Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #131. Subscribe to our print edition here!
With his latest album Rainbow Valley out, Matt Corby is settling into life at the forefront of Australian music. Australian Guitar caught up with him to talk about his creative process, and the challenges this singer-songwriter has faced broadening his approach beyond the guitar. Words by Alex Wilson.
Change is one of the perennial topics for an artist. There’s safety in playing to your strengths, but stagnation is also a real danger. Matt Corby has received almost as many props for his excellent guitar playing as his distinctive and powerful voice. His hit “Brother” was buoyed by a complex arrangement of electric arpeggios, and his acoustic fingerstyle prowess backed up his voice beautifully when covering The Black Keys for Triple J’s Like a Version.
However, with Rainbow Valley, Corby expands his musical vision, leaning hard on keyboards and modern soul productions to inspire his songwriting and creative voice.
“I’ve been getting stuck with guitar, because it’s the instrument I know the most,” he muses. It’s a sentiment any guitarist can empathise with. “It’s a psychological thing. When you know all the rules of something, it gets hard to break them. I would find that whenever I would sit down to write something on the guitar, it would take five times as long and I wouldn’t be as happy with the end result anymore. For me, it cornered the song and wouldn’t leave the possibilities so open. I don’t really know why I do what I do most of the time. Me and Dann (Hume, producer and engineer) were always joking, ‘When are we gonna put guitar on this?!’”
They did during some choice moments. “Get With The Times” is lifted by a down-low guitar line that supports the song’s strong gospel vibe. But overall, the axe wasn’t doing it for Corby. “You do end up becoming complacent with your muscle memory. You pick up a guitar and you do the same lick and you play the same little chords.”
Like any good artist should, when faced with that roadblock he took an alternative path.
“The place that me and my partner live in, Rainbow Valley, has a separate little dwelling. Unused. I moved all my gear in there: a whole bunch of recording stuff, a ton of pianos and guitars and a drum setup. Miced up all the time.”
He then got to experimenting.
“I went in daily to make instrumentals and see how I could push my limits,” he recalls. “A lot of it felt like dicking around. ‘Oh, here’s this cool synth sound, let’s see if I can make a hip-hop beat!’ Or trying to do jazz chords and a samba rhythm. The demos are hilarious and they jump around feels and genres pretty dramatically. I was probably doing that for a year. There’d be, I dunno… Forty instrumentals just sitting on my hard drive.”
The fruits of this process would become apparent when Corby really got down to business with his producer Dann Hume and songwriting foil Alex Henriksson. These new approaches were felt in the genesis of songs like “No Ordinary Life” and the album’s title track.
“In the end, it was cool,” Corby reflects. “It really helped. When it came to the serious writing with Dann and Alex, we were pushing to finish a song a day. I could go back to my previous experiments in my head and pull on that stuff in the moment of working on a song. It brought that experimental shift into reality. All that R&D really helped with problem-solving when it came to writing songs.”
On the phone, Corby is contemplative, but also a bit scattershot. It’s not like he’s lacking things to say, but more like he’s trying to handle a hundred ways of answering the question. By the way he tells it, his creative process is much the same.
“Sometimes I walk into the studio and I hear the song. I go, ‘Cool, I know the vibe. I know the BPM I want. Let’s start with this click. Let’s throw a beat down. Maybe we can change the beat later.’”
The song will then develop in a way that, for lack of a better phrase, splits the difference between method and madness.
“I’ll play the chords I want and get the harmonic feeling I’m going for. If we’re being methodical, this is what it would look like. After the foundations of the track have been laid, that’s when it can get quite spontaneous. Maybe I’ll play a little whirly line, or maybe I’ll throw some bass on it.”
As much as he can do on his own, Corby can’t go all the way by himself. “Dan and Alex are there to reign me in, most of the time,” he admits. “When I’m venturing down the experimental path too far, they’re the ones to say, ‘Okay, stop. You had it half an hour ago, let’s go back to that.’”
Collaboration is key, and also a bit of good‑natured ribbing. “Dann calls me Captain Fiddlefingers because I want to do the maximum amount of shit all the time.” Corby laughs, but he has a point to make. “They were sounding boards that help keep all the minor details I’m obsessing over in the right context. If I was doing that by myself without someone to say, ‘No, that’s good,’ this record definitely wouldn’t have been made.”
With all the creative change that’s occurred in his life, Corby also recently become a father. The album takes its name from the serene and beautiful location in which he now lives with his family. Much of this new sense of optimism and place is captured in the songs and atmosphere of Rainbow Valley, and this has given Corby reason to reflect.
“It’s very easy to make something joyous sound lame, or somehow shitty,” he says. “That’s probably why a lot of songwriters like me have made darker songs. Maybe part of me felt like I needed to be that way to be taken seriously. But you put yourself out there a bit when you make music that’s upbeat.”
Thursday March 21st – Great Western Hotel, Rockhampton
Friday March 22nd – Entertainment Centre, Townsville
Saturday March 23rd – Munro Martin Parklands, Cairns
Friday March 29th – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Saturday March 30th – UC Refectory, Canberra
Friday April 5th – Convention & Exhibition Centre, South Brisbane
Sunday April 7th – Miami Marketta, Gold Coast
Tuesday April 9th – Flinders University, Adelaide
Friday April 12th – Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne
Saturday April 13th – Performing Arts Centre, Geelong
Thursday April 18th – The Civic Theatre, Auckland
Saturday April 20th – Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Tuesday April 23rd – Odeon Theatre, Hobart
Saturday April 27th – Kings Park, Perth
Tickets on sale via mattcorby.com