“Sorry it’s a bit cold in here,” shrugs Matt Maltese, just minutes into his headline show at Hackney’s newly-opened (and bafflingly-named) venue EartH. “You should cuddle up, to a loved one… or a stranger.” He stops himself. “Not a stranger – that can only end badly… Speaking of that, this next one’s called ‘Nightclub Love’!”
It’s evidence of the endearingly awkward slant Maltese brings to seemingly po-faced classic singer-songwriting. His debut album ‘Bad Contestant’ is one of the year’s essential debuts, its baroque piano-pop arrangements providing a much-needed breather from the streams of scatty punk emerging from his adopted South London home. But it was the sarcasm and self-effacement which really made ‘Bad Contestant’ shine, filled as it was with references to everyday mundanities like underwear and comedowns.
Now, with a full backing band to bolster his lovelorn sentiment, he’s become one of the nation’s premier piano-men. The likes of that album’s title-track and ‘Studio 6’ use the lush arrangements of that group to their full potential, while ‘Even If It’s A Lie’ – the throwaway Soundcloud upload that kickstarted his career – is performed solo, a single spotlight illuminating Matt and his gaudy, blood-red lightbulb-adorned love heart backdrop. It’s an awe-inducing change of pace, which emphasises Matt’s singular talent.
The best evidence yet of Matt Maltese’s evolution, however, is his dab hand at drab humour, too. “I think it’s safe to say we’re all hating and heartbroken at one stage,” he notes before ‘Even If It’s A Lie’, adding: “Well, maybe I’m alone. Kill me now.” Previously buried in song, a year on the road has given Maltese the quick wit of a comedy veteran. He cuts down hecklers and regales the crowd with tales of the youthful folly that inspired ‘Bad Contestant’ – the most baffling and brilliant of which comes before ‘Guilty’, as he explains that the track is about getting rejected by a girl, taking a shitload of pingers, and then having to go ice-skating with your mum the next day, comedown and all.
Leaving his piano behind for the criminally undervalued lead single from ‘Bad Contestant’, ‘Greatest Comedian’, he saunters around the stage, to howls of appreciation from the younger crowd assembled down the front. “For everyone who loves an encore, this is our last song! It’s called ‘Strange Time’!” he announces before a heckler shouts out for his breakthrough ballad, “As The World Caves In’. “Waaaait!” Matt groans in reply, like a toddler whose surprise party’s been ruined. Sure enough, ‘Strange Time’ finishes with perhaps the best encore of the year – a half-second long dip in the lights, before Matt grins: “Annnnd we’re back!”
- Read more: “Support slots are amazing – you can be in bed by 11pm” – Matt Maltese on his sardonic debut album ‘Bad Contestant’
Fittingly, ‘As The World Caves In’ provides yet another case of tonal whiplash, a huge, sprawling, classical introduction making EartH feel more like the Royal Albert Hall, before the track itself – a millennial Leonard Cohen-esque track about Netflix and chilling as the apocalypse comes – sends shivers down the spine. It’s that very mastery of both goosebumps and giggles that makes Matt Maltese so essential – “I’ll be at the merch table after if you want me to sign your phone case,” he smiles as the night comes to a close, “or, y’know – if you actually wanna give me some money?”