Mathew J. Hall: “Writing music is just me opening my mind”

Words: Mollie Bland

A few months on from the release of his debut album Unquiet Mind, Exposed caught up with Mathew J. Hall, the self-proclaimed ‘big kid’, to discuss the Sheffield music scene, big plans for Tramlines and why he doesn’t mind being labelled as miserable.

Has music always been the plan?
Yeah, ever since I picked up a guitar at 14-years-old I’ve not wanted to do anything else. I don’t think I’ll ever give it up and it will always be a part of my plan. I’ll probably always be a big kid doing this. I started writing at the age of about 14, but I didn’t start playing gigs until I was 21. I just wrote a couple of hundred songs, and then I met friends that were like-minded and it moved from there. It happens a lot, meeting people and playing music in this way. A lot of people started earlier than me but I never had the confidence. Eventually I just started playing in bands.

You were in a few bands before heading out on your own. What made you decide to go at it solo?
I played in two bands, my first being The Velotones when I was about 21 until I turned 23. Then I joined a band called the Violet May, and that did alright. I decided to pursue a career on my own just to have full ownership of my work, my art. Even though I don’t have a set band that I always play with live now, I do have a lot of different musicians that actually come and help me in the studio and put their ideas down. So it’s nice to be working with different creative people all the time, instead of being stuck with just one band. It’s healthy to change it up sometimes, otherwise you can risk things going a bit stale.

For people that aren’t familiar, how would you describe your sound?
It’s miserable! Well, it’s quite emotionally-driven. But there’s definitely a light side to it, not always too depressing. In fact I quite like being labelled as depressing, as it’s a not a bad thing to be tarnished with. It usually means you’re winning. Especially in today’s culture as a man, more people are suffering with mental illness and struggling to talk about it. Writing music is kind of just me opening my mind, and there might be people out there who have experienced the same thing as what I’m talking about on the record. I take most inspiration for my sound from female artists. I think they have the balls – well, not balls, but you know what I mean – to say what comes to them. Lykke Lee, Sharon Van Etten, it’s always women that I have been inspired by. I grew up listening to those like Neil Young and John Lennon, but I kind of hate the whole macho man thing.

You released your debut album back in November last year. What has the reception been like?
It’s been really good! It has probably taken me by surprise; it’s done a lot better than I thought it would have to be honest. You go into the studio and make a record, I’ve been writing songs a long time, but people always like the ones that you didn’t expect. You finish the album and you go, “I think people are gonna like these ones, this one could maybe be a single.” Then it’s always the opposite, people always surprise you.

“It’s healthy to change it up sometimes, otherwise you can risk things going a bit stale.”

Has anything changed for you since the release of your album?
Definitely in terms of my art, yeah. I’ve decided I want to put that behind me, I’ve written enough about that chapter. I want to bring a bit of a lighter note to the next stuff. I’m starting the next record now and I’m going to make it a bit more soulful. A lot happier. The darkness has kind of diminished.

When can we expect to hear your next record?
I’m writing my new album now, and it will probably be released next year. I’m actually hoping to release it on my 30th birthday, so next March if it all goes to plan. I’d say it’s about half written now, and I will start demo-ing it in August.

I saw you playing with Them Sardines at the Leadmill last month, and obviously you’ve earned your spurs doing the local circuit beforehand, but what do you think of the Sheffield music scene and gigging here?
It’s great, but the city is just struggling for venues I think. I’ve been playing in Sheffield for a long time, and even places like the Harley have gone now. Venues are just disappearing overnight. There are a lot of great bands here, there’s just nowhere for them to play. Everyone is just stuck in the same place, which makes it hard to move on and do your own little thing. I love playing in Sheffield, it’s great to perform in other places and meet new people, but plenty of different people come to gigs in Sheffield as well. It is a brilliant city in itself.

I want to bring a bit of a lighter note to the next stuff. I’m starting the next record now and I’m going to make it a bit more soulful. A lot happier. The darkness has kind of diminished.

Does Sheffield culture influence your music/lyrics?
My writing is mostly autobiographical, so it definitely does because I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve never left Sheffield so of course it is going to shape me and what I write. I don’t know how specifically, but there have been a lot of things that have happened to me in this city.

It has just been announced that you are joining the Tramlines line-up, as one of the selected acts from the Apply to Play scheme. Tell us about this process?
I have a mutual friend with Timm Cleasby, and he put me onto it. He sent me a link to the scheme and I just went online to send in an application. Then I was obviously chosen out of the other applicants, it came about easy as that! I have always been a fan of the festival, so this opportunity was one that I really couldn’t miss.

Got anything special planned for your set?
Just a curly-haired man in flares being miserable – with a pretend smile on my face because there might be some of my family there. It’s quite a powerful set. It will be the latest album, as I won’t be playing any of my new stuff just yet.

On that note, what does the future hold for you?
I’m planning to do some gigs a bit further afield later on in the year, maybe venues in London or Brighton. But the plan is to just record, record, record. I’m putting an emphasis on recording my new music at the moment, more than playing gigs. There will be plenty of shows towards the end of the year, but I just like making music. I’d rather just make a load of records and enjoy myself doing it.

Exposed In Session
An exclusive online gig from some of the city’s finest musical exports, filmed live every month.
In Session produced by: Joseph Food 
Filmed & directed by: Tristan Ayling 
Recorded & mixed by: Paul Tuffs

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