by Karin Vincent

Matt Langley: Rothko’s Rule Number One

by Karin Vincent

Matt Langley: Rothko’s Rule Number One

Coming five years after his last album, Matt Langley ’s ‘Winterdust’ is a poetic solo release, stripped of any pretence. It’s a short, lyrically penetrating album of thoughtfully edited songs and recorded single takes wrapped around a sad, yet hopeful theme. Karin Vincent pulls back the curtain to reveal more about this pensive Dunedin songsmith.

“I was coming out of a patch where I wanted to make some music again, and I’ve been waiting for a kind of change. I didn’t want to go and just record songs out of my songbook,” says Langley. “It was at the point that I could recognise that my songwriting was going somewhere else artistically.”

After a several year hiatus since his last album, ‘Virginia Avenue’, Langley asked Tom Bell if they could put a few demos together at Port Chalmers Recording Studios, figuring the pressure would be off if he aimed for subtle demo sessions.

“A bullshit story I was selling myself,” he admirably comments, acknowledging he knew that sitting there by himself in (the former) Chicks Hotel, trying to get live takes he would be happy with, was going to be a lot of work.

“I lacked a bit of confidence I felt I needed at the time,” Langley adds with undoubted honesty.

Instead of making it a straightforward recording of songs he had written over a five-year period Langley wrote ‘Winterdust’ as an album in response to his reactions to paintings.

“It was an interesting thing to do and not something I’ve done before.”

The trigger was a William Blake painting – which led to employing (Mark) Rothko’s Rules – made to reveal the essential recipe to make a great work of art. Rule one, that there must be a clear pre-occupation with death, is clearly demonstrated in the tightly-themed central sad lyrics.

“The mortality, watching as things happen around me, set the narrative. Hope has got to be in there too,” Langley comments as we talk about working outside, eating homemade kimchi and building his house at Broad Bay. He has settled for a quiet life, a departure from his itinerant lifestyle which saw him touring laps of NZ and abroad for almost two decades.

Langley grew up in Dunedin. He recalls being “spoiled with encouragements” and adorning his grandmother with stuffed envelopes full of “awful child poetry”. A literate upbringing formed the cornerstones of his future songwriting, believing, “What you are going to produce, is what you put in”. Musically, he learnt what he knows by playing in public with others, teaching himself and building on from the three chords his dad showed him during a rugby game as a youngster.

Music was always around in the Langley household. From singing songs in the car to listening to his dad’s LPs – The Kinks, Beatles, Jimi Hendrix – but the primary influence was his dad who played guitar and sang in bands as he was growing up.

Invited to play a song at a teachers’ auditorium, he says it was on this day that he knew he would be doing this for a long time.

“I was wearing my blanket as a makeshift Stevie Ray Vaughan poncho. I was 19 and so nervous. It felt like as though my life was riding on it,” he remembers. “I couldn’t comprehend how I would feel if I couldn’t go through with it, or what I would be doing next if I couldn’t do it.”

His first album, ‘Lost Companions’, was released in 2007, followed by ‘Featherbones’ in 2010. Both solo albums, they demonstrated a refined songwriting skill. ‘Virginia Avenue’, released in 2012, was a full band album, collaborating with quality musicians including Adam Page, Riki Gooch, Alexis French, Clint Meech, Tom Watson and Tom Callwood. Virginia Avenue was where Langley was living at the time, during a brief stint living in Wellington.

“It was a pretty amazing project and I am very proud of that album,” he smiles. “Musically it was an experiment and it kind of got into the country-esque capacities of rock and folk. It also had pop rock aspects and examined how some music works here and transplants to a different place.

“The big thing about that album was getting the crew together, which was phenomenal. It was recorded very fast, with lots of ad lib stuff and experimental jams.”

Having been doing a lot of solo work and really driven the ‘Featherbones’ album he recalls wanting the support of a band.

“Working with a group of intuitive musicians, felt like an evolution from that songwriting and I wanted their input. The band came in and did so much work. My hands came off the steering wheel for a bit and they brought surprises to me, just wonderful surprises.”

In contrast his new album has been more a meditative process of writing, re-writing and editing.

“‘Winterdust’ is a bit special, smaller and it needed a lot more attention,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it without Tom Bell. Tom is so patient, so brilliant, and he mentored me through that beautifully.”

The only other instrumentation on this album is violin, played by Alex Vaatstra. The feel is timeless, a sure product of meticulous planning and revising.

“I just want to write that one song, even if I write 2000 songs to get there. Songwriting for me is intense, messy and needs ruthless editing. What can I refine? For me, I enjoy moving around the pieces, it feels like I’ve done some work and not just splurged it out.”

Photo by Clare Fitzgerald