Successfully stepping out of well-fitting singer/songwriter brogues and into the dancefloor sneakers of electronic pop clearly requires more than just a change of haircut and footwear. Some kind of intervention and re-invention is needed. In the instance of Evan Sinton those two things came in the person of producer Josh Fountain and newly adopted persona of Maala. Eliza Beca caught up with Evan / Maala on the eve of the launch of his debut album.
Evan Sinton has been through a fairly significant musical metamorphosis in the past couple of years. While Maala’s first single Touch exceeds 1.6 million Spotify plays, search under his given name and you’ll find another release, ‘Phosphenes EP’, sitting in the low thousands.
That EP doesn’t just sit at the other end of the spectrum in terms of its listening figures. In fact, the only thing revealing that the same person is behind these musically paradoxical projects, is the distinctive vocal tone.
At some point between 2013 and March 2015, when Touch rather anonymously appeared on Soundcloud, things clearly changed for the now 21-year old.
“I got bored of doing the acoustic guitar thing. I felt limited by it, so I just started trying stuff out, until something sort’a clicked and I felt more of a rhythm – that was Maala.”
“I wasn’t an exceptional guitarist and I didn’t have a drive to be an exceptional guitarist… it was like a natural progression, just trying things out with what I’m comfortable and atuned with.”
Letting go of the Fleet Foxes-esque guitar music that effectively carried him through high school, Evan found a new rhythm in an unashamed new found fascination with pop. The transition enabled him to work more from piano, his primary instrument, and apply that to other instruments on computer.
A self-titled debut EP under the Maala brand took a slightly more minimalist approach, with hints of soul underlying the vocals. Another single, In The Air, also attracted NZ On Air funding and a subsequent artist showcase slot.
Just a year on, his newly released debut album ‘Composure’ wholeheartedly embraces the electronic-pop genre (while including those two tracks as bonus). The stylistic morphing reflects his own changing musical influences.
“Spotify was becoming a lot more a part of my listening experience, so I was introduced to a lot more playlists and the playlists were a lot more of that electronic blend, so that then consumed me… especially for this album, it’s been just a lot of pop music. I’ve really enjoyed learning the really bright and shiny pop and how to do it.”
Evan’s identity as the artist behind Touch was revealed only on release of his debut EP in August 2015. Few interviews prior to the release, along with his cool and curated social media pages, presented a very slick package, adding to the hype behind this anonymity. A move proving to be both effective and popular at the time, though inevitably some criticised it as a cover-up of his participation in TV’s New Zealand’s Got Talent a couple of years earlier.
“It was a very popular thing to do, so I’d be stupid to not acknowledge that and say that that wasn’t maybe an aspect… It’s like an idea that I kind’a wish I’d thought of first but I didn’t. But I’m a pretty reserved dude, I won’t scream and shout to get my song out there or anything, so it was just a very natural vibe to go out with a cool piece of art and a cool song.”
He doesn’t feel NZ’s Got Talent is something he needed to cover up. It was merely a step in the process that got him to where he is now, helping to expose his music to a wider audience. He says he approached it knowing it was not a purely musical outlet. Nor was it such a big deal in his view.
“It just felt like, I did a cover on TV and that was it.”
In retrospect it seems stepping back from the music side of the show gave him a more holistic view on what he got out of it.
“You get introduced to the label aspect, and to a bigger, wider audience and what they think of your music all of a sudden, and it’s less about your own thought process you know? It’s a bit more evolved and about engaging with other people, and I enjoy that aspect.”
Adopting the Maala name was initially to give his music more of a mysterious quality, though as it turns out, the motives behind the anonymous nature of Touch’s release were far from its calculated facade. After writing and experimenting with various producers for the previous few months, Evan finally clicked with Leisure-member (and former Kidz In Space) Josh Fountain. Completing In The Air out of their first session, and later Touch, he describes their approach to the release as organic. Releasing via Soundcloud provides testament to this.
“There was no promotion. There was no big scheme at that point, it was just, ‘Let’s test the waters’, and that was enough for me. I didn’t feel the need to overshare anything.”
An instinctive attitude is something of a theme behind Maala, carrying through to the development of ‘Composure’. With all the songs written in the studio, Evan emphasises a need to avoid having any major plan behind the process.
“I like to think that I’m going into it more blind. If I started getting too conscious about how I needed to sound, it would be a little too derivative… There was no thought of like an order to the album until the very late stages – ’cause that’s overthought.”
Similar reasoning was at play in the lyrical content. The tracks were built, layered and refined in the studio with Fountain, with only “gibberish melodies” mumbled over the top for direction. Evan would then take the demos home to work up some lyrics.
“Lyrics are something I don’t overthink. I write generally the first thing that comes to my head and respect it for what it is. I consider it just a reflection of whatever it is I was thinking. Like I go into lyrics quite blind, and so it’s never a conscious thing lyrically.”
It all sounds determinedly unstructured, but for Evan this pattern of working was in itself a formula, giving him boundaries to get the work done in his own time. Still, it has some downsides.
“I think there’s a lot of anxiety for me trying to keep creative. But I kind’a like the battle a little bit, like it’s not a job job for me… but it has its moments when you’re like, ‘Holy shit, I hate music.’”
While the majority of the songs for ‘Composure’ were written by Evan, Josh Fountain and his Sony A&R guy Jaden Parks at Golden Age Studios in Auckland, the process was broken up by a couple of other sessions with various collaborators, trying out a different dynamic to see whether it created anything different. Hush was written in the States with ex-pat Kiwi Leroy Clampitt, who himself recently had writing credits on Justin Bieber song Company.
Maala was selected as one of the artists involved in the APRA/AMCOS Songhub initiative early in the year, where he also got to work with American songwriter MoZella (Maureen McDonald), who was behind Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball and One Directions’ Perfect.
“Collaboration is an essential part of my songwriting, I find it really hard to be stuck in a room by myself and get a song completely finished, I need to feed off other peoples’ ideas. I think it’s so normal for me now that it feels weird sometimes being in a room and doing it myself.
“I really enjoy the dynamic of playing to one’s strengths and allowing other peoples’ ideas to come through as well. It’s finding a good marriage there so that’s been a really rewarding part – seeing the producers I’m working with and how their ideas can co-exist.
“I’d love to just work with some of these producers that do these massive songs and see their process and how they work. They’re all the ones that’re on the credit sheet and aren’t the artists. I’d love to do sessions with them, just to see how they approach it. I saw a glimpse of it with MoZella for Kind Of Love – they work so fast and their ideas are much stronger consistently. It’d just be such a great way to get better with my craft.”
While compromise may be an inevitable part of signing to a major label, Evan expresses no apprehension toward the relationship. Given his preference for collaborative writing, working under Sony NZ has provided a number of opportunities to experiment with people he otherwise might not have had access to. If anything, his only concern going into it was a matter of self-confidence.
“I think, obviously signing up with a label out of high school, I was naturally intimidated by what I was meant to achieve… but that’s eased off now. That was a very normal thing to kind of hesitate, or at least give it the time it needed to know how it worked. But I’ve been working with the same people now for four years, so I’m a lot more comfortable with the dynamic there, and it doesn’t play a big role for me. Its just creating good things with good people. It’s less about this business-y thing than people might see it as.”
Having worked in a factory while putting together his first EP, Evan is now ‘working’ as Maala full time. While playing music full time might be the dream for many aspiring musicians, Evan conveys a sense of indifference, seeing it more as a stage he’s at – albeit one he’s enjoying.
“I’m motivated to do music right now, like I’m really driven and I have a relentless amount of energy to keep writing at this point. But I know that I will change my mind and I will wanna try other things – whether that’s in a musical world or not. I don’t see the fulltime career in music thing driving me, it’s more just liking writing, and if I can do that to an audience then that’s awesome, but I’m not holding out for that.”