Couple-duo Jess & Matt’s trademark harmonies have grabbed attention around the globe. In 2015, their debut self-titled album hit #1 on the Australian Album ARIA Chart and their 2018 album, Songs From The Village featuring Chris Isaak and Rick Price reached #2. Now independent recording artists, the Sydney singer/songwriters are releasing their first original album, Wildflowers – an ultra-personal document to musical freedom and intense self-discovery with songs about everything from dementia to dark times in their marriage.
The husband-and-wife pair had spent several years playing originals before auditioning for TV hit, The X Factor in 2015. By their second covers album, they found themselves working in Nashville and started plotting Wildflowers, inspired by the town’s confessional songwriting and back-to-basics musicianship. Their sound showcases influences of folk-rock and contemporary country, with a pop-centric approach based around the pairs lush harmony driven acoustic roots and honest songwriting.
Aftermath was released as a single earlier this year and unpacks Jess and Matt’s own relationship. It also instantly changed opinions of their music with its unexpected honesty and musical intimacy. Jess admits, “We would never have been able to release Aftermath before now. “It’s really an anti-single, so it was scary to press ‘go’ on that one. Yet it’s the song that has resonated the most so far, people tell us it’s the most Jess & Matt thing they’ve ever heard.”
To get to know the album even better, we grabbed Jess & Matt to talk through each individual track, their creation, sentiment, and everything in between.
1. Sliding Doors
Literally the story of Jess and Matt meeting, starting at a New Year’s Eve party when they were both studying music at JMC Academy. One glitch – Matt had a girlfriend. The title comes from thinking out loud about what might not have happened if Jess had followed her original path to study design.
Jess: “I remember seeing Matt that night, but he had a girlfriend. I didn’t make a move at that time…”
Matt: “I was in the process of breaking up with my girlfriend at the time, whose name was also Jess, and Jess’s ex is also named Matt.”
Jess: “That made a great wedding speech from my mum!”
Matt: “We’d both been in relationships where we stayed longer than we should have trying to make it work, when you should have just called it.”
The album’s most emotional moment – Jess detailing her grandfather losing his memory due to dementia and being stuck in a body he no longer recognised. Her beloved Pa found a guitar on the side of the road and gave it to Jess when she was 11, starting her musical career. They found footage on an old VHS to sample his voice (and a young Jess) for the song.
Jess: “In high school he was diagnosed with dementia, every time I’d visit him, he’d know me less and less. He thought I was someone in the 60s. He doesn’t remember a whole lifetime with you, that was tough. It’s very hard to sing live.”
Matt: “The first time I heard Jess playing it on the piano, it was like therapy for her. It wasn’t ever intended to be released. We went back and forth about putting it on the album. I’ve got experiences of dementia in my family as well, the way Jess articulated those feelings, I thought it would bring a lot of comfort to people. When we played it in Sydney Jess’ uncle, who is this big burly guy, was crying his eyes out audibly in the crowd. It was the reaction of playing that song on the tour that made us decide to put it on the album, people saying that song resonated with them.”
The album’s scene-setting first single – which served to reboot any lingering perceptions of them with dark lyrics, a slow build and atmospheric melodies. It’s a conversation about their pasts to move forward in a more healthy way.
Jess: “We both had pretty traumatic relationships prior to us meeting. It was hard for Matt to let go of his ex, which is where the line ‘It’s like I’ve been haunted by a shadow of love run dry’ comes from. The chorus unites us, talking about how we can’t really hide all the scars, it’s best for any relationship to lay everything on table and be honest. We’ve been together 10 years now; communication is very important to us.”
Matt: “You recognise things might creep into your relationship by things that happened in the past, we were understanding each other deeply from the start rather than pretending you’re not damaged and perfect in a relationship which a lot of people do.” Jess: “If you approach a relationship like it’s your past relationship it really hinders how you can grow and flourish.”
More musical therapy – the pair know some fans will hear this airing of marital issues and think the worst. It was written with Dave Hodges (Evanescence) and Steve Solomon (James Arthur).
Matt: “The chorus lyric is quite dark, it’s us taking a really honest look at ourselves. Some fans will be like ‘Are Jess and Matt that damaged?’
Jess: “Are they getting divorced?!”
Matt: “We wanted it to be real and honest. There was a lyric I tossed and turned about changing…”
Jess: “It’s singing ‘When we said forever never knew that’d it be this hard’ which Matt thought was pretty dark, but I wanted to keep it because it’s authentic.”
This began life at a songwriting camp, the pair working with Louis Schrool (Daniel Johns) and PJ Harding (Noah Cyrus) and initially had a pop/R&B vibe before getting a make under to find a home on Wildflowers.
Jess: “We loved the song; Matt wanted to try and make it fit with the rest of the album.”
Matt: “The song came from the same place emotionally as the other songs, so we knew it would work, it still has all the folky elements we wanted.”
6. Your Eyes
If you’re looking for vocal interplay – and lyrical romance – between Jess and Matt, look no further.
Jess: “We wanted to make a Jess & Matt choir, that was another very late-night recording of just a wall of harmonies.”
Matt: “The finished result is a more sensible version of the choir; we’d gone way over the top originally.”
Jess: “We’ve always wanted to do a song like that with stacks of vocals, harmony is definitely making its way back.”
Matt: “It’s hard to write happy songs a lot of the time. It’s nice to have that moment within all the dark content.”
Jess: “A bit of love and romance on there.”
7. Home Ain’t A Home
More examination of the dynamics that make their relationship work, using experience from previous partners. “I never knew a love could make me better,” the sing at one point.
Jess: “Being in really shitty past relationships you start to feel like you don’t deserve love. So, the verses are quite dark, explaining that and realising this person is your saviour, to pull you out of that place and make you feel loved and cherished and you can be anywhere with them and it’s home.”
Matt: “When I was speaking to Jess in the early days of meeting her, everything seemed simple. She was telling me that if I wasn’t feeling it, it’s not fair to either of you to pretend you’re feeling right and staying in that relationship. That’s where the lyric about ‘You can walk right out of here came from’. Then our relationship grew out of what was raw and real, and started from there.”
8. Best Part Of Me
One of the album’s most loved up, and most country, moments. It was created in Nashville with ex-pat Phil Barton.
Matt: “We’d both tried to write a song to play at our wedding.”
Jess: “We didn’t want to perform at our wedding, we didn’t want to turn it into a Jess and Matt show.”
Matt: “I couldn’t think of anything worse than singing at your own wedding. But we were both trying to write the kind of song that could be our first dance, an ode to each other, but nothing felt good enough. So, we decided to try and write one together.”
Jess: “It is pretty flowery and romantic, but you need some love on the record, otherwise it’s just a sad, sad COVID record!”
9. Strawberry Hills
That’s the name of the Sydney bar where they met. This is another document of sparks flying – with precise detail right down to the car Matt drove, the whiskey Jess ordered and a near-kiss at the side of stage during a JMC performance night.
Jess: “We ended up getting kicked out of the bar because we were talking for so long and the place was shutting down. I was his ear for his shitty relationship, telling him to get out of there, saying I had no ulterior motives. Although I did!”
Matt: “I was a bit blind to the fact me sharing all this stuff with Jess, about my relationship, was actually growing a relationship I was unaware of until our relationship actually started.”
Jess: “He’s such a boy! He didn’t think anything was going to blossom, but I did for sure!”
The scene: Jess and Matt are in Nashville and need to get to New York, but have missed the last flight. The solution: They hire a car and embark on a lengthy road trip, captured perfectly here with another country-influenced banger.
Jess: “We’d been spending three months in the year in Nashville before COVID, so the song is a bit of a dedication to Nashville and travelling to New York for the first time.”
Matt: “It’s another song that isn’t all doom and gloom!”
Jess: “On tour it’s the uplifting moment everyone wants to hear, so we figured we should put it on the album too.”