Discovery: Matt Maltese

By
Photography Johanna Nyholm

Published April 3, 2017

MATT MALTESE IN LONDON, MARCH 2017. PHOTOS: JOHANNA NYHOLM. STYLING: NIC JOTTKANDT. GROOMING: SARAH JO PALMER USING AVEDA.

In entering his twenties Matt Maltese has transformed as a songwriter. A year ago this month, at age 19, the Reading, England-born musician self-released his debut EP In a New Bed, a set of downcast ballads recorded in his bedroom and written out of heartbreak. Now, he assesses the surreal nature of the day-to-day with humor, depth, and charm. In the case of “As The World Caves In,” a track released last month, he wrote a love song for President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May. Together they initiate a nuclear apocalypse, and atomic warfare plunges the paramours toward the end of the world. Today we’re pleased to premiere the song’s music video, directed by Sam Hiscox, below.

“I love writing about love, and I found that the idea of this humored me a little,” explains Maltese. “In the context of such a ridiculous matching, I was able to really sweeten the song and make it as ridiculous as I wanted it to be, rather than just writing the song about me and a girl.”

Maltese is currently based in Peckham, South London, where you can find him writing poems on the bus. (“I wish there was a type of food that I could eat or a period in the day where I knew the fountain of songs would start pouring out, but it’s always super sporadic. I really take what I can get,” he says.) He’s working on an album produced by Hugo White of the Maccabees, and on April 28 will release “No One Won The War” (Café Bleu/Atlantic), the B-side to “As The World Caves In.” In June he will open for the Maccabees in the U.K. at the start of their farewell tour.

HALEY WEISS: I’d like to hear a bit about how you met Hugo White and started working together.

MATT MALTESE: He had my music from his friend and just got in touch, and I’d grown up a bit with the Maccabees. We met and hung out, and he’s got a studio right near where I live in Elephant and Castle. We hit it off and it was very great.

WEISS: I read that you both had formative experiences with the Leonard Cohen album Death of a Ladies’ Man.

MALTESE: Yeah, that was what clinched it. He had it hanging on his wall, the Death of a Ladies’ Man record, and it’s by far my favorite record. We would discuss particular reverbs on the drums on one of the tracks, and he would know what I mean. It was definitely a dealmaker when he knew about that record.

WEISS: What is it about that record that makes it your favorite record?

MALTESE: I think Leonard Cohen has this pretty universal reputation at times, quite unfairly, of being too morose or maybe a little bit too dry. I find that that record has almost a flair—the flair that punk music has as a genre. It has these bizarrely funny lyrics and wacky percussion from [producer and writer] Phil Spector. It’s such a weird match, and I think it’s magic.

WEISS: How early on did you listen to it?

MALTESE: My dad was always a Leonard Cohen fan because my parents are Canadian. I don’t think he was a big enough fan to find a record this obscure, but Cohen was introduced to me, and I came across it when I was 16. My dad had just taken me to see him in Birmingham live, and I went right back into his discography and found it, and it was such a joy to find that. It was so weird and un-Leonard Cohen, in a way.

WEISS: He remains a big point of inspiration for you, right?

MALTESE: Definitely. I think I fell in love with his music at a time when, especially at 15 or 16, I felt extra impressionable, and you’re finding out things about yourself. I found myself watching interviews and hanging on his every word. I think he’s a real hero.

WEISS: I know that he wrote both poetry and lyrics, and some of the poems, he never intended for them to be set to songs. Is that at all similar to your process? Do you write anything that will never be a song, or do you exclusively write lyrics?

MALTESE: I actually do. I usually find my best songs are when I’m writing lyrics and music together—when it all comes at once—but I write a lot of poems. A lot of them are not very good, and will definitely never make it to music. What I like about being able to write under the term “poetry” is that I can have a completely free sense of rhyme and rhythm that I find sometimes doesn’t fit in amongst a melody. It usually doesn’t cross over. I usually don’t write a poem that becomes a song. I think Leonard or some people that I admire as musicians, they have collections of writing that never makes it into music. I quite like the idea of that as well.

WEISS: How early on did you start writing? Has this been something that you have done since you were little?

MALTESE: Yes. I don’t think I wrote anything like songs till I was 14. When I was younger than that, I wanted to write novels. I would write these pretty atrocious and child-friendly books, but even when I wrote my first song—I couldn’t even remember what it was—but I’m pretty sure it was terrible. I’m glad I didn’t write my first song at 19 or 20, because I would’ve been so embarrassed. I think, at 14, you’re so impressed with yourself for writing. But you persevere. It’s definitely important to start young.

WEISS: Were you a confident 14-year-old? Had you been told you had a great voice and were very creative and all of that?

MALTESE: In some sense, I knew what I loved. I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted to do, but I was sure of the fact that I had a love of music and that it was something that I was regarded as above average at, which every kid likes to think—that they’re not just average. I think most young people feel like you’re quite against the grain of your sporty friends when you’re the piano-playing troubadour. [laughs] But I see it as a positive thing. I was never really un-confident or confident. I never let anybody stop me from wanting to sit and write a little love song on the piano. I guess having a sense of humor and having a sense of not taking yourself too seriously… I mean, I never regarded myself as the next Elton John, so I wasn’t that susceptible to too much teasing. I never took it super seriously, but I also always did—I wanted to show that I was taking it really seriously—that classic teenage boy thing.

WEISS: Was there a particular moment when you decided that you would pursue it wholeheartedly? 

MALTESE: No, I think it was a really ragged journey. I don’t think I had an epiphany. There’s a series of disappointments and hopes and some good things happening and not-so-good things happening, and eventually I found myself in a position that people were finding out about my music, but I couldn’t really say what the defining moment was. It’s not a very film-worthy journey. It was a really gradual process.

WEISS: Were there any weird day jobs you had along the way of making music?

MALTESE: I used to do quite a lot of little part-time catering things that I was so bad at. I worked for this catering company once and then I got fired because I cut my finger. I bled on one of the plates before the chef could put it out, so it was a pretty atrocious mistake. I mean, I tried to hide it and wrap it up, but I’m very glad they found it because I would have felt eternally horrible for the victim of the person bleeding on the plate. [laughs] I had that, and this sounds made up for interview purposes, but I used to buy and sell collections of vinyl on Gumtree, this website where you’d put up mass collections of things, and I’d listen through some of the records that I hadn’t heard. That was how I discovered Pulp. I got this massive collection of records and it had three or four mint condition Pulp records. I definitely sold them because they were worth a lot of money, but after falling in love with Pulp, I regret it.

WEISS: But music was consistent throughout that time? That was always something you were doing?

MALTESE: Yes, definitely, in varying degrees. I used to have summers where you’d get so bored, and even if you had a day job, you didn’t have school or as much of a social life. Summers, I think, are what made me a songwriter. [laughs]

WEISS: You’ve written from personal experience before, so is it a more recent development for you to write from an almost absurdist point of view as a character?

MALTESE: Yeah. I think when I was 16, 17—even up to a year and a half or two years ago—I was pretty dead set on being a heart-on-the-sleeves kind of songwriter, which I’m not wholly set against. I started really enjoying the satire. It started to be way more fun to involve some fiction in the songs. I think it balances out the endless, self-revealing nature of songwriting, which is really popular nowadays. I also really enjoy it. At times, it’s this enjoyable release.

WEISS: You’ve talked about how when you play some of the songs from your In A New Bed EP you feel like you’re almost covering yourself because the emotions are so distant. How do you feel about that record now?

MALTESE: I feel really, really distanced from it. In the same way, I don’t really play a lot of those songs live. I play one of them live, and I see it as a really great experience of release. I recorded a lot of them in my bedroom and a lot of it with a friend of mine, Alex Burey, from South London, and working with him and discovering that relationship was a great, great thing. I feel like the person I’ve become, the things that I sing about now and enjoy something about, they’re quite distanced from that. I think my In A New Bed EP had my humor in it, which is, of course, to be expected. I was definitely within a headspace of just writing about heartbreak, and I think that once I left that mindset, I felt a distance from that.

WEISS: You’ve also said that the experience of writing that EP changed you as a songwriter. What did it change for you?

MALTESE: I’m not too sure. It’s hard to really remember the emotions I felt. I was probably being quite deep when I said that. Like any release, it develops you, and I really felt that. I’d say I feel even another half a world away from that with these new songs. I think it’s like everyone growing up. It was such a big chunk of time writing that EP. The first song that was written on that EP, when I released it, it felt like a massive moment. The person I was when I released it was already verging on someone very different from the EP, which is interesting. I think a lot of people have that.

WEISS: At this point, do you feel like you’re writing toward an album? Are you writing individual songs?

MALTESE: I’d like to write three more songs and then I reckon I’d have a tracklist that I’d be pretty happy with. I’ve been working with Hugo, and I felt pretty close to [an album]. I’m taking it slow because I realized the last year and a half has been benefitted a lot by taking it slow, and the things that I’m writing about, I never would have thought I would be worrying about, so for me, the longer it takes, the better at the moment.

 “NO ONE WON THE WAR” (CAFÉ BLEU RECORDINGS/ATLANTIC RECORDS) IS OUT APRIL 28, 2017. FOR MORE ON MATT MALTESE AND HIS UPCOMING TOUR DATES, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.