If there’s one thing we’ve come to expect from Matt Corby, it’s the unexpected. From a rapid rise to public fame and playing intimate shows in fans’ gardens, to the constant evolution of his sound, spanning across folk, jazz, blues and pop with ease, there’s no denying the journey of this artist has been anything but conventional. Corby’s debut album, Telluric (2016), saw a monumental shift from your average musician to a fully-fledged artist, as he ditched traditional, humble folk numbers in favour of a sophisticated palette of neo-soul. Diving into full-length studio releases with such a distinct, radio un-friendly sound was a bold move that saw label executives unsure of what to do with it at first, yet Corby pushed to pursue it anyway, later stressing the importance of having “foresight” and belief in the authenticity of your work.
Flash forward two years, and it’s clear the artist’s creativity and independence have in no way been compromised. Matt Corby returned a few months ago, nonchalantly making a comeback in June with No Ordinary Life, as if it isn’t complete and utter madness to return with a song inspired by none other than Willy Wonka. The song is lighter and fresher than the earthy stylings of Telluric, inspired by his newborn son and the bliss surrounding them at their secluded Northern NSW property of Rainbow Valley. It was here, in the lush rainforest-like backyard, where Corby filmed a live music video for All Fired Up with just a piano and his heavenly voice. It was here, under the stars, where Corby fused art and his synaesthesia-invoking music with a time-lapsed video involving light projections. And, it was here, at Corby’s peaceful in-house studio, that himself and producer Dann Hume spent countless hours spinning magic into what eventually came to be an 11-track album, dedicatedly titled Rainbow Valley.
Rainbow Valley is a bubbling caldron of psychedelic soul, fused with old-school hip-hop production and smatterings of whimsical yet defiant introspection. It incredibly, and almost unbelievably, defies genres in its ability to draw on everything from tight 60s disco falsettos a là The Bee Gees and retro soul motifs, right up to the digital manipulation of instruments we’ve seen peppered throughout songs over the past few years. The three preceding singles (No Ordinary Life, All Fired Up, All That I See) still stand tall, yet the rest of the album is equally impressive. Whether it’s the harrowing vocal harmonies of the album’s opening number Light My Dart Up or the flute trills in Get With The Times, it’s the little-nuanced gems hidden in the textures of Rainbow Valley that make the release so considered, and genuinely special.
With the afterglow of Rainbow Valley’s release now settling in, we caught up with the creative powerhouse that is Matt Corby to talk about 1960’s disco influences, the spiritual nature of music, and writing songs that sit a little left of centre.
Rainbow Valley is so textured and complex in its production. Where do you start with an album like this?
We just go one instrument at a time. The songs kind of reveal themselves; sometimes they reveal themselves as terrible songs, and sometimes they end up having this weird snowball effect of inspiration, and after every element gets put on, you end up getting closer and closer to the gold in that particular song. We never really set out to do anything in particular apart from trying to write the best feeling songs. I sort of hear the whole composition in my head most of the time and it’s more of a rush to try and get it out before it disappears. It’s a really slow process; it’s just about jumping on instruments and being like “oh here’s a beat and here’s some chords and oh, that sounds good together, I need to take it over here.”
You played all the instruments on the album, right? How long did it take you to master them all?
Everything. I play everything. I’ve been chipping away at a few things that I didn’t know, [like] being a drummer and a bass player. I practice a lot and I devote all my time to be the spirit of a musician where possible, which kind of brings on new ideas all the time as I’m learning new things. I definitely have gotten my skill level to a point now where it is possible to make a record like that and maybe in five years’ time, hopefully, it’ll be two times better, and I’ll be able to make crazier and crazier music. Well, not crazy but you know what I mean!
There’s a real shift from your previous folk and blues-driven releases to the lighter, more whimsical nature of Rainbow Valley. Do you consciously try to reinvent your sound with each release or has it just happened naturally?
I think I’m very aware that I should do that, so I’ll be naturally deterred from things that do sound like things I’ve done before, but again, it wasn’t a conscious decision to move into this sound, it’s just happened with what we had at our disposal. We used a lot of mellotrons, and the way I’m playing the drums at the moment is very half-60s psych-inspired and half-modern soul-inspired. All of that ends up coming together; you find ways to make it all work.
I think I’ve always liked music that was cleverly put together, music that has a lot of groove to it. [I was] never capable or felt the right to do that when I was younger. I think I was more trying to prove myself as a singer because that’s the thing I’m sort of quite good at, and that’s my point of difference between other musicians: I sing in specific ways that are somewhat different to other people. I’ve worked at learning all these different instruments, practised and gotten myself to a point where I can start to emulate the things I really like compositionally in other areas of music that I like or another artists’ stuff.
You can definitely hear the 60’s influence running through the album, even, at times, your voice moves into that peak Bee Gees falsetto territory. Do you try to experiment with the vocals just as much as the instruments?
I think because I know singing so well, and it’s the thing I’m probably best at, it’s almost harder to be more adventurous in a way. I definitely was using my falsetto differently this time and tried to push the tones of my voice into new territories. I think the Bee Gees thing was really funny because I would call it Bee Gees too; it’s a big rip of The Beach Boys or The Bee Gees. I used to sing like that for fun and [when] I did it in the studio one day, Dann (Hume) was like “that’s kind of cool,” and I was like “well maybe let’s just do a whole section of this song up high.” It did end up sounding fine, which I wouldn’t have thought if Dann didn’t stop me and say “hey, that’s a vibe, keep that train rolling.”
Were you listening to any artists during the making of Rainbow Valley that inspired you or shaped the way the album is now?
I’ve been listening to Roy Ayers, old-school jazz funk soul; you’d know the song Everybody Loves The Sunshine. That’s Roy Ayers. There’s [also] a record from this Canadian producer that I’ve been sitting with for the past year and keep going back to because it’s so fun and feels like a Tarantino score or something. The producer is called Dirty Art Club, and the album is called Basement Séance, and it’s just fucking so cool. That album in particular really helped me with the sound palette for this album. It has this weird hip-hop element to his beats but then he uses all this really beautiful old samples probably from the 50s or 60s vocalists, and it’s this mixture of lo-fi and hi-fi sound. It’s definitely something to check out.
Between all the different genres you play around with, it’s pretty hard to pinpoint your music into a conventional music industry box. What keeps driving you to maintain your independence and not conform to what labels or other higher influences might want you to do?
People don’t know what they want. When people say they want something, they’ve heard it before – most of the time. That’s why I’m just like "cool, leave it up to the songwriter to push the boundaries on what you guys should be listening to," even though everyone wants to do it the reverse way. Labels, in particular, they want to control the content as much as possible. Not in a dark sinister way, they just want to make money and when you give them a record like Telluric, they don’t know what to do with it. They’re just like “this is a mess,” and you’re just there like “it’ll grow on you, just give it some time, have some foresight.”
I think with this record, everyone so far has been kind of surprised at its conciseness. I’m winking more at popular music formats as well, while still trying not to lose integrity along the way as a creative person.
Do you feel responsible to your label, team or even fans to constantly be creating within set time frames?
I don’t really force myself into it. I think I’m writing a lot, I’m always experimenting and if it’s not working, it’s not working. I definitely never try to push it. Writing songs is an emotional thing for me, it’s not just a clinical go in there, smash out a chorus, and sing a little ditty over it. I am really meticulous when it comes to orchestrating songs and writing melodies, I always want to try and do something different. I think that’s almost more irresponsible to the fans to constantly be pushing myself into different territories because it kind of alienates people sometimes; when people liked the acoustic stuff you did and you’re pushing it into this weird place where it might not be their taste at all. I actually do worry about that side of it, being too detached from the last release or the releases prior but I think that’s the better way to be and keep people hopefully guessing. I never want to do the same thing again, so if I can set a precedent like that then eventually people can just expect the unexpected, and that’s a really good place to be as a songwriter.
What’s influenced your continuous change in sound over the years?
It’s just been a slow build really, getting to the point where I’m making music that I almost want to listen to. I think that’s the goal. I’m a really harsh critic on myself and I always wanted to make things that I would almost, if I wasn’t me, be like “yeah I’d listen to that.” It’s kind of hard to do [that] sometimes, especially if you’re down on yourself. Everything does play a factor, having a kid does play a factor, everything that’s stimulating you like what you eat plays a part in what you create that day... you might be feeling really low on energy and make something a bit sloppy or strange, but it might in hindsight become something really good.
Are you able to manipulate those states to create specific sounds at specific times?
Sometimes I do. I’ve found that when I wake up in the morning I’m not totally switched on yet, and sometimes I’ll go down and play the piano in my studio and it’ll be super basic, but chords and a melody will come out because I’m not really thinking. I’ve found there are tricks, ways I can fool myself into doing things and there are ways to freshen your ears up and get new perspectives on how to finish a song. If I’ve just had a track going for a while that I haven’t been able to write a melody on, I’ll literally put it away until I completely forget about it, then go back to it, consciously knowing that the first time I hear this I’m probably going to react really well and write a melody that will be slightly different and within the feel of the song just because it is fresh.
When we were writing melodies for this record, we would make two tracks a day and build them to a point where they were ready to write melodies on and then just put them away for a couple of hours, have dinner and come back, and I would have forgotten the first thing. We’d listen, I’d have my voice memos ready, and I’ll almost instinctually write a better melody than I would if I was really trying to over-intellectualise it and consciously make it good because normally, you end up fucking yourself if you do that. I think overthinking things is a very common thing to do when you’re writing music, so just try to eliminate that as much as possible and just operate out of your musical instincts. It creates things that are slightly more individual.
So many of the songs on Rainbow Valley, like Miracle Love and All Fired Up, are very vocal heavy and really push the lyrics to the forefront. How do you get to a place of being so comfortable and open on an album, knowing full well people all over the world are going to hear these intimate parts of your life?
That’s a really good question. I actually don’t know. I’ve always been a very sensitive person and I think singing in general, when you’ve really warmed up and [are] connecting to what you’re doing emotionally, brings out certain things in you. [With] Miracle Love, that could’ve been probably 40 takes and I could’ve been getting so pissed off with the song that eventually out of frustration I get to a point where I am almost angry at myself and getting super emotional. [Eventually], the vocal performance does lift to a degree and ends up becoming the way that the song goes, almost through my aggression towards myself not getting it right so many times beforehand or something. It’s a weird thing, almost like a spiritual thing – not using that word in a religious sense – but like you’re really connecting with yourself and I don’t really know how that happens other than spending a lot of time practising and getting to the point where you’re hearing something and then being able to deliver what you’re hearing.
Is that spiritual nature something you find in your personal life that has now transferred into your music?
I would say that I do think deeply about a lot of things, sometimes to my detriment. It definitely does transfer into writing songs, that’s the main way I can [connect] with the rest of the world really, so I’m very conscious of what I’m saying. It is scary sometimes, and you do feel drained a lot of the time when you’re trying to do stuff like that because you are putting a lot of emotional energy into it, and my head is chaos when I’m making music. I’m in absolute turbo mode in my mind, even though I might just be sitting down on the couch, inside I’m like “oh I’ve got to fix that or do that, and this could be so good if it moved over here.” When I was working with Dann he had to stop me at times. ‘Old Mate Captain Fiddlefingers’ is what he used to call me because I almost want to do too much. He’s really good at being like “you’ve hit the sentiment, you’re onto something, [now] just stay there as long as you can and let’s get the takes.” That could be anything: a drum performance, playing the bass, doing some vocals, whatever. I try and apply it to every part of the orchestration or composition of the song.
What was it like working with Dann Hume so closely for Rainbow Valley?
It’s really helpful having a sounding board and having someone like Dann; we got really ruthless towards the end and I kind of jumped on his train of thought with finishing songs. He’s definitely the kind of person that wants to simplify as much as possible and I’m the opposite, so we do tend to meet in the middle and it ends up being complete. We both know that without each other’s perspective, we wouldn’t have gotten to that point. It is good that they are kind of opposing [when] I’m pulling him out of things too simple and he’s pulling me out of being too chaotic. When I’m working by myself I take fucking ages to do anything because I’m constantly like “oh no, it could be way tighter or way better and maybe I should put another weird passing chord through there,” and it’s kind of like I’ll spend a whole day just working on like three movements of piano chords and it’s probably – when I started four hours beforehand – keep going round in circles sort of going mad but I really do need someone to be like woah.
So, what’s next?
We’ve got some shows coming up next year for this album and I’ll probably write another album hopefully. There are a few songs already that are kicking around that are pretty cool. They call them the Hard Drive Hits, there’s probably 80s jams, half-finished songs, and things just floating around on my computer that really if I wanted to just sift through it and listen to a whole bunch, I’d probably find 20 things that are worth working on, having a crack at and trying to finish. I like just keeping a constant flow of work, getting into my little home studio as much as possible, making little instrumentals, and writing little melodies.