When we first met Matt Maltese at the end of 2016, the shaven-headed young south Londoner was penning big, wry piano ballads, full of one liners and eye rolls. On 2018 debut ‘Bad Contestant’, the cheeky winks were in full force but, by the following year’s ‘Krystal’, the Matt that came to the table was a notably different one: having been dropped by major label Atlantic and sporting a new shaggy do, the now-23-year-old had audibly shifted his lyrical voice into something sweeter, softer and less dependent on cracking gags to keep people on side.
Now, with new EP ‘madhouse’ released today via Nettwerk, we speak to Matt about getting down and picking yourself back up again, and why he’s more comfortable in his own skin now than he’s ever been.
It seems like you've been a busy boy during lockdown, including penning your own quarantine song ('Ballad of a Pandemic')...
That feels like a lifetime ago! It was a very spur of the moment thing. I wrote it, and it felt too obvious not to put out. Yes it was a slightly cheesy move, but the only reason not to do it was ego so I just let go of that; I don't really care if people think I'm cheesy. That's fine.
Cheese is somewhat part of the package!
It's a big part of this package!
There was only a year between your debut 'Bad Contestant' and last year's 'Krystal', but it felt like the two came from quite different places. Did you feel like there had been a noticeable change?
I think I changed so quickly in how I felt about myself and in my own skin from the day I released 'Bad Contestant'. Everything that happened work wise, being dropped by Atlantic and being out of uni and free, but it being like, 'Oh god...'. Just looking into this abyss. So then 'Krystal' became more like proving myself to myself. It was almost like making music when I was 18; I had nothing to lose but everything to lose.
Did that experience affect your confidence?
In one way, definitely. I think it plays with you a bit because you start with no team, and then you build a team, and then when you lose that you really question if you can do it without those people. It's not so much about being validated by the people that A&R a Jess Glynne record, because I probably don't need that if I'm honest – no disrespect to her, but we're not doing the same thing. I'm very grateful for the opportunity, but I wasn't so sad about losing them as a home; I was more sad about the base level validity that a record deal gives you, which you can deny exists in your mind but it's the thing that you can tell your parents about. I recognise that my second album sounds like something you'd start with, but that's what being signed and then being dropped did to me, and I embraced that. I've sort of done my career backwards! That's sort of how it feels!
“I spent a long time being called cute and hating it, but whatever. I am what I am.”
How do you think your writing changed on 'Krystal'?
I think the way I processed grief when I was making 'Bad Contestant' was to really hate on myself, and to really laugh at it. And I think, even just as a person, I just had a different attitude towards using comedy [later]; I still used it in moderation in 'Krystal', but it was just different. I feel more comfortable being the mushy, heart-on-sleeve guy. Having people call you cute and actually not minding that anymore; I spent a long time being called cute and hating it, but whatever. I am what I am.
Are you saying you're cute, Matt?
I am cute! No no, that's not what I'm going for. But there's a lot of ego and ideas attached to being a guy where cute can feel derogatory, but it's just not derogatory for me now. Whereas I think before, I wasn't OK with that; I was trying to get this constitution out of me that doesn't exist.
Is it more exposing to take that front away?
100%. I found it a lot easier to be behind a shaved head – I had a different surface to what I was, and that's not saying I wasn't being true to myself, I didn't wake up everyday being like, 'I'm really uncomfortable'. But definitely, when I made the songs myself and stopped wearing a suit everyday, there was a vulnerability to that where I couldn't hide behind as many things.
I was writing a lot of stuff that I would have been cynical about the year before; I would never have allowed myself to write like that. I just stopped wanting to put a joke every three lines. And I always want to make people laugh – I think that even in 'Krystal', when I play someone a song and they laugh at a line I feel validated as a human more than anything else. So comedy's always gonna be a really important part for me, but I wanna use it effectively.
“I think the most successful love songs for me are the weirdest ones.”
OK, so tell us about 'madhouse' – which is out today!
It was written between a mixture of times. 'sad dream' and 'hi' were right at the end of 'Krystal'; 'queen bee' and 'madhouse' were intended for a different second album, but they've all been finished in the now.
'little person' specifically is a very lovely love song – what makes a good one?
I think the most successful love songs for me are the weirdest ones, or the ones that are the most unique to that person's experience. It's all in the details, and there maybe aren't enough details in a lot of music which I why I don't connect with it.
Our August cover star Angel Olsen recently spoke about how, as an artist that writes very personal music, you end up commodifying your own life somewhat. Do you ever think about that?
It's the chicken and the egg. What's coming first – is my desire to have a life fuelled by my desire to write good songs, or are the good songs gonna come from a life lived? I think maybe at 17,18 I had quite dramatic, angsty ideas about wanting to go through a bad break up so I could write good songs, but as soon as I went through it I realised I'd much rather not do that! I definitely don't feel like I had the last laugh, which I think maybe I thought I would by writing a song [about it]. You don't take away the pain by writing about it; the writing is just addressing the pain. Maybe I won't always feel like it, but at this point I feel a sense of purpose in talking about the details and getting them out, and the format of a song gives me a lot of space to say things that I'm not good at saying in real life.
What else have you got coming up?
I've almost written what I think will be the third album; I've probably got one song to find, wherever it is... And then I think I wanna record in September – that's the plan. I really get a lot from doing a bunch of songs, getting them out there and thinking 'What's the next thing?'. I definitely don't need more time to make decisions because I'll just make worse decisions. The speed keeps me going and stops me getting into the swamp.
'madhouse' is out now via Nettwerk.
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