Matt Ward’s newest single Tattoos, Trucks and Country Music, off his unrecorded forthcoming album, debuted at #1 on iTunes and showcases his unique blend of Australian, Americana and Outlaw country styles. His 2019 debut Heartland was a lyrical journey of love, loss and redemption and reached #1 on the ARIA Australian Country charts.
Covid-19 has left the music industry in quite a disarray and with many uncertainties. How has the pandemic impacted your music plans for 2020?
I was due to go back to Texas in April and finish recording my second album, but that got put on the back burner. I ended up going to Sydney to record Tattoos, Trucks and Country Music with Matt Fell [Golden Guitar winning producer from Love Hz Studios] for my next album and I’ll finish the rest of the album remotely with the studio in Texas. I have been writing a bit and put on a series of online music shows as well, so just tryna’ keep busy.
You recorded your debut album, Heartland at Yellow Dog Studios in Austin, Texas with well-known American producer, David Percefull. From an outsider perspective, recording remotely sounds more difficult than recording live in studio. Were there discussions on waiting until the travel ban is lifted?
I did speak to my producer in Texas and said, “Should we just hold off or should I just finish here in Australia?” but I was keen to finish off the album and continue to use him. It’s funny because when I recorded over in Sydney, even that was done remotely. The drummer was in the Blue Mountains and we were in the studio, so it doesn’t matter if it’s Texas or Australia, things are being done differently full stop at the moment.
[Recording remotely will] probably be not as fun I’d say because I won’t be [in the studio], but technology is amazing these days and I think the most important thing is I can give production advice and steer [the band] in the right direction about sounds. [Recording] will be more of a staged process, but because you’re not playing live, people are looking for alternative ways to access your music as well, so that’s why it makes it even more important to keep releasing. I think it’ll be a huge learning experience for me and will challenge me as well, so it’ll have its benefits and hopefully I can get back to America when things clear up.
This second album, I’ve spent a fair bit of time in America and in Texas, and I really want to spring out something slightly edgier with more of a Texas country feel. It’s definitely got more of an outlaw feel on some of the new tracks as well, as well as some fairly traditional country and traditional Texas country as well. Part of being an artist is continuing to grow, being able to show different sides of your creativity and not necessarily always releasing similar styles and stories etc. I’m excited to be able to release something that sounds a little different – and I hope people enjoy it as well. I think if you know you’re releasing quality songs, that’s the main thing. If you’re releasing rubbish, then I’d start to get worried.
You’ve achieved quite a lot of success in a short amount of time. Heartland reached #1 on the iTunes Country album charts and ARIA Australian Country album charts, and your previous four singles have received over 140,000 combined streams on Spotify. But fundamentally, you’re still a relatively new artist with the freedom of having your fans grow alongside you. There’s not that pressure of performing a specific type of music successfully for 20 years and then doing something completely different.
Yeah, that’s a good point. That’s really an excellent point of trying to take people on that journey as well. It’s not like I’m releasing techno music or something completely different … nothing against techno – I don’t mind techno actually [laughs]. [The album] just sounds slightly different. You can hear different production values coming out.
What I also enjoy is, a lot of artists having a back catalogue of songs that they’ve written at certain points of time, and so certainly the last one and this one is a mixture of new songs plus songs that have been sitting there for quite some time. Part of the creative process and, I think, if you actually put your mind to that journey, you can say, “I think this song is actually really cool for this time and where I’m at in my creative journey or in my life” so I’ve done that. Tattoos had been floating around for four or five years. I’d never played it live and never seen the light of day, but I just knew the band I was going to use out of Texas would do a really good thing to it and fit the general vibe of what I’m releasing, so that’s part of the fun as well.
When you’re creating or writing a new song, do you initially have a clear idea of how you want it to sound and proceed down that track when in the studio? And if so, does that then change once a band and producer gets involved in the process?
Like many things, I think teamwork is the best approach. For some of the stuff I’m releasing at the moment, there is a sound in my head of what I’d like to bring to the table, but that’s never gonna be the complete picture until people put ideas on the table. Another song, that I’ll release down the track, is a bit of an out-of-the-box song. It sits on one chord and builds over time. The producer was like, “Wow. I’ve never heard a song like this before!” but was able to bring in some string elements to it as well. So, I think, with my previous releases and with these new ones, there’s definitely 50/50 between the producer and artist in terms of the sound, but at the end of the day, it’s the song that matters and that’s the most important thing.
Apart from the single Tattoos, Trucks and Country Music that was recorded in Sydney, are those distinct sounds not achievable using an Australian producer? Is that part of the reason why you choose to record your music in America?
I spent a far bit of time in Texas, and the music scene is vibrant. I lived in Austin for three months and got exposed to lots of fantastic music and musicians and made lots of friends as well. With no disrespect to Australia, the quality of production you get in America, with the amount of country music that’s played over there is significantly larger, and therefore, because of that, your ability to make new or different sounds to what you get here in Australia is greater. It’s always been a dream to record in America and see what the vibe is like, their style and play with different players, so it was one of those lifetime opportunities that you want to get hold of. So, I think, just the types of songs I wanted to release combined with the basic opportunity is why I chose to do that.
How would you define the differences between Australian country and American country?
Oh, man, I should really have a standard answer for this one, but I don’t. It’s a combination of sounds, but also lyricism, and how to do that in a way that it doesn’t slap you in the face with the kookaburra, but makes you think about the Australian landscape in a slightly different or more subtle way.
It’s funny when you hear Americana/traditional American country music, there’s a certain romanticism to it that we all feel connected to America in that sense. With Australian country music, that connection to the land and to Australianisms is still growing. I think because of what I grew up on, in terms of music, I feel quite a strong connection with many parts of American music, and that connection with Australianisms is slightly different but it’s evolving.
Australian country music is still fairly young and the ability to connect your audience to experiences and country in Australia, without sounding too cliched, is the real challenges for Australia country music. There are some people that make it so that you connect to the Australian landscape and experience in clever and non-cliched ways. Paul Kelly is a brilliant storyteller and his ability to tell a story about a place and time in a subtle fashion allows the listener to connect to that. William Crighton does it well in an alternative, subtle way, as well as Davey Craddock from Western Australia is clever in his lyricism.
There are numerous quotes from many different artists over the years who have recorded in famous studios and then spoken how inspiring it was knowing of the incredible artists who had recorded there before them. Did you feel that when you were recording at the famous Yellow Dog Studios in Austin?
It’s funny when you rock up and you’re like, “Oh, this is just another studio” [laughs]. It wasn’t glitzy and glamorous. It wasn’t in music row in Nashville. It wasn’t like Abbey Road type of vibes or anything. But it was in a beautiful part of Texas, outside of Austin. The Blanco River was flowing next to the studio with clear blue water, absolutely incredible, so that kind of vibe was pretty amazing. But the studio itself was like many other studios – fairly small, lots of guitars and musical instruments – but really lovely people, which is the main thing.
Let’s clear something up. You obviously sing country music and you can clearly see you have at least one tattoo in one of your Instagram photos – but do you have a truck?
Negative. The song is a bit tongue in cheek about the image of country music and country artists, and yet, there’s no real meaning behind it at all. I do think it’s funny seeing the popularity of Americana and country music rise, and there is a certain image to that that you see in certain facets, and part of the song is to remind people to pay respect for those people who have been listening and playing country music for a long time as well. It’s part of always being self-aware and say, when you rock up to Tamworth, for example, and you hit the stage noting there’s been people doing it for a lot longer than you and to pay your dues. But no, I don’t have a truck [laughs].
Tattoos and trucks are lyrically a staple in a lot of country music, and another, of course, is heartache. I read a quote from you where you spoke about being a total cliché having only started writing country music after of a breakup. Do I have this correct?
Yeah, that is true! That was quite some time ago, I didn’t start writing country music until I was about 30 [years old] and it was off the back of a breakup from a long-term relationship. But my writing and who I am as a person – bit of an old soul and I wear my heart on my sleeve – country music just naturally fitted to myself and how I like to tell stories. Also, adventure, hitting the road and liking to meet new people and communities, so it fit.
Does the person know they are, in some ways, responsible for your current career?
I dunno, I think they could probably guess. I actually work with her these days, but it’s been all good. And funny enough, I think she ended up marrying a sheep farmer, so she’s probably got more country cred than I do [laughs].
Tattoos, Trucks and Country Music is out now.