Over the past handful of years Matt Henry has been a presence in the musical scene of northern New South Wales and at the Tamworth Country Music Festival. After his debut EP, Life By Proxy, he has now released his first album, Love Without Co-Dependency, and it is an extraordinary work, as befits a singer-songwriter who respects tradition while finding his unique path through contemporary music. Matt is a thoughtful songwriter who does not overthink; he is willing to connect to his audience without labouring the relationship. The reasons why became clear when I asked him about the personal history that led to his new release.
On the press release it says that at the age of forty you are releasing this album that has been twenty-five years in the making. Has it been worth the wait?
Yes, it has. I was saying this to my mum the other day, because my mum heard the album and had all these questions for me, rang me with a whole lot of notes not just about the music but about my life and what I was singing about and a whole lot of stuff she didn’t know. I actually feel like I’ve lived two completely different lives, and if it had have come out any time during the first one it wouldn’t have been as interesting and I wouldn’t have been able to back it up and I would have somehow managed to completely stuff it up. [Laughs] So I’m very glad that I waited.
To that point about two parts of your life: there’s a note here about you having the courage to start performing live at thirty-five. I was wondering where that courage come from but I guess maybe it’s something to do with the fact that you changed your life.
The song ‘I Died on a Beautiful Day’ is about a big run of panic attacks but there was one particularly big one that got me to go to therapy, which I’ve done ever since. That was about 2003 or 2004. So ever since then, once a week I’ve fronted up and tried to work out all the different aspects of my life. So the first part of my life was really up until that point and the second life started then, and that was when I was about twenty-eight or twenty-nine. Then working through all those issues – I had a marriage breakdown and a breakdown of my own and a bout of depression, and then came out the other side of it, and I was starting to come out that other side I thought I’d always wanted to be a songwriter from when I was fifteen and maybe I can do it, maybe I should have a go. I had been tinkering with some stuff and it got to a point where I realised, I have to be a singer-songwriter, I can’t give these songs to someone else, they’re too personal. So I had to start trying to perform, which was another battle. That’s why it started so late. Thirty-five, I think I was, and going out to the Country Music Academy – I’d got into the academy but I’d never sung in front of anyone. I was going out the next week and I thought, I’ve got to go and sing somewhere, so I went to an open mic night.
Partly you could say it’s relatively late to start but I think one of the advantages of starting at that age and not in your teens is that you don’t have ‘beginner’ albums behind you and you don’t have to fumble your way through finding out who you are on stage because by the time you got up to sing, you’d worked out who you were.
You do sometimes look at people who are younger – in their early to mid twenties – and you can see them really wanting to be something, really wanting to be mature and wanting to understand, but they just haven’t had the experience yet to really know some things. And there are things that you know in theory and things that you know from experience. But on the flipside, there’s two things I’ve learned about starting so late: no one takes the old guy under their wing like they would if you were younger, and also if you’re old on stage and you suck, you’re just old and suck. There’s not, like, ‘Oh, you’re fifteen’, ‘Oh, she’ll get better’, it’s just: ‘Man, you’re old and you’re not very good, you should probably not do this. We’re embarrassed for you’ [laughs].
I can’t believe you’ve had too many of those moments.
There were. There were so many. I could go through them one by one with you but we don’t have time. There wasn’t anyone saying that but you could see people looking and going, ‘Yeah. Mmm.’ [Laughs]
So there’s the courage to start performing and there’s also the courage to continue – so was it just that conviction that you were doing the right thing.
I think it’s finding your voice –and that’s always been a term that I’m familiar with, but in a literal sense I didn’t understand it. But it was getting to a place where you actually feel like the person you are day to day and that you’re being that on stage and that’s who you’re being when you open your mouth to sing, and that’s taken a really long time. I only probably just really in the last year felt that I’ve gotten a bit more to that. And during recording it was like a big crash course in that with Shane [Nicholson, the album’s producer], because I think that’s where Shane is so good as a performer and he kept saying things to me like, ‘Just try not to sing so much and try to be more.’ And he said, ‘Try doing that again but sing that line more throwaway as if you’re not really that worried about what anyone thinks about it.’ Then he was saying, ‘Try being more okay with just being where you’re at.’ And they were obviously really good pieces of advice, because they’ve stuck in my head for the last year.
As you were talking I wrote down the word ‘vulnerability’, and I think that’s what Shane was getting at – it’s a big task and a big ask to be vulnerable in front of an audience, particularly when it’s being documented. Part of what I noticed about this album is that it’s very emotional but at a certain point I think you would have had to be able to distance yourself from the emotion in order to document it, yet you were somehow still able to bring that feeling to it. So I don’t know if that’s part of the alchemy of working with Shane or the experience of being a performer for a while that’s brought you to that.
I think definitely a bit of both but more the alchemy of working with Shane. I went back – after I got the first lot of mixes I went back and said, ‘I want to redo this and I want to redo that’ because I wasn’t comfortable with a lot of the areas where it was a bit vulnerable. I thought it sounded like someone who was unsure of themselves, and there were aspects where I think that was right but there were probably more aspects where it was just vulnerable and he kept telling me during the recording, ‘I like that, it has a nice vulnerability to it’, and he kept talking about vulnerability and being okay with it. So had I gone back and not had him be clear on that I would have sung all the vulnerability out of it. It was very much his particular sensitivity and ability to recognise it that kept all of that in, which I’m so glad for now.
And it works so beautifully on the album because the lyrics suggest that it should be there and if you’d tried to sing it out of the way then it would have felt like you were singing someone else’s songs, but I don’t think that’s really your groove, if that make sense.
Totally. I agree. And it wouldn’t have made as much sense had I not been that exposed. And the good thing about is that I’ve had a couple of moments on stage this year – I can think of two or three – that I felt that I could go even further with that. It’s really hard with gigs and I’ve struggled this year with accepting particular gigs – well, I haven’t struggled, I’ve just stopped accepting particular gigs because I just feel like I can’t get up and get to that place in that environment, so I’m not going to do it.
You mean particular venues?
Particular venues, time slots. A few times I’ve had promoters throw up a Sunday – ‘Can you play this? It’s a Sunday session, it’s good money, all the people are there to listen and have a good time and have a drink.’ And it’s like, ‘I know those Sunday drinking sessions’, and I don’t feel safe enough to go there and do that with these songs. Because you get there and you sort of pour your heart out and then someone says, ‘Can you play “Wonderwall”?’ And I think, ‘You know what? I’m too old to go through that.’ [Laughs]
And it’s knowing who you are – it comes back to that.
Yes, I think so. And maybe that’s the benefit of being a bit older, too – knowing who you are and then having the strength of your convictions to say, ‘That’s not me and I’m not going to do that.’ When you’re younger you probably do a lot of stuff that you’re not really that enamoured with.
And you would do it, for a music career, in order just to get the runs on the board and make money and get some practice live. But regardless of where you are in your career, not many people say ‘no’ to work and then they probably end up feeling compromised by saying ‘yes’.
Exactly. And I don’t take for granted the fact that I have another job and I’m not doing this for a living – that makes a big difference to be able to do that. I don’t judge anyone for taking any gigs when they’re a professional working musician – you’ve got to get paid, you’ve got to eat. So I’m lucky in that sense.
That trick of having creative work is that sometimes the right decision, as much as people might think it would be lovely to do it full time, that loads up the work with a whole lot of other things. It’s arguable that if it was your day job, you couldn’t have got yourself to the place to record the album like this because there would have been so much else on it – like, ‘I have to take all those gigs.’
That’s right. I’ve written songs since the album and you start thinking about them in the context of what other people might expect or what you’re going to do next or what might sell, or will people like this song. And it’s really hard to say, ‘I’m not doing this for money or for all of these other reasons, so I’ve got to stay true to writing what I want to write.’ I know that in any other aspect where money does come in, something gets compromised very quickly.
It is a good position to be in, but it does also take a lot of extra work. Sometimes you have to make the creative job the day job because it’s too much work to do it on the side.
The thing I’ll often thing about is that in Chinese culture, the practising visual artist who is an amateur is considered the truer artist than the professional working artist. It’s just a cultural difference in that they understand that the amateur art form is a purer form of expression. There’s something more honourable in it.
To swing back to your album and the songs, I made a note about Australian masculinity, because I think country music as a storytelling genre is probably better at allowing for and accommodating different ways of telling Australian stories and talking about Australian masculinity, but what I’m hearing on your album is that you’re an Australian bloke and to be that vulnerable and write about the subject matter that’s in these songs, it’s not common.
I’m really glad you’ve picked that up because it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. It is really hard to go there. If you met my dad he’s probably the most ocker – he’s like Paul Hogan, really. It is a difficult thing to then go and do [the album]. I think with Australian male culture, there’s this thing that exists where, first and foremost, you’ve got to be a good bloke, and there’s certain things a good bloke doesn’t do. They don’t go spouting on about beliefs or ideas or culture. You don’t overdress. You don’t look too smooth. There’s this downplaying all the time – downplaying your emotions, downplaying your sense of self, your ideas, your beliefs, your political beliefs. It’s continual. Obviously all this stuff’s going to change eventually and as is often the case, it’s when these old blokes all die off and all their old sexist and backwards viewpoints die off with them. It’ll be a much easier place to be. I hate to think how it would be growing up as a gay man in Australia. People from my generation having to go through all of that, it would be unbelievably difficult. Anyway, I’m very grateful that you recognised that.
There’s a lot of honesty in country music but as I listened to your album I could hear something else at work. I listened to William Crighton’s album quite closely and I thought of that as a certain statement about Australian masculinity, and yours is not a balance to it, because it’s a different statement, but it’s always good to look at these works in the broader cultural context – and that’s why I think what you’ve done is a really important piece of work, because there isn’t anything like it as far as I can tell.
Thank you for saying that. As I’ve been singing the songs in and feeling more comfortable singing them, I was trying to find a balance between singing them like a man, not to tilt towards hamming it on a little bit, the emotion, and trying to elicit emotion through a particular sound in my voice, and rather letting the words and the music and the honesty be the driving force behind the emotion rather than an affectation. When you can’t get to that place emotionally you do make an affectation whether it’s in your voice or your delivery, and so the challenge for me has been trying to get to that place in a real way then present it on stage but also present it as a man would present it. I always think about it as trying to be okay with not being okay. [Laughs]
It’s also having the courage – that word again – to keep digging, I guess the way one digs in therapy. You keep trying to dig a bit deeper and I guess you do that every time you get up with your guitar in front of a microphone.
Exactly, and let people know. There’s been times when I can see that what I’m singing about makes people uncomfortable or it’s just maybe not going down well or it’s not something people at that point don’t want to hear about. It’s trying to stay with it regardless of how it is for other people. Just trying to stay with what the songs are and who I am and be okay with that. That’s the thing that is really the hardest for me.
And it’s a constant practice, but hopefully now that it’s documented you feel like you’ve got that platform to keep going out and doing it.
Yes, and if you get some positive response you can feed off that. And then also – like with choosing venues and gigs – I haven’t really found my place yet. I haven’t really found my audience and I haven’t really found my place in the musical world so as I get some feedback I’ll end up finding my niche area that I can exist in and spin my wheels and enjoy it, hopefully.
Knowing you, it could be somewhere that you create – you’re good at creating those spaces [Matt created Late Night Alt at the Tamworth Country Music Festival].
That’s what I’m hoping. We’re going back to when I was at the Academy of Country Music – that was 2011 and Shane came out for one afternoon to talk to us. The thing that I recall most from the two weeks being out there was this one thing that he said, and that was, ‘Just try to find a little area of the musical universe to occupy and then just do it the best you can.’ And that just felt like a perfect description for me and I’ve held onto that since then. That was a big factor in why I went to him to record.