Matt Maltese: ‘I don’t think I can get much more vulnerable than this’

With a new track out today, Matt Maltese spoke to Elizabeth Aubrey about his forthcoming album Driving Just To Drive, out 28 April, his love of Leonard Cohen and how being dropped by a major label became a source of creative freedom.

Matt Maltese

Matt Maltese greets me from a cold but sunny L.A. where he’s currently working, writing songs for another artist as part of a new, but as yet secret, collaborative project. As well as forging out an enviable career writing for others, the 27-year-old has already got three acclaimed albums under his belt (2018’s Bad Contestant, 2019’s Krystal and 2021’s Good Morning It’s Now Tomorrow), has amassed half a billion streams and been compared to both Frank Sinatra and Leonard Cohen. Most recently, he’s worked with Jamie T on the soulful ‘Thank You’, as well as the likes of Joy Crookes, Etta Marcus and Celeste – to name a mere few. Now he’s back with a new album, Driving Just To Drive.

In the background, the artist he’s writing for walks in and collects some instruments. The light floods in to reveal that Maltese is surrounded by a huge floor-to-ceiling library. “This guy whose Airbnb this is really has it made,” Maltese laughs enviously of his temporary surroundings, panning his phone camera around to show hundreds shelf-upon-shelf of dusty old books. He’s dressed warmly in a thick, woolly white jumper and shivers in the early morning cold of the apartment. “Right now, it’s always just such a nice time to leave England to be honest,” he smiles, admitting he’s grateful to be away from the UK amid the continuing drama and toxicities of British politics.

Maltese is no stranger to political commentary. His sardonic smash hit, ‘As The World Caves In’ from second album Bad Contestant, was about an imaginary, fleeting romance between then UK Prime Minister Theresa May and former US President Donald Trump after their meeting in 2017. At the end of it, they trigger a nuclear war. The song captured the mood of a nation unhappy with May cosying up to Trump at a time when his divisive politics hit a nadir. Maltese’s track went viral and was later certified Silver after selling 200,000 units.

Matt Maltese

Photo: Reed Schick

He says he still feels the current state of politics keenly, especially inequality and division post Brexit. “There’s this feeling of scarcity that maybe feels ever more present,” he says, in the week when Britain’s Brexit deal with the EU was finally cemented. “It’s not just because of the supply chain issues or the cost-of-living crisis but even before that – we are in a world where things that our parents took for granted, like owning a home, is now a completely unachievable goal for most people… I am very affected just in how I think every day about these things,” he continues. “The economics of things is so fucked… in the government, you just see what greed does. They’re so out of the loop of real life.”

Maltese’s upcoming new album subtly turns itself away from both politics and the incessant, maniacal goal-setting that’s enveloped much of our recent lives. He thinks society has become obsessed with doing things for mere financial gain or self-serving ambition, so much so we’ve forgotten what’s important, and how to just be. He also thinks we’re so consumed by our own lives that we ignore others, including those in need. Empathy, he says, is in short supply.

“I think a lot of this album is about not having so many goals in life,” Maltese says, sipping a hot drink from a stone mug. “You can’t really just game life… we’re on this tricky road with Capitalism where some people have convinced themselves they need certain things,” he outlines, saying he despairs how “the rich just get richer” via greed and ambition that isn’t necessary. He says he longs for more equality. “The top parts of wealth become even bigger, billionaires become trillionaires… I’m hopeful one day that even if the rich get richer, the poor get richer too,” he says. “I’d love to see more harmony between everybody and everything… less ‘them’ and ‘us’.”

On his forthcoming album, the soaring ‘Hello Black Dog’ tackles feelings of depression that seem to seep in from spending too much time observing the state of the world, and how stealthily such feelings can creep up on you. “I can really feel doom and gloom about things and feel hopeless like we all can,” Maltese explains, saying he finds hope in more “experience than expectation” now, enjoying the small things in the everyday – like driving a car for the sake of driving (as he explores on the album’s title track), remembering a powerful, life-changing gig (‘Florence’) or feeling grateful for loved ones (‘Mother’).

Matt Maltese

Photo: Reed Schick

“Where do I find hope and what keeps me going? I mean what keeps me going is absolutely my personal relationships,” Maltese continues. “Just the joy and satisfaction I find from talking to friends, family and relationships. I have a general sense I’d much rather be alive than dead, and I feel very lucky to have that feeling.”

The album suggests that a focus away from ambition, Capitalism and self-aggrandising is a route to happiness and something that resembles peace. The importance of supporting others is central. “Weirdly, [you have to] have sympathy for everyone in a way,” Maltese believes, to transform society. “I know that sounds weird, but you do. You can see why bad people become bad. It doesn’t excuse why they act badly… but to make lasting change, you have to [try to] understand.”

Maltese is thoughtful when he speaks, taking time to consider and formulate his answers. His sense of justice is strong, as is his desire for equality. It’s perhaps no wonder that Maltese didn’t fit into the major corporate label he first signed to in 2015, while still in his late teens. Despite his success (thanks to his singular voice and modern spin on classic jazz), he was unceremoniously dropped. He was lost, he says, in a huge corporation.

“It was ultimately a positive thing… I’m incredibly grateful I was dropped, basically,” Maltese reflects now. “I mean don’t get me wrong, it definitely didn’t feel great at the time and it took something from me to get through it that maybe at a different time or with a different environment, I might not have been able to muster.”

Matt Maltese

Photo: Reed Schick

Maltese was spotted after uploading his work to SoundCloud and then a viral TikTok followed. “It’s so fucking random,” he says of fame and being discovered. “It’s like I got so lucky that I just had some song on a platform I’d never heard of until, you know, everyone had heard of it. I could have just not had that moment then led this whole other life. That’s not really down to me being better than the next guy, there’s also so much randomness.”

When signed to the label, he claims unhealthy ambition and commercialism created a pressurised and challenging working environment at odds with creativity: he became miserable. “There were definitely moments where I might have gone and chosen a different path,” he reveals, saying he was ready to walk away from the music industry for good.

“I think, for me, it’s hard to not try and be a nice person to work with,” he continues. “I think at a major label, there are a lot of people that are in your team because the ambitions are big and it’s a lot more commercially focussed. A lot of the time, [their] decisions can really differ from what you actually want to do, or what your taste is. I just found it hard to say ‘no’ and when I did, that made for a worse working environment. It just wasn’t really working… being dropped was the only option when I look back.”

Now, he passes on his wisdom to younger artists who may feel similarly at sea with big labels. “It is still a crazy situation and I see it a lot with young artists I work with,” he explains. “They’re 19-years-old and it completely isolates you from all your friends, family and it gives you weird complexes. But it’s also the only way into it for people who don’t have that capital already to make it… I sympathise and I feel like, as a co-writer, it’s really important to pass down my experience to people going through this for the first time.”

While he felt generally supported “mentally and emotionally”, he feels that it “is not something that labels are generally equipped with.” He says more of that is needed, plus more honesty to young artists about what the reality of working with a big-name label can be like.

“Like most working environments, there are efforts to support you… but a lot of the time it doesn’t scratch the sides,” he explains. “It can definitely get better, but I also think more discourse about labels not giving you this spiel that they’re your ‘family’. The worst thing is that I meet a lot of young artists who are convinced their label are their family and friends… but their decisions [about you] are primarily always founded on financial realities… it sets people up for a lot of hurt than if they were just told some of the harsher realities of what a label, especially a major label, is trying to do and will do if you have success, and won’t if you don’t.”

Being dropped was, at least initially, a bitter pill for Maltese (he later re-signed to an indie). After growing up in a musical family in Reading – his mum was a singing teacher and his grandpa an amateur jazz trumpeter – Maltese wanted to be a musician from his youngest days.Signing a deal at 19 was a dream come true. He remembers the music that inspired him. “I loved musicals, the American songbook, jazz – Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald,” he recalls with fondness.

Much of the new album sees him revisiting this younger self more than on any of his previous offerings. His early love of jazz resonates throughout Driving Just To Drive, as does his love of Cohen. Like Cohen, this writing reveals some serious soul-bearing lyricism. “I went through a period of falling in love with that man,” Maltese laughs, recalling his teenage years listening to Cohen on loop. “His lyrics were darker, a bit more real, a bit more funny about the quirks of life.” The song writing on Maltese’s latest offerings are his most personal and exposed to date. “I don’t think I can go much more vulnerable than this,” he laughs.

Matt Maltese

Photo: Reed Schick

He continues: “I think every time, the song you write that makes you feel the most uncomfortable is always the thing you actually like the most. I think that happened pretty naturally with this record. I didn’t think too consciously about it, but I listened back and thought, ‘Oh, there’s not many jokes here and a lot of this is so personal,” he grimaces, having previously used humour as a masking tool. “I was burying some of my younger self away and I’d never really sung about my parents before. I guess I [learned] to just write the uncomfortable songs and not get too hung up on what it makes you look like.”

The beautiful piano-driven ‘Mother’ explores the grief a mother feels for the loss of her son’s partner after a harrowing break-up, while the dreamy ‘Coward’ explores the vulnerability that comes with letting a partner see your character fully for the first time in a relationship. Elsewhere, the joyful, soaring ‘Suspend Disbelief’ is about learning to find hope again after particularly tough periods – something Maltese says he’s learned to do in recent years after his deal collapsing, the isolation of the pandemic and a painful break-up.

“Doing work that really means something to me [helps me] to feel more at peace with everything. I sort of hate taking life too seriously, but I do take it quite seriously! I think the greatest path to more peace and happiness is to change yourself… when I was younger, I put more pressure on myself to change everything around me, rather than change me. As I’ve gotten older, you realise you can only change everything so much. That led to less intense thinking and just doing things differently – like making my music a bit more collaborative – that’s also been incredibly good for my mental state,” he says, explaining that it gave him “good perspective” after “spending so long not being open to it.”

Matt says now he’s in a place where he sees what matters more. “I don’t really have much interest in my legend or what happens after I die or if someone discovers my record in a hundred years. I don’t really give a shit. I want to make work that means something to me, and I hope it connects with people because I love it when it does. But I also think at the end of the day, I’m going to be the sum of how many decent days I had compared to bad ones… as well as of my relationships with the people I care most about.”

“And it could all just end tomorrow,” he laughs, taking another sip of his warm drink as the clattering of instruments outside his room signals he must now head into the studio. “The only way I’m going to look back on it positively is if I just did it the way I wanted to do it,” he concludes. “And that’s what I’m determined to do.”

‘Museum’ is out now; the latest single from Matt Maltese’s upcoming fourth album Driving Just To Drive, out 28 April via Nettwerk.

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