These hallowed pages don’t usually feature reality-TV stars. We’re more about down-to-earth musicians who have paid their dues than kids who have transformed into divas after some six-week session on a Saturday night talent show. It was with mild trepidation, therefore, that Acoustic knocked on the door of Matt Cardle’s East London flat.
But there was no need to fear. Cardle is a thoroughly likeable cove. Showing us into his home studio and boiling the kettle, he is relaxed, chatty and modest about his achievements so far. He also swears quite a lot, which is refreshing considering he first came to prominence on the most airbrushed, family-friendly TV show of all. What is more, he is as pleased as punch that we like his new album, The Fire, his first since his departure last year from Simon Cowell’s Syco management and record company, and in effect, a sign that for him, life post-X Factor is as productive as ever.
Looking back at his first album, Letters (2011), Cardle explains that certain elements of the sound were outside his direct influence. ‘I loved the last album,’ he says, ‘but it’s like anything, there’s bits you would have changed and done differently. I didn’t have control over the production, although I co-wrote everything on that album apart from a couple of songs. Also, I was falling in love at the time and I wasn’t sure what I was writing about, and it was all a little bit disjointed. My head was all over the place!’
Quite so. Imagine being on the front cover of every newspaper in the country, recording your first album, embarking on a tour and a relationship and a professional career all at the same time, and you too would be a bit unhinged. But a year after all the initial commotion – a year in which Letters went platinum and Cardle executed a lengthy headline tour – he has severed his ties with Syco, moved to indie label So What? Recordings and recorded The Fire. Matt Cardle, it seems, is back in control. He cites the success of fellow X Factor alumni One Direction, and Syco’s allocation of attention to said boy band, as influential in his decision to jump ship, as well as an amicable difference of opinion over his sound. ‘They wanted one thing and I wanted another,’ he says. ‘I wanted more to-the-point songwriting. So we went our separate ways.’
Inspiration came thick and fast for album number two, Cardle tells us – although not without a certain level of regret. ‘Everybody talks about the difficult second album, but for me the album wasn’t difficult, it was my life that was difficult at the time,’ he ruminates. ‘My missus left me, literally about two weeks before I started writing the album. It was shocking and horrible and it’s still pretty tough, but that’s where the inspiration came from, lyrically. But it’s one of those things. I’m not comparing The Fire to Adele’s 21, but through heartbreak you do get more honest material.’
One song from The Fire, titled ‘Anyone Else’, contains the memorable line “I don’t really want to [omitted word] those girls / They only bring me down”, with the omitted word fairly easy to infer from the context. A reference to his recent split, we presume? ‘Well, that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, really. Not that I was going round sleeping with everyone, I wasn’t, and I haven’t been! That’s what the song is saying, but people have been telling me, “Get out there, get amongst it, fill your boots!” and I’m like, “I don’t want to: I can’t stand to be with anyone else”.’
So he’s still suffering from a broken heart? ‘Yes, unfortunately. Sucks, doesn’t it?’
Indeed it does. Fortunately, life has been much more rosy when it comes to Cardle’s acoustic instruments. He has recently signed an endorsement deal with Taylor, the giant American manufacturer of high-quality acoustics, and when you ask him about them, he gets rather excited. ‘I’ve played a few over the years and it was always my dream to get one of my own,’ he tells us. ‘I had a few different acoustics with the bands I was in back home, but once you’ve played a Taylor there’s really no going back.’
Ask Cardle how his performing and songwriting life took him to the guitar, and then to TV, and then to a solo career, and he fills us in. ‘It’s funny: I actually played the electric guitar before the acoustic. When I was maybe eight or nine, I said to my dad, “I want to learn the guitar” and he went and hired me one to see if I’d like it. We rented a black and white Hohner Stratocaster copy with a little Peavey amp for a week, and in that week I didn’t put it down. When we returned the Hohner we bought a Yamaha Pacifica, which I think won Value Guitar Of The Year once. Plain wood, no lacquer, but a lot of fun to play. I carved the hell out of it and when I started getting into grunge bands like Silverchair, I moved to drop D tuning, which I still use today.’
Grunge, eh? Is Cardle a headbanger at heart? ‘I’m a metal fan and always have been,’ he asserts. ‘One of the first songs I ever learned was ‘Vietnow’ by Rage Against The Machine. They’re my favourite band in the world, by far. The things that their guitarist Tom Morello has said about how he gets his sound are amazing. People say to me, “How can you enjoy the music that you do now, if you go home and put on ‘Bullet In The Head’ or whatever?” But I don’t listen to my music the same way I listen to other people’s music.’
He continues, ‘I was also really into Pearl Jam. I was in grunge bands all through school and then it got a bit lighter. I was still listening to Rage but I wasn’t as influenced by them as much, and then I got into Korn – when I had a PRS guitar, which I spent five years paying for at £40 a month, plus a seven-string Ibanez tuned to drop C! – and then my amp broke. I’d been skateboarding for a long time, and it really took over for a year or so at that point, because I’d been in too many different bands.’
The turning point came when he hit the age of majority, Cardle recalls. ‘I stopped playing and my folks noticed it, and they bought me a Takamine G Series acoustic for my 18th birthday, a little thin blue thing. I still play it at home. I started writing and writing and writing on that, and took the songs to some friends of mine and we formed a band called Darwyn. That went on for a while until everybody got too busy with their lives. The pianist is a Spitfire pilot, and he had to decide whether to do that or be stuck in a garage with us!’
However, the die was cast and Cardle persevered, showing serious dedication even in his early twenties, an age when most right-minded youths sit around all day smoking weed and watching Countdown. ‘I saved up for a year when I was 21,’ he resumes, ‘and when I was 22 I took a year off and ran around every record label and management company you could think of with Darwyn’s songs. Nothing came of it, and we got a bit disheartened. I’m always writing on acoustic, though, so when Darwyn stopped, this backlog of songs built up and pretty soon I had an album. A guy I knew offered to record my songs and so I laid down some tracks at his house. We were just messing about, really, and they didn’t turn out the way they should have done, but he suggested forming a band, and the next thing I knew I was in a rehearsal studio learning the songs with a new band, Seven Summers.’
A fork in the road came when Cardle was filmed playing live. ‘We made an album and started gigging, which I did every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Essex with a mate. We used to do three 45-minute sets and get 75 quid each. That’s a lot of singing and playing! At one point a friend of my ex-girlfriend took a video of me playing acoustic and singing ‘Mercy’ by Duffy, and sent it in to the X Factor auditions without me knowing about it. I was called up to do it, although I didn’t know what I was doing. I just thought I was going down to an audition that she set me up for. I found out it was The X Factor and said, “OK, fuck it, let’s go!”’
The rest is modern TV history, of course, with Cardle scooping the 2010 contest and the record deal. The legalities of it all were complex, he recalls, especially as he had signed a management contract beforehand. ‘I wasn’t too sure how all that worked, to be honest,’ he sighs. ‘I was in a management contract, which was terrible. I’d signed it, without my band even knowing about it, way before any of this stuff happened. Why I signed it, I have no idea, but I was desperate at that point to get the ball rolling. Anyway I told the management company that I was going to go travelling and give up on music, and so the contract was torn up and thrown away. Two weeks later there I was, walking out on The X Factor…’
What does Cardle think of the 2012 winner, James Arthur, we have to ask? It turns out that the two singers have exchanged views, as they say, already. ‘He’s good,’ nods Cardle, ‘but he said something a while back to the effect of “The blokes who have won The X Factor have made bad albums” (The exact quote was, “The blokes that have won before have had a niche, they haven’t sold records because they haven’t made great albums. That’s the bottom line”) and my thoughts were that it was a little premature of him to say that, given that I’ve made two albums, both of which have made the Top 10, and been received very well, and the first went platinum. Perhaps I should have given him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he’d been misquoted, but I tweeted him and said, “Look mate, you’re very talented and I know you’re going to do very well, but until such time, don’t slate other people’s work”, which I thought was fair enough. One of the papers interviewed me afterwards and their headline was “Matt Cardle: James Arthur is talented, but I’m more successful”. So I then had this horrific backlash, like “Who the fuck do you think you are?” and it became James versus Matt. I should have been the bigger man and shrugged it off. Now I look like a ass though.’
Ah. Moving swiftly on to more cheerful territory, Cardle has his acoustic Unplugged tour of the UK coming up, which will feature him plus his trusty Taylors and possibly a bit of extra help in the form of effects. ‘I’ll be taking two or maybe three Taylors out with me,’ he says, ‘because sometimes it’s nice to drop the key of some of the songs to save your voice. I dropped down a semitone on the last tour. If you go down more than that, it starts to change the song too much, I find. It was easy for my pianist, who was playing an electric piano so he could just flick a switch and tune down, but I find that some of my guitars are happy in concert tuning and others prefer being a semitone down. It’s just a case of choosing which ones. I take a backup out as well.’
You won’t see him with a 12-string any time soon, he says. ‘If there’s one at the studio and it’s in tune, you can have a great time with it, but usually you end up with an old beat-up one with strings missing and it’s all out of tune, and you can tell that no-one gives a fuck about it. That gap when you’ve broken a string freaks me out!’
The concept of the Unplugged tour was a joint effort, Cardle says. ‘It was a mixture of myself and my manager. It’s not been that long since the Letters tour, which was 23 dates, and it took so much organising. This time I wanted to tone it down a bit. I still get stage nerves, but it was worse on the first album, because I’d never toured on that level before. When you have 4,000 people there and they’ve all paid to see you, you’d better not suck, and you’d better not fuck it up. The songs have to be perfect. This time, though, it can be a bit looser, because I can chat to the crowd about what the songs mean and stop in the middle and whatever if I want.’
Asked about his signal path, Cardle explains, ‘If I’m doing an acoustic set in the middle of a full-band show, then the acoustic guitar goes straight into the PA with no effects, because it’s OK to have that dry sound. On the unplugged tour it’ll be wet, though! It’s still a straight acoustic sound, of course. I’m thinking about using a loop pedal as well, the whole Ed Sheeran thing. I know it’s been done to death now, but for an acoustic tour it helps get a bit of rhythm go into a song.’
Will he be rearranging his songs for acoustic? ‘I haven’t really thought too much about rearranging songs yet,’ he says. ‘Some of them will be fine the way they are, which is the sign of a good song, if you ask me, but obviously a lot of the new album is very layered, instrument-wise, so I’ll have to think about how I’m going to do that. That’s why I’m thinking about the loop pedal. On the track ‘Lately’, for example, there’s a piano riff that goes all the way through that song, and it’s all about that riff. I’m still debating whether it’ll be just me or some percussion, and if so whether I’ll play it myself. I want to make it amazing. I’ll have to pull some things out of the bag, but I’ve got plenty of time because that’s all I’m thinking about at the moment. I want to have a great tour, and then start writing the third album. I just want to press on. Inspiration still flows… because I’m still heartbroken.’
Affairs of the heart notwithstanding, Cardle appears to be in a pretty good place. Asked if he’d ever join another band, he reasons: ‘I’ve got the band that I put together for the Letters tour, but I don’t think I’d join a band as a member again. I’m having too much fun with all this control, which is something I’ve always done. I write and then I bring the musicians in. I come into the rehearsal studio and say “I’ve got this” and then the band say “Cool” and arrange it. It’s the same this time round.’
We’ve drunk our tea and our time is up. Before Acoustic heads home, there’s time to ask Cardle where he thinks his best talents lie: as a guitarist, singer or songwriter. ‘Annoyingly, singer-songwriter!’ he chuckles. ‘Singing is where I started. Playing guitar and drums and bass is what musicians do. I do as much as I can, though. When I started writing, technique went out of the window for me. You only need four chords, though. I’ve become a better guitarist since leaving The X Factor because I’ve played live so much and been forced to be good. One of the great things about The X Factor was that they took care of the equipment for you live on stage. I only played guitar a couple of times on the show, and a tech set it up for me. It’s great for lazy musicians like me. I even remember a tech offered to line-check my guitar at the Isle Of Wight, and he was surprised when I wanted to do it myself!’
Well, there’s a lesson for us all there. If you want to make it, do the business yourself, whether it’s plugging in your guitar or breaking free of previous commitments to get to the place where you’re happiest. Even if, as in Matt Cardle’s case, happiness seems to be a little further away than it is from most of us.
The Fire is out now.