Matt Maltese wants you to know that he doesn’t use a stage name.
“I feel like it’s something I need to address,” the 20-year-old songwriter tells me during a soundcheck for the first leg of his UK tour, at Oporto, Leeds. “A lot of people ask me and I’d really like people to think it was legit. I really don’t like people who make stage names.”
Talking further, it becomes apparent he’s opposed all forms of bubblegum artifice when it comes to songwriting. “I think my least favourite thing is pop music that doesn’t really address bleakness, or is scared of being too bleak. Life is bleak, I think, but it’s good to laugh at how bleak it is.”
Maltese writes music to be listened to. While his lyrics are simultaneously witty and self-deprecating, he paints a rather stark picture of the world around him. The singer sites Leonard Cohen and John Grant as influences: “Songwriters that the words are their thing; anyone with strong lyrics.
“I’d say one of my favourite artists is John Grant. I find his lyrics super, powerfully bleak, but in such a wonderful, humorous way. I’d say any artist that follows in that kind of vein.”
Maltese has found a reliable vetting system for his new music: his housemates. The south London-based singer lives with three history students, who are quick to offer their opinions on his new music. “They all have great taste, so they’re the perfect people to play a song to,” he says. “I know that if they tell me it’s shit, then it’s shit.
“At the end of the day, however personal my feelings might be, it doesn’t mean they sound great to someone else. If I was scared of being told stuff wasn’t very good, I don’t think I would’ve improved, ever.”
While his 2016 EP, In a New Bed deals with heartbreak, Maltese’s most recent music is largely influenced by the political climate. ‘As The World Caves In’ imagines a night of passion between Donald Trump and Theresa May, (creepy, we know) as they push the red button to end the world. The lyrics go, “We’re gonna nuke each other up boys, ’til old satan stands impressed.”
On parallels between matters of the heart and political disillusionment, Maltese explains, “They both don’t make you feel very good. I think both make you realise more about who you are. Like with the political system, realising that it’s not in keeping with you, in the same way that a heartbreak makes you change and makes you realise you want different things. I think they both involve a sense of looking inward.”
Maltese teamed up with The Rhythm Method for their joint headline “First Past The Post” tour this summer, ahead of the general election. “I think me and The Rhythm Method felt really excited by Jeremy Corbyn, but felt too cynical to think that something we could do would be ever worthwhile. In the end I think we were both like, ‘Let’s override our cynicism, play some shows, be quite cheesy about it and tell people to vote.’ Obviously, it didn’t make a massive difference in the grand scheme of things, but everyone doing something like that – telling their friends, or getting their little brother to vote – turned out to make a difference.”
Like Jezza, Matt has had quite the year. So much so that he missed the iconic Glastonbury speech because he had to leave straight after his Glastonbury set to get back on the road with The Maccabees. “But I think he’s the first person in a long time, for all his strengths and weaknesses, to gather together young people in that way. For a politician to do that is very rare.”
Although Maltese cites live performances like Glastonbury as highlights of the job, there are elements of touring which he doesn’t particularly enjoy. “I think it’s the sitting in a van for seven hours and being in my head every day for ten days; I don’t think anyone really enjoys that,” he says.
A zine of poetry, which explores the perils of being a musician on the road, accompanied his recent Blood, Sweat & Beers EP. “I wrote all these pretty stupid poems on the tour I’d done of Germany back in February and they were all very self-pitying, ‘Isn’t it really horrible to tour?’ kind of poems. Then I did this recording with Hugo White (The Maccabees) at his studio, with an audience of friends, and we just kind of combined the two.”
One poem, ’After a show at The Thekla, Bristol’, depicts a confrontation between Maltese and an audience member, who complains he is “too feminine”. A third party interjects to defend the singer, explaining that “men are changing” , before the sight of Maltese in a “pretty lil dress” gives the “old dude” an erection.
“I think dark humour is totally a way that’s helped me adjust to dark things in life,” explains Maltese. “I think even the TV shows that you watch, well that I watch, and the music I listen to, it’s the same kind of thing.”
I ask whether a part of him enjoys being unhappy. After all, it’s good material. “All songwriters definitely deal with that, which is really strange. You feel like something’s wrong if you’re happy because you don’t want to sit down and write a song. You want to just enjoy being happy.”
But the singer seems to have found sufficient melancholy material to write more music, having recently teamed up with Max Jury and Jonathan Rado for a new record. “Hopefully there will be an album next year,” says Maltese. “An album that’s good.”
Perhaps he could pave the way for apocalyptic pop as an emerging genre; “The world feels definitely a little bit more unhinged than it ever has for people of our age,” says Maltese. “It seems to make sense that that would give birth to pretty end-of-the-world music.
“I’m sure it’s not the end of the world. I’m sure we’re overreacting. But things seem pretty unhinged right now.”
Words by Niamh Leonard-Bedwell
Words by HQ