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M.T. Hadley
M.T. HadleyPhotography Michele Cote

M.T. Hadley writes beautiful ballads about all things glum

The Frank Ocean and Jai Paul-approved songwriter talks happiness, sadness, and the strange feelings in-between

A month ago, a stranger got in touch with Martin ‘M.T.’ Hadley to tell him he’d just got married, and had played Hadley’s song “Janet” as the mother-and-son dance. Strangers send him messages like this all the time. Frank Ocean once played it on his blonded RADIO show, a Mother’s Day special, which could be where a lot of the strangers discovered it. Or it might have found them. It doesn’t leave anyone quickly, at any rate. 

“Janet” is a song about Hadley’s own mother: “She was diagnosed in the summer / And she died a year later,” he sings on its open lines. As maudlin songs about desperately sad things go, it’s one of the most joyous. It celebrates the generosity and sacrifice that our mothers gift to people as ordinary as ourselves, as though we are people who could matter enough for a person to devote their lives to, and it’s laced with a gut-wrenching pang at just how easy this would be to just say this, but will probably remain forever unsaid. It’s near cartoonishly sad to imagine someone dancing alone to it in front of all the friends and family on their happiest day, and yet really quite lovely and tender at the same time.

His music resides at this intersection. He sings about all things glum – loneliness, heartache, mourning, despair, boredom – in a high, soft, almost-choral peal over lush synths and jangly guitars. These are bittersweet ballads about terrible longing, but with choruses that are practically mocking in their warmth and lilting, romantic infectiousness. It’s a deliberate bathos, not a million miles apart from chintzy miserabilists like Sean Nicholas Savage and Mac DeMarco – music for consciously self-aware wallowing, the kind where it’s entirely, comedically, deliciously indulgent.

It took three years after his mother’s passing for Hadley to release “Janet”, and a further three to release his debut album, the sombrely (of course) titled EmptyI’ve come to Hadley’s flat in London’s Stoke Newington, the area where he grew up (his dad used to live “six minutes walk away”), to talk about it.

In the video for “Rattle”, you ask the question, “Why create anything?” And then in the video for “Private Eye”, to every possible human impulse you simply ask, “Why?” So, why do you create music?

M.T. Hadley: Oh God. In the “Private Eye” video, (when I ask) “Why do I live? I must,” I stole that from that film The Red Shoes, where this guy goes, “Why do you dance?” and she goes, “Why do you live?” and he goes, “Because I suppose I must.” And she goes, “Well that’s the same for dancing, for me.”

When did you realise music was living, for you?

M.T. Hadley: I started playing guitar at seven, because my older brother was playing guitar, which I couldn’t stand. It sickened me.

So it was out of jealousy?

M.T. Hadley: Yeah, out of spite and jealousy. It’s a good reason to do anything. It kept going, because then I started getting guitar lessons, eventually surpassing my brother by a long way. Then I think I got to secondary, and it was only then that I realised that I was actually, like… good. Because everyone else was just, like, mashing the keyboards with their fists. Then I joined the jazz swing band. The guy who ran that, this guy Phil, he died. He was a real piece of shit, and a huge influence. If there was some kind of music genealogy of Phil’s swing band, it would be far-reaching.

Then I joined an indie band. We weren’t great, but we were 13, so we were pretty good for 13. And this became another band, which then became this other band, which is still going, but I left. My mum told me I should go to university. That’s when I realised I could just start making music without a bunch of fucking idiots telling me how to change it.

How did you start making music on your own?

M.T. Hadley: On a computer. The main instrument is the computer, right? I realised I had all this great freedom to do whatever I wanted, and start putting out songs on SoundCloud and stuff for fun. Well, not that fun. I put two out between 2013 and 2015. Then I put “Janet” out in 2016.

What made you put that out?

M.T. Hadley: I put out “Janet” because I was completely at a loss in my life, basically! I’d finished my undergraduate degree – my mum died just before the third year, and I was like, “What the fuck is the point in this shit?” And then I was like, “No, she would want you to finish.” So I finished on the basis that that’s what she would want. And then after it was done, I was like “Now I can fucking hang out and like, figure out what the fuck is going on.” 

That was your philosophy degree, at Birkbeck?

M.T. Hadley: Yeah. I just did a lot of Plato. My main interest is probably analytical metaphysics, I’ve just fucking never been able to do it. No one’s around to teach that stuff.

Analytical metaphysics?

M.T. Hadley: Questions like: What is there? What is it? What? I’m interested in some really stupid fucking ideas like mereological nihilism, which the song “Roof Party” touches on the basics of. 

Mereological nihilism essentially tries to solve the problem of continued identity by denying that objects have identity through time in virtue of being composite. So, see this table (he animatedly jabs his table), if the table undergoes a change, right? Then before and after the change, it cannot be identical, because it has undergone a change. By definition of change, something has changed, and therefore it cannot be identical. But if it if it cannot be identical, then what was there in the first place that changed? If there wasn’t something persisting over before and after the change, then..?

Mereological nihilism denies that there’s a table. It says that all there is is the mereological “simples” – you can’t say “atoms” because there are things smaller than those things, smaller than atoms, and we keep discovering smaller and smaller things, so it’s whatever the fundamental thing is. That is what there is, just piled up. We linguistically refer to it for the sake of ease as a “table”. But actually what we should be saying is, “mereological simples, arranged table-wise”. Silly stuff.

I see. A real humdinger. How does this relate to humans, and to “Roof Party”?

M.T. Hadley: I don’t know. I don’t care! “Roof Party” was the only time I felt comfortable to try and relate it to humans, because I had a platform in which I could be flippant and stupid. Right? But if you want to do a rigorous philosophy musing, I’m not smart enough to do that.

“With the song ‘Janet’, I’m trying to emphasise the joy through memory that one can have after the fact. And one of the things in the “Janet” video I really want to emphasise is that one can have an extremely difficult relationship with someone who is now dead” – M.T. Hadley

Beyond mereological nihilism, are there any other non-musical influences in your music? For instance, “First Floor” is a reference to the Jam sketch about a man who tries to commit suicide, but instead of jumping from the tenth floor of a building, jumps from the first floor ten times, in case he changes his mind.

M.T. Hadley: Yeah, “First Floor” is influenced by Chris Morris. There’s the pointing Limmy sketch in the video for “Rattle”. And then “Private Eye” was a song whose chorus I only finished last year. I watched a film called Out of the Past. I love the scene where he’s sitting at the bar, and she just walks in. I will often look at poetry. I like Philip Larkin. There’s actually a Philip Larkin quote on the sticker of the vinyl sleeve. “Like something almost being said,” which is from The Trees, a poem that means a lot to me. I have this (non-album) song “Funes” which is named after one of (Jorge Luis) Borges’s stories, which is about a guy who falls off his horse and then he can remember every moment in his life.

What about musical influences? What did you listen to growing up?

M.T. Hadley: All I listened to when I was young was Pat Metheny and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. A lot of jazz fusion stuff, like Mike Stern, John Scofield, Dave Holland, all of that frankly nerdy, weird music. Sort of the equivalent of being into metal, but as a guitar player. Inherently not fantastic music, but you’re kind of listening to get better at playing guitar. I really wanted to be fucking amazing at jazz guitar. And, I mean John Frusciante... he’s no slouch!

When did you start singing? 

M.T. Hadley: I started singing when I was very young. My parents put me in Islington Youth Choir, then I stopped, and then I realised that I had all these songs I’ve written. It was funny, because when I started writing those songs, I just viewed lyrics and words as something that goes just goes ‘on top’ of the song, which is counter to any notion that anyone has of a song, normally. It was just some bullshit that had to go on top, but that’s what happens when you grow up listening to jazz music. It was only until very recently, actually, (that I started) having people be like, “Oh, your lyrics are good!” and “You’ve got a nice voice!” And so I started thinking, “Maybe I do! That’s great!”

What’s your songwriting process, then. When you write an M.T. Hadley hit, how do you start?

M.T. Hadley: It’s weird. I’ll start something and then become extremely excited for about three days. I’ll dream about how it’s going to be, and whenever I’m not in a position to work on it, I’ll be thinking about it, and what’s coming next. And then usually what happens is I completely lose interest and about two years later realise that I have to return to this thing that I have no relationship with anymore, and then I try and finish it. And that’s entirely how I finished this album. This song “Reticent”, that was written in 2011. I didn’t have a chorus until last year back because I couldn’t find one that was not shit. I wrote five.

There’s a constant tension throughout your music, between optimism and desolation. Is that a conscious choice, or a happy accident? 

M.T. Hadley: With “Janet”, I started writing that song in 2014, which was like a year after my mother died, which is why it says, “She died a year later.” It took me a year to get to a point where I felt comfortable trying to write something, and it just came out at some point. I finished in 2016, which was two years later and that again, this was a situation where I didn’t have the right chorus. I knew I wanted the chorus to be uplifting in a way which the verses manifestly aren’t.

I was thinking a lot about, like, Kanye West. When his mother died, he dealt with it by making some truly absurd pieces of music. There’s this line in that song “Clique”, which is ostensibly a song about having an exclusive gang of people with whom you can do whatever you like. But in that song, just before a lyric about buying Tom Cruise’s old house, he says, “Deep depression when my mother passed / Suicide, what kind of talk is that?” I always listen to that song just for that line. For some reason that was extremely moving to me, because he’s couching this extremely painful line in utter nonsense bravado. Kanye West has the has the ability to make these extremely uplifting pieces of music, so I always had his songs in mind when writing that chorus. At one point there is this very sort of Kanye West-y sound on one of the (earlier “Janet”) demos.

I’m trying to beat it out of musicians, how they make music. Because as a writer, I can do easy shorthand cheats, and write the word “sad” or pull out a well-trodden metaphor to denote that you should feel a certain way. Whereas with music, your response isn’t so instructed, verbally at least. How do you evoke and express certain emotions?

M.T. Hadley: I’m constantly trying to figure out why the minor key is ‘sad’ and the major key is ‘happy’, because it’s surely, truly culturally ingrained in us to think that, because there are other cultures in which the minor key is not sad.

So people have been conditioned to think the minor key is sad?

M.T. Hadley: Well, maybe! I don’t know! That’s like the table though. I had a very good conversation with A.K. Paul about this, and he told me that and I think there’s some Indian music where the minor key is jubilant. Perhaps ‘happy’ is the wrong word, but I don’t know; not sad. But yeah, that kind of thing is fascinating to me.

One of the unique abilities that music has is to be simultaneously happy and sad. With the song “Janet”, I’m trying to emphasise the joy through memory that one can have after the fact. And one of the things in the “Janet” video I really want to emphasise is that one can have an extremely difficult relationship with someone who is now dead. And it really makes no difference, because you can completely pick and choose what you remember of someone. And also, the things that weren’t ‘happy moments’ or ‘wonderful moments’ were unique to them. You can’t replicate them with anyone else. That’s sort of the nature of what our relationship is. So even those kind of sour or difficult moments should be thought about and cherished, because they were.

How did you get involved in the Paul Institute?

M.T. Hadley: Jai and A.K. got in contact with me because they have this weird SoundCloud algorithm, which collated listener data to point towards songs, and mine was the first that they discovered through that that they liked. We met up and we listened to all my demos. A.K. and I worked on one of my songs called “Turn Away”, which we never put out. We’re still planning to put something out on the Paul Institute next year, I think.

They are the fucking best people, man. Like honestly, everyone in that group – HIRA, Fabiana Palladino, REINEN, A.K., Ruthven – they’re all the nicest fucking people that I’ve met in music. I feel like we’re all muddling along, but for some reason, it’s in the best possible way that anyone can muddle along.

M.T. Hadley performs at The Others in Stoke Newington, London on Wednesday November 12