large part to TikTok. How’s that been?
Very surreal. It’s bizarre to know that it probably has a lot to do with the fact that it’s come to fruition more in the wider reality. The power of TikTok has meant the song has left me. I’ve fully waved it goodbye on a hearse down the road. It’s an amazing thing – it’s what you want as a songwriter to have a piece of music that connects with people in this way. I hope it’s comforting. It’s purposefully melodramatic and warm – we’re all doomed but at least you can have your romance in life.
It’s very strange as well because it’s with a label I got dropped from. Not that I needed it but it’s got this strange sense of validation that I knew what I was doing. Not that I need success to feel like that, but I definitely found a little bit of reassurance in it. But also everything changes and nothing changes especially when it’s all online – I still have to get up in the morning and fill my time.
A weird sort of renaissance for a song that came out a fair while ago, but in the background.
Purely so lucky. Writing for other people a lot, you’re so aware of how much the industry is trying to ‘game’ TikTok and I’ve realised how lucky I am to have a song that’s done that. This feels like it shouldn’t be happening to me. It’s meant to be a bit of a trudge, this whole thing, but to have a song do it’s thing and to be deemed successful – that’s a weird feeling.
Have you seen many/any of the TikToks?
Oh, a lot! I did these pretty mundane duets where I’d just be drinking a cup of coffee watching them but then they get millions of views and it’s just utterly crazy.
You’re only 24 and you’ve got soon to be three albums behind you and I was thinking that in a way, you’ve grown up in the business – if that’s not a terrible, terrible cliche. What’s that experience been like?
“Yeah, my dad was the head of Universal…” no, none of that. To be honest my experiences of it have been a bit varied. At 18/19, when it all first happened you know the cliches and you think you’re different. I was cynical in what I thought came to life, but I was also able to make a record in a nice way with a producer I adored and in another country. I’ve got a bit of a rubbish relationship with a good thing happening. I’m just aware of its ability to crumble before my eyes. Being with a major label was an incredibly multifaceted, difficult thing. I don’t have any resentment at all towards any because you know, I had agency, I knew what I was doing and I signed up for everything I did. much as you can be cynical you also think oh, but I’m sure I would just be successful, you know. And I think there’s a delusional assumption really. And I think as time has gone on, I’ve just treated it more like a job and found more happiness that way. I think writing for other people has also made it feel more like a sociable job in a way, that writing in my room “for the love of it” in quotation marks doesn’t feel like.
In the way that you mix sort of banality with more existentialist musings, you’re songs sort of power to darkly amuse but also to completely emotionally devastate. Is it a conscious choice to mix those two things? Or does it sort of arise naturally?
I think it’s a conscious choice in the way that it’s how I cope with everything, I think, and it’s how I process everything. I always found the brutal, honest truth the funniest. And I feel like you don’t need to do a lot to everything that happens in daily life to make it really relatable and funny and dark. And you know, every little thing that happens in our days is strange enough. I don’t really talk in metaphors and I don’t sing in metaphors and I don’t really listen to music in metaphors.
You’ve said about Bad Contestant that you felt there was a lot of other work on it. I think you were directly referring to collaboration, and then the process of making that record as an 18/19 year old. But I also took it to mean slightly in terms of the trajectory of the inspiration that you had making that record. In response to that, you charted a slightly different course through this process while you were making Krystal. Going into your third album, how would you characterise your relationship with your inspiration and the process of collaboration? And has it changed at all?
My relationship with inspiration has. I think at the time of making my first record, I wanted to be anything and everything all at once a bit. And I think I wanted to almost prove to myself, “I can write this kind of song, and be inspired by this kind of artist, and write a song like that”. It’s not like it made a record that was like 10 different genres, but I felt like my inspiration was a little bit more spontaneous. As the records have gone on I know what I like more and almost need less inspiration in how I know what I want to say and how I want to say it. I think to be honest, most of these days, the spontaneous moments of inspiration I get are like, at the end of a movie, or like a scene in a movie, which sounds like the cheesiest thing someone can say. I think I find that medium the most moving and that inspires stuff more, but it’s also always in the shell of what I know I am on what kind of record I want to make and definitely not trying to be something I’m not. Not to say the first one was doing that, but I just didn’t know what I was as much and I wasn’t comfortable with that, and tried to do a lot of different things. If anything, yeah, I think the inspirations become more tunnel visioned than it was. There’s always space to shake things up but I don’t think it’s something to be ashamed of, to not seek new inspiration all the time. Sometimes you’ve got a lot in you just from what you’ve already learned and gained.
Given that visual media have an influence on you, are you watching anything at the moment that you’re really enjoying?
I’m sort of in a phase where I rewatch things I’ve already watched. I watched Succession a lot, kind of over and over again, and I watch Curb Your Enthusiasm a lot. I think a lot of my relationship with TV is often a comfort thing. It’s often the way it’s become sort of part of your past and it feels like you’re like seeping into a comfort place you’ve always known. Which is so mundane. So boring. It’s like the last thing you want to hear a musician or someone who makes things say, but we always have, you know, comfortable processes.
I’m on my 9000th rewatch of Peep Show.
There we go. Whatever’s helping, use it.
Is there anything you can tell me about the new record?
I’d say for me, that it’s probably one of my most peaceful and hopeful records yet. Which is very strange, obviously, in these times, but I feel like it was really un-clever to be more miserable. What moved me more in these times was the good things and then coming together. I mean, it’s hard to find, but trying to look at the positive human spirit aspect of all of this and the fact that so many of us are just a lot of the time trying to keep calm and carry on. That can be like a really depressing, delusional part of our culture, but I guess that’s what the record was most of the time encapsulating was mad that no matter what happens, we all have to be okay with it most of the time and the world sort of spirals madly on and grab the ones you love through it really. I don’t take any shame in making a record that is just to make people feel comfortable. I think if it can help anyone feel at peace, then that’s something useful I can do.
That’s a fairly damning indictment that end of the world songs now feel a bit old-hat. No-one wants to hear about the end of the world, do they? It’s so present all the time.
100%. The cleverest thing now is to try and bring any sense of contentment to things. There’s just nothing clever about being ominous.
The last thing to come out of Pandora’s box was hope. Are you excited to have out in the world?
Yeah, definitely. It’s obviously been a very, very different experience than the last few But yeah, I am really proud of it and at this point, you just sort of hope people like it and try to make the most horrific music videos possible. As in like, horrific to go through.
Not just, cursed.
No, not awful, awful content. But then the record will be there and it will do whatever it is gonna do. I felt good about it throughout. It felt natural despite everything, and doesn’t. Yeah, I don’t feel like I’m in a place where I’m ever feeling like I’m forcing my hand at writing something.
That’s a good place to be. When you feel you have to really, really try and bypass some kind of blockage, you’ll just do yourself a mischief.
Exactly. Also in a time like this, it really helped me making this record and writing it. I needed the writing. And I felt like I still need to be writing. It doesn’t feel like a nice thing to do that I could take or leave, it really just affects my sense of my life.
What would you say was your most formative musical experience?
I think probably being with myself making Krystal. That was a really long three or four months. It was back to how I made music as a teenager, but in the context of my life then. I think the formative stuff is always pretty much the alone-times I found and I think that album was no different. The buffers that I had with me and my music, it just tore them all away, really. It was me not caring, but also having a lot to prove, and breaking down ideas that things had to be a certain way to be good enough. It felt quite rough but I felt like I really did something that was all me.
Is there something in your career that you’ve not done yet that you’d really like to do?
I’d like to make a record of piano music and play it in its entirety somewhere. But as experiences go, sort of like paying a venue or doing something somewhere I’ll take it all as it comes. But I am certain of the piano record. I just saw that film that Colin Firth did (Supernova) where Colin Firth’s husband has dementia and wants to kill himself and Colin Firth is a classical piano player in it. I won’t spoil it, but at the end, he’s in a suit playing the piano and I just thought, “Yeah, I want to be Colin Firth for one night”. I just love that kind of music. I find it’s probably the most peaceful thing I can do in this life is listening to that music.
Segwaying beautifully from pianos to something else involving pianos, while I was having a proper good stalk of your Instagram earlier, I discovered that you’re a leading light when it comes to pictures of you leaning on a piano looking tired.
That is such a comfortable way to sit. Sometimes I’m not even tired when I’m doing that.
There was one where you had big studio headphones on and a nice jumper and you looked exhausted. What was the nicest piano you’ve ever exhaustedly rested your arm on?
I mean, that one was a pretty comfortable sitting position. I don’t know if I’ll top that. That did feel really good. I was wearing the right jumper for it. Duke Ellington played that piano, which is mad.
And you’ve rested on it. Checkmate, Ellington.
Words: Ed Hambly // Photos: Charlotte Corcoran