There’s something about Matthew | Interview

There's something about Matthew | Interview

“I think it’s more just a love of words,” he says. “In many ways, I’m not the most literary person. I studied English for a while, but I’m not like some people who just live in books.” However, there’s one thing that still shines brighter out of Field than his articulate vernacular, and that’s his love of music. “It’s always felt like music has occupied the main place in my life and in my creative practice,” he shares. “Music is the first thing, but words are not far behind.”

Over the last decade and beyond, Field has been at the helm of one of Cape Town’s most interesting musical exports; Beatenberg. Writing all their songs and taking the lead vocal and guitar, Field was the life blood running through the band’s veins – but South Africa wasn’t enough for Field. He wanted more. “I always imagined that I would move from my hometown because if you’re interested in art and creative things, the people that you read about and your role models, like, everyone moves.”

Field spent one year abroad studying in Boston, but the lack of creative circles and communities didn’t nourish Field’s needs, so he ended up returning home. “I struggled to find a community of people who, like in Cape Town, even though it’s such a complicated place, I had an extended friend group who were interested in similar things, and it felt like a little world almost. I didn’t really find that in Boston. I met lots of interesting people, but it was a bit more scattered and a lot of students coming and going all the time. The rest of the city seem to be this kind of old, wealthy, quite picturesque town, but not necessarily the most dynamic and vibrant city.”

During the 2020 pandemic, Beatenberg’s wheels slowed to a halt, and the band had a convenient opportunity to go on a somewhat unofficial hiatus. This gave Field the chance to look inward when creating his music, and also the chance to assess where he was based. He turned to London’s hubbub and decided to take the leap. “I met my current manager, who’s based here [in London] and in the last year just decided; let’s just do it now. Now’s the time. So I just went ahead and did the whole thing,” he says with restrained excitement. “It was something that I intended to do for a long time, not necessarily London, but London was the place that offered so much in terms of the music industry and lots of different people and different things.”

“It was natural for me to start doing things on my own because I didn’t want to stop writing. My manager was working with me, and I had all this stuff. So he asked ‘why don’t you just start doing it as a solo project?’ and the moment that was suggested I was into the idea.” Having considered doing this in the past, but only as a SoundCloud project that very few people hear, this added a lot of pressure for Field. “But it still feels like quite a free thing. Something that I can just do. I got to quite a difficult place with writing music for the band for a while, so it was the perfect thing to do for that. So yeah, I feel good coming here and doing things on my own.”

Matt began his journey into solo artistry with the M Field EP. Working with London’s Bullion as producer while he was still in Cape Town, Field managed to make a fully-fledged project over email and long distance. “We didn’t do video calls, but we definitely spoke on the phone,” explains Field. “It’s not like he was going to record a bunch of instruments over the song without me being there either,” he says, explaining why he thinks the EP feels a little more reserved than his latest. “It was a basically a long-distance process where I would send him my demo productions, and then he would work with that and send things back and give a bit of feedback – it was a back and forth like that.”

Since the first EP, Field had the chance to reconnect with Beatenberg bandmate Ross Dorkin as he’d also made the jump from the southern hemisphere to the streets of London. “For one reason or another, Ross and I hadn’t really got to hang out as friends because everything got quite stressful, because you know, being in a band becomes all professional and everything,” he says. “So it was quite nice me coming here, doing my solo stuff, and just seeing him as a friend then seeing what he was working on. It was then that we decided to do some songs together.”

Field’s second project, the Re: M Field EP, was formed with a lot of B-side songs that Field wrote for Beatenberg which never made the cut. Allowing himself to revisit old ideas with fresh perspective, Field has created something that’s varied and more creative. Explaining this, he says that “if you go between ‘Block Universe’ and ‘Surely Years Ago’, those, in a way, could be two different projects. One is just guitars and voice, and it’s quite emotional on the surface, it’s emotionally sincere and a kind of earnest delivery.” As he picks up the pace, you can physically see how much his music motivates him. “‘Surely Years Ago’ has got this weird veneer of autotune – it’s a completely different vibe. Then there’s ‘Jolly Roger’ which is just a weird song. I really didn’t think I’d be allowed to do a song like that.”

“It’s also a very different relationship where [Dorkin] is producing with me, as opposed to being in a band. This is my project, my songs, and he helped me produce and realise them. It’s very cut and dried,” he continues. However, the collaboration didn’t just bear fruit for Field’s solo project, as he hints at a Beatenberg reunion. “I think that was quite helpful for us and our working process, and that sort of paved the way for feeling more confident in working together as a band…”

“I was really motivated by releasing music more than I was by playing shows or anything, so I always imagined that I would be quite a prolific artist, which I’ve not been so far,” continues Field. “I mean, it’s obviously ultimately my fault but it’s also to do with, I think, signing to a major label definitely makes it harder to release music fast. You’ve got to check all these boxes and there’s a whole procedure. However I still believe that it’s worth, not necessarily signing to a major, but it’s worth doing that thing that makes it hard to put music out to make sure that your music actually gets some kind of reception, and it somehow reaches people. It’s always a balance.”

“It’s a scale between releasing loads of music and having it disappear into the wind, maybe to be found by people and maybe it will become, you know, popular in some crazy way.” So, now that Field has signed to smaller label Leafy Outlook (yes, named after one of his songs on the M Field EP), Field has the chance to release his backlog of music. “I feel like I’ve been too close to the non-releasing side of the scale with the band at least, and that doesn’t change the rate that I write because I usually just write stuff constantly,” he shares. “So if I’m not releasing a lot of stuff, all these ideas just build up and then I forget about them and they just go on and on.

“I still believe that it’s worth, not necessarily signing to a major, but it’s worth doing that thing that makes it hard to put music out to make sure that your music actually gets some kind of reception, and it somehow reaches people.”

For each EP so far, Field has professed that the songs don’t link, and there’s no overarching concept for the project. So how exactly does Matthew Field write his songs? “I don’t know,” he replies. “I’ll either play the guitar or the piano, and just look for things I like. With the guitar, I tend to layer things quite quickly. I’ll work in logic, although sometimes I will just play the guitar and sing and then record that on the phone and then keep that as the reference point. It’s changed over time.”

“I think with these songs, they were at the point of becoming linked, and I could’ve gone a step further and done an album. What I liked about the first EP was that they’re a selection of songs that I did during lockdown, and that was what linked them more than anything else, and then this is the sort of follow up. I feel like it’s quite a neat way of doing things to keep things – because EPs are strange in that way.”

The idea of linking songs together for a project seems to be prominent in Field’s thinking, but less so in his recent work. So you can’t help but wonder if it’s something that he finds challenging to achieve. “Only once in my life have I done this successfully I think, and that’s with the band on The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg. That’s the time when I feel like I know what it’s like to have an album full of songs which you actually wrote completely individually, and you weren’t thinking necessarily about writing the song because it ties into the concept. You were doing it quite naturally. Then somehow, by luck or whatever, you find that there’s this thread that runs through them and you’re able to put them together and they really feel like they live together without forcing them.”

“But then it can threaten to reduce the songs to instances of the concept rather than being these full and complete individual entities, and they can feel like they suffer a bit. I know this from listening to albums where you think it’s such a cool vibe and [the songs] can really work together, but some of them, individually, I wouldn’t necessarily want to listen to them just for their own sake.”

Citing Tommy by The Who and Vampire Weekend’s self-titled album as prime examples of conceptual albums, Field continues; “Ideally, you’d want to write songs and every song is a standalone song, but they also all live together, and that’s so hard to do. For example, I can’t just put any lyrics I want to a song that it needs to sound good, to sound the way the song wants them to sound – sometimes it just can’t carry those words. It’s almost like surfing where you’re reliant on the wave, but you have to do your best with what comes to you and so for that reason, that can be quite chaotic.”

I can’t help but dive a little deeper into the waters of Field’s mind, and I ask what makes a ‘good’ song, on all aspects from writing to production, and music to lyrics. “It’s very, very hard,” he sighs. “It’s the kind of thing that maybe one deliberately doesn’t try and formulate, because it would be unsatisfying if you found that there was a formula.”

“I can definitely say that I feel like I have a very strong feeling about whether some a song is good enough, and I don’t find it that easy to do that thing that people say like, ‘oh, I don’t like this, but it’s a good song’. I feel like if I didn’t like it, then it’s not a good song. Which sounds quite megalomaniac, but I feel like that’s how taste works. I feel like taste is inseparable from the concept of what’s good, because what are you responding to with your tastes if it’s not to whether something is good or not? So then if that’s the case, if you don’t like it, it must not be good.”

“I think that the surprise is quite important. You have to, at some point, be like ‘well, I didn’t expect that’. You want to not know why the song is good when you like it, you want to just feel it. The harmony has to be satisfying, but not cliched, the rhythm has to be propulsive but not monotonous, the melody has to be sing-able, but once again, not something you’ve heard before, or something that you can predict where it’s going to go. The lyrics have to be striking, and it has to be the case for a song to even have a chance of being good.”

“What makes a good song is if the person who wrote it really loves it, and really felt something when they did it. I feel like that’s maybe a case when you can say, ‘Oh, this song is well written, but I don’t like it’. Maybe that’s a situation where it’s been written by someone who knows how to do these things, and has written a song that they really loved at some point in their life, but now they’re just churning them out and it’s got the marks of a good song, but it lacks the soul.”

“These are all necessary, but not sufficient conditions. So the song has to have all of these things, but they can have all of those things and still be a good song. So yeah, I don’t know there, maybe I’m being a little bit mystical about it. Ultimately, it is just like everything in the world – it just is what it is.”

Re: M Field is out now via Leafy Outlook.