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Matt Carstens Interview – Coffee House Sessions Tour



published November 1, 2018

For a second week, the Coffee House Sessions Tour found its penultimate placing at Man Met’s very own Students Union to round off another stellar set of performances from TWO artists this time around. First up was South African singer/songwriter and guitar aficionado Matt Carstens, who had never been abroad before let alone to the UK to perform. As always, Callum went down to speak to him before his set…

How has the tour been?

It’s been great! Shame it has to end though, it’s been a really cool and surreal experience.

And playing with Germein as well…

I was so lucky to be honest. It’s the first time there’s been two artists together for the Coffee House Sessions Tour and I was really lucky to be a part of it. The Germein sisters are insanely talented, as well as being really nice. They’ve got country and folk elements but then they do the stripped-down, acoustic for Coffee House Sessions. Very, very cool.

Must be easier for yourself if you’re spending so much time together?

We clicked really well. They’re not full of it or anything, so down to earth.

Whilst not being overly similar, your music having the same kind of energy to theirs and especially working on collaborations together on the tour, including the Backstreet Boys/Bruno Mars mashup, it seems like it all worked out really well. 

There’s another one coming! I think it’s good to put two acts together that aren’t totally similar, because people definitely want variety. Nowadays they usually get bored so easily. Like when was the last time you listened to an album in full from top to bottom without a break? Pretty long ago.

Probably last week.

Well you’re a purist then, but most of the population would get bored with that. I think it’s cool that we have some pop element that finds the continuity in the two sets between myself and Germein.

How similar would you say the ‘pop’ genre is between your home country of South Africa and here in the UK?

I’d say there’s quite a big difference. But, I think South Africa is generally quite influenced by the UK pop scene. We usually reference what happens here a lot, because British music has always been the sort of forefront of what’s in and what’s happening. You guys have been the leading culture. With back home being so diverse, we have 11 official languages so we have a lot of cultures that influence our music. It’s kinda hard to classify yourself as being a pop artist when in actual fact it’s more of a schizophrenic mix of genres.

Anyone from back home you’ve been listening to a lot? 

There’s a pop artist who’s pretty big, Matthew Mole. Really cool dude, great music with these 80s beat influences. Interesting to listen to.

Is that the kind of thing you listen to when you’ve been here and had breaks within the tour?

The thing is, I haven’t actually taken a break. On our off day I arranged a show in Suffolk just to keep myself busy. I get really, really anxious when I don’t play.

You’d much rather be up there with your guitar right?

Totally, that’s my release. I’m a bit of a socially awkward dude.

You mentioned earlier about how you did your first show at 14, how difficult have the last few years been in terms of being able to get gigs in Cape Town and getting the Matt Carstens name out there?

The thing is, I’ve gone through a lot of change in the last year. I used to have a manager, but I left that situation. It just wasn’t my vibe. I definitely wanted more control over the Matt Carstens brand as a whole. Started doing independent bookings and it’s really a full time job, 9-5 every day on just bookings and emails. It’s also the best job ever, you get to do music and make music for a living. It’s a really competitive industry, no matter where you are. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

You definitely see it, I used to watch X Factor and The Voice when I was younger and you’d see these amazing artists who had gone on and no-one had said yes or turned around. They’re clearly talented and can sing better than me, but you don’t know the type of music they’re not putting out because they’re not getting the opportunity or there’s not the ‘space’ for them.

I’ve never believed that whole competition vibe. I get that the panel of judges they bring in are super successful, individuals in the music industry but I don’t think you should give anyone that much power to say whether what you’re doing is good enough. Ultimately, you make music for yourself. You shouldn’t make it for other people otherwise it’ll be terrible. It’s a really good opportunity for some people, but I think mostly you should just stick to your guns no matter what. If you dedicate yourself 110% to a goal like having a career or at least just being able to pay rent by doing music fully you know?

Is rent a difficulty for yourself, especially in Cape Town?

Yeah it is man!

Here in Manchester, for some students, it’s not so bad but there’s a few places (Fallowfield, Ancoats) where it’s quite steep.

But you guys have free healthcare, you get a lot of free stuff. It’s a totally different vibe over here. Like I’d never been on a train until I came on this tour, you have yourselves sorted. But rent isn’t too terrible if you can commit. Doing those weddings that pay well and just pushing on with shows until you’ve made a name for yourself and start playing those shows you want to play.

Did you ever busk when you were younger? You never know who’s going to be walking by, getting your name out there.

You never know who you’re going to meet. Yeah totally, it’s all about getting yourself out there. I think Ed Sheeran said if there was one piece of advice he’d give to upcoming artists, it’d be to do any possible gig you can. He took the tour schedule of the guy who sang You’re Beautiful (James Blunt) and doubled it with the amount of shows. Look at The 1975 as well! They’re one of the most hard-working bands.

They’ve done so well to get where they are. Apart from One Direction who were a completely different spectacle, a lot of British bands…

They didn’t even win that competition!

Yeah they came third. The big thing was how you never wanted to win X Factor over here.

No-one ever wins X Factor though.

For The 1975, doing well both here and in the U.S.

And in South Africa! They’re huge, especially in the Cape Town scene. Everyone knows them. They’re fantastic musically as well, they do music in the most dramatic, British, romantic way.

They’ve been able to change as well.

Yeah totally! You have no idea what’s coming next with them. They released their latest single last night and it’s genius. They take a lot of cool influences, like the jazz stuff on that Sincerity is Scary track. I reference them a lot because with my new singles that I’ve been releasing, every single one has been different and I like that. But there’s some element that I can’t pinpoint that’s bringing the continuity into it as well.

In that you don’t want to release two singles that sound very, very similar?

No, I feel like if I can keep interesting for myself that’ll convey in the live show. People really read your energy when you’re performing, it’s a constant feed. You put something out there, they see you’re enjoying it and they enjoy seeing you enjoying yourself because it’s real.

And then they enjoy themselves more.

Exactly. People are funny.

Obviously with the release of your debut album ‘2D Heart’ in 2017 and the Somebody Else and You Do You singles this year, what do you have planned for the next few months, moving into 2019?

What I’m planning on doing is releasing a single on October 28th and then November 28th and then taking a little break. I’ve just been so busy, I think I need a little sabbatical.

You don’t want to burn yourself out right?

It’s heavy on a dude. I love it, I love being busy but I think I’m just gonna get back to South Africa after this, do some local shows, maybe a December tour up the coast. Really nice. 2019, I’m probably gonna release a few more singles and then after the end of 12 or 13 singles, I’ll probably put it in a compilation for an anthology.

NoMBe is someone I really like, he’s an R&B artist from L.A/Germany. Last year, he released one single a month and then the album this January.

That is genius. It is! This band from South Africa, ShortStraw, did that as well. I like the idea of every single being totally unique on its own, there’s like a storyline to it.

Yeah, there’s a reason why they release it in the order that they do.

You don’t have to stagnate in between singles, you just need that breather for people to take in what you’re trying to put out. I think with releasing an album, you’re giving people too much room to pick a favourite and see where you’re at.

For myself, I’ve got a 2 hour show on a Wednesday and can pick about 20-25 songs. So when albums get released on Fridays in the U.K, it’s picking 1 or 2 of those songs to play but you’ve only got a few days to decide what you’d really like to. I’d play the whole record if I could.

Personal taste has such a big part to play in the whole thing. You can release a really pop-y track by the formula you’ve used to write it lyrically, musically, thematically even but it might just fail. There’s always that chance, there’s no sure thing unless you’re one of like Ed, Justin, Taylor or Miley [Sheeran, Bieber, Swift and Cyrus]. Miley’s amazing.

New Miley or old Miley?

Definitely new stuff. When she released Wrecking Ball, it’s still in my opinion the best pop song ever written. It is just power.

Ooh, for me it’s Believe by Cher. I love it.

Actually that is such a banger as well. I feel like Wrecking Ball for our generation I guess.

If you look at the some of the biggest pop videos of the last 5/10 years, it’d be up there.

Yeah, that and Thinking Out Loud. People went crazy over that one.

I was a massive Ed Sheeran fan, especially after his debut. Just have not been able to get into him as much since.

I think that’s also a thing. People get very comfortable. With Mumford and Sons’ first two albums, ‘Sigh No More’ and ‘Babel’, I loved. The latter was the epitome for me you know. They released ‘Wilder Mind’ and I hated it at first. Half a year later, my phone was on shuffle and one of the tracks came on. It was fire, it’s crazy. Sometimes the artists evolve their sound too fast for their fans, once again it’s the risk factor. My new sound is totally different from the first album, which is very stripped-down acoustic, high-school kid in love with everything. I was in love with breathing I swear, so naïve.

Do you find now that you’re getting more opportunity, especially in terms of working with ‘bigger’ producers, do you still have the same freedom with your music?

Totally. For the ‘2D Heart’ album, I went up to Kill City Blues Studios in Cape Town and George Van Der Spuy from Taxi Violence, one of SA’s biggest rock acts, produced the album. I was very star-struck  and he was great for what I needed. He does live, not a lot of electronic elements. As I moved away from the more organic type sound, I started approaching and I’d just rock up at studios, mentioned that I’m trying to record some stuff, play it for them and if they liked it, we’d record a single! I got to work with some cool producers.

So is there a great deal of opportunity for new artists in South Africa? Obviously here, we’ve got BBC Introducing. The amount of artists that have come through there.

As an independent artist, it’s super difficult to get on radio. I’ve been working at it the last two years solidly. Student radio is chilled, but more mainstream radio where they put you on a playlist and you get paid. It’s really cool to see how competitive the industry actually is. People think you’re a musician and have the easiest job in the world, whereas it’s a full-time job like any other. In South Africa particularly, you’re competing with international acts to get on radio.

As well as those from around where you’re from.

I guess that motivates you to do better. It keeps you on your toes, but that’s definitely why I did the U.K. tour. I wanted to see what influences I could gain from this side of culture and I’m definitely coming back next year with a full band.

Did Coffee House come to you then?

Nah you’ve got to knock man, I pretty much message anyone that I think could have a positive impact on my career at this stage. That’s got me to the point where I could finally do my first U.K. tour! I’m so sad it has to end though, it’s so bleak. I’ve seen every little bit of England, so I’m trying to come back for festival season with my three-piece. We’re gonna try and hit up Glastonbury and some venues in Ireland. I’m a massive Irish Whiskey fan.

So finally, what have you loved so much about being in the U.K? Must be nice to be here now before Brexit kicks in.

I think the biggest thing I’ve appreciated so far is the fact that people literally come in during the middle of the day and pack out venues, skipping lectures to come out and see some live music. You guys have such a market for music, it’s insane. You can be any genre and someone’s bound to have somewhere to put you. Just how music is so integrated in your society, it’s like breathing. It’s part of how you are as British people. You listen to good music and you have a very different idea of pudding than the rest of the world. Black pudding was not a fun experience for me.

I hate it. 

I thought I was getting a sweet treat after my breakfast!


Matt Carstens’ latest single, My Apologies, is out now:




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