Despite being born to Canadian parents and hailing from Reading, England, up-and-coming British singer-songwriter Matt Maltese feels a special affinity for American culture. “I definitely feel stranded in the sea between the two,” he explains of his joint allegiances.
The 21-year-old London-based musician’s debut album, Bad Contestant, was released in June by Atlantic Records, and it offers the perfect antidote to the Trump-era political doomsday blues currently afflicting the U.S. While simultaneously singing about relationships and modern day romance, he doesn’t shy away from addressing the bleak times we live in. “You can't be a singer songwriter nowadays and think you can't talk about those things, because there's nothing to suggest you shouldn't.”
Maltese’s sound — produced by one of the hardest-working knob-twiddlers in indie rock, Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado — overlaps with recent records from Father John Misty or Arctic Monkeys, in his mixture of romantic and apocalyptic themes with dry humor and a lounge singer aesthetic. However, his music evades obvious categorizations, as his piano-centric songs, Sinatra-like baritone and witty lyricism doesn’t cleanly place him in indie rock, modern pop or jazz. “I don’t really try to think too much about what [genre] it puts me into,” Maltese says. “But I’m so guilty of terming musicians to my friends and telling them who they sound like.”
Maltese is an unexpected character. You wouldn’t expect a 21-year-old to be so slick and cultured, but he remains an apt representative of his generation: Like many millennials, his go-to remedies for the constant dumpster fire news cycle are humor and art. “Humor was my own coping mechanism with fears of the world coming to an end or fears of heartbreak and all of that stuff,” says Maltese.
On the album’s title track, Maltese sings a self-deprecating humble brag, “I'm pretty good at feeling sorry for myself,” while on “Like a Fish,” he cleverly gripes with romantic envy, “I wish that I could fill his shoes / But I'm only a 7.” When Maltese isn’t being comical about his romantic misfortunes or reveling in the high of a true, realized love, he tries to numb the tense political climate with a bit of droll wit and a reminder of what’s really important: our loved ones. He wrote his penultimate track, “As The World Caves In,” with the idea that President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May had sparked a diabolical, cataclysmic love affair. It’s the album’s most affecting ballad, as Maltese describes a scene where two lovers are faced with their own mortality as the apocalypse is both inevitable and imminent (“Oh girl it's you that I lie with/ As the atom bomb locks in”).
Maltese’s shaved head, head-turning vintage suits and Chuck Taylors is quite a striking look for a young guy. His modern-meets-classic fashion sense certainly mimics his old school-meets-new school sound. He grew up listening to American jazz greats like Chet Baker and Nina Simone and classic singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, and it wasn’t until recently that he came around to more modern music, particularly when he became immersed in the exciting South London music scene that now boasts rising artists like Shame, Goat Girl, Sorry, Hotel Lux and HMLTD. “When I moved to London at 18 or 19, I discovered a lot of musicians my age that were doing things that I really admired and I think that kind of opened my eyes a bit and made me less cynical of current music,” he explains. “I think I was one of those annoying teenagers that just thought the good stuff had all happened and there was nothing good in the current age, but that's just not the case.”
Maltese’s undeniable American influences and his uncanny ability to find the punchline in dire situations make his debut album the perfect soundtrack to this turbulent time in U.S. history. While his ominous lyrics might read as cynical, Maltese is somewhat optimistic considering the emergence of his younger, more progressive generation: “Trump has a lot to do with the older generations, and they’re the kind of voters that actually show up. Now we have 70-year-old nationalists and then 20-year-old people who live in urban cities and love all types of culture. And I think that gap right now has created a bit of an imbalance because the people who show up and vote are more often the kind of old people with a bug in their butt.”
He also mentions the failure of neo-liberalism and how it prompted the rise of fascism and xenophobia across Europe and even America, but he insists there’s a silver lining: “There is something worrying when you see us going for leaders that seemed progressive and then going back to the dark ages with a leader that's the complete opposite. But I like to think that my generation is singing, writing films and reading books that discuss very untalked about things. I think the things that we're addressing nowadays people wouldn't have dreamed of 30 years ago.”
The singer-songwrier is a long-time admirer of L.A. psych-pop-duo Foxygen, and he says it was surreal to work with their guitarist Jonathan Rado, who’s also produced records by indie artists like Father John Misty, The Lemon Twigs, Whitney and others. When the pair met last year, they instantly clicked, and Maltese was blown away by Rado’s style behind the boards. “I just couldn't believe how productive he was. Rado's definitely still obsessive about sounds and about getting things right, but he's quite a feelings guy. He's like, ‘When the feeling is there, just run with it,’ rather than, ‘Fix this little part there,’ and then lose that feeling.”
While Bad Contestant is definitely a piano-based record, the record also includes much-needed brass and eccentric, retro guitar and keyboard flourishes, ensuring that he never lapses into blander, adult contemporary territory. While his baritone occasionally earns him comparisons to more traditionally minded crooners like Michael Bublé, he says, “I like to think I'm not singing about the same things that Michael Bublé does. But he's got a very, very sexy voice.”
Due to his smooth sound, he’s also been grouped into a budding new subgenre called “schmaltzcore” by the NME, which also includes acts like Rex Orange County and refers to a “new wave of crooners bringing soft-pop to adoring adolescent fans.” He laughs at this description, commenting, “I like the way schmaltzcore sounds, but I mean, who knows? Am I schmaltzcore?” However, Noisey took a different stance, dubbing him “the new and improved Morrissey for millennials,” which Maltese views as both a blessing and a curse: “I mean obviously Morrissey's a bit of a prick, but he did well in The Smiths didn't he?”
Appropriate for a new Moz, Maltese is more than willing to speak up about toxic masculinity and the stigma of mental health. Behind his mesmerizing crooning is his unassuming, relatable underdog status, and his self-deprecating quips reveal a self-aware man with a willingness to be openly vulnerable. Maltese strongly affirms that masculinity is in need of a reckoning, which he says male more musicians should address as well: “I'd like to think it's the age of a different male. That's such a broad thing to say, isn't it, but it’s true. I think a singer-songwriter who puts all their edges into their song, no matter how unstable, sad or uncool… that's a sign of a singer-songwriter that's timeless.”
Maltese is currently writing his second record, and hoping that England brings the World Cup home. “I'm going to be sitting and watching and praying to the Lord,” he says, adding that he likes the team’s odds: “It's looking good because everyone good is losing, so that means we kind of have less competition. It's a quite selfish way of looking at it, but I guess you got to be selfish in these situations.”
And whether or not he believes in the human race’s ability to pull through these dark political times, his art will continue to reflect his belief that love is still worth fighting for. “Despite the trials and tribulations of the dating world of today, I think I'm still very built up by all the films and books that sell that romantic dream,” he says. “I believe in that kind of love that can take you to a different place in your life. I'm sure when I'm older, I'll look back on myself and think, ‘God you were too much of a romantic then.’”