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A conversation with Matt Maltese

Tracing the past with the London songwriter

One year ago London singer-songwriter Matt Maltese shared a heart-wrenching rough version of a track titled “Even If It’s A Lie”, through which many of our users, including original discoverer Harry Griffiths, first came across the talented musician.

What unfolded from that bedroom-recorded demo was the In A New Bed EP, which traces one year of heartache, loneliness and reflection in Camden for this developing artist. The series of piano-led tracks share a sonic signature thanks to Alex Burey’s expert production, which brings to light Maltese’s rich, evocative vocals and lyrics that sing out nothing but truth. In our interview, we discuss the time surrounding that EP, but also what it feels like as a present-day artist and what his more recent creative efforts are amounting to.

First question, are you looking forward to playing the first HumanHuman showcase?

Yeah, definitely! It’s always exciting to leave England and play a show somewhere, so I’m definitely excited.

Have you been playing many shows this year?

A couple. It’s kind of sporadic. I had a few London ones in the summer and the odd festival. I played Green Man Festival which I think was the best show for me so far. It was really, really special. It’s such a kind community and the line-up every year is so on point. It was really fun!

I imagine a lot of people showed up to hear your EP, In A New Bed, in a live setting. The backstory behind it has been pretty well documented, but what do you think about that time now in retrospect?

It’s kind of strange, because it’s been quite a while. Especially at this age there’s a sense that you change quite quickly. It feels at times like I’m covering my own songs, just because those emotions feel like they were a long time ago. I guess in some sense I’m really grateful that I had that experience, however I would never want to relive it, but I was able to experience that feeling of being destroyed. It definitely changed me as a songwriter.

Did you find it challenging to pour so much raw, pertinent emotion into those songs?

I guess so… I think with songwriting and playing your songs you’re signing up for baring whatever truths you have. It’s all part of it and if my truth is a painful experience then it’s just as hard for anyone who speaks from a place of truth in their songs. It’s what I signed up for so I can’t complain about it!

Wow, that’s a good way to look at it. Do you have a particular songwriting process? Or does it change from song to song?

Yeah, I think it varies from song to song. I’m not really writing about heartbreak over the last year or so. A lot of the songs I’ve got now are based on a different reality and they come randomly and I’ll have a month or two where everything’s really quiet when I don’t feel like I have loads to say. It’s really sporadic. I guess it’s because your whole job is based on a really irrational process. It’s as appealing as much as it is difficult.

So you’re not one of these songwriters who is like “okay, I’m going to sit down today and write a song”?

No! There are definitely times when I have an idea and it will take commitment of giving a week of my time to it and treating it like a job for finishing things. I think for me being too formulaic about coming up with ideas has never been that successful. I don’t know how nine-to-five songwriters do it! I kind of wish I could do that, it would be it all a lot simpler [laughs].

You’re not new to songwriting, I think you filmed a Burberry Acoustic session when you were just sixteen years old. How have you developed, not only as an artist, but as a person over those years?

Similar to most sixteen-year-olds growing up. Leaving home and living on my own, that was definitely the year where I changed the most. It was in that year of being eighteen/nineteen that put that sixteen-year-old Burberry guy so much in the distance. I can’t even relate to that person, it’s crazy! I guess a lot of people feel like that looking back on their child-self. It’s weird having that video and being really at odds with it, because it feels like a different person.

The first time I heard your music was with the “Even If It’s A Lie” demo on SoundCloud. I was wondering why did you decide to share this nevertheless beautiful but unfinished version up online first?

When I did it, it was that typical story of “I did this in my bedroom”, but I really did do it in my bedroom! It was just one with a piano and it didn’t feel like a finished product in the sense of recording it with a producer, but I still saw that as a time in the future and fortunately I was able to find someone like Alex Burey to have songs that were finished. With “Even If It’s A Lie” it felt like the unfinished beginnings of something, so doing a demo suited it. I also think it’s quite nice to leave things open like that, because I definitely wasn’t ready to close the page on that song I think. It’s amazing that for a lot of people that’s the first song to define their experience of me, because it really just felt like the beginning.

I love that phrase “the unfinished beginnings”, that’s perfect! At a later date you filmed a live session of the song, it was a simple, black and white treatment of you playing the piano and singing. Are you a believer in no frills when it comes to your music?

I think when “Even If It’s A Lie” was around I was definitely all about simplicity, especially in song, I never try to over-complicate things. With stuff like “Studio 6” and going into that with Alex [Burey], we were trying to be slightly quirky and with processes, rather than just piano and voice. As long as it’s not in the actual song, I kind of enjoy seeing what sounds good and what I can get out of the song. Nothing too self-indulgent, but yeah, a lot of the time it’s quite interesting to do that outside-of-the-box thing. I think it will always be piano-based music, but I don’t know where it will go production-wise.

That will be interesting hear where it goes! We’ve spoken a little bit about how you can’t relate to that “sixteen-year-old Burberry guy” as you put it anymore, and I felt like the video, the demo and the EP as a whole has been a rather honest, open re-introduction for you as an artist. Was that the intention?

Yeah, I guess so. I think because the sixteen-year-old felt so far away, I didn’t necessarily feel like I was filling a gap between the two, but I’m glad it feels like that, because a lot of the songs were from right in the middle of that year in Camden where I changed a lot. I hope that they naturally feel like a bridge between the teenager version and the me now.

The EP is like a snapshot of you in a certain time?

Yeah, definitely. I don’t think I will ever get songs like that again, because I think heartbreak is never more raw than when you’re younger. Everything just fit perfectly to make that EP. To have that year in Camden, to feel super lonely and to be super heartbroken. I can’t necessarily see myself experiencing heartbreak in the same way, if I am unlucky enough to go through it again. It was a perfect snapshot of that time in Camden.

Oh of course, and that whole EP was built around that heartbreak. It really reminded me of thing that Khushi from Strong Asian Mothers said to me when I asked “why do people write love songs?” and he answered “Because in our sheltered Western lives, it’s the most intense thing we go through.” Your EP is so intense, but would you agree with that in terms of why people write love songs?

Definitely. I think the Western life comment is super accurate. I think Father John Misty said something similar - all our pain might be super bourgeois, but we still have a right to feel that pain. A lot of the time it’s a genre that is so easy to access. It is that age-old cliche that people can relate to it. It’s not to say that there’s not other things that cause pain that can’t be talked about. It’s not my intention to be a guy that talks about heartbreak, but it’s just because it’s a moment in my life where that’s what was coming out. It’s a strangely intense feeling, but it’s kind of fascinating when you look back on it, just to think “god, I was so intense about that!”

I think that’s what heartbreak songs do, they take you back to time.

That’s so true. I could never repeat it though, to write a song like that, now as well, which I guess it feels like such a snapshot. Like most songwriters, if I wasn’t going through that, I just wouldn’t have been able to draw on those emotions.

Is there one song that you find yourself returning to in times of heartbreak?

I didn’t necessarily have a song about heartbreak that helped me through, but because I’m such a Leonard Cohen fan, there is this one song that is kind of heartbreak-ish called “Famous Blue Raincoat”. It’s an incredibly song about a love triangle where Leonard Cohen gives his blessing to a man who stole his wife. I was listening to a lot of his stuff during that time and even his songs that weren’t about heartbreak were just pure emotion. In a strange way, they make you feel like everything’s going to be alright. They’re also quite tongue-in-cheek. When you’re experiencing heartbreak you kind of have to laugh at yourself, because it’s so unnecessarily intense. One thing that certainly helped me to get out of it is to lift your head above water and realise that it’s really not all that bad. There’s so many other things to talk about and so many other things to describes and feel empty from and feel angry towards other than heartbreak.

Yeah! I’m trying to remember which song it is where you talk about a weight being lifted, like a relief from heartbreak, I can’t remember which song it is… “Paper Thin Hotel”?

Yeah, that’s actually a Leonard Cohen song that I covered. That’s a perfect song for heartbreak. That was definitely one that helped as well. That lyric too - “love is out of my control”. I think he [Cohen] is very much take life as it comes and he has that attitude of we’re kind of doomed as a human race, but it’s okay. I think a song like that is super reassuring because it reminds you to let pain pass you by and say so long to it.

So far we’ve discussed Leonard Cohen and Father John Misty, but are there any tracks, artists, albums you’ve been listening to a lot lately?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Connan Mockasin. I’m really enjoying the kind of world he’s in, it’s incredible. That album Caramel is really something. I’ve also been listening to Julia Holter, she’s really cool. There’s some bands that are coming up in London, like Happy Meal Ltd. I’ve been seeing a few of their shows, they don’t have a load of stuff up online, but it’s like post-punk done really well - frighteningly well. I guess what I listen to is quite varied, but I’m enjoying artists with a tongue-in-cheek aspect to their songwriting. There’s a guy called Jerkcurb, I’ve been listening to a lot of his stuff too. There’s a few bits and pieces from around London, there’s so much decent music coming out of there.

Matt Maltese

How do you discover new music? Is it through friends recommendations, the blogs, streaming sites or just stepping out of your door to go find some gigs?

Yeah, some is found from gigs. Being in a place like Peckham, there’s so many great bands, so a few are from that kind of scene. The Happy Meal Ltd guys, I found them because they were the year above me at university, so I heard of them through friends. I used to spend days and days looking through SoundCloud, looking at artists I liked and what they liked. I don’t do that so much anymore, but I usually have a good pool from which to listen. I’m lucky to have friends who have good taste so I usually listen to what they suggest.

Obviously you have a wealth of talent on your doorstep in London, including producer/musician Alex Burey and filmmaker Sam Hiscox who worked on the track “Studio 6” in their own ways. What does it feel like handing over your personal expression to these other creative hands?

It feels quite easy when you feel comfortable with someone. With Alex, it was the first time I had met a producer and I really, really trusted what he said, because I’m such a fan of his work, so it was really easy to trust him. I think that’s true with most cases, it’s quite easy to share what you’re creating and to put it into other people’s hands, especially when you’re in a work environment. I was really lucky to work with Alex, someone who I respected so much already. It was a really nice process and it always felt really safe.

Has there been anything new that you’ve been working on?

Yeah, I’ve been working on a song with a guy from The Maccabees, Hugo [White]. He’s a really nice guy and he’s got a studio in Elephant and Castle, right near where I live. He was suggested through a mutual friend and we really got along. Yeah, I’m excited about what we’re doing. It’s quite different from the Alex Burey world, although I am still doing stuff with Alex and hopefully a song from that will come out soon too. It’s been nice talking about different things and it feels much more like present day me.

Can we expect to hear some more of the present day you at the showcase on Friday?

Definitely, definitely!

Awesome! What else have you got lined up for this year?

Well I’ve got the shows this weekend and then I’ve got another show in Italy in October at a festival. Hopefully, some more in England too in October time.

This article is written by Hannah Thacker and was published 7 months ago.

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