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MAALA on Musical Evolution, Masculinity and More

How the 21-year-old shrugged off the stigma of television talent shows to create his broodingly dark debut.

The past few years has seen New Zealand born Evan Sinton, better known as MAALA, transform from television talent contest star to brooding, mysterious electronic artist. With his debut album, Composure, due Friday, July 29th, we caught with the 21-year-old to discuss his wild ride from unnoticed frontman of a jangly high-school rock band to earning props from Zane Lowe.

How did you start making music? 
Officially, it’s been there [since] pretty early on. I’m pretty by the book I think. My parents they got me in keyboard when I was about 4 or 5. I did the music lessons, etc. And expanded my knowledge on the keyboard. Then there was songwriting through teens, learning guitar by myself. I think I was about four when I hit the keyboard. But my parents were never people who were all, you know “You’ve gotta do the grades and achieve such and such.” It was just a means of, it’s there if you want to play, go ahead. 

Were they musical?
Yeah my… well… no, no. [laughs] My mum, no. My dad, he played the piano accordion, which I think was the cool instrument back then. But at the same time was not a huge music listener, or not active sourcing stuff. I mean, there were tapes lying around and I remember Fats Domino was one of the first tapes that I was like “This is so cool.” But it was a real slow intro into the world of music. To me it was very much about the couple music books in front of me, and just learning that keyboard. It was a pretty small world for a long time.

And when did your own influences start coming through?
Well, first it was just sheet music [laughs]. I just learned all the ones out of the books, so not really ‘song songs’. That was just me. I didn’t even really listen to too much music myself until I was like 12.

The first stuff that I was really into was your classic Foo Fighters and the Nirvana, but I was still very into that pop rock world. I wasn’t an adventurer, but I loved the stuff I was hearing. Another big one was Jeff Buckley. I think through finding out new music, I was exploring my own voice, singing. Listening to someone like Jeff Buckley is just so inspiring. Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant, you know those huge voices, those were big things for me.

What age were you when you started writing your own stuff?
I reckon around that time, like 14. Listening to all this music and they’re all playing guitars, and I was all, “I want to learn the guitar.” And so I was just in my room on the acoustic, and very shy about playing in front of anyone. And it wasn’t until I was like 17 when I showed anyone my songs.

So your family knew, but not your friends?
Even my family, I wouldn’t sing in front of them. I would be so embarrassed. I was like, “oh my god, my voice is so weird.” But I was also comfortable that I was just enjoying it in my own way, and I didn’t need a response at that point.

What changed that?
I suppose it was just more comfortable. I definitely spent like 5 years, pretty religiously in my room just singing and writing songs and them all being pretty terrible, but I started to feel like I was getting better. And then I suppose being 17 I just wanted to be cool. And I knew that I could do music, and I put together a band. I had my bunch of friends, not musical people and I was all, “You’re on bass. I’m going to teach you what you’re going to play.” [laughing]

I was very studious at putting together the songs. And then it was writing for a band so, I was learning about being another level of not just what I’m playing, but how everything else works. It was a really good learning thing. This became a high school band and we’d play, and I felt cool and they felt cool. We were a four piece, your classic rhythm, lead guitars, base and drums. At the time, the big thing was Vampire Weekend, so it was that indie, hipster sort of thing. We loved that. It was good. Very rhythmic and bouncy and fun, and dorky.

And then New Zealand’s Got Talent came along…?
Yeah, in my last year of high school I went to a duo with a drummer, but we weren’t quite the White Stripes [laughs]. We didn’t know how to pull off that sound. And my last year of high school, that’s when New Zealand’s Got Talent popped up on TV and my dad loves those shows! [laughs] He’s all about that. I was always like “god they’re so dorky”. This was the [season] where they put a bit more money behind it, ’cause it definitely was the one people recognised. It ended up being the biggest show in New Zealand in the last ten years or something. But, I did it for my dad, you know. But not like in this passionate way. It was just “this will be funny”. There’s no way in hell this is going to be anything, I’m going to entertain the idea for him.

And you went on the show solo?
Yeah. Bear in mind, this was the first time I was singing in front of people. I was so nervous, but I also didn’t give a shit cause I was like, “well this is going to be one long queue waiting to play for one person and then, that’s it.”

So you had no kind of, expectations?
No. People might say that and go, “Oh no, I don’t care.” But I truly did not expect anything.

In the first production room I sang “Blackbird,” and they were like “no no no, another song”. And I hadn’t even prepped another song. I waited 16 hours and I’ve only prepped one song. But yeah, it just kept ticking over… And it was right at the end of the last year of high school, so busy, busy year.

How do you look back on that whole time now?
Positively. Yeah, I still have the same kind of thoughts towards the show that I [always] did. And I suppose coming off the show I was a bit like, “this is so weird that this kind of happened.” But it’s part of it, you know. I mean I met people and I got my name out there – things that weren’t important to me at the time, but it’s helped me to develop relationships that I have that stand now. So it was a great stepping stone, and a great tool to try things out and find an audience. Which I hadn’t done up to that point.

From there — the show ends, and you were still performing under your own name?
Yeah. I was [doing] a very jangly, acoustic guitar, singer-songwriter type. I’m really selling it right? [laughs] And coming off the show, I was becoming less excited by the two components and trying to find new ways of putting the two together. Some people are magic at doing that, but I wanted more control over lots of other things. Which I think stems back to that high school band where I could piece it all together. I wanted to recreate the band, but in a new way that kind of felt like I was doing something exciting and kept me inspired to keep writing, so that’s what made me jump on a computer.

I’d always had the software on a computer and I’d dabbled in just for fun, but that’s kind of when I was… actually, the story is that my car got broken into and my acoustic guitar got stolen.

Really? Sounds like a typical origin story…
[laughs] No, this is true. I know it sounds emphatic and soooo cool.

I was flatting at the time. I left the flat, I got fired from my job and my car got broken into. My acoustic guitar, my keyboard, all my stuff got stolen. It was just this absolute breaking point and I was just like, “okay what the hell am I going to do now.” That is all fully true. I was sleeping in my car. I just had my laptop and I was trying out beats. That’s kind of how it happens with that stuff. I would be trying to see those things through, and seeing what the response was. Just finding stuff out. That’s what that EP turned into, my MAALA EP. I was just exploring things, finding something that felt right and then hitting that stride and building a body of work.

It was initially all kept quite mysterious as far as who you were. Was that a purposeful move?
It’s a common thing, I can see why people would think “he’s off a TV show, he wants to lose that brand and rebrand”. That wasn’t conscious, that wasn’t something. You know it’s helpful, I did want to build a name for myself that didn’t feel as associated, but that wasn’t the reason for mystery. I just wanted to put a cool image together and I didn’t think it needed anything else. It wasn’t this, “I’ll let the music speak for itself” thing. It was just like, this is a cool piece of artwork, this is a cool song, here. And with that first release “Touch” off the MAALA project, it was a very organic approach where we just put it on Soundcloud, we just wanted to see how it went. There was no pressure for it to be a single single.

But you were already working with a major label, right? They were okay with you just putting it out there like that and seeing how it went?
Yeah, because we also had “In The Air,” which we considered to be more accessible. And “Touch” was just a means of just gauging — what are people thinking? And the SoundCloud world liked it. I asked about it. And it was generating some good numbers and from all different places, and that was super exciting. At that point we hadn’t finished the EP though, but it was kind of validating to know that there was something that was clicking.

It that when Zane Lowe picked up on it?
Yeah, he picked up “In the Air” as the next song. He gave that one a spin, which was pretty magic. I hadn’t been in the Zane Lowe world because there wasn’t [easy] access for his BBC stuff yet. But I knew the name. And the one cool thing I knew about him was Arctic Monkeys, how he sort of broke them. So I knew he had some big props. It was awesome to know that.

It was also right when Apple [Music] had come out, so to get a premiere on that when everyone, I suppose, was very in that world, was awesome. And so that was “Touch” out and “In the Air” out and then the EP. It was a very, great experience.

How about the live side of things, were you ready to play live straight away?
No. I love performing live. With the singer-songwriter stuff, the more acoustic-y stuff I was belting. I was really gunning for it vocally and having made the thing in the studio first, it was sort of reverse engineering. How am I going to do this live? I started with a drummer and a guitarist because I wanted that live aspect still. I didn’t want to take that away. And we did a couple shows and that was all very well and good.

How close were the live tracks to the original music?
I didn’t want that familiarity, I wanted that production value. You know, that’s where the songs lend itself to but, I also wanted to make it something unique. It’s not just the EP, press play and then.

The thing is, and I’m going to contradict myself here, with this new album I just enjoyed the production side of it so much. And it’s been the same sort of process where it’s in studio, and that’s the focus, with not a lot of consideration on how it will be presented live. I feel like the direction definitely lends itself to that bigger production value and making more of a show out of it now. So it’s just me on stage now and it’s a lot of buttons and keyboards, it’s definitely in that world now. But I enjoy that. I don’t try and just play the track how it is, there’s extended parts.

For an audience to hear dynamics that you maybe wouldn’t hear on the album, where I can take those lows and make them even fucking lower… well, that keeps it exciting for both of us.

With the album process, you mentioned you followed the same kind of way of doing things as the EP. Is it still very much you and you alone, up to a certain point?
With the EP, it was written with Josh Fountain, who was behind the desk. Cause as much as I knew the computer side, I wasn’t by any means, “The Man.” And it was an easier, a faster way of translating ideas because he knew the stuff. And through that collaboration, it definitely improved my own writing. So with the album I worked with Josh again and I tried to make it more of a collaborative process and push back a little as well and stop being so self-absorbed in my own ideas. I like the idea that someone else has a better idea, and that’s why we should use that one.

How different is the end result of the album, compared to the EP?
I’ve come to describe it as an evolution rather than this polarising thing. Which the single, you might hear that. It’s far poppier and brighter and more confident. And sort of that confidence is that evolution, it’s “I’m more confident in my writing style. I’m more confident in making decisions in just what I want to hear and then also just trusting others. So it’s definitely got that sort of dark undertone that the EP has but it’s also quite bright and exploring melodies and making it all a little bit more digestible in a way. I’ve really come to enjoy pop music.

My crush at the moment is Carly Rae Jepson. I have all these influences that are drastically pop, but I think in the end it’s sort of this weird mix, that kind of indie world vs. that shiny pop thing. But the pop elements that I like is that very to the point melodies and broadly speaking in that format, I like knowing when the chorus is going to hit. It kind of helps to feel the music a little more. That is important right in this album.

What are your plans after the album is out, are you going to continue to be based in New Zealand?
I’ve lived there my whole life. I’m 21 and desperate to find other things and explore.

Do you feel it’s been a relatively supportive environment?
Absolutely. My parents are right behind it and I’m very familiar with my surroundings there.

And the music scene as well?
Yeah, it’s a tough one. Especially with the music I’m writing it’s hard to find, actually not even music related, it’s hard to fill a venue in a city where you can only play once every so long. I feel like in a bigger city you can play in the same city a couple nights a week, and I’d like to do more of that type of thing.

More on your own style, do you feel that the genre you’re involved in — brooding, R&B-influenced soul — is a specifically positive sign of the times. Most notably, from the male singers that are involved within the genre, attaching themselves to the far more emotional and vulnerable side of pop music, moving past the predefined stereotypes associated with masculinity?
Yeah, it has to be a positive thing right? It’s just expressing whatever the fuck it is you want to say. And not having up barriers, the oh I might look uncool. I feel like slowly I’ve been working that out and not giving a shit as much.

I suppose personally it’s never been a conflict for me. I don’t think I’ve ever been associated as the jocky kind of guy. I’ve always been the lanky musician dude. I’ve never really felt like I’ve had to put up a front anywhere. But you’re right. That is definitely a thing that’s becoming a lot more common — and that is exciting.