For our second interview, we chatted to Matt Gallagher, a composer at the Royal College of Music as well as a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter. Although no stranger to the limelight, Matt was refreshingly down to earth with some valuable perspectives on the music world.
One of the first things that struck me while reading your Encore profile was the diversity of styles that you perform and compose in, from jazz to pop to modern classical music. Do you have a favourite?
Anything that’s listenable for people – I think that’s really important. There’s this idea that contemporary classical music is very unlistenable, that it’s a little too complex, and I aim to try and change that slightly when I write music. The aim is to tread the line between what’s complex enough to be interesting and what’s actually listenable. I want someone to be able to listen all the way through without thinking “this is too much” or “this is too heavy for my ears.”
In terms of performance, I’m a singer-songwriter, and that’s pop essentially. Currently, I’m working on an album called Ark, and that’s probably going to be released this Summer. That said, I also play in a jazz fusion trio called Pocket Squares, and as a function band we play jazz standards through to jazz arrangements of pop songs, as well as some originals.
So, in short, no, I don’t have a favourite – every style has its ups and downs, and composing for lots of genres solves that issue!
Have you played many gigs with the Pocket Squares?
Yeah, we play anything from university freshers parties to weddings. We had a gig with the RCM, which was a black tie party on a boat on the Thames, and it was easily one of the coolest gigs I’ve ever played. Although, it is slightly disconcerting when you’re about to sing into the microphone and it wobbles around because the boat’s tilting!
I really like the band name. Where did it come from?
The boat gig was one of the first gigs we ever did. The dress code was black tie and we thought it would be cool to wear pocket squares. We had to come up with a name for that gig so we just went with Pocket Squares, and it stuck.
So, as a composer who would you say has influenced you?
I listen to Eric Whitacre a lot, he’s really good. I’m actually going for a coffee with him next week to chat about music business. He doesn’t know this yet, but I’m probably going to pitch to him about some kind of collaboration. He’s one of the guys that inspired me to write a piece which helped me get into Royal College, so it’ll be really great to meet him and just hang out, if nothing else.
How did you get in contact with him?
He came and did some business lectures at RCM , and after the lecture I went up to him and said
“Hey I really like your music, you’re a big inspiration. Could I show you some of my choral music?”
and he said
“Yeah, let’s get a coffee!”
We’ll be looking out for that potential collaboration!
Another massive influence on my composition comes from my RCM Composition Teacher, Ken Hesketh. The man has an encyclopaedic knowledge of classical music, which is quite frankly inspiring, not to mention his own music being very engaging.
So, do you think that some modern classical music is heading towards a bit of a dead-end?
I have mixed opinions on it.
A lot of people say it’s a dying art, which is a scary thing when you’re two years into your course.
However there are cases of composers such as Eric Whitacre and Nico Muhly who are doing really well, mainly because, in my opinion, they’re eclectic. Eric has actually described himself as a 60s pop musician in a contemporary classical musician’s body. I think it’s important for people to focus on making music accessible. The internet has got to be one of the most useful inventions, possibly the saviour of modern classical music, I think, because it’s just so much more consumable, and people need to take advantage of that.
It’s also important to note that if you look back throughout history, only the best classical music really stands the test of time – so whilst I’m certain there’s music of that calibre around today, we just might not be aware of it until it surfaces years later, as is the case with many great composers.
Speaking of media, I saw that you were selected to play live on the BBC Introducing radio show, which is a pretty big deal for an up and coming musician! How did that happen?
BBC Introducing are really great about encouraging new people to upload their music. They actually make an effort to listen to every single track that someone submits.
They listened to a few of my tracks and then emailed me asking if I wanted to come in for an interview and play a live acoustic set. And I said absolutely! You realise how good a radio presenter is at their job when they make you look really good. It doesn’t matter how bad you are, as long as they’re making you look good then they’re doing a great job. And hopefully sounding good, although that’s more down to you!
Did anything else come of that experience?
You get a lot more attention on the songs, your Soundcloud hits go up, and I guess it increases your internet presence.
Do you gig often?
I play a lot of open mic nights. I think that’s a really nice way to get exposure and try out new ideas.
It’s a shame there’s not an equivalent in classical music, actually. That would be a great way for people to find out what works and what doesn’t in a performance situation.
I saw that you had one of your works played in the National Portrait Gallery?
This is something that the Royal College sets up yearly. You can submit a solo or duo piece, and if they like it, they’ll put you in the concert. This year we had eight or nine different items of new classical music. It’s a really great idea from College to encourage that kind of collaboration.
When you have a piece of yours performed, how closely do you work with the musicians?
You want to get as much rehearsal time as you can. That’s the only way you’re going to figure out whether it’s going to work, and whether or not people will like it.
I generally record as I write. Some composers have this approach where they can sit down with a piece of manuscript paper and just write down everything, and hear it in their heads precisely how they want it. I’m sure that’s a skill you develop over time, but for me it makes more sense, when you have recording technology available that sounds good and can give you a pretty accurate replica of what you’re trying to achieve, to just sit down and record as you go, and to listen back and improve gradually.
Do you feel that there’s much of a crossover between being a singer-songwriter and being a composer?
I actually like to keep them quite separate. With contemporary classical music, you can keep it really academic, which is nice in one sense because it allows you to experiment, but there’s a lot of academic music out there which is almost like a bit of an in joke: if you get it it’s great – it’s really interesting and you can spend hours listening to a piece of music and it’s fascinating – but for wider audiences, not necessarily. You do need people who are able to provide something a bit more listenable. I think it’s a good thing that there are both.
What are your plans for the coming year? Will you be promoting your album?
Definitely. I do a lot of cover videos on YouTube, and there are loads of sessions like Low Key TV and Mahogany Sessions which are things I’m planning on doing in the next six months.
I think digital promotion is a good way to go. And that goes for other projects as well. I’m writing a piano trio at the moment which I’ll definitely put online and try to promote as much as possible. I can’t see a downside to using social media, like Encore actually, to promote contemporary classical music. I think it can only do it good.
Do you have any words of advice for budding singer-songwriters or composers?
For singer-songwriters, it’s important to gig as much as possible. Ed Sheeran did something like 310 gigs in a year – that’s basically every day. It can be hard to do on a budget, but that goes for open mic nights, and anything you can get your hands on.
For composers, think about having a portfolio career. Don’t just put all your eggs in one basket and say “I want to be a concert composer.” I think you’d do much better going down as many avenues as you canm such as film music, concert music, music for theatre, multimedia music…
Get involved in as much as you can. And define your expectations, because if ‘making it’ is being a classical composer and selling 3 million records, you’re likely to be disappointed. If, however, it’s writing a really great orchestral piece and getting it performed by a local orchestra, you’re going to be happy. To me, that would probably be ‘making it’, actually. I could happily do that for as long as possible.