Perched on a rooftop, playing a gig to an audience halfway across the world, Aussie singer-songwriter Matt Boylan-Smith explains to them the lightning-crack moment he knew he needed to stop his part-time dabbling in music, and embrace his ambition fully – witnessing The Lumineers play ‘Morning Song’ to a rapt Sydney crowd – before launching into a gorgeous cover version of his own.
“I was performing at the time while also working full time, and went and watched their gig,” he tells me now, the memory of that Sydney show still completely fresh. “It’s a beautiful song on their album, but watching it live made me realise that to perform with such passion would require me to completely give myself to music.
“It was a subconscious decision in retrospect,” he adds. “I explained this feeling I had during a show on a roof top in Athens, as it was there that I realised that I had given myself completely to music and had an audience listening to my songs on the other side of the world.
It vindicated my inner decision to pursue music with every part of me
“It was an incredibly powerful moment, interacting on a deeply personal level with the audience, observing tears and laughter from my songs, and it vindicated my inner decision to pursue music with every part of me.”
With the stability of a full-time job the one thing holding him back, as it is for plenty of aspiring musicians, it wasn’t an easy decision for Matt to make, but he knew it was the right one – and it’s since lead him to opportunities from overseas tours, to performing at the Sydney Opera House for its 40th anniversary.
The Lumineers’ ‘Morning Song’ led Matt to life as a musician
“I was conflicted mostly because I’d studied and worked on something that was secure and guaranteed to support my bank account,” he admits. “My family didn’t have much money growing up, and I guess and I thought I’d have to slave my ass away at doing something I wasn’t completely passionate about to enact change.
“The leap was more about leaving this feeling of needing to be financially viable behind, and to keep fearlessly pursuing music. It was at this point I started travelling and touring, and really improving my songwriting.”
The journey so far
“I’ve loved it,” Matt enthuses, when asked about his experiences over the last handful of years, and the expectations he had of what a life in music would entail. “I’ve performed in some wonderful cities and met extraordinary people doing so. I’ve played with beautiful musicians that inspire me in different ways.
“I can’t say whether it’s lived up to expectations,” he adds, “as I’ve tried not to set too many in terms of where I want to be – all I wanted was to live off my art and be content, and so that expectation is being met.”
It’s hard to tell your story when you’re living life through others
Matt dabbles in a style of acoustic music that is often very narrative-driven and intimate and, especially as a solo artist, the task of songwriting can be a particularly demanding one – with each musician having to become comfortable with their own methods in time.
“In terms of song-writing I don’t necessarily find the process difficult,” Matt explains, “it was more about getting to know my process. I can write a song in ten minutes, or some take ten years. They can be a little prophetic in how they work and it’s sometimes that I’ll leave a song and come back to it when I feel I’ve grown into it.”
Matt performs his song ‘Beacon In The Sky’ in Buenos Aires
For fellow songwriters, Matt believes the key to doing your best work is becoming comfortable with yourself, in order to tap into your own stories. “Just live and be yourself,” he says. “With narrative songs, it’s hard to tell your story when you’re living life through others.
“And when an idea comes, write it down. Whatever it is, record it, and then you can come back to it when you’re ready. A verse can appear one day, and the next verse might appear five years later.”
While songwriting comes with its own challenges, so does being a singer-songwriter in Australia, a country that, despite its clear love and affinity for music, brings unique hurdles.
“With the sparse population outside of cities it’s a challenge to gain momentum on a tour,” Matt says, “and all it means is driving or flying to gigs which can make it hard financially – but on the plus side you’re meeting new audiences.”
Smaller venues have opened up that are conducive to soloists, which is a good way for singer-songwriters to hone their craft
The challenges for an emerging artist aren’t merely geographic, though, with Australia’s music scene undergoing steady shifts in culture, and the way it engages with artists.
“There has been a slight reluctance in the Australian audience to actively find new music,” Matt believes. “I’m finding that this is slowly changing and I find I get amazing support from my home community of Bathurst, and am seeing great support for singers coming up there, so I think the trend is improving.”
“In Sydney there’s the much reported problem with lock out laws and residential noise complaints against venues,” he adds, having had plenty of experience now playing in the city. “I understand people’s need to sleep and keep a normal life, but it’s hard to justify having a problem with noise when you moved next to a bar or live music venue.”
‘Johnny’ tells the heart-wrenching story of a soldier returning from war
While lockouts and noise complaints have crippled the city in some ways, they’ve also brought with them new opportunities for performers like Matt, in what he’s seen as a return to the more intimate ‘pub’ gigs of decades past.
“It’s meant that smaller venues have opened up that are conducive to soloists, which is a good way for singer-songwriters to hone their craft. It just seems like legislation and a lack of arts support has meant that the scene isn’t as ambitious in what it is capable of.
“It’s not all gloom though – I’ve been part of some pretty magnificent gigs,” he adds. “I supported Sarah McLeod recently at Factory Floor – the audience there was raucous – and I also played at the Basement with Jeff Martin (The Tea Party), which was excellent.”
Collaboration and inspiration
While he’s played solo gigs across the world, and is about to launch back into another European run, some of Matt’s biggest exposure has come from collaborations with artists of completely different genres like electronic producers Alora & Senii, a tactic that he feels artists should consider pursuing, if it feels right for them.
“These collaborations happen from people finding my songs online,” Matt explains. “The narrative style of my tracks perhaps lends itself to being able to be used across genres, and in this case on a few deep house tracks.
My narrative style perhaps lends itself to being able to be used across genres – in this case on a few deep house tracks
“The tracks were great on their own, but adding lyrics and melodic structure worked to give them more context,” he feels. “There has been a trend recently for people/producers to simply remix existing tracks into different genres, but it was nice to write and be involved in a more organic way from the genesis of the songs.
Unexpected deep house collabs helped Matt find a whole new audience
“It’s important to branch out and collaborate because in all that’s how we grow,” he asserts. “But I also understand the need to stick to the essence of what we do as writers and performers. I tell stories, and was able to do this in the context of our songs that we worked on together.
“‘Down By The Ocean’ charted on some viral charts on Spotify in Germany and Finland, and since then I’ve had more offers of collaborations come through – it helped both of us reach a new audience we may not have accessed before.”
It shows that a heap of work leads to longevity
In terms of more local inspirations, Matt looks to the other Sydney artists making strides recently, especially the ones going it solo.
“It’s been great to see Julia Jacklin come through,” he says. “I remember playing a folk night with her a few years back for FBi Radio, and to see her reaching audiences across the world is splendid.
“I just worked with Cate Hartmen on the clip for ‘We Can Be Together’, and she works with Julia on some of her vids too, so it’s still a nice little community we have here in Sydney,” he reflects. “Smith & Jones from Bathurst are a class act too, and are doing well in the country side of things, which is great to see.”
Matt’s brand new single, produced with The Tea Party’s Jeff Martin
It’s that path of the troubadour that Matt will continue to tread as he releases his new single ‘We Can Be Together’ this week, followed by a European tour and the unveiling of his debut album (produced with The Tea Party frontman Jeff Martin in his Byron studio) next year.
But for Matt, it’s Australia’s singer-songwriters that tell the most important story, and light the way forward.
“She’s already come crashing through, but it’s nice to see someone like Sarah McLeod touring strong with her solo releases,” Matt smiles. “It shows that a heap of work leads to longevity.”
This article originally appeared on Tone Deaf.