Interview | The inexplicable music of Matt Corby

Matt Corby arrives in the bar of busy east London pub/venue The Cornershop having completed the sound check in the basement for tonight’s special, one-off, acoustic show. The preparations have taken an hour longer than expected, and the 22-year-old Australian is clearly feeling tired and slightly overwhelmed by the process of constantly performing and touring. “The tour has been pretty fun but it’s pretty gruelling,” he says. “It’s a pretty crazy process. I used to live in London when I was 18 on an on-and-off basis actually. It’s a nice town but I don’t think I could live here again. Everyone here’s pretty cool though.”

Corby is dressed casually and has his hair tied back, like a cross between a Chinese warrior and an Aussie surfer dude. His music demands your full attention and his magnificent voice trembles, barks and fluctuates wonderfully. His music can sound like a war-cry to life and love, so perhaps the hair is appropriate.

“What inspires me to write is whatever captures my attention or my imagination. Writing a song is essentially creating something out of nothing. Music can do so much to people. It brings up incredible emotions but also terrible emotional states.”

Corby fits a lot in the time we are allotted and is nowhere near as intense as expected. He is simply enthusiastic about music and the impact that it can have on people. He’s exploded onto the folk/blues scene in recent months, mainly thanks to the smash hit of ‘Brother’. The song came third in the Triple J Hottest 100 chart in January this year and won best song at the Aria’s, and looks to make a real statement over in the UK before too long.  For years before his first big hit, however, Corby toured Down Under performing for people in their gardens and backyards. Will he continue this tradition?

“With the garden parties I think it’s more up to the people themselves than it is for me. If people are willing to come then I’ll continue to do them. I love doing them. It brings people together and I think they’re awesome. It’s a nice thing to do.”

Although critics may instantly compare Corby to Jeff Buckley, he is kind enough to share what he is influenced by at the moment. “Musicians that I value and am inspired by are Kurt Ville and Father John Misty,” he says, eyes burning bright with the mention of the J Tillman-fronted group. “I’m inspired by people who can sing without saying too much. If the listener knows what they’re trying to convey in their expression then that’s great. Nina Simone is fucking amazing like that- I know just what she’s singing about in the way she sings it.”

Matt Corby’s style is unlike anything we’ve ever heard hit the top five charts. A delicate mixture of Jeff Buckley and Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe, add his own signature howl and growl and you have one of the most talented and mesmeric voices of 2012. So how did such an eclectic voice end up coming second in Australian Idol in 2006?

“The whole Australian Idol process was crazy. As you said, it opened doors for me- I could have done a Christmas song that would have gone platinum because of the popularity of the show.” He grimaces at the thought of being a Pop Idol artist. “I just didn’t want to go down that road. I wanted to do something real. People want to hear something real. It’s been hard dealing with that elephant in the room.”

It’s fairly clear that Corby has been troubled by the associations that the extended appearance on Pop Idol has brought him- and who can blame him? “I would get asked that question about Aussie Idol every day,” he admits. “But I wouldn’t change that experience for the world because everything from that point, in one way or another,  has led to where I am now. I guess it’s an existential argument. And it’s cool and I feel fine about the Pop Idol thing now.”

When listening to Corby sing, no-one can doubt his authenticity – there is great pain and grief in the delivery, especially when singing about parents.  On his The Black Keys cover of ‘Lonely Boy’ – “Your mother kept you/and your daddy left you” – he winces and strains into the mic. On the creative process of writing a song, he is refreshingly back to basics and realistic: “Most of the time I will sit down and feel like I need to get something out. I’ll write whatever I want and sing whatever I want and the songs will come through that. There will always be an idea.”

Despite releasing three previous EPs to muted success, it seems that Matt Corby’s time has come. After releasing a new EP in the summer and the runaway success of ‘Brother’ we can look forward to seeing and hearing a lot more of him in 2013. But has the music business changed him? And how has he dealt with the pressure? “I think it is important to have a thick skin in the music business,” he replies. “I think there are quite a lot of people who have been quite damaged by the process.”

We conclude with a conversation about the difficulties of balancing the time you spend with people, particularly musicians: “At first I did because I wanted to hang out with musicians that were better than me. But now… with, say, normality- I crave it sometimes.”

Although Corby has found his talent and is now being rewarded for persisting and persevering, he is still searching for that blissful balance in life, “Musicians do hang out with each other…,” he muses. “I don’t know, it’s kind of weird, I try to stay clear of it all. I do fail to connect with normal people sometimes. When I’m having a conversation like now, I can get lost in the other person’s ideas. It’s hard to explain. When you get two intense people together in a relationship it is crazy.”

Just like the man’s music, things can be difficult to explain sometimes. You’ve just got to experience and feel it first-hand.

words and second photo: Michael Somerville