How the kids got smooth: the rise of Schmaltzcore

There’s a new wave of crooners bringing soft-pop to adoring adolescent fans. They may sound like Jamie Cullum, but scratch the surface and you’ll discover a very mild-mannered teenage riot

A strange thing is happening: hundreds of teenagers are bouncing up and down to the sounds of their favourite new musician at north London venue Koko. There’s a palpable sense of release and euphoria as they throw their arms wildly around one another, perched on tip-toes to keep sight of the stage, bawling out every single word in the song’s soaring, blissful chorus.

Well, that doesn’t sound so strange, does it? What’s unusual, though, is the sound inspiring this teenage riot: a sort-of MOR cha-cha-cha that you might more readily associate with their parents’ suburban dinner parties. The singer, 19-year-old wunderkind Rex Orange County – aka Hampshire’s prodigiously talented Alexander O’Connor – croons, “You’re gonna wanna be my best friend, baby”. Meanwhile, jaunty, kitsch brass band sounds dip and dive behind him.

We’re a long way from the righteous fury of grime; light years from the fertile south London punk scene. Rex Orange County sounds like Jamie Cullum. This, then, is the story of how the kids got smooth.

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Of Rex Orange County’s appeal, 21-year-old fan Kareem Belfon tells NME:It’s incredible for someone to be able to convey such emotion and vulnerability at such a young age. His album ‘Apricot Princess’ is so great. His music has a carefree nature to it, like a youthful crush. He falls into the category of artists that are probably really nice guys that you could go for a pint with.”

Rex is part of a new wave of mild-mannered young crooners who are more Buble than Bizzle, more Sinatra than Shame. Perhaps you’d call it ‘nu-EZ lis’n’ing’, or perhaps ‘schmaltzcore’ (maybe you’d prefer ‘snowflake bop’). Let’s go with schmaltzcore – a quiet but undeniable teen uprising. Caramel-voiced south Londoner Tom Misch weaves funk and hip-hop into the easy listening pop template, his debut album ‘Geography’ having recently entered the UK top 10. Reading’s raffish 21-year-old Matt Maltese, whose trademarks include laconic lyrical wordplay and a hot pink suit, is a crooner with a sarcastic sense of humour.

Tom Misch: Holding the crowd with his killer drops like a mild-mannered, jazz-pop Skrillex. Credit: Stephanie Paschal/REX/Shutterstock

These smooth criminals fall into a couple of camps: the self-aware Matt Maltese seems poised to be next in line to the sardonic Maryland crooner Father John Misty, while Rex Orange County and Tom Misch form the latest part of an earnest soft-pop lineage that spans from Elton John to Canadian piano man Tobias Jesso Jr. Whether earnest or self-aware, it’s all schmaltzcore. In fact, you might even argue that the Arctic Monkeys’ louche, jazzy – and very divisive – new album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ is schmaltzore through and through.

Millennials are famously more wholesome than the Gen X-ers or baby boomers that preceded them; an Eventbrite survey conducted last year found that only one in 10 see getting drunk as “cool”.

Nichi Hodgson, a relationship expert who contribute to the report, said at the time: “Generation X were still suffering from a stiff upper lip problem; they used drink and drugs to hide their problems. Younger people don’t want to cover up their problems with drinking and drugs; they want to face them.”

In addition, you’ve got reject what your parents and the previous generaton embraced before you, right? If that means ditching booze and nihilism and cranking up the schmaltzcore – so be it.

Jamie Cullum, the original schmaltzcore don, whose 2003 jazz-pop smash ‘Twentysomething’ sold more than three million copies and made Cullum the country’s biggest selling jazz artist, is enthusiastic about the revival of the sound that made his name and fortune. For him, it’s all about their bonafide musical chops. “That there’s this current crop of artists which are coming through with a great deal of knowledge about songwriting production,” he tells NME.

Listening to Misch, Cullum hears jazz-influenced hip-hop looped back to its original genre. “[Tom is] not necessarily a ‘school jazz guitarist’,” the originator says, “but his chords and melodies are vintage. He took that straight off of Dilla records, which is very similar to the way I got into Dilla. I guess Tom is harking back to that classic era of hip-hop. All that stuff – the crooning, the jazz, the melody, the distinctive chords – is all coming out of discovering it from those records.”

Jamie Cullum

Schmaltzcore don Jamie Cullum detects a hip-hop influence in the work of Tom Misch. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

(Incidentally, the overlap between schmaltzcore and hip-hop has been established elsewhere, too, given that Rex Orange County appears on controversial rapper Tyler, the Creator’s smooth 2017 album ‘Flower Boy’. Weirdly, Jamie Cullum almost performed a similar role. “I nearly ended up connecting with Tyler, The Creator,” he says, “because he heard my work on the Pharrell album ‘In My Mind’, which we did years ago now. I sang on that, and played a bit of keys on that record. I love Tyler, The Creator. He did an Instagram post on for the 10 year anniversary of that album ‘In My Mind’ and said what an influence it was.”)

Compared to Misch, crooner Matt Maltese takes a less earnest approach. “Satire is quite a big part of who I am,” he says (see last year’s track ‘When the World Caves In’, which is about an affair in the midst of apocalypse). “There’s a side to me that your conventional crooner would have – I’m a romantic. But there’s a side of me that takes the piss out of all of that, and sees the predictability of the cycles of romance. That side of me can only sing about love with self-deprecation and self-awareness. It’s 2018; we’re at third-gen crooner now. Love and life needs to be spoken about in a different way because we’ve seen that so much. It’s not 1955 any more.”

Unlike Father John Misty – real name Joshua Tillman – Matt Maltese is not a clear-cut persona. “There are times when I think it would be nice [to have that crutch],” Maltese admits. “But I’m singing about how I see things, so there’s not much of me being someone else. I don’t really hide behind anything on the record. We’re all different people different parts of our life, and on the stage it’s the same thing. But it’s never contrived. It really is so autobiographical. In the lyrics, I always speak the truth. All my favourite songwriters do that.”

When Maltese was young, his Canadian father turned him on to the work of national hero Leonard Cohen. “I think in pop culture he’s known as Mr. Miserable, but I saw a huge amount of wit and comedy there,” he says. “If you really delve into his material, you see that humorous side; people who’ve just heard the hits maybe missed out on that side of him, which is a massive shame. It’s a bit an in-gang if you meet other people who really know the material.”

“It’s 2018; we’re at third-gen crooner now. Love and life needs to be spoken about in a different way because we’ve seen that so much. It’s not 1955 any more” – Matt Maltese

In particular, he was touched by a darkly comic moment in Cohen’s 1988 track ‘I Can’t Forget’, which bemoans the march of time: “I stumbled out of bed / I got ready for the struggle / I smoked a cigarette / And I tightened up my gut / I said: ‘This can’t be me / Must be my double’”. Maltese explains: “It’s a superb meditation on ageing – he’s comically summing up the ageing process with that lyric. Even then I was quite intense. I thought it was really funny.”

Tamino: the torch singer whose work is influenced by his crooner grandfather. Credit: press

This appreciation of sly humour also appears in the work of Tamino (full name Tamino Moharam Fouad). The 21-year-old half-Egyptian, half-Belgian singer takes influence from old-fashioned crooners to create velvet-smooth torch songs that are as dark and tender as a bruise. Beneath the murky surface, though, there’s great playfulness. Take ‘Cigar’, inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette’, on which Tamino imagines the corpse ‘aving it large, “doing all the same things that he would have done in life.”

The singer’s grandfather, Muharram Fouad, was an Egyptian actor and musician famous in the ‘60s for combining western crooner style with traditional Arabian music. Tamino’s sly sense of humour, though, is cribbed from Lee Hazlewood, the sarcastic ‘60s and ‘70s American crooner whose rumbling baritone and saucy tone will make you weak at the knees.

“I discovered him about a year ago,” Tamino says. “He had a sense of humour that was edgy, almost absurdist. ‘My Autumn’s Done Come’ from ‘The Very Special World of Lee Hazelwood’ is a bit naughty; it’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek. I think not everybody would get it, and that’s what I like. I don’t think he takes himself too seriously, but he’s also very sincere.”

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Tamino and Matt Maltese are inspired by soft-pop musicians from the past because they feel like they’re in on the joke. Leonard Cohen and Lee Hazlewood may be acts you associate with your parents’ record collection, but listen hard and you might well hear your own playful sense of humour within sincerity and easy listening grooves. You’d be hard-pushed, though, to find irony and self-awareness in the smooth tones of Rex Orange County and Tom Misch.

Misch combines jazz guitar and slinky funk basslines – ‘Geography’ boasts parps aplenty of saucy sax – with unabashed enthusiasm previously unheard outside of a Pizza Express jazz bar. Indeed, he briefly studied Jazz Guitar at Trinity College in his native south London (though recently told NME: “I love jazz but I hated studying it; that wasn’t the funnest year of my life”). Even when he ropes in rappers Loyle Carner and De La Soul, it’s as deliciously cheesy as a Margherita Speciale. This, says 22-year-old fan Sophie Nebesniak, is key to Misch’s appeal.

 “It pretends to conform to the idea of chilled music, but it doesn’t really [conform],” she explains. It’s rebellious, almost, because it’s knowingly cheesy. In the ‘80s, say, people were cheesy because that was just the norm.” So, wait, does Sophie really think that Misch is on the joke? “No, I don’t think so. He’s just saying what he wants to say and he doesn’t let anything obstruct that, and he doesn’t care about being cool.”

Sophie and her friends love Tom Misch and his sweet millennial Buble songcraft so much that they coined a phrase he’d be well-advised to use on his tour posters: “We saw him at Parklife [the Manchester festival] and it was so good that we came up with the quote: ‘You can’t miss Misch!’”

 Rex Orange County’s emotional candour inspires similar devotion. 20-year-old fan Joe Phelan tells NME: “The thing I like about him the most is that he seems like an honest guy. He’s just talking about how he feels, really. He seems like a nice person. It’s nice to listen to someone who’s not fronting as much as some other artists do. You get quite a lot of attitude from some artists, which can be good as well, but it’s nice to have some who is more authentic.”

Rex Orange County NME

With a bit of luck, Rex Orange County might just the Jamie Cullum of his generation. Credit: press

This idea of authenticism chimes with Jamie Cullum. “When you’re 18 and a music fan, you’ve just got this hunger to listen to stuff that speaks to you,” he says. “You’ve got older people saying [Tom] sounds like Jamiroquai, or whatever, but younger music fans are just hearing something outside of what tends to be in the mainstream. And I think especially with chords, and musicianship, it can really stop you in its tracks.”

He references the country’s booming jazz scene that’s made headlines recently – there’s been particular focus on its concentration in south London. “It’s an interesting one,” he says, “because none of these people are making (stepping away from the likes of Tom Misch) things to be hits. They’re just making music. A lot of them making things that are never designed to reach big audiences; they’re just kind of scratching an itch. I think that’s intoxicating. It’s so against the modern consumer concept, it’s just people making things and feeling great, that makes them feel alive, and telling people if you want to listen come and listen.”

Even when you step away from the alternative jazz scene and back into the radio-friendly arena of schmaltzore, he says, this celebration of musicianship carries over: “When you see someone like Tom hold a breakdown – just on the guitar, just playing some beautiful chords – in the groove so deeply, he has the same hold as a DJ or a rapper. I think it’s the musicianship that displays a certain level of confidence. They may not be the most confident people – they may not be people that look a certain way, or whatever – but if you can hold an audience with the power of your musicianship, well that’s very intoxicating. It’s a real way to establish an identity.”

That connection runs deep. Rex Orange County’s music is notably vulnerable and emotional – one early track is called ‘A Song About Being Sad’ – and, in person, he’s admirably candid about emotions. When NME interviewed him back in September, we remarked that the track ‘Edition’ is “darker” than 2017 album ‘Apricot Princess; he replied: “The ending lyrics are ‘I’m only ever trying to help you and it’s only ever love’ and that is still my thoughts. But I’m still super positive and still happy.”

 “It pretends to conform to the idea of chilled music, but it doesn’t really [conform],” she explains. It’s rebellious, almost, because it’s knowingly cheesy” – Tom Misch fan Sophie Nebesniak

Matt Maltese explains that this directness is crucial to current music scene, drawing a link between his own – superficially MOR – music and that of abrasive south London punks Shame, HMTLD and Goat Girl. “There is a massive uprising in music at the moment that doesn’t sugarcoat things,” he says. We’re addressing real life things in all our music. Our generation, as much as there are bad things going on, we’re addressing so many things that haven’t been addressed.”

He cites the youthquake that upset last year’s general election, the youth-led anti-gun protests in America and the fact that musicians such as Shame have been vocally opposed to the UK’s conservative government: “There a real sense of taking ownership of our future. There are loads of bands speaking about the uncomfortable, which is what I try and do.” If this is a movement that offers brutal honesty in an age defined by mistruth and fake news, might we tentatively term it ‘post-post-truth music’? Maltese laughs and says: “Hey, you said it, not me.”

Okay, but how does he feel about being termed ‘nu-EZ listening’, ‘schmaltzcore’ or ‘snowflake bop’? Maltese dismisses the former and rejects ‘snowflake bop’ as “it doesn’t really mean anything to me – I’ve never been called a snowflake”. He’s somewhat taken with ‘schmaltzcore’, though. “I love the word ‘schmaltz’”, he says, “I all love those old American words. I say ‘kismet’ on the track ‘Nightclub Love’. ‘It means fate – you hear it a lot on ‘90s films.”

Given that schmaltzcore is so clearly influenced by American crooners, this seems appropriate. Like a schmaltzy ‘90s movie, the music of Tom Misch, Rex Orange County and Matt Maltese trades on tropes that are well-worn, yet effective.

No, the teenagers bellowing along with Rex Orange County’s emotionally honest ‘Best friend’ at London’s Koko didn’t appear to exist in the same universe as grime or south London punk, but were turning to each other to make sense of a confusing world, which is what all teenage riots – quiet or otherwise – have done since day dot. Just don’t call it snowflake bop.

– Matt Maltese’s debut album ‘Bad Contestant’ is released through Atlantic Records on June 8. Jamie Cullum’s radio show is on BBC Radio 2 every Tuesday at 8pm, and he performs at BBC’s Biggest Weekend in Perth on the 25th May and Coventry on 27th May. Tom Misch performs at The Love Supreme Jazz Festival in East Sussex on Sunday July 1st.