Matt Maltese

24 April 2023

Photography Bex Aston
Fashion Nathan Henry
Interview Cat Evans
Grooming Lydia Ward-Smith
Fashion Assistant Rachel Allison
Digi Op Alex Foreman
DOP Tom Green

Silent overcast skies crash along the shaded buildings of London as a cool chill encapsulates the city. The sun sleeps behind plush clouds overhead, muted light trickling down onto buildings and passersby below. Time seems to be ticking away slowly and sleepily as it succumbs to the stillness of the day.

Alongside this stillness is Matt Maltese, who tells me his ideal setting is when it feels like time’s relentless hands have finally decided to relax their tired bones and drop down like a weeping willow. In our conversation we fell into that sweet respite. When we talk, he is between periods of travel, and I can almost smell the exhaust as it slowly fades away with each breath. We converge at the distinct vantage point of having a clear view of the winding road behind without worrying about the one that lies ahead- a perspective that Matt wrote much of his upcoming album Driving Just to Drive from.

From writing songs alone inside the four walls of his bedroom, to digging deep with fellow creatives and friends in collaborative settings, Matt threads his heart and soul into everything he does to create hauntingly romantic and sardonically contemplative tunes. For Matt, music is where he is always ready to take the wheel and against the wind turn the corner to a new and electrifying path ahead. Soaking up everything in his wake, there is a serene expressiveness and assurance in the singer-songwriter as he pours himself into every thought and action as we speak with each other. This openness bleeds gracefully into his work as a musical artist, where he naturally provokes a new way of viewing the world through his songs, standing with clear eyes and an open heart.

Similar to the music he creates, Matt is both buoyant and tender, with a direct authenticity and wit that is gently laced with dark humour. We hold this aspect of humour and lightheartedness near as we drift towards topics regarding the current shape of the world, and how we move through both the gloom and the greatness. We talk about his travels through peaks and valleys ranging TikTok virality with “As the World Caves In,” track ten of his 2018 album, Bad Contestant, to being dropped by his label and finding his way back.

The energy he brings to the table is one you would expect to receive from an old friend, picking up right where you left off in exciting conversation. It is similar to the reposeful feeling of sitting in a sunny spot with a brewing cup of tea in hand, or a long drive on the back streets, as sputtering rain taps at the windows harmoniously. With transparent thoughts threading seamlessly into one another, Matt and I take the long road home in our conversations around the many forms of love, vulnerability, and the deep importance in making mistakes, and through them, welcoming change and transitions. There is a rhythm of the world around like a steady heartbeat that yearns to be closely listened to, and Matt does just that. Buckle up, and get ready for the ride.

Driving Just to Drive is out on 28 April 2023.

If you could describe how you are today with a song title, what song would it be?
I'd say because I'm currently a bit jet lagged, but also so happy with the weather in Los Angeles, I’m in this Motown feeling. I really love Smokey Robinson, and I've always listened to his music when I'm on flights and travelling, so I’ll say his song "The Agony and The Ecstasy."

I’ve been listening to your music since 2018, which feels so long ago.
Wow, too long! [laughs] How old were you when you started listening?

I was nineteen!
That age brings some big, big change, which is so cool. When I meet people at shows who have listened through these really formative periods, I always think it feels like a true blessing to have lasted as an artist they listen to through that time. You change so much in that period. It’s so nice to be a part of people's lifestyles and journeys through the years.

Yeah for sure, and you’re changing so much with everyone as well, both as an individual and an artist. What’s something specific from the past five years that really sticks out to you when you look back?
I've experienced a lot of shifts in my career, and 2018 was the year I put out my first album. Then, right at the end of that year, I got dropped by my label. I had this real moment of like, 'oh, anything can happen.' It sounds ridiculous now, but I was thinking about going back to university and being a human rights lawyer or something. I was having these big thoughts about how this hadn't really worked out, and I could leave it here and be really happy with the album I made. Being dropped by the label in a lot of ways was a good thing because I was kind of struggling with being in an environment that was an intense corporate environment. I think I felt like every achievement wasn't enough, and that pulls a lot of the joy out of achievements, you know? It all became a bit tainted.

Then there was this shift where I wanted to make something. It was just going to be an EP, but it ended up being the album Krystal, which I just threw out as the second album that I'd made already. It started a whole new journey. I do feel like my work and musical life up to 2018 was a true bookmark or crossroads turning, because of the label situation. I look back on it as the best thing that ever happened to me, but it obviously didn't feel like that at the time. It felt rubbish, but a lot of these things are like that. It’s the same way a heartbreak at eighteen was fucking awful. But you look back and you're so happy it happened that way. It's the ridiculously annoying thing about life- all these hard things are so important in making you a better friend, a better partner, and a better son, but you don't want to go through the hard times to get there. It’s hard to think, 'would I go through those things again just because the outcome is good, or would I rather be in this ignorant bliss and be a worse person?' Who knows.

What are some things that have remained a constant in the past few years?
There haven't been immediate constants. I think I've felt a lot of things, and the changes are the constants. I have friends living in new places, and new relationships and my parents are still the same parents, but even my relationship with them changes and evolves. I guess a constant is that I still really like writing songs, which helps! I'm still excited. I’m excited enough by that prospect, which I really hope stays for as long as it stays there. You can't take anything for granted. I could wake up one day and be like, 'I really hate this,' but I don't think that's going to happen. I still find there are a lot of really true moments, transcendent moments of joy doing this job. So, that’s stayed constant.

Since we’re on the subject, how has the way you move about the world changed or stayed the same for you in the past five years?
I'm probably a lot more boring! I don't really drink much anymore, I go running every morning, and that’s brought with it a calmer relationship with my everyday life. It's so annoyingly simple, but even just not having a fucking hangover half the time! At twenty, I felt like my happiness was a lot more complicated than it actually was. My base-level feelings were being messed up by not living a bit healthier. It’s so annoying to say because we've all grown up and lived through the romanticisation of getting fucked up all the time or whatever, but I think living a bit calmer has been a huge change. It’s been a huge change even for the people around me, it changes everything: how you socialise or who your friends are, how you are in passing relationships. It's a pretty nuts thing. So, feeling okay with being boring has been great and actually made everything a lot better. It's definitely hard enough to exist in today's world without making it harder for yourself.

That makes total sense. Change is really difficult in general, too. It’s hard at times to remember things are temporary, and making mistakes is also vital to change and transitions.
Yeah, I totally agree. I absolutely had periods of my life where I quite gladly made more mistakes, and the period I'm in now definitely would be a lot less successful if I hadn't had that. It’s the devil on your shoulder. For the most part, I was a sensible kid, but then had a period where I was like, 'fuck it all.' I came back from that years later, back into how I was as a kid or something. It's so funny, all this shit where you think, 'I'll never be like that again, I’m never like that.' But you are sometimes. You end up eating your own words, but you can’t feel shame about it. I think if anything, that’s a nice place to come from when you're approaching just how different everyone is as well. Even if I wholeheartedly disagree with a lot of people, it’s good to have a bit of forgiveness for everyone and try to be where they are sometimes. It lets me come at things from a commonplace with less conflict, more sympathy and knowing how much care is enough care. Boundaries are really important.

If you could give your new album Driving Just to Drive an energy or aura, what would it look or feel like?
There are two sides to it. When I'm writing for the record, I do try to put the songs on there that it needs. At times that means it maybe doesn't have a consistent energy, but also maybe it does, and I don't see it. I find it hard sometimes to self-identify an album. I think it's a bit more sincerely moody. It definitely feels darker, but with a little less humour than how I've done dark things in the past. It’s a moody little thing.

Could you tell me a bit about the process of writing this new album? Were there any differences or similarities to your previous projects?
Well, I wrote a lot of it two Christmases ago. I always have this thing when I'm finishing an album, where I have this deep sense of, 'okay, I need to find that song that's gonna start the next one.' I get terrified every time about it, and I didn't have that huge thing with this album. I had some other life stuff going on, and I wasn't in the mood, but that's weirdly always a perfect place to start because you can’t game it and rationalise it much. I wrote half of Driving Just to Drive in this new place I was living in London. I was in a small room, and it reminded me of being a kid again. I felt really reflective and moody. I wrote that song specifically about when I would go driving as a teenager, and it started the album in a way. I wasn't really in a space where I loved making stuff though, I didn't have any circumstantial changes, and I was thinking about how I wanted to collaborate in the production process. So, there were a few people who I met with, and there were some really interesting ways to go. But the most interesting to me, in the end, was this person I already had a friendship with and a working relationship with, called Josh Scarbrow. I knew he wanted to help make the album, and he was also very respectful of my space. We just fell into it, did the spring tour and had time to sit with most of the songs. Then, come that summer, we made the rest of the record over the span of three months. It was intense as hell. I love the writing part, but the production part is always more digging deep for me. It’s ended up being the most contemplative album I have. It feels like a step forward for me, in some sense. I’ve been thinking about this writing in a different way, and the way it’s reflected how I was feeling; I didn't ever think too much about what it needed to be or should be. It’s a lot less of an insular album than my second and third, which were mostly made in isolation. I was coming out of that shell a bit, and this is what happened.

It’s interesting going from a more isolated creative process to a collaborative one. It’s a whole new shift of energy, but I think growth usually happens as well.
Yeah, it’s a happier place to be. At the end of the day, we’re a sum of how we’re feeling every day. Often you can isolate the process, which can be great on the surface because you get exactly what you want, and you make exactly what you thought you were going to make. But, I also think you have a little less fun than when you're making it with someone. There’s an element of a spark you create by putting one human next to another. It’s going to bring out something, and bring a lot more enjoyment in the process.

Do you have any little habits or particular routines you do when getting into creation mode?
Not hugely. I'm quite a routine person in general, so it slots into that. I’m always trying to be open and available to make stuff. I do love to write songs on the weekends. But I’m very routine-oriented, for example, once I find a breakfast I like, I can have that same breakfast for a while. As I said, I go running too, I try to have a routine and I think routine works well for me. Especially because my job can really lend itself to a scattered life at times. So, some sense of being in sync with the people around me is really good. It’s never been in my interest to be someone who makes music through the night or something like that. Really treating it like a job was useful for me and actually helped me make more things that I liked.

I imagine writing music is very therapeutic, are there any other things you do that feel therapeutic or like self-care?
Well, I suppose it just goes back to running! I’m definitely running to feel good, you know?

Yeah, for sure. Running just to run.
Running just to run! A next album concept, perhaps?

How do other forms of writing or reading influence the process of creating music?
I watch a lot of films. I'd say films really level me creatively, just by focusing on something that was made without me having any context of how it was made. Sometimes when you suddenly work in music, you absolutely listen to music so differently. I really love that in film, I have no experience in it, so when I see something amazing in film, I’m still really moved. I read a lot, too. I read a lot less fiction these days and more about the world around us. I do religiously read the paper as well, and magazines about new science and shit. That stuff blows my mind! I do still try to read fiction but I find it harder. I find myself a lot more addicted to my phone, and often trying to pull myself away from that goes hand in hand with reading more. So, it kind of depends on what mood I'm in.

Within my own art, I love making titles. Your titles are very gripping, how important are the titles to you in creating an album?
They’re really important. Similarly, I find that words, phrases and couplets are swimming around in my head a lot. I have lots of them and often find they’ll work their way into songs I start writing. Sometimes it will only be a title or phrase that will give birth to a song as well. I definitely am inspired by the idea of the title before the actual thing. I think that's probably just a very human thing to do, isn't it? People need to know or need to see the end goal to believe that they can make it, and that's maybe the case sometimes with having a title. You're like, 'okay, this song sort of exists because we have the title to actually make it a reality.' Equally, some things come out of nowhere but I definitely find that it’s a great process for me too.

The theme of love is explored in your music but through very specific lenses. What fuels you to approach love like this, and does it feel similar when approaching these emotions in your day-to-day life?
Yeah, I think I probably do. Songs are often their version of the truth for me. Especially my older music was always based on something that was happening or that happened but I also enjoy being melodramatic. I do think it's really important for it to be a truthful experience when you're writing a song, but if that's stopping the song from being as good as it can be, and potentially branching out into things that are versions of the truth, that can sometimes be right for the song as well. I do feel on the more romantic side as a person, but I don't necessarily think that I'm ‘1960s love songs’ romantic. There's something so great about songs giving a really beautiful snapshot, but I also think love is messy and muddy and incredibly complicated. But it's also the reason why we're doing it all. I do put love on this podium as being an incredibly important thing in my life, and I think it's silly to pretend it's not, but I also feel pretty real about it. It’s even more than when I was younger, because I've had relationships, good ones and bad ones, and I still don't think that will stop me from maybe having a really pure, over-the-top love song. The Great American Songbook is this sometimes very saccharin love song vibe, where it's like, “tonight is never going to end!” Some of them are so weird. Some of them are also written by men who probably had their wives cooking them every single meal, and were incredibly shitty men. I can listen to those songs at times and enjoy them without believing them. You have to take things with a grain of salt. I feel like I can apply that idea to how I feel about songwriting; People are clever enough to take things with a pinch of salt as well, right? I’ve found that I'll have an incredibly romantic song, and the person listening to it will hopefully gain a perspective on love, which is a good thing, but also that love isn't just that. Like everyone, my relationship with love is ever-changing and complicated, and there are so many different forms. With any art form that's being consumed by someone, there’s always this interpretation. Absolutely under no circumstance is anyone ever going to be able to fully understand your art. It's just impossible.

Music is a form of escapism for a lot of people, what parts of making music feel like escapism to you personally?
Definitely the writing part. I know things aren't very good here in America either, but especially with the time that Britain's going through, there is so much strength needed by everyone to just get through it all. When that's hand in hand with a job that has an element of stupidity in it … like, it's stupid that I write a song, and that's part of the job! But I think it absolutely feels like escapism. It always has, and, if anything, it does even more now. I think it feels a bit ridiculous in the face of so much awfulness. Obviously, I’m incredibly grateful and it often makes me want to treat it even more like a job, because of how aware I am that I’m ridiculously fortunate to even have it as a job. I’m influenced by that fact and write a lot more than I would if I didn't have that feeling. It’s just one big privilege, the whole thing.

There is something very hauntingly romantic and ethereal about a lot of your songs, but still, they hold a lot of buoyancy and spirit. How important does the overall feeling and energy of a song compare to the importance of the lyrics?
That's definitely something I've always really loved about a lot of music. To listen to something often, you can hear it in the background and think it's something completely different when you pay more attention to it. Especially with my other music, wanting to make really joyful sounding music about miserable things, and because we all have difficult things happen in our lives, you can look back and know you can't change it, but you can change how you look back on them. Often the energy I strive for is to constantly have a better relationship with things that have happened. That's a way out of them, and a way to acceptance.

You have an aspect of wit and humour in your lyrics, even with the serious subject matter. How important is keeping an upbeat attitude or ‘not taking things too seriously’ in your creative practice and also in your day-to-day life?
It's just hugely important. The dream way of doing things for me is holding life itself in pretty high regard and treating it seriously, but also having a deeply silly disposition with it all. There's so much bad, but it's kind of what we've got. You do find that you need that silliness. I’m big on dark humour- it’s so within our culture and such a human way of dealing with it all. I’m inspired the most when I see people dealing with misery in that kind of way, if they can at times laugh about an incredibly shitty situation, then I just need to get over myself today. It puts your own self in a sort of perspective.

How has the aspect of vulnerability affected your process of creating music?
I felt from quite early on that to make the best songs possible, you have to put details in that at times don't necessarily make you seem perfect. I found I wanted to be open to the sides of me that I sometimes think are pathetic. I don't feel that as much in my life now compared to when I was twenty, but it's always important, especially in a time when there’s perhaps a little more fear around than there was before for people who feel like they shouldn't be a certain way or admit to being a certain way. When I’m really honest about how a situation went down, it’s good to make people feel okay about making certain mistakes. So, in that way, it’s important to show vulnerability. When I have people who come to my shows who are younger, it feels important for me to show the feelings you can be too afraid to admit to yourself. It’s a really important thing to me, and it would be a disservice to people listening, as well, to not do that.

How do you feel social media and the internet have influenced the music world?
Oh, hard question. Social media, and the internet in general, has made it a lot more possible for more types of people to make music, which has been a good thing. I think naturally, it's a poison chalice as well. The internet is this incredible thing and this awful thing at the same time. I definitely don't think anything was perfect before though, and that's maybe forgotten by humanity. A lot of the time we lament the past, no matter how shit it was. I don’t have a big problem with any of it. I don't just love TikTok because it made one of my songs viral as well. I think it’s the most democratic version of the music industry we've ever had. I see artists that make really good music, who are probably a little bit older than me, who shit on it because they know one little side of it. The kids are running our world. That's been a really great thing with social media and the internet but of course, there are so many problems with it. None of it’s perfect.

I don't think it's changed too much about how I write songs, to be honest. This idea of writing a TikTok hit is often another version of something needing a really good chorus and lyrics – I don't know when that hasn't been the case. I did have a moment for sure of being really against the idea of TikTok and kind of thinking it’d blow over. But now you realise that's what people used to think about televisions in the 50s. We don't want the new thing, we’re so funny. These things don't become big for no reason, they become big because people enjoy using them. You either play ball and accept that's the case and work on your relationships with them or you hide under a rock, which is not an easy place to be either.

What or who first got you into music?
I have a mum who was an opera singer, and she still teaches singing. So when I was young, I think that was really embraced. And my granddad on my mum's side, was an amateur, semi-pro, jazz trumpet player who was doing tours as well as working in HR. He really introduced me to the world of popular jazz, like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Michael Bublé.

Where do you feel most at ease in the world?
I like the sea a lot when it's really cold. That's not really “at ease” though, is it? But, bodies of water. I like driving too, and I also like being driven around. Being a passenger in a car on a couple of hours-long car journey or something is kind of the perfect thing. Also, when I see some of my closest friends and we're just chatting shit. That's a really perfect time, and when I think about it, it’s where you don't really think about time passing.

Finally, do you often drive just to drive?
[Laughs] I basically used to have a car and sometimes now I can get my mum's car, I would like to do it more. But also, these days, it's clearly a very ecologically irresponsible thing to do. So, I wouldn't even do nearly as much as I did when I was eighteen and a bit more under a rock. But, I definitely used to, and I love it. These days, I probably need to get enough money to buy an electric car.

Now you’re running just to run.
That's what the album should have been called. Oh, god, that would be amazing.

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above: Matt wears jacket by Stefan Cooke, shirt by Studio Nicholson and trousers by Contemporary Wardrobe

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above left: Matt wears shirt and trousers by Margaret Howell, blazer by Paul Smith, vest by Tiger of Sweden, shoes by Harrys London and tie from stylist's archive
above right: Matt wears jumper and trousers by Prada and necklace by Slim Barrett

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above: Matt wears hooded jacket by Nicholas Daley, coat by Wood Wood, jumper by MHL, top by Qasimi, trousers by Tod's and shoes by Onitsuka Tiger

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above left: outfit as before
above right: Matt wears jacket by Anderson & Sheppard, trousers by AMI Paris, shoes by Harrys London and necklace by Slim Barrett

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above left: outfit as before
above right: Matt wears jumper by Dior and trousers by Wood Wood

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above left: Matt wears jumper by Dior, trousers by Wood Wood and shoes by Harrys London
above right: outfit as before

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above left: Matt wears jumper and trousers by Prada, shoes by AMI Paris and necklace by Slim Barrett
above right: outfit as before

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above left: Matt wears top by Studio Nicholson, jacket by Stefan Cooke, trousers by Contemporary Wardrobe and shoes by AMI Paris
above right: outfit as before

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