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Interview: Matt Maltese

On November 14th, Matt Maltese played a sold out show at the Servant Jazz Quarters with support from Fish’s Louis O/B.

Louis sets the tone for a night of real listening, zoning and honing in. His songs are melodic and tastefully unrefined, and there is a certain art and a certain way in which he throws away lyrics and lines heavy with meaning as if they weighed nothing at all.

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When Matt takes to the stage there’s definitely a sense of expectancy. Friends, fellow artists and family dot the room but between them there’s also a high number of suit and trainer wearing post work music goers desperately seeking out the up-and-coming, which creates a muddled and uncertain atmosphere. But, Matt’s voice can cut through anything, it’s got that knife-edge quality to it- it strikes you- it’s confrontational but at the same time seamless and smooth. However, what’s most striking about Matt is that he makes his audience work a bit harder. The simple and predictable scene set up in front of us, Matt, a piano and a dimly lit room, is immediately undercut. His songs about love are dirty, playful, laced with sex and uncertainty, unsurprising and universal, juvenile at times but always true. There’s ‘Studio 6’s’ unforgettable line, ‘I remember pulling your curtains back, then we made love to the old moon…’ Expectation is subverted, uncomfortable images are pieced together, the innocence of youthful love is corrupted and this seemingly innocent gig becomes ominous- it’s uneasy at first but you definitely want it darker. His most recent single, ‘Vacant in the 21st Century’ hits a nerve with the audience, and he approaches the subject of a doomed and destructive socio-political state totally bare and with nothing to hide behind, revealing a serious strength in his vulnerability. After singing what he promises to be ‘the last fucking love song’ he confronts us with the very uncomfortable image of Trump and Putin shacking up on a couch as the world falls apart around them, and I think this sums Matt up pretty perfectly, there is a dark enjoyment he gets out of satisfying and dissatisfying our assumptions and attitude towards love, politics, society and especially to him.

Interview

You’ve slowly begun to step out of the classic 50 capacity, singer-songwriter shows into larger venues, how has that progression been for you?

I guess because smaller venues are always intimate, that intimacy is obviously heightened, but playing quite intimate songs usually translates pretty well to a thousand people or whatever. A song that feels quite can feel evermore quite in a larger space.

Did it annoy you just now when I called you a ‘singer-songwriter’?

It does annoy me in the sense that, genre wise, there are certain tropes and connotations that I definitely feel uncomfortable with, but it’s difficult because on paper I sing and I write songs. I feel that when people use that term it comes with associations that I don’t feel a massive part of.

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‘Vacant in the 21st Century’ acts a kind of anthem for a doomed youth, and is effective in doing so, but when you say the line ‘but I’ve still got to try to sleep through, in this stale room…’ is there a hopefulness in this damnation?

I’m not sure there’s a sense of hopefulness, its more of an ‘oh god, still trying to…’ It’s not dividedly on the side of anger or sadness and there’s definitely a mix in it of me not taking any of this too seriously as well. I feel that (and this might sound quite cynical) writing a protest song isn’t going to make all that much of a difference…

But don’t you feel a sense of responsibility when you write such a socially and politically charged song?

I do feel a slight responsibility in the sense that I felt that I was expressing what many of my friends felt, and it’s what I see and it is a reality, but I was definitely weary, especially when I was talking about politics… I think I’ve always had that slight insecurity about not sounding too pretentious. But yeah, I’d hope that it would ignite some sort of anger in people, and make them look at things a little more. I think that everyone should be a little more cynical.

So do you see yourself as more of a voyeur to this current situation? Is the song more of a commentary from the outside?

Oh no, I definitely feel completely a part of the whole situation. I just think, for me, it’s not going to act in the same way as Bob Dylan’s songs did during the Vietnam War just because there’s far less specificity to it. I was trying to express a cycle that seems to be occurring over and over again, and it just so happened to fall into place with Trump and so on. Every four or five years we get the same tropes with a few exceptions and yeah, I do feel a part of it, but I guess with this song I do get angry. People love to say that ‘life goes on’ but I really hate that term, because like the song expresses it just shows an ambivalence and that change isn’t possible. I mean I guess I don’t know how to change things, no one really seems to know how to change things, and so the song is meant to be a little bit lost in the same way I suppose.

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There are loads political bands popping up at the moment, Goat Girl and Shame for instance, but I think it’s a lot braver to approach the topic when you’re just a person a behind a piano, you’re a lot more naked. Do you think that you’re giving yourself more of a challenge?

I mean, like what we were talking about with the ‘singer-songwriter’ tropes, there are more negative associations with a guy behind a piano, especially a middle class white guy, in comparison to say Shame or Goat Girl. In a way you know what your gonna get with these bands, and I’m not saying that in a negative way at all, but I guess it gives guitar bands a lot more of a social right to talk about certain things, so sometimes for me it feel difficult to defy expectation.

When we look at a song like ‘Vacant’ and your earlier song ‘Even if it’s a Lie’, are those two separate versions of you, two different songwriters, or does it feel part of your progression?

With ‘Even if it’s a Lie’ I do feel like I’m covering it a lot of the time, it doesn’t so much feel like me, but at the same time it doesn’t make it any less me if you know what I mean? I think songs are a moment in time, and that was my moment in time, and I guess there’s something really idealistic in wanting the representation of you to be completely current and perfect, but I don’t think that’s realistic.

No matter how intense and intimate your songs are, there’s always a tongue in cheek line, or an underlying comedy in them. Is it important for you to have that comic relief?

I think its because in everyday life, I feel like there’s another voice inside me laughing at my cynical, serious side, and so moments of comedy make it feel like I’m not taking it too seriously. Not that I’m making a point of that, or that I feel any less strongly about what I’m singing about, but I like to get that humour into my songs.

After writing songs more political like ‘Vacant’ and ‘As the World Caves in’, has your attitude changed towards the way you approach writing the love songs that you used to predominantly write?

Definitely, and ‘As the World Caves in’ and ‘Strange Time’ reflect this new approach, I think. There’s a slight less youthfulness than say, ‘Studio 6’ has. I think the older songs feel more sheltered, and the way I feel about love songs now is that they’re more within or amongst everything else, if that makes sense.

Finally, I’ve heard that you’re a big fan of HMLTD…

Yeah, I am. Their music just feels angry and abrasive in the perfect way. It feels funny and really- and I don’t really agree with this choice of word, but- original in the sense that there’s nothing quite as theatrical or as uninhibited as it at the moment. And to be honest, I just have loads of fun at their gigs. There’s a lot of truth in there, and they express this kind of insanity that people feel.

Remember to check out Louis O/B below.

Photography by Holly Whitaker