Herald’s Q&A: Matt Mays

The east coast rocker talks cathartic songwriting, freedom of the stage and Newfoundland love in a candid interview.


No stranger to long serving music fans here in Newfoundland and Labrador, Dartmouth’s Juno winner Matt Mays makes it a priority to treat his dedicated island fan base to generous helpings of unstoppable rock music on a semi-regular basis. Returning to the island to close out the second annual Iceberg Alley Performance Tent alongside The Trews and Beauwater, Mays shares his thoughts on Newfoundland and Labrador, his deeply personal album Once Upon A Hell of A Time… and the release of performing on stage. 

We have to say, you’ve always been good to your fans here in St. John’s. You routinely visit the island on tour, which is a rarity for the bulk of working musicians these days.

St. John’s is probably one of my favourite cities in the world, if not my favourite. Usually when I go I always try to stay for a couple of days or like a week before the show. Some of my best friends in life live there. My girl is from St. John’s so we go back and hang with her family. We live in Toronto now, but it’s great having a girl from there and getting that full tour every time we go back.  

The older I get the more close I feel to the place, and living in Toronto and living in a bigger city, just going back there it’s a real concentrated version of the east coast. Everything I love about the east coast is really there in Newfoundland. It’s always such a pleasure to go. The shows are good and people love music there a lot more than anywhere else and it makes for better shows. 

Take me through the recording and writing process for your most recent record, Once Upon A Hell of A Time… The word is it’s one of your more personal and cathartic works of your career.

I kind of started out doing a record in L.A. and doing a different batch of songs that I still really love and will put out someday, but I didn’t really tap into and I think I was avoiding what I wanted to sing about. I was avoiding what I really suited singing about. 

I was working with Loel Campbell from Wintersleep and passing through Montreal and he said just go to the studio and we had some idea to go jam. I went and we banged something out and it happened so naturally. The two of us kind of had this thing where we played something live and magic kind of happened and we banged out this song that night.

I decided to go back and I ended up moving to Montreal. Went through it six months straight. We pretty much worked from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and worked super hard. I got really comfortable, and felt really comfortable with Loel, who is one of my best friends and feels like my brother. I kind of let out what I needed to get out, a lot of personal stuff, and I feel like a lot of those dams got busted out. I said a lot of things I needed to say, to myself lately. It kind of took precedent to the other album I was working on and it happened really quickly from that point. 

It seems cliche to say at times, but it’s often expressed that songwriting can be amazingly cathartic. I’d imagine that was certainly the case for you and this weighty record?

I think stuff that really can let people get something off their chest or mean something or has depth, that’s the real stuff, you know? Where the audience doesn’t give a f**k what the listener really thinks, that’s the truth in music and the painting that the painter he or she really wants to make and not worrying what the eyes will think. 

That’s what Loel and I did on this one, do it the way we wanted to do it and I sang the way I wanted to sing. It felt really good to not really care about anything else and just getting it off my chest.

Audiences here have had the chance to see you perform countless times over the years, and you’ve never failed to put on an incredible show, often seemingly leaving it all on stage. Is the stage a happy place for you? In the sense that you always seem so energized to perform.

I’ve had a lot of anxiety in day to day life. I’m terrified of confrontation and I’m sort of scared to leave the house sometimes. 

It’s weird to say that for me being on stage, that’s where I feel most unthreatened. I feel very protected up there. I actually am more energized and more weird on stage. As soon as I step off stage again the world starts coming back in again at me. For me being on stage is celebratory, because I feel the best version of myself. I feel like I’ve always had that as soon as I picked up a guitar and stepped up on stage. It’s always been there and I feel it’s the relieving and it always will be there. If it hasn’t left yet I don’t think that it’s ever going to leave, that freedom that happens up there. 

For tickets to Matt Mays on September 22nd at Iceberg Alley visit icebergalleyconcerts.com and mattmays.com

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