Matt Maltese is a man of two halves. On one hand, his bone-dry wit, Leonard Cohen-style vocals and baroque flourishes give him an undoubtedly retro, troubadour appeal. It’s a quality that’s only bolstered by the 21-year-old’s North American parentage (“I feel a certain sense of homecoming [when I go to] Canada that I maybe don't have as much in England,” he says). On the other, this rising singer-songwriter is also a young Brit coming of age in a time of national turmoil, with a true talent for conveying the malaise of today’s world.
As a child, Matt was fascinated by the artists his Canadian jazz trumpeter grandfather introduced him to, including Chet Baker and Nina Simone, as well as US piano rock like Supertramp and Meatloaf. Like many before him, he dabbled in projects and collaborations in his teens, composing striking, sardonic songs at his piano. However, it would take a sharp dose of reality for him to pursue music professionally; four years ago, when his A Level music exam was wrongly graded, Matt was forced to give up his university place. His side hustle buying and selling vinyl allowed him to move to London and attend music college for a year, where he got by working at a cafe, and also experienced his first breakup. “I had definitely had a pretty nice childhood up to then, and it was the first moment where I was like fuck, life can be a real crap-shoot” he says of this annus horribilis. “Since then I've approached everything with more of a doubt”.
Despite this setback, chance encounters in the city propelled him forward. He boldly approached South London singer-turned-producer Alex Burey at a gig in a “nothing to lose” moment. The risk paid off: the pair had an instant kinship, with Matt recording his first EP in a makeshift fashion in Burey’s shed, while becoming further embedded into the ‘South London scene’ alongside the likes of Shame, HMLTD and Goat Girl. Later, a connection at college would lead to these demos working their way up to A&Rs, as well as attracting the attention of the Maccabees’ Hugo White, who became another key collaborator.
However, it was only once he was signed that Matt began to truly let go, learning how to cope with his anxieties and broadening out his palette to encompass upbeat ennui, strange love songs and state of the nation addresses. A turning point then came via an approach by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado (Whitney, The Lemon Twigs), who produced Matt’s debut album in LA and played a pivotal role in elevating his sound through analogue recording and layered synths. Rado’s wryness and Matt’s more cynical personality were an ideal fit. “It was like something out of Curb Your Enthusiasm in the studio,” he explains.
A defining quality of the resulting album, Bad Contestant, is the juxtaposition of dark lyrical material with breezier melodies, in the vein of John Grant or a more offbeat Rufus Wainwright. He describes lead single ‘Greatest Comedian’ - half-psych, half-lethargy - as “a love song hidden in these tongue in cheek moments … it’s me taking the piss out of that sexy idealisation of someone, but there still being true longing in there”. Likewise, the unexpectedly upbeat title track offers an timeless metaphor on the highs and lows of life (“It's seeing your life as a sort of TV show, and making the self deprecation joyful”). On ‘Like A Fish’, lulling strings and jovial brass masks a bridge in which he drily declares that “I wish that I could fill his shoes / But I’m only a seven.” Meanwhile, ‘Guilty’ sets a sunny, jazzy piano hook against lyrics about a lover “slipping through my fingers”.
Sometimes, though, the sense of 21st century angst comes unmasked, such as on ‘As The World Caves In’, a song about an end-of-the-world tryst between Donald Trump and Theresa May whose apocalyptic mood is conveyed both in its plaintive vocal and increasingly swelling piano and electric guitar. Similarly, ‘Mortals’, a striking closing track that goes from understated and Radiohead-esque to an arresting string crescendo, plays with ideas of humanity’s futility in the face of global warming, citizens left eyeballing their phones. Exploring today’s anxieties is something Matt has done away from music, too, playing a politically-themed First Past The Post tour alongside The Rhythm Method to raise money for a homeless charity.
As he nears the milestone that is his debut headline show at Scala, and the release of the album, Matt Maltese’s complex, witty melancholy is certain to see him gain further ground. And, in expertly treading the path between opposites - anxiety and levity, home and away, past and present - he is sure to have an exciting future.
Hi, my name is Jackie Cohen and I’ve got a new record. The title is Zagg, a nickname I picked up in high school as some dumb Kerouac-related joke (I actually remember but I don’t want to tell you), and also a word that means “a sharp change of direction.” I chose it for a number of reasons.
First and foremost: it’s gonna look tight on an embroidered hat. As the famous adage goes, “Lead with your merch!” Next: Zagg is me, my name, and this record is my first real, intentional, nearly unabashed step toward being myself confidently out in the world. Here I am! Here are my songs. Finally: making this record was truly a “life zagg” for me. I quit my marketing job. I quit my teaching job. I quit my sausage sampling at the mall job. I started taking my meds as directed. This is my SSNRI record. I’m reflecting instead of spiraling. Got my egg cracked a few times but I’m landing sunny side up. Like the Bridge of Avignon, I am partly destroyed but quickly rebuilt. I’m in cahoots with the Avengers of record-making. Still not perfect, but what’s so sexy about perfect? The intrigue’s in the pockmarks. This record is extremely fun.
Zagg is a Jonathan Rado + Matthew E. White co-production. We played X-Files on mute for the entire two weeks we spent tracking with the Spacebomb House Band. We all got the flu. Two among us came down with foot & mouth disease (won’t name names). The playing and production is bright and beautiful across the whole grab-bag of love songs, laments, self-mortifications, meditations on sunscreen, hammer-anvil jams, and kit v. kit double drum cardio smash-bros looney tunes suicide pursuits. Don’t get me started on Trey Pollard’s freak-of-nature string arrangements.
Here’s my friend Eric Deines describing the record:
“More than one of Jack’s many nicknames, Zagg is also a shout out to her uncanny ability to select an unanticipated word or musical flourish, her disarming poetic acumen, her ability to zoom in and out at lightning speed and spin a phrase into a mantra, or the opposite of a mantra. Each song on this record is its own unique little world, keeping a listener delightfully off-kilter throughout the entire affair. Opening track ‘FMK’ operates likes a sonic thesis statement. For a quiet moment, Jackie’s confessing her recurring mother-in-law dreams and initiating a sudden-death round of Fuck Marry Kill. Then on a dime she somersaults into rocket-pop posture, ready to cut loose and head to the movies with her best boogie-boy: ‘Let’s go to the movies and dance a little…you can share my Twizzler…Let’s go to the movies, you can dance at the movies!!!’ The charging, industrial pop of ‘Get Out’ is augmented with punching strings that are both lovely and foreboding. In the lithe, Rickie Lee Jones-nodding ‘Yesterday’s Baby,’ a giant foot-shaped cloud looms in the mouth-shaped sky and Jackie gets microscopic — ‘Why don’t you just let it burn out/Toss that glass of wine out/Stamp that Camel Light out/Shut your mouth up shut up your mouth.’ After a few more dances, deep diaphragmatic breaths, and Blood on the Tracks winking ballads, knock-out marathon track ‘Keep Runner’ gives it straight to some Wile E. Coyote tomfool who’s out getting his butt blown up again.”
The energy of the record, I think, comes from finding out Patti Smith didn’t make Horses until she was 29. Extremely influential Wiki experience. Oh, and Adam Green, my all-time favorite songwriter and artist, painted me looking like a doctrinal seer peering into a cartoon mirror. If nothing else in my life pans out? Beans! Navy, pinto, and cannellini. I don’t care. Peace has found me. Here’s the record. Listen hard. Read the signs. Pack a lunch. Enjoy.