by Nancy J Price
Matt Hales is a lucky man. The only remotely unlucky thing about his good fortune is that so many good things are happening at once. Most notably, he’s on track with two major life goals: his musical career is finally getting him some worldwide recognition — and it’s happened just as he has become a father for the first time.
But if Hales is anxious about all the new weight on his shoulders, he’s not letting on. His live show is breezy, complete with impromptu jams and jokes, all of which complements his dreamily melodic brand of British pop surprisingly well. And in person, the talented man otherwise known as Aqualung is calm, eloquent and altogether at the top of his game. We checked in with Mr Strange and Beautiful on his recent US tour, and got you answers to these 10 questions.
Ten questions with Matt Hales / Aqualung
Nancy J Price: This has probably been your biggest year or so yet — with your son’s birth, the new album and all of the touring you’ve been doing. Everything’s really taking off right at the same time. Do you regret the timing at all, or are you just taking it as it comes?
Matt Hales: In all sorts of other ways, it was a perfect time for me and my wife. We spent a long time with both of us working on our careers and kind of getting things in shape, and it was a good time for us to do it. But I don’t think we realized that the US thing was going to be quite like it is — that is something we’ve been coping with. But at the same time, all our lives together we’ve always had this. One or other of us has been traveling, and we knew it would be a feature of our parenthood: that one of us might not be around all the time.
The reality of it is harder. You can kind of theorize, and go, “Well, I’m going to be away for this number of months, and we’ll get time, I’ll arrange to come home, and we’ll make it work,” and it sort of seems to be okay on paper. But the reality, of course, is this sort of whole new order of discomfort — this sort of growing sort of ache that you just get, that you can’t really explain. Obviously I always miss Kim, my wife, when I’m away, but now I’m missing my son as well. It’s sort of more than twice as much. It’s really quite heavy. That’s the part I couldn’t really factor in.
His actual first ever steps happened in the last leg [of the tour] when I wasn’t there, which is a shame. But he very thoughtfully saved his proper walking until I went home for his birthday, so I did actually see the bit where he went from sort of “two steps and then fall over” to actually zooming around, so it was very kind of him to wait.
NJP: You spent a long time working to get to this point, so it would seem that you’re very ambitious…
MH: I’ve always been really motivated, but that’s because I’ve known from a young age that I really wanted to do — had this weird kind of connection with music — and that was going to be what I was going to do. The only question was how the f**k to make it work, because it’s clearly very hard. It’s becoming clear to me as I work at it, that successful people — probably in any line of work — it comes from inside them. It’s about the way you conduct yourself, it’s about the way you view your opportunities. So I realized that if I was going to make my life in music work for me, then I would have to get good at it — get good at being an entrepreneur, get good at understanding the business, and get good making it possible for me to live this kind of wonderful life that magically I’m now living.
NJP: I know that you’re “classically trained” as a musician. What does that mean in your case?
MH: Well, I had piano lessons from when I was six until I was 21. Then I got a scholarship when I was fifteen to study composition, and I went away to the Guildhall in London and studied composition and sound recording and piano. And I have a degree in music, so I did all that stuff.
NJP: So do you think a degree like that makes a big difference?
MH: It just provides extra vocabulary, I think. That’s all. It can’t make you a creative musician if you aren’t one. It just gives you tools that you know how to use. I find it difficult to exactly say where that made a difference to me, ’cause this music — my writing — has always come from the same place, it just seems to me very unschooled and untutored, kind of instinctive place. What it has given me — apart from exposing me to an incredible wealth and breadth of music, and opening my mind to all the crazy world of music through history and all over the world — it gave me a great sense of being part of a wonderful endless tradition of human beings making music. In practical terms, it mostly just gives me options when I’m thinking about how to maybe arrange a song, or how to go out recording something. Yeah, I’ll just be able to call on certain things that maybe some people who haven’t had that experience might not know about. But I don’t think it makes all that much difference.
NJP: In terms of writing, how do your songs usually begin?
MH: Music — it tends to start with music. Music and the tune come simultaneously, like I sort of play and sing, stuff happens. Over the years I have just a sort of gut instinct as to the viability of a little tiny idea, so it may just be one note and then a sung note above it, or a little passage of chords — or something about it will kind of catch, kind of get its little claw into me — and I’ll know that there’s something in it to expand upon.
NJP: Do the songs come to you at any particular time? Could you be driving down the road, or is it usually when you’re sitting at the piano?
MH: It could be any time. It’s a feeling… it’s odd, it’s like a sense of needing to go to the toilet. It’s sort of, it’s just like, “Oh, okay.” And if there’s a piano around at that point, I’ll find it, and, and that’ll be it. Otherwise I’ll just sort of sing to myself. Or sometimes it will just be thinking of an idea, and just make a note of it, and when I get a chance to explore it further I doï¿½ I don’t try to finish them — I just get something going that feels promising, and when I know it’s solid, I let it be at that point. There are maybe seven or eight of those going on. They just seem to go in my head somewhere, and I get on with the rest of my life. I’m very preoccupied with the business of touring and promotion, and all the while, these little buds are kind of sprouting in my head somewhere. Every now and again another one will pop up and go, “Hello, I’ve got a new bit now,” and I go, “Hmm, interesting,” and it’ll go back down, and I’ll carry on. And what happens almost every time is that the minute I go home, these songs kind of pour out almost finished — or very much more developed than they were — like they’ve been incubating in my head. So touring’s quite helpful for that. By stopping me from being able to write, I actually write quite a lot.
NJP: For all intents and purposes, you are a solo artist. Why? Because you want to keep mixing it up, is it just your thing now, or just because you’ve been through the band stuff?
MH: I have certainly been through the band stuff. I was with the same lineup with four guys for ten years before Aqualung, so I figure I’ve done that. And also there are fewer limits when it comes to the creative process and the recording process.
The problem with bands is you constantly have to explain to other people what it is you’re doing and why. Everyone wants ownership of the decisions and the ideas, and that’s fine. Some great bands like work brilliantly like that. The nice thing about [the way I work] is that I know in my process, you have to go wrong quite a lot before you get it right. But if you weren’t allowed to go and get it wrong or go off on a kind of on a tangent or wild goose chase, you would never end up in the place that you finally end up, which really works. The problem with bands is when you start going off over there, someone in the band goes, “You idiot, what are you doing? It’s crap. Stop.” It stops working. All these ideas get sort of stillborn, where if they’d been given the chance, they could’ve made their way back on the path further down and somewhere really interesting. I find that by working on my own, it’s possible to do that, because I haven’t got to explain myself. I’m on my own in the studio — improvising, trying things out, trying different ideas — and eventually it takes me somewhere which I never would’ve got without having gone that kind of twisty-turny route.
NJP: That said, how come you chose the name Aqualung for yourself, instead of just going with your real name?
MH: It was, again, because I wanted this sort of flexibility somehow built into the project from the word go. I had no idea at the beginning whether it was going to remain just me, or kind of fix into a bandy thing or a collection of producers, or… I just felt like it would be nice to have a sort of brand or whatever under which I could sort of try all sorts of stuff.
The other thing, I suppose, was that I’m making very personal music, but I didn’t want it to have to have my photograph hanging over it all the time. Sort of like, “These are my words, this is my diary.” I wanted my presence to be slightly removed, so that it’s easier for people to make their own personal connection to the song, rather than feeling like they’re listening to someone else’s stories all the time.
NJP: As a musician — though not necessarily as Aqualung — what do you consider to be your main goal?
MH: My goal really is to accumulate a body of work to be proud of, I suppose. You know, I’d love to get to 50 and have made ten albums and it would be a sort of document of my life to some extent, and it would be something to be, to stand by and go, “Yes, I, like all these other artists who exist and have existed have done my part, and I’ve put everything into it, and I’m really proud of every second of every record.” That’s really what I want.
NJP: With your drive and all the momentum you have going, can you ever imagine stopping?
MH: No. It’s like imagining dying. I guess it’ll happen sometime, probably just before I die. It seems to me, and I’m very blessed in this way, I’m fortunate enough to have found what it is I’m here for. Many people don’t, and I think that must be quite hard — to just sort of roam the planet wondering what it’s all about. For me, at least, it’s quite simple, thankfully. I’m here for the purpose of writing songs and singing them to people, and making records — and that’s what I’ll continue to do until someone stops me.
This interview originally appeared on SheKnows.com in 2006