On the day that would've been Elliott Smith's 45th birthday, I met with Matt Mays to talk about his upcoming album. Coincidentally, almost all of Mays’ album-in-the-works was recorded at Smith's Los Angeles studio over the past several months. It was also just a few short days away from Mays celebrating his own 35th birthday. En route to the interview, I bumped into the tall, long-haired singer, sporting his usual chic-homeless style — but when I came face-to-face with the camo-clad, sunburnt dude, I realised I had actually just mistook a street corner vagrant for Mays. When the real deal stepped into the dim-lit downtown Halifax pub, he was almost unrecognizable, sans-beard with a fresh undercut. He humoured me with a semi-awkward hug, sat down, and, after a brief “I’ll-have-some-edamame/no-we’re-all-out-of-that/k-I’ll-just-have-some-fries” dilemma, we began.
Almost two years ago to the day, I met with the Juno-winning singer-songwriter to talk about his much anticipated emergence from his four-year hiatus, when he released Coyote. Now, we were catching up on his sixth album, which, he says, could be finished as early as September — or as late as never. "It’s going to be done – at least close to being done – in September,” he tells me, disinterestedly picking away at his cone of fries and ketchup. “I wanna try to get a single out for January or something, but I don’t know, I don’t trust myself. I might scrap the whole thing, who knows.”
Smith's LA studio, New Monkey, fostered all the creative juices Mays was looking for to put into some new music, but the modern Canadian rock vet describes himself as a bit of a control freak. “[The studio] is amazing, it’s super low-key. Usually, I don’t like big studios that end up being pretty sterile; this place is obviously vibey.” The album-to-be, which is also being co-produced by Wintersleep’s Loel Campbell, has about 18 songs on it — but only about 15 full-length ones.
“I got the album done in a really short period of time ‘cause it was so inspiring,” he says, sipping a cider, still not stoked about his fries. “I hadn’t written a song in a really long time and we got, like, 15 songs done in a couple months. I’m a big Elliott Smith fan. He’s definitely in the air there for sure. It’s kinda neat to have that extra feeling in the studio [that you’re] not used to having.”
The new record will be one of Mays' recent albums recorded without his late guitarist and friend, Jay Smith, who died suddenly while the band was touring Coyote a year and a half ago, but the Rock Ranger will be shining through the riffs and licks in spirit. “There’s a part in [the new album], the two songs we did live off the floor at Sonic… there’s some stuff Adam played that sounds like Jay on the recording,” he says, telling me how different it’s been without Jay around. “I don’t know if [Adam] meant to [sound like Jay] or not, but it’s really cool. He’s definitely there, y’know, amongst the music, for sure.”
Mays, who had been living in LA for the first half of the year, is back in Halifax, living out of Ramadas and Marriotts on the weekdays and catching up with his folks on weekends. His summer’s included gigs like Yellowknife's Folk on the Rocks, Montreal’s Osheaga and two sold-out hometown shows at the Shore Club – “Nova Scotia’s Last Great Dance Hall” – a little-known venue featured in his video for "Ain't That the Truth". I ask him how Osheaga was, he having just flown in from Montreal the day before. “It was awesome,” he says, revving up to tell me about “a really intense game of Duck, Duck, Goose” that he, July Talk, Serena Ryder, Against Me!, and a box of beer played in a Montreal “crack park” after getting kicked out of an apartment after-party.
But the good times don’t seem to fill a growing void for the “Loveless” singer. “I miss my domestic life in New York,” he tells me, alluding to his nomad-esque lifestyle. “I miss my relationship and my routine. I tried to live [alone] in Dartmouth, I didn’t like living alone.” The domestic lifestyle he’s referring to included a fiancé, an Italian greyhound, whose name he has tattooed on his neck, a shared apartment, and on-the-horizon plans for starting a family. His engagement was broken off while he was writing Coyote — which, at that time was going by the working-name of Shangrilawesome. Nowadays, he says, there’s no communication between him and his ex. “We decided to just fare to ourselves,” he tells me, sitting on old memories of his former life. “It’s really very hard for me, ‘cause she’s my best bud, y’know? But it’s the only way it’s gotta go down – we’ve always known that. She’s happily married now with a baby. I’m just the past. That’s all I am, and there’s no reason to keep that around.”
Still sipping his first cider, Mays dives deep with his thoughts on skewed, modern values, unraveling inner discourse about substance-fuelled “happiness,” the epidemic of mental health issues plaguing our generation, and the dark, reflective truths of reality television. “Not a lot of people smile as much as they used to, unless they’re taking pills to smile or unless they’re loaded. It’s just… because I come and go so much, I feel I can see how some people are kinda trapped, and they think its OK to be trapped.”
He goes further down the rabbit hole of his continental assessment, weaving in and out of the staggering emergence of mental health problems – a population he says, he himself is very much a part of. “I just think a lot of third-world counties – I haven’t been to a lot – but they seem to have it down pat,” he says. “Just, like, you come here and all the smiles are fake because everybody has anxiety and its like, y’know? Including myself. I’m scared to go out sometimes because I don’t know how to face people because everybody’s weird. It’s fucking wrong.” In escapist hopes of redeeming more personable, genuine qualities while also seeking refuge from everyone’s weird tendencies, Mays says he plans on trekking to Istanbul, Barcelona and, if he can stretch his pre-album-release vacation time, India.
Right now, Mays is self-assured in steering in the right paths, for himself and his music. “I think, ultimately, my goal is just to be happy,” he tells me, detailing an ideal combination of life compartmentalization, including the balance of expanding his audience, continuing to surf and eventually having a family. “Which, is a tall order, ‘cause life’s an asshole, but that’s ultimately, the perfect life.”
Piecing together that perfect life is a strange game for Mays right now, but he’s got good people in his corner to help him get through it all. He and fellow Canadian folk-rocker, Serena Ryder, had gotten close while they were both living in LA earlier this year. “She’s a really good influence on me. She’s very… she knows the mind well and knows the spirit well. She just seems to kinda know when I’m feeling down, and she always calls at the right time.” And, though it sounds like the meet-cute for a fan-fantasy romance between the two, Ryder and Mays are just friends.
Diehard followers and new fans alike can look forward to the new record, which, Mays says has an inherent California feel to it, paying homage to music like the Byrds and the Beach Boys. However, he does does identify with some OCD tendencies – something he says, could prolong the release of the elusive record, but also comes part and parcel with any music he makes. “Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘OK it’s done,’ and then I’ll listen to it in the car and it’s like ‘nope, not done yet.’ You gotta put your fuck-ups into [your] work. You gotta use those as tools. Maybe [I’m] OCD too, whatever, y’know? Everyone’s got that shit. They’re just different strengths.” The completion of the wavering album, Mays says, could be all wrapped up in just a few weeks, but, if you read between the lines, it seems like the vagabond has some more soul-searching to do before letting go of his latest piece of work. “It’s gotta be right, so, I can’t guarantee. I might come up with a different concept, so I like to leave a lot of room for that,” he tells me, finishing up his cider. “I think my subconscious kind of knows it’s not locked down into anything.”
Hillary Windsor is a writer living in Halifax - @HillaryWindsor