-By Ben Smith
Matt Kelly is a busy man. Mayfair Kytes, the orchestral-loving folk four-piece for whom he provides vocals and guitars, are basking in the glow of the positive reception to their debut single, Sleepyhead. He and his bandmates (Austin Busch, Jack Nicholson and Phoebe Jacobs) are gearing up for the unveiling of their first album, Animus. He’s spent the morning of our interview sending emails in preparation of the album’s release. Then there’s the small matter of the album’s launch parties, featuring two dates over the next month in Sydney and Melbourne. And to top it all off, he’s battling a bout of the flu.
It’s not enough to deter Kelly though. Is he nervous? Possibly. Excited? Definitely. Music may be his job, but it’s also his passion and he’s determined to make the most of it while he has the chance. On a “quintessential Melbourne” day (“I think the term is fierce mild”), with his cat Jon Benne beside him, Kelly is more than happy to talk about Animus, his love of string sections, what it’s like to record an album over one year and what the hell sort of genre they belong to.
Your debut album, Animus, drops on April 1st. Are you looking forward to the release? Any pre-album nerves?
Not really nerves, I’m too busy for nerves at the moment, but I’m very excited about it. It’s taken me a while to get to this point so it’s good for it to get out there to the world.
What can we expect from Animus? Has it turned out as you expected, or perhaps even better?
It actually changed from my expectations. It was meant to originally be fully orchestral, all ballads and soft music, but it kind of grew into something else from that. Not all the songs have strings now, it’s kind of picking up a bit of tempo. It’s definitely changed a bit for sure.
What was the main reason for changing it from an all-orchestral assault? Was it a cost thing, or did you just decide it wasn’t what you wanted to make?
Well I guess first of all, artistically, every song has to be written with this particular thing in mind. So, it was that first, but also a cost thing for sure [laughs]. Let’s not lie, it’s not cheap. I don’t want to really be locked in to be having to do that with every song, but it’s amazing to be able to imagine a song, with all the trimmings.
Animus means motivation or ill will, so I take it the general theme of the songs is going to be along those lines?
It’s not the ill will one, there’s a few different definitions. Animus, when I first came across the word was more referring to the Jung psychology thing where it’s the male archetype inside the female’s personality. It’s a bit different and also, animus is also the will to do something, the animus to get it done, so that’s kind of fitting as well.
Is that what the album is about then?
Yeah, the general theme comes from the psychological theory.
So Animus was recorded, I believe, between a home studio and a chapel in Melbourne?
Yeah, we did most of the tracking at our friend’s studio, he’s actually got a mini-mansion near Brunswick and then the house is decked out really beautifully in the studio. And we did the other half in the Oratory in Abbotsford Convent, which is an old, 18th century chapel, which they converted.
How did you enjoy the experience?
It was amazing, it was one of my favourite days ever, just listening to the strings and being in that room, it was beautiful.
Did you find your surroundings affected how some songs sounded?
Yeah, it certainly wasn’t deliberate, but we’re all really big on visual aesthetic as well, at least when it comes to atmosphere, we like the right lighting and when we did record, we did make sure we were in the right space to do it. And we took care of all of those aspects, so being in that particular chapel space was just a bonus because the room itself is just gorgeous; there’s nothing we did to that, it was already like that. But yeah, it certainly affects it for sure; I feel so lucky.
You collaborated with a number of different musicians on this album; guys from Hiatus Kaiyote and guys who have played with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. What was it like playing and recording with them?
We had Paul Bender and Simon Mavin from Hiatus – they’re guys I’ve known from around town for a while. So we did a couple of sessions in their little studio they had and they were just kind of doing extra sparkle on the record, extra bits and they add a lot of depth so it was really amazing to do that, and really fun and really easy. And the symphony orchestra thing is more some of the string players we had on the record had played with the MSO, so they’re very experienced players and very quick.
How did the orchestra collaboration come about? Was it something you’d thought about doing for a long time?
I think most songwriters have a bit of a string section fantasy [laughs]. I guess Bjork was one of the first people whose songs really did everything for me in that way, so I’ve always wanted to do that. It wasn’t as hard to do as I thought it would be from the very start, I just had to find the right composer to work with, the right collaborator, which I did, a girl called Willow Stahlut. We worked on some of the songs together and I did some of the songs on my own with another friend…yeah it wasn’t very hard…sorry, what was the question again? [laughs]
How did the collaboration come about?
I just wanted to do a bunch of songs of mine on stage with strings. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, so I just started from there.
The production of the album took a year, could you give me an insight into what it is like to record an album over that length of time?
It’s not the best [laughs]. It’s probably a lot smarter for bands to be prompt about it, but it’s just the way it worked out. We were still completing the songs through that process as well and there was a lot of different musicians to work with as well and time scheduled to work with. We were touring and had all sorts of other stuff going on, so it was just more about getting everyone together which took so long. Plus, we had to move through it bit by bit. But yeah, I’d probably never make a record, not for a while, over that long a period again. The next one will be a lot more immediate. I don’t regret what happened, it’s just the way it happened.
What was the most challenging aspect of the production of the record?
Just keeping the energy up and keeping the spirits good, I guess.
The first single, Sleepyhead has dropped already. What’s the response to it been like so far?
It’s been really good. We’ve had nothing but flattering responses. You definitely don’t want any negative comments. So far we’ve been very blessed and are getting some love from the industry.
What was the main reasoning behind choosing Sleepyhead as the single? When you were recording it, did it stand out as being one of the stronger tracks immediately?
That one I actually asked other people’s advice, because I’m really bad at that. I like them all and hate them all [laughs]. I love them all very much and I’m a bit too close to it to know and particularly at that point when I was so deep in it. But there’s also not many songs on this record which have a chorus, there’s only a few, so we felt the single should be probably one of the ones with a chorus. But it’s still full of pop hooks; the whole album is full of pop hooks, it’s just not pop arrangements. So it seemed like the logical one.
That was from Tom Russell, the artist who does all of our cover art. I just sent him an email one day and I said we’d like you to make this song into a film clip for us and he just started to story-boarding from there. It’s pretty much all his baby, he got us in to do one day of filming and stuff. But yeah, that was all in his hands and he did an amazing job.
You possess an interesting sound, like you said, there’s lot of pop hooks but no real pop arrangement. It’s quite soulful and expansive at times, but then grand and striking at times. How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard of you before?
I have been struggling with this for years [laughs]. I’ve been calling it folk-art-pop. That’s the genre I’ve been giving it. Do you think that’s that apt?
It can be a genre now, maybe you guys can be the trendsetters and the trailblazers!
Maybe we’ve got the folk bit down, perhaps not the art pop yet [laughs]. I’m ok with that, I can work under that banner, it’s pretty vague and gives you a lot of options.
How are you attempting to tackle the challenge of playing these collaborative efforts live? I can’t imagine it would be too easy to take the string section on the road?
We’re not doing that this time round, but we will be doing some special shows later in the year with the full ensemble. But that will be very special. What we’ve been doing in the meantime is taken a lot of the parts and re-worked them between the members of bands. We’ve got synth players coming in…we’re not going to use fake strings sounds, we’re going to re-imagine them in a different way. It works really well and it really suits the live show and makes it a bit less introspective and a bit more bombastic.
You’ve got two shows coming up in Melbourne and Sydney. As an independent artist, what are some of the most difficult things about touring and taking your show on the road?
It’s just being able to make sure it’s not putting you too behind financially, I guess. I mean, if the willingness is there, that’s all that matters. I mean, I’m obviously not making music to make money [laughs]. But I do want to survive, I do want to be able to survive, I do want to cover my costs and I do want to be able to have something at the end of the day, but that’s all that matters to me.
From a song-writing point of view, you’ve mentioned Bjork earlier, are there any artists in particular who inspire you and influence you, both in terms of sound and lyrically?
I listen to most genres of music, apart from maybe goa trance or something [laughs]. I’m into everything, so it’s kind of hard for me to say because it kind of depends what I’m into at the time. But with this record, definitely Bjork is number one influence, just because every one of her songs feels like its own universe unto itself. She could do some weird jazz thing to doo wop to rock and you wouldn’t flinch. I like artists who have that flexibility. And a band I was into a lot just before I started the record was Dirty Projectors. They use a lot of vocal stuff, like the breaking of vocal wires.
How have you gone about promoting the new album? In this current day and age, do you agree social media has been the most effective, or do you find word of mouth is better?
I think at the end of the day, undisputedly, word of mouth is the most powerful thing. I think our live show is everything. If your live show isn’t up to scratch, then there’s not a lot for people to talk about. Somethings are good recorded and they just exist as good recordings, but for survival matters, the live show is everything. And word of mouth will come from a good live show. But it’s all a collaborative effort; you need a bit of everything, a little bit of the initial support, a little bit of the social media, a bit of word of mouth, and a bit of luck.
Who are your favourite live bands? Are there any who have influenced how you perform on stage?
There’s a really cool band in Melbourne called Talulah. They’re pretty cool to see, because it’s highly orchestrated and the way they perform is just a good show. There’s a lot of good musicality going on.
Where do you see this band going, or ideally, where would you like to take the band?
I would like to take the band to Europe and play some of the beautiful theatres there and I want to get us to America as well. I would like to get us around the world as much as possible with this particular band. That’s the long term goal. In the short term, it’s going to be purely taking one set of years at a time.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I’ll take one week off and then get straight back into it again [laughs]. I’ve been making a record of remixes from the album. It’s pretty much made an entire new sound. Unless you played on the album, you probably wouldn’t even know the songs off the album. So I’m going to release that, I don’t know under what banner. But later in the year, we’re going to a do a really special concert with the full ensemble, strings and everything. Yeah, it will be amazing and it’s going to be a really special show. And then we’ll do the east coast tour at the end of the year and hopefully do some festival applications and hopefully get some sponsors from that and see what happens from there.
Animus is out now via iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp and Tidal.
Photo credit: Mayfair Kytes