“My job is to notice things and to think about things,” decides Matt Maltese, eating a shakshuka out of a comically large tagine in a North London café. He’s just been on a chilly walk for his DIY photoshoot and is feeling grateful that, unlike last time we took his picture back in 2021, we haven’t plunged him into a grubby pond, fully clothed.
Right now, the thing that he’s noticing is that his eggs are a bit runny, as he pokes them suspiciously with a fork, but usually the 25-year-old troubadour is noticing other things: things about the state of the world and about human connection; observations that he’s then sprinkled with a blend of wit and melancholy across three glorious albums. Soon, he’s about to release his fourth, ‘Driving Just To Drive’, which more than ever feels like a peek behind his eyelids, into his life and psyche.
He puts the terracotta top back on his lunch for a bit, opting to avoid a potential bout of salmonella, and continues his thought about the often overwhelmingly heartfelt nature of his music. “I’ve always tried to be as honest as possible, and you can’t really hate on yourself for doing that,” he says matter of factly. “It’s like writing a diary but your diary is your living. And so you keep writing more diaries and [hope that] people care about your life – or your take – enough.”
Matt’s records have always felt like documents of growth. Signed to Atlantic aged 19 for debut album ‘Bad Contestant’ only to be dropped a year later, his career has been one of peaks and troughs, one minute being “told by The Guardian that you’re interesting” and then the next minute feeling like you “don’t have anything, really”. With nothing to lose and no Plan B, he persevered. “I thought I might as well be exactly what I want to be, not think about how I’m being perceived and stop trying to game it. The only way forward is to just be yourself,” he adds. “Which must be hard for like, arseholes…”
A couple of years ago, that very 2020-something thing happened where one of Matt’s songs, ‘As The World Caves In’, blew up on TikTok. Far from a canny marketing campaign, it was completely organic, young people finding its apocalyptic balladry the perfect soundtrack to a global pandemic. “It was bizarre. I have a different relationship to going viral than other people because I wasn’t even on TikTok at the time,” he says. “It came out of thin air. I wasn’t, like, a pioneer.”
The track has now been streamed over 291 million times on Spotify alone. A very happy accident, then? “I think for some people it validated getting dropped by Atlantic, or unvalidated that. But I honestly didn’t think too much about it.” He has now embraced the video platform under the brilliant Stars In Their Eyes-referencing moniker @tonightmatthew, and he’s enjoying the ride. “The whole music industry is TikTok now and hey, I really like it,” he shrugs. “It’s amazing how people can romanticise the things they liked 10 years ago. People say they want the old Instagram, and before that they wanted print journalism. But really, was that the thing? As if paying a guy twenty grand to play your song in a radio meeting was the main route to success? That’s really grim! And sure, TikTok has its own evils, but as a means of music consumption it’s really democratic. People just hate what kids like.”
“I’ve always been chronically reflective. That’s kind of my thing.”
There’s a new-found confidence in Matt both as he talks and on ‘Driving Just To Drive’ – a sincerity that perhaps comes from getting older and feeling more at peace. “I think earnestness makes for the healthiest state of mind,” he says, earnestly. “Being sarcastic and self-deprecating - those things are very fun, but the whole point is to be real with yourself and the people around you. So now I try to use it to make people laugh, rather than to try and hide the truth.”
The album finds the musician with his head somewhat in the past, reminiscing about his hometown of Reading (‘Museum’), a notable early gig (‘Florence’) and past loves (‘But Leaving Is’). It’s a perspective that he thinks came from the pandemic’s brutal reminder that everything is fleeting, contrasted with a return to “normality”, where finding meaning is an endless struggle. “I’ve always been chronically reflective. That’s kind of my thing,” he notes. “But coming out of COVID, I had a relationship that didn’t work out and I felt a bit like, ‘What am I? What is life?’ And then that took me back to my childhood and I started to feel a lot more relaxed about it. You know, I’m very fortunate really. I would have HATED living in a cave…”
It’s not all serious though, and on LP4 there are plenty of moments of levity. The peppy, Fleetwood Mac-esque ‘Mortician’ features some always-welcome Maltese mirth (“You say that men like me can’t make their minds up / I think you’re wrong but I can’t decide”). On ‘Hello Black Dog’, he personifies his sadness as some sort of looming, inescapable ex - “Hello black dog, it’s been a while / I changed my address and blocked you online” - while on single ‘Mother’, he writes from the viewpoint of his mum, who is more upset about his breakup than he is. “That conversation just really stayed with me,” he says of the real-life chat with Mrs Maltese that spawned the idea. “When I was writing the album, you search your life for interesting things that have happened, and it was just a really funny conversation. Sad, but also funny.”
For this record, he teamed up with a producer for the first time in a while, picking relative newbie Josh Scarbrow - a collaborator with Arlo Parks and Etta Marcus - who had never worked on a full album before. “I needed to mix it up and Josh was a friend already. You sort of know what it’s going to be like when it’s just you. I wanted to know what it would be like with someone else.”
Josh’s production has layered a cinematic quality onto Matt’s heart-tuggy vocals but, despite enjoying the process, he remains largely a lone wolf. “I think I’ll flit between the two for my future albums,” he says of the experience. “Making stuff with people is a lot more fun. But with the writing especially, I think I’m just too far gone to really make it super-collaborative. I’m conscious that a big part of that process will always be alone.”
“I listen to bands hate on modern music and I think, ‘But that’s because you couldn’t write a modern music song…’”
Nonetheless, collaboration exists in his work in other ways. In recent years he’s worked as a songwriter with the great and good of British female pop talent including Celeste, Etta Marcus, Joy Crookes and Birdy. Is he setting himself up as the British Jack Antonoff? “It’s just the offers I get,” he says of his tendency to work with women. “I haven’t thought about it too deeply, really. I would say my energy as a person maybe isn’t classically masculine? I have a lot of female friends and when I look out at shows, maybe my songwriting connects more to women than to men? But yeah, I definitely don’t have a preference.”
Matt has always viewed his work as a service. Speaking to DIY in the past, he’s expressed that music is a way to “pay his rent and connect with people”. With so many songwriters professing to write for themselves and themselves alone, it’s a refreshing perspective. “I often feel like the people saying that [are people who] have parents with a house in Finsbury Park. It just sounds nice doesn’t it?” he says, not really buying it as a line. “I’m not considering other people in the way that I’m sat at a notepad, like, ‘What do people think?!’ But for me, to not lean into what connects with people wouldn’t make me good at my job. I make stuff for people, definitely.”
Not quite done with the subject, he carries on. “When people say they’re making stuff for themselves, really they mean that they’re making stuff for the elite side of indie music in the UK. And I always think if you were making it for yourself, you’d be making a lot more accessible music because we’re all full of feelings - we’re not all full of intellectual thought.
“And people who can’t write choruses also like to slag off people who can. I do find that’s a thing. I listen to bands hate on modern music and I always think, ‘But that’s because you couldn’t write a modern music song’. Slagging off pop music is the same as slagging off the headspace of people who aren’t that deep-thinking – but that’s a nicer way to live…”
As he shovels in the rest of his shakshuka, running late for a writing session with Celeste, it’s clearer than ever that Matt Maltese is just one of life’s thinkers. “I feel like I am just soppy and emotional and sentimental, and I feel things deeper than the next person - or so I’ve been told,” he pauses. “It sort of adds up. So now I just lean into that, and try to make good in my friendship groups and family, and make music that people feel comfort listening to because yeah, that’s all there is really.”
‘Driving Just to Drive’ is out now via Nettwerk.