The Melodrama of Matt Maltese
In a top floor bedroom in South East London resides one of modern indie music's most distinct voices. The bedroom he’s in has a distinctly lived in air, although currently dingy with grey weather light. On the back wall is a sketch of a lint roller, tacked up a little off-kilter, the cover art of Leonard Cohen’s 1977 Death of a Ladies’ Man, and a poster of John Lennon and Yoko in a time capsule. In front, clutching a mug, sits Matt Maltese.
“I have two Beatles posters in my room, but I don’t really like The Beatles. I mean, they’re fine,” he tells me, with a flick of his eyebrow.
We remember Maltese from the cover and tour of his debut album Bad Contestant, with the shaven head and melancholic half-smile. But in person, Maltese is gentler and more reserved than his razor-sharp lyricism implies. During our talk, he slowly peels off the boyish charm and wicked sense of humour, and reveals himself an overthinker, anxious and sensitive. He seems more approachable, less glamorous than his “As The World Caves In” masterstroke.
Incidentally, that 2018’s apocalyptic single is suddenly one of the most urgent and relevant songs of the year. In enveloping instrumentals, Maltese narrates a farcical imagining of Theresa May and Donald Trump lying together as the world implodes - though he doesn’t say this outright (“it would be too many syllables”). The single has taken off on TikTok in recent months, soundtracking dozens of morbid lock down videos and giving Maltese a resurgence of popularity. What does it feel like to have written a song two years ago which is now popularised in its reality, I wonder?
“It feels a little less funny now,” Maltese muses. “There was something melodramatic about it. That was the intention when I was writing it, but in the context of the day it’s a lot more on the nose. I hope when people are connecting with it it’s giving them comfort and not rubbing it in. I grew up loving those all-out love songs, so I wanted to channel that feeling through a ridiculous scenario.”
Maltese is Italian-Canadian, but was raised in Reading, the only child of an ex-Opera singer. Perhaps his aptitude for grand romance and drama started here. “I think I fell in love with Broadway in year three or four. My grandfather used to be a jazz trumpeter and would play me loads of Gershwin. So, I fell in love with those classic ridiculously soppy love songs, and I wanted to go and do that. But then at eleven years old I sort of woke up and became cynical and thought the West End was full of shit, started listening to Leonard Cohen and writing music.”
At this point, Maltese was faced with a choice: embrace his desire to be a songwriter and face bloodshed at school for being “the soft guy who plays piano” or call his fascination with Leonard Cohen a flirtation and fit in instead. “I actively made that choice, just kept writing, wrote some awful songs. At 17/18 I was buying and selling vinyl, so I went to London with that money and lived in this shitty place in Camden, which is a world away from a spacious bedroom in Reading.”
From his new London residency, Maltese attended the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance two days a week, but the degree wasn’t fitting. “I think I struggled with the notion that I was surrounded by a lot of people who were just chasing that piece of paper at the end and it kind of felt like a college that gave false hope, like patting everyone on the back for writing a song and then charging them six grand a year to be there.”
Maltese dropped out and attempted an English undergrad at King's College London instead, but left this degree to do music. At this point he was working in a café and going through his first heartbreak – an experience which inadvertently led to his first record deal. He recorded first single “Even If It’s A Lie” in his bedroom, put it on Soundcloud and was promptly rewarded with emails from A&Rs. Maltese was unconvinced.
“I got a couple of emails from music people being like ‘Oh I'm going to send this to some people and you’ll be hearing from them’ and I was like ‘Oh OK’ because you’re taught to be cynical about those things.” Yet, five days later he was seated in front of Adele’s manager being told that Adele had heard his song. Soon after, he signed (briefly) with Atlantic Records and released Bad Contestant. Despite having dreamed of this moment, Maltese found himself uninterested in his big break. Instead, he was consumed by the complexity of the heartache that led to his success, having just written the songs as a tonic to pain.
" When I look back at those songs, they were something I needed to express but it all feels so silly that you can have a career based on feeling bad.”
“I wrote a lot of heartbreak songs at the time, and the main reason I was writing them, and the reason lots of people write them, is the idea that you’ll get that person back in your life. There was some sort of twisted idea in releasing them, of that person hearing them and being like ‘Oh I’m in love with you again.’ So, the by-product of being signed didn’t feel as sweet as I’d imagined it. In a way sometimes it makes me feel a bit guilty. When I look back at those songs, they were something I needed to express but it all feels so silly that you can have a career based on feeling bad.” It’s the age-old artistic dilemma: whether to cultivate a career from misery. Maltese saw it as a personal battle between self-expression and self-preservation.
We spend some time contemplating the cynics and romantics who’ve inspired Maltese. I suggest that Bukowski is overrated because he was a drunken misogynist but Maltese offers a profound counter argument: “I think people take a weird comfort in being allowed to read about that stuff because it’s based in the past.”
What about the romanticism of alcohol, then? “I think the idea of an alcoholic was so romantic in my head when I was reading him. I drank more and took a weird pride in it and it was so twisted. I think alcohol has been glorified and not a lot of people talk about it. I drink a lot less because I got to a point where it didn’t really work for me. It’s the same about cigarettes, like there’s something in you who thinks it’s cool to hold a bottle of beer over a glass of water,” he says, still clutching the mug of tea like a shield.
We discuss the cardinal romantic - Frank Sinatra - and how there is something deeply Sinatra about Maltese’s sound; be it in the vintage production or the grand gestures of the singles. “I think I just grew up with this real love of Frank Sinatra. I think what’s really beautiful about that music is that it’s not cynical at all and it really gets away with it. You couldn’t write those songs in today’s world and not sound awful. I think at a younger age it was an escapism because ‘his music described the most perfect painting of love and relationships.”
Maltese goes on to attribute his cynicism to getting older and embracing a new sense of awareness. “I think a lot of it was also London. Reading is not incredibly diverse in anything, and so London is such a punch in the face. You see all these things you just don’t see anywhere, and I just became aware of a lot of music, became more aware of current affairs just growing up and becoming more outward looking. I think you can then get a bit more cynical and bitter, like everyone does at the mess of a lot of things. “
I assume ‘the mess of things’ is our political and social climate. Of course, Bad Contestant reads as an assemblage of apocalypse anthems, and there are sly jabs at government, climate change deniers and societal shortcomings. Upcoming EP Madhouse uses cliché and trope to expose a ridiculous and disappointing society, juxtaposed exquisitely with humming jazz-influenced instrumentals. The world Maltese presents in all his work is not a happy one - low budget hotels, creeps in crowds, flat earthers, concrete jungles and flashing out-of-order signs.
“My music is definitely – whether I like it or not – from a liberal ideology,” he tells me. “I’m not too conscious of trying to preach a political stance that I think should exist. TV and music are the only fiction that I consistently consume. Otherwise I do consume a lot of current affairs. It hasn’t ever been consciously in the songs, but then again it is quite clear what kind of viewpoint I have on things.”
As he speaks, I think of how his two records do feel more like a social commentary than a personal lament, and how he has an aptitude for universal pessimism. The concluding song on Bad Contestant, “Mortals,” grows in grandeur - and in a live set reaches the very corners of the venue. In it, he croons, “And I'll see you in the park / Saying last goodbyes / To all your dogs / Maybe we'd have hit it off / If old Mother Earth / Hadn't got so hot / But I can't worry about descendants / Whilst I worry about my feelings.”
Elsewhere, “Rom Com Gone Wrong” seems to articulate our current pandemic circumstances in almost hilarious accuracy: “She had no mask / Nobody understands / That's that, goodbye everything / Long baths, podcasts / I'm crying when I'm smashed.” I ask how these songs come together and how much forward thought goes into them.
“In the last couple of years, I’ve realised I’ve been putting a little less importance in the idea of inspiration and realising it's all in the work. I feel proud of Bad Contestant but also there’s a lot of other people’s work on it.” He’s referring to the work that was done by Alex Fury, various producers and mixers, and Jonathan Redo. “I really wanted to do something more myself. I’d always gone on about how I like records with flaws, and records that are imperfect, but still I was chasing perfection and not enjoying that process. So, with Krystal I thought I’d make it a three or four-month thing of working as much as I can, not really drinking, not really seeing a lot of people and seeing what happens.
"I’d always gone on about how I like records with flaws, and records that are imperfect, but still I was chasing perfection and not enjoying that process."
“But if you’re asking what I'm writing about, I think it’s always personal, but written with a voice that’s poking at that personability a bit. It’s also trying to succinctly put that in the way that I would talk to someone in real life, where I’d say ‘this is making me feel shit’, but then make a joke about it. I think I process a lot of things with humour, which I think is really important. So is taking yourself seriously but parodying yourself sometimes. I feel like I'm always trying to do that, sometimes failing, but I am always writing darkness wrapped in this thin light. It’s what I like to listen to. I listen to a lot of John Grant and piano music, Chile Gonzales, Tierra Whack’s album Whack World. I watch a lot of the same series over and over again, like Arrested Development. Succession. Anything that navigates that line between serious and silly, dark and light. I guess I enjoy listening to things that don’t pretend it’s not there but aren’t just trying to really bring you into it.”
He names half a dozen other underrated television shows, including Will Sharpe’s 2016 Flowers, a dark comedy in which a childrens author tries to commit suicide. Maltese wrote an open letter-come-review to Sharpe, posted on Instagram, thanking him for making this deeply uncomfortable yet comforting series. “I was 19 when I came across Flowers,” he wrote. “...living on my own in a small room in Camden and working at a café. I was depressed and grieving and heartbroken and indifferent to everything…But when I saw Howard from The Mighty Boosh botch a suicide at the start of Episode 1, I knew you were different.” When I ask about his experience with depression, his answer is perceptive and intuitive.
“Like everyone I get sad a lot, but I think it’s important that I don’t call it that. I think the world is an incredibly sad place and talking about the fact that you get sad is important, but I struggle to put into concise terms what it actually feels like, and the songs are as close as I get to that.”
“I quite enjoy writing songs which maybe make the mundane bigger than the mundane actually is. I'm not a story-based writer, I don’t ever try and imagine what something is like – that feels like a minefield and I don’t think I’d be able to intelligently talk about something I don’t have any experience of.” Many artists struggle with that intense vulnerability and prefer to write about other people. Does he feel fine with that exposure, or is that perhaps where the humour comes in, allowing him to poke holes in his own psyche?
“I find that vulnerability a way of breaking down your own ego a bit. I like to think I can sing things that make me look bad and that’s OK because that’s kind of the whole point.” The lyrics of “Guilty” and “Curl Up and Die” come to mind, where Maltese unabashedly illustrates the absurdity of his own behaviour, and his propensity for melodrama.
“Vulnerability for me feels like the whole point. At times I have used comedy as a restrictive device and not allowed it to feel as vulnerable as I really want it to be, but I think perhaps I’ve shaken that off. For me the purpose is to make music that makes people feel less alone or relate to. So, if I’m painting a farce of myself, then that’s not the one.”
Does Maltese feel that, now the world is literally caving in – to use his own poetry against him – there is more space to commentate our emotions? Or should we be creating positive, escapist art? “It’s funny isn’t it? I don’t really know if I can say with any certainty what I think art should now be. Personally, I am leaning towards writing more escapist music or at least trying to keep hope in songs. I mean, there is enough darkness in the world. But if the darkness exists in what you make, it’s about tempering it with some light.”
He explains this in terms of what lockdown has done to his creativity, since he wrote most of his third album in isolation. “I’m quite a stunted writer. Something will happen and it won’t be until nine months later that I’m even able to express it. So, lockdown allowed the distance for that. It’s been a mixture of trying to focus on this moment; but also of not being able to take the fact that I’m writing seriously amidst so much tragedy and chaos. More than ever it feels like an important but silly job. I recognise the importance of art but in something like this, I feel like artists need to cut down their egos even more…” he trails away, drinks more tea. We move on.
In his two existing records, upcoming EP and eventual third album, Maltese continues to disclose his suffering with a devilish detachment. When I ask him to explain each collection of music in turn, he laughs to himself – the very concept of evaluating one’s own art is embarrassing. He tells me that while Bad Contestant is about trying to like yourself, process heartbreak and put a light spin on “feeling crap”, Krystal is more of a love record, illustrating moments of falling for someone amongst moments of loneliness. The Madhouse EP is “just me, confused” and his third instalment? “No comment.”
This all paints a clear portrait: Maltese is intrigued by the nuances of sadness and appreciates tempering life’s hardships with a heavy dose of humour, a pinch of salt and a sprinkle of well-disguised honesty. And so we turn, finally, to the new collection Madhouse.
What is intriguing about this collection and what Maltese has already articulated about his collaborative experience with Bad Contestant and resulting self-produced sophomore album Krystal, is that again it is the by-product of a whole host of collaborators. Brian D'Addario (The Lemon Twigs), Asha Lorenz (Sorry), Jonathan Redo (Father John Misty) and Ben Baptie (Rex Orange County) all have credits. However, Maltese describes the process as similar to Krystal, in that it was started in his bedroom. He recorded it with friends adding their part, but tried to play most of it autonomously to see where he ended up. If collaborations made Bad Contestant feel less independent, how does that apply with Madhouse?
“It’s more about how I approached collaboration at that time. I guess because I was more impressionable with working with someone older, it was kind of like father-son trust I placed in their opinions and work, and I don’t feel like that anymore.” Maltese was barely twenty at the time of his first record, and perhaps less assertive in what he wanted. “I think with Bad Contestant I would be looking for validation whenever something was recorded. I would be listening with my ears but also checking that someone else’s ears liked it. I think Krystal was a bit of a turning point. The time around Bad Contestant was so messy, I was trying to find out who I was, and then with Krystal it was more about how, whether I like it or not, this is who I am. I think Krystal has allowed me to go back to working with people in a much healthier way.”
“I’m trying to sum up the oddness of everything and the strangeness of how your emotions can move in the strangest ways, compared to what’s happening in the world."
In discussing melodrama and Maltese’s tendency to existential flippancy, two songs start to stand out. The title track is a tribute to first-world kitsch, and amongst a scrolling-like stream of one liners, he presents a moment of sincerity: “No one out there understands me / well that’s half the battle baby… can’t you tell me why I’m empty / welcome to the madhouse baby.” A flicker of modesty flashes in his eyes. “I’m trying to sum up the oddness of everything and the strangeness of how your emotions can move in the strangest ways, compared to what’s happening in the world. Then putting it in this slightly strangely happy groove, one that maybe I haven’t had before in a lot of stuff. I think it is exactly what it says in the chorus – it’s a song about asking those big life questions that everyone asks themselves and telling yourself that everyone goes through those questions. And we’ve got to be crazy to live in this world, you know? In like a really cheesy way.”
Conversely, “Leather Wearing AA” feels less like a social commentary and more like an 18-year-old girl writing about being in love with a bad boy. “It is a bit like that. It is a melodramatic ‘Oh no I’ve got to follow my heart even if I don’t want to.’ I think sitting on it longer, changing some of the lyrics and re-singing it, I embraced the teenage quality of it a bit. It has a sincerity to it which I can laugh at. It has a little bit of a naive intimacy which I think is really good. Around Bad Contestant I would have been too self-conscious to put something out which felt too romantic for the sake of it. I’m in a place where I’m happy to put a song out and be like yeah it does sound like a teenage love song and that’s fine.”
As the light gets dingier and greyer and Maltese looks wistfully out the window, I ask my final question. Do you want to be figured out or to remain unfigured? He puts down his mug. “I’m not hiding anything. Louis CK’s famous last words.”