After finishing as the runner-up in 2007’s Australian Idol, Matt Corby fled the reality TV scene for London playing to a rising number of fans in its folky hotspots with boutique label, Communion. Now signed to Atlantic Records, he’s recording his debut album having already released five EPs, being certified multi-platinum and gaining a rapturous amount of praise for his single, ‘Brother’.
What’s that old adage? “Short but sweet,” you say? Okay then, here goes – if you’re going to listen to one new artist, make damn sure it’s Matt Corby. You could be fooled into thinking that Jeff Buckley has risen from his grave, not because what Matt’s doing isn’t original – it’s that lusty, alluring voice. As I’m writing this, Fearne Cotton has just played Matt’s ‘Brother’ on daytime BBC Radio 1, the video to which has since surpassed several million views on YouTube and One Direction’s Lothario, Harry Styles, has just tweeted “I can’t get Matt Corby’s ‘Brother’ out of my head” to his eight million followers. After impressing Australian Idol judges back in 2007 with his acoustic rendition of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ it would be unfair to say he hasn’t become an idol since then and – despite coming second in the show – his 2011 single, ‘Brother’ became Australia’s summer anthem with its infectious husky-cum-falsetto vocal riff etching a place somewhere between Bon Iver and Ray LaMontagne.
Don’t be fooled by this, though, nor by his rapturous following and talent show background. Matt’s no pop star. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. Matt Corby is doing what the alumni of such talents shows have been prohibited of: doing what he wants to do. In the same vein, he’s not writing songs to a formula for radio airplay. He’s crossing genres, writing the songs he wants without any care of whether it hits the top spot and gets picked up by radio stations and celebrities, it just so happens that’s a nice by-product of doing it his way, vindicating the devotion he evidently inspires.
It’s no surprise that Matt’s UK shows sold out – check out his Facebook and it’s evident that men want to be him, and girls want to…well, yeah – and as we chat over an early morning phone call (early for us, anyway), Matt speaks with a lilting Australian accent, at first almost hushed and mumbled as he finishes off the cigarette clinging to his lips, but exhaling the last of the tobacco he speaks with a gravelly hankering, excited and engrossed. In his relatively short career thus far – he’s only 21-years-old – Matt’s released five EPS, 2011’s Into The Flame being certified multi-platinum Down Under (due to be released in the UK this month) and his latest mini-EP, Made Of Stone has recently been made available for free worldwide. So, he’s already a multi-platinum selling artist and barley in his twenties. Not too bad, right? ‘When you make the kind of music I make – and I don’t even know what that is – you don’t really expect it to do that well,’ he starts with a chuckle. ‘A lot of it is emotionally based so you never know if it’s going to translate with people but I was surprised to see Into The Flame do so well because the previous couple of records went relatively unheard. It was an interesting and pleasant surprise.’ Unless you’re on major label, whose hand is firmly on a revolver full of PR-soaked bullets, it’s rare for an album to attain multi-platinum status, so for an EP to conquer such a feat is particularly special, putting Matt in a good position ahead of his debut full-length release. ‘On one hand it’s kind of great, but on the other it’s a lot of pressure,’ he confirms. ‘It would be easier to make a debut album when no one is expecting anything at all because you can pretty much do anything you want musically and now I fell slightly nervous about putting some of the songs I’ve written recently on this record because they are a little different to what I’ve done prior. It’s really exciting, though. I should look at the positives, shouldn’t I?’ he retorts.
Matt released his first EP, Song For…, two years after his Australian Idol appearance and despite being bombarded with major label offers, he decided to decline such proposals, instead releasing with Scorpio Music – an independent Australian label – and then releasing 2010’s My False and Transition To Colour with London-based, Mumford-owned Communion. After “testing the water” with the EPs he feels that 2012 was the right time to start work on the debut album, due for release in the UK on Atlantic Records in early 2013. ‘I didn’t really want to wait any longer to make a first record, I guess the EPs were there to explore different sonic ideas and now I feel like I’m in the right headspace to make a debut record and to make a definitive statement as an artist saying, “This is me and this is what I do”, it’s only music, but at the same time it’s my entire life,’ he admits. ‘It was amazing – the whole experience was incredible,’ Matt says of being a part of the Communion label. Communion Records was founded by Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett in 2006 and has helped artists like Ben Howard, Mumford and Sons, Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Michael Kiwanuka get to where they are now – their roster also includes fellow native Australians, Daughter and Gotye. Matt briefly relocated to London to be a part of the Communion community… ‘I love those guys to death. They have been a massive part of my development as an artist and the way that I hear my music. They took and 18-year-old boy and honed him in – they were the first people to tell me to focus on my songwriting instead of trying to be the best singer and guitarist in the world, and after a while that started to make sense because there’re always going to be better musicians than you but people aren’t ever going to be able to write songs like you. I learned a lot from them, it was a really necessary process for me in order to become a better songwriter.’
I ask him if it was childhood dream to get picked up by a major label for his debut album release, but after I asked him, it became quite clear to me that that sort of thing doesn’t bother Matt at all. ‘I never really wanted to sign to a major, if I’m being honest,’ he admits. ‘I know that won’t offend anyone at the label because I think they understood that side of me, too. I think that they tread around my music and what we’re doing as lightly as I do which is really nice. Everyone respects the process that I’m going through and they know that I write all this stuff myself and that it’s really precious to me and they don’t want to mess with that. It’s been a short working relationship with Atlantic so far, but it’s been really nice and pleasant – it’s just nice to have people that believe in it. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a major label with a lot of money or an independent label that are completely broke, it just seemed like it was the right thing to do.’
‘I don’t live anywhere, let’s be honest,’ he says laughing after I question him on his motives to relocate to London when he first signed to Communion. ‘I have all of my stuff at my parents’ house, but I’ve been away for two months and I only got back to Australia three days ago and I’m leaving again in a week to go to Europe. I kind of like that I’m nomadic in that way, just wherever I need to go I can go. It’s nice being young and being able to do that, I don’t have a child or a dog to look after,’ he laughs. ‘I just play my music wherever I need to and wherever I want to,’ he says nonchalantly. ‘The crowd is always interesting in London; you never know what you’re going to get. Australia is a lot different. East London crowds differ to West London crowds and they can be worlds apart.’ He tells me that his drummer is nodding enthusiastically at him at this point – he’s sat having a break from rehearsal during this interview – because Matt’s sticksman is British and has been with him since the London Communion days. ‘He’s like “Yeah mate, yeah it is…”,’ Matt says in his best English accent. ‘I always find London really interesting and great to play shows in, but I find it difficult to live in London. I’ve always thought it to be a little too cold and I’ve always been depressed, but I guess I’ve probably written my best songs in that city which is funny,’ he admits. Matt’s ‘Brother’ was one of these songs. It’s a fiery song, one that on the first listen dances around you as you think “Wow, this is good”, but by the third and fourth listen it’s grabbing you be the shoulders, vigorously shaking you as you find yourself completely immersed in it, which is a good thing because you can really feel it. Not to mention its daring falsetto vocal hook and its throwing away of any preconception of genre classification. ‘I wrote that in my bedroom. I’d gone through some shit the week before writing it and I just had to get it out somehow. We cut it in the studio six days after I’d written it and it turned into what it is now, which is quite far from the original demo, actually. It was very somber and less shouty,’ he says. ‘I wrote the song with a lot of angst and I realised that that was the way I had to sing it.’ The sublime demonstration of falsetto voicings in ‘Brother’ is something which Matt’s keen to stick to for the album. ‘Yeah, it’ll be kept to specific moments to avoid overkill, but it’ll definitely be on there.’
‘Made Of Stone’ is another track that brings Matt’s huge voice to life in a hauntingly beautiful, climactic crescendo. Punch the title into YouTube and check out his acoustic rendition on a grand piano. ‘I’ve been singing since a kid – I’ve always sang, really. That was the first thing that got me into music. I listen to a lot of gospel music and as a kid, a lot of hip-hop music. All these amazing black RnB singers had huge voices – they were so dynamic and in tune with their emotions as a singer. When I started writing more guitar-based music, it was hard to make those feelings and stylings translate. One day I’m going to make some crazy D’Angelo record. That’s probably going to be my masterpiece,’ he says laughing. ‘I’m too far away from that yet, though. I think I’ll need to be at least thirty to make a record like that. The singing came first for me, and everything else came to facilitate that, really. The first time I picked up a guitar, I was about 5-years-old. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, but I soon realised how hard it was to play! When I was about twelve, I decided that I really wanted to play music and sing at the same time. I guess the fingerpicking style I play was born from that, since then I completely fell in love with the guitar and even now, I’m so obsessed with becoming a great guitarist, not in the sense where I’m shredding crazy solos, but more akin to the way people like J.J. Cale would play and feel every single note, even if it was only the three notes between a vocal break – there’s just something about that which complements the way people sing.’
Building up to the release of Made Of Stone, the new album and a handful of UK tour dates, Matt’s been playing a selection of Secret Garden shows – invite only events held in parks and back gardens – having brought his forty-eighth Secret Garden show to London earlier in the year. ‘I was in a bit of a pickle last year – I had no money and I was at the end of my rope from playing shows to people who really didn’t give a damn and I didn’t want to play those kinds of shows anymore. I still wanted to play music, just for the people that wanted to hear it. So my manager and I had the idea of taking the music to the fans thinking, “Why don’t we play in their gardens and see if they want to host a show?” We put it out online and tried one out in Sydney – I was a little bit nervous, you never know how these things are going to go, you could end up at some serial killer’s house, you know? Anyway, it ended up being a really nice and intimate night. People caught on to what we were doing and they started asking if we were doing one in Melbourne and all these other cities, and we just said to ourselves, “Yeah, why not?” We made a thing of it and done a whole tour in this way so the concept just kept evolving and it became an amazing way to unite people and bring music back to what it was supposed do with people and the community – I just loved doing them. If I’m in a backyard playing music to people, I just feel so free. I can talk to people, find out about them – who they are and why they’re there – it’s just a really nice way to give people music. It was just sheer desperation to play music again.’
After touring with fellow Aussies, Passenger and Julia Stone, I ask him who he’d like to collaborate with, but first he suggests I check out his “musical hero at the moment”, Joan As Policewoman, aka Joan Wasser. ‘She’s got an insanely amazing album called The Deep Field – you should listen to that record, it’ll blow your mind. I don’t think she’s down for collaborating with anyone, but if she was, she’d be on my list!’ he enthuses.
Asking about his album, I question him on its title and release date, to which he answers with a swift “I have no idea”. A name is still in the works and a UK release date is still up in the air, but Matt’s hopeful that fans will have it by the end of February 2013. The album’s still mid way through the recording process due to how disjointed his musical progress is across different countries – which is only a good thing, plenty of touring off the back of his EPs to be getting on with – meaning Matt’s found it a little bit difficult to nail down the time to actually record the album. ‘Most of it is in the stratosphere,’ he says chuckling. ‘I think releasing a body of work like an album is so different to releasing an EP, they’re so completely different. To make the album cohesive is the biggest struggle for me because I tend to stray in a few different directions, stylistically. It’s just making it one key piece of work to an extent, even though there will be a nice stylistic diversity – it’s just tying it all together so that it makes sense to people. I do not want to confuse anyone at this point in my career. I’ve been exploring this whole soul, gospel and funk feel and to actually groove is a thing I’ve longed to do as a musician for so long. I’ve never really had the mindset to fit in a pocket with a band and to write a song with an inherent groove in it, and the stuff I’m listening to at the moment just has so much underlying and fundamental groove that it keeps everything together. I would really love my record to have that – it would make me want to listen to it, which is rare because I never listen to what I’ve recorded. It’s hard for me, I pick it apart too much.’
‘I was brought up on a stage; everything has always been about sharing music in a live form. Being on stage is like Christmas,’ he says of playing live. ‘You know when you’re 4-years-old and Christmas is a couple of days away and you can’t sleep, well that’s how I feel when I’m about to go and hit the road for a tour. I can’t wait to be with my band playing music for my fans, playing music for the people that want to hear it is the most exciting thing to me,’ he admits.
Guitar-wise, Matt’s often got an array of acoustics and electrics, but when you hit a guitar player with the question, “Gibson or Fender?” like every other musician, he answers with a “Hmm” lacking any committal before he mumbles to himself, coming back to me saying that he does indeed, think himself more a Fender man. ‘Oh, well I have a Strat and a Tele, but I do have this beautiful Gibson Tennessean Chet Atkins which is about 25-years-old and it’s so nice. I have a Guild 1965 T50 which I picked up for $700 in a second-hand shop! I’ll be taking the Guild on the road with me for the first time at the end of the year. It’s just got its own sound and I’m in love with it. I would say I’m a Fender man…’
‘My Martin is the workhorse, though. I have a D-18 and I think my Martin will be the only thing that I’ll tour with for the rest of my life. I love them, they’re really well balanced guitars and they sound how an acoustic guitar should sound, you know? They don’t need a lot of manipulation, when you’re playing live. They just do what they do and do it so well. I use Fishman pickups in most of my acoustics, but I just fitted an EQ system on my pedal board, too. I’ve got the Boss RC-20 lopper down there with it. I think it’s that one, I look at it everyday and still can’t manage to remember the name of it,’ he says laughing. ‘I use Elixir Polyweb 10 gauge for my acoustics, the Guild has Ernie Ball Slinkys on it, though. I’m so bad with names, it’s just like “Yeah, the purple packet, thanks”,’ he says.
‘Hitting the road is on the agenda right now, just seeing how long we can go for. Things are sitting really well for us in Australia, which is nice. When the album comes out we’ll be touring it for hopefully a year which is where I feel most at home, out on the road,’ he ends.
Matt’s EPs are available to download from iTunes now, check out Into The Flame featuring ‘Brother’ and Made Of Stone. His debut album is due in early 2013 on Atlantic Records.