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Matt Corby: The Reluctant Star

The singer has hit records and thousands of fans. Now if he could just enjoy it.

At 5pm on a Monday afternoon in late January, a queue is starting to form outside the Teragram Ballroom. Nestled amongst a strip of nondescript, slightly decrepit shops in a nondescript, slightly decrepit part of downtown Los Angeles, the Teragram counts amongst its neighbours a skate shop (Thrash Gnar), a Thai restaurant (the Excellent Thai Cafe), a liquor store and, across the road, the San Lucas Senior (62+) Apartments, the sign to which is painted with pictures of balloons because getting old is, presumably, quite the party. At the front of the queue is Jill Johnson, 20, and her father. They arrived in L.A. this afternoon after a 12-hour drive from Utah; when the show ends this evening, they’ll jump back in the car for the return journey. The name on the marquee above Jill’s head is Matt Corby‘s, and tonight the Sydneysider will play his first ever headlining gig in Los Angeles at this sold-out 650 capacity venue. Jill has been waiting for this moment since stumbling across Corby’s 2013 single “Resolution” on YouTube several years ago. “I just love his music,” she says, “he’s really talented. I also think he’s adorable. He’s like the most gorgeous man I’ve ever met.” She blushes. “Well, hopefully I meet.” Next in line is 21-year-old Amanda Hayes, an L.A. local who thinks Corby is “super cute and super talented; he’s a dream”. Her friend Erica nods and sighs: “If I could make a man…”

Inside the recently built, beautifully appointed venue, the super cute and super talented Corby is onstage with his five-piece band, putting the finishing touches to their soundcheck. Wearing a brown jacket that hangs well below his hips over a loose white shirt and black pants rolled up at the hem, Corby’s hands rarely leave his pockets, even in those moments when his body tightens and strains as he pushes his vocals to the limits of their range. The hushed acapella vocal loops of “Monday”, constructed by Corby as his bandmates pack up around him, are so serene you wouldn’t know the singer was, until only a few hours ago, nursing a bruising hangover. After arriving in L.A. last night, he hit the hotel bar with longtime friend Jarryd James, who’s in town writing songs. The duo met as teenagers, and have done time in each other’s solo band. “I was supposed to go surfing [today] but I bailed,” smiles Corby, reaching for a bottle of water backstage. “I just felt really rancid this morning, for obvious reasons.”

Corby has, to date, only played a smattering of shows in America, largely in major cities such as New York and L.A. and, for the most part, without his backing band. Still, his reputation is growing – the seven gigs on this two-week run through the U.S. and Canada are all sold out, with extra dates added in L.A. and New York to cope with demand. Tickets for tonight vanished within 30 minutes. “We haven’t done anything very serious [here] yet, but the internet is a pretty crafty tool,” he muses. “Over the last two years, it’s just grown at a really nice rate and we haven’t had to be in anyone’s face. Which is awesome for me.”

“I had a massive chip on my shoulder,” says Corby of the years after ‘Idol’. “I had so much to prove.”

For a man who at one point this evening says, “If I walk into a room I’m like, blend into the wall, I’m not here to cause a scene or anything”, not having to be in anyone’s face is just about as ideal a scenario as you could imagine. That his job is to stand in front of people bearing his soul via the medium of song is, he acknowledges, “the height of irony”. And yet it’s what he’s done since the day in Grade 2 when Corby went to his music teacher at school and said, “Hey, I can sing, can I sing here? I just want to know if you think this is good.” He offered up a tune – “It might have been ‘If You Wanna Be Somebody’ from Sister Act 2, I loved that movie when I was young” – after which his teacher whisked him off for a repeat performance in front of the principal, who in turn pulled him up onstage at that afternoon’s assembly. “I had no performance anxiety then, I had no idea what it was to even get up in front of people, so I just got up, held the mic, sang the song and gave it back to her and went and sat down again. And I guess from that point on I was just the dude that sang.”

Being “the dude that sang” has been a mixed blessing for the 25-year-old. On the one hand, it’s brought him here, to the Teragram Ballroom, where he’s sitting in a dressing room surrounded by best friends who double as bandmates, while an adoring crowd eagerly awaits his performance; it’s taken him to the top of the charts in Australia thanks to songs such as 2011 breakthrough “Brother” and “Resolution”; it’s garnered him ARIA Awards; it’s allowed him to walk onto stages in rooms big enough to hold 5,000 people, as he did at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney in 2013; and, most important of all, it’s given a voice to his innermost thoughts, feelings and insecurities, an outlet that’s proved as cathartic as it has creative.

The downside, though, has been crippling. Being “the dude that sang” has, at times, left him bullied, broke and battling self-doubt and suicidal thoughts, as he’s weathered the storm of a stint on Australian Idol and fought to ensure his career lasted beyond the closing credits of the 2007 finale. The more time you spend with him, the more you sense he’s still recovering from the experience, desperate to be judged only on the quality of his music and terrified by the lingering threat of ridicule, to the point where he’s unable to enjoy the critical and commercial post-Idol success he’s fought so hard to obtain.

To be “the dude that sang” is a complicated existence.

If Matt Corby had his way, he probably wouldn’t be doing this interview. He certainly wouldn’t be posing for the photos that accompany the feature, having contracted a “phobia of cameras” after the maelstrom of media attention generated by Australian Idol. When he walks into a cafe in the inner-Sydney suburb of Alexandria a month after his performance in L.A., sits down and orders a long black, he is clearly uneasy about the increased media spotlight as the release date of his debut album, Telluric, approaches. “I’m just not very good at putting myself out there,” he offers, “and I’m not good at not overthinking what could happen.”

What’s the worst that could happen?

“No one likes it. But that’s not that bad. I think it’s more just being ridiculed publicly. I’ve copped a lot of that, being from Idol, and that carries over still to this day. I don’t want to give people more of an opportunity to pick on me, but maybe that’s just more of a victim mentality.”

He worries, he says, about whether he should be “whoring myself out doing interviews”. He says his “management have been twisting my arm like fucking crazy to say stuff about this album”, that he’s “not here to talk about how fucking good I am”, and that he “just wants to play music that hopefully [people] think is good. If they don’t, go away, that’s fine.” He’s also concerned that what he says in this interview “might get misconstrued, and I end up being really devastated because I’ve misrepresented myself and my intentions”. And that’s all within the first five minutes.

It should be noted that Corby is not combative or hostile, and makes for very easy company; better still, he’s open and unflinchingly honest, a refreshing trait in this age of carefully constructed soundbites and endless rounds of 20-minute interviews designed to sell “product”. But he has been burned by the spotlight and knows the burden of growing up publicly, the only upside to which is that he “learned everything about what I didn’t want from being a musician” at an early age.

“I think I’ve always had this gauge,” he says backstage in Los Angeles. “Would I have been successful in the Sixties? Could I hold my own back then as a musician, would anyone even give a shit? That’s always a thing I have running through my head. That’s how good I feel I want to be as a musician by the time I’m done here. I want to pass that test in my head, that little Sixties test.”

corby smoke
Corby in L.A. in January, 2016. Credit: Henry Diltz.

Corby was raised in Oyster Bay, a suburban enclave of Sydney’s Sutherland Shire that sounds about as real as Porpoise Spit. His first musical memory is being driven past a guitar shop in nearby Miranda as a five year old and being captivated by the rows of shiny instruments in the window. Noticing the excitement in his child, his dad, John, an oil painter, stopped the car and bought his son a three-quarter acoustic guitar for $80, on which Corby started having one lesson a week. The first song he learned to play was “Greensleeves”, but his dedication began to wane and singing soon took priority, fuelled by a desire to be better than his sister, Grace, who’s 16 months older (“We had some healthy competition growing up,” he smiles). By the time he was 10, Corby had been trained classically by an opera singer and was making tentative steps into musical theatre, playing a minor role in a production of Cain and Abel and ‘Colin the Cripple Boy’ in the Sutherland Shire Light Opera Company’s take on The Secret Garden. This did not endear him to his peers at school.

“The grades lower and above would just really fuck with me hardcore. I guess because they didn’t understand me and they would just see… some pretty boy singer. That would make them angry for some reason.

“I can remember moments where I was sitting on a [school] bus and half the people on the bus knew that I was about to get punched in the nuts. I was just standing there chilling, and then some guy from a grade above would be like, BAM! I’d be bent over crying, everyone was laughing. That was a standard day at school. I think a lot of my anxiety started there, cos I would always imagine the worst case scenario, because I had a few of those presented to me when I didn’t [expect] them.”

Salvation from the schoolyard bullies came in the shape of a Christian vocal group called Iron and Clay, which performed at his youth group when he was 13. A year later he was asked to join, and with the eventual blessing of his parents left Inaburra School in Year 9 and hit the road. “I think it was pretty hard for Mum,” he reflects. “She kind of felt like she lost her teenage boy at that moment.”

Iron and Clay played up to eight gigs a week at schools and youth groups around the country; at the former they did “covers of hip songs, we did some Black Eyed Peas – I used to rap!”, while their routine at churches would be “a bit more praise the Lord style songs”. For his efforts Corby received $20 a show. Though he doesn’t “have a lot of good stuff to say about it in hindsight”, he “learned how to tour”, “got my chops up in a lot of ways” and met a 19-year-old Jarryd James.

“He was still very much a kid at that point,” reflects James today. “I think he really felt close to me because he was so young and needed someone, not to look up to necessarily, but to be there for him as an older male figure, which is really important for a teenage kid like Matty, cos I think he got bullied a lot at school. That’s how our friendship started, and it never stopped.”

Corby left the group just before his 16th birthday, and got a job making sandwiches at Subway before going back to school in Year 11. His return coincided with the early rounds of Australian Idol, and as he progressed through the competition he left Inaburra for good, finishing Year 11 via correspondence. (“I think I came third in engineering, which is really weird, cos it’s something I didn’t like. And the things I cared about I came fucking last in, like English.”)

The morning of the Australian Idol auditions, Corby’s father woke him three times at half hourly intervals to try and convince his son to go. The first two times, Corby – who says he used to pay his parents out for watching earlier seasons (“It was all so cheesy and shiny and awful”) – rolled over and said, “Cool, not going, thanks mate.” On attempt three, John Corby reminded his son of the time he unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to audition for the musical Oliver. “I didn’t want to do music theatre anymore, and he was always really bummed out about that cos the show was a massive success. So he said to me, ‘You don’t want this to be another Oliver situation, I want you to try and see if you can do this.’ So I put on my clothes, grabbed my guitar and we drove into the city.”

History shows that Corby came second in Australian Idol; less transparent is that his experience sent him into a spiral of depression so deep that he threatened the producer on the eve of the finale that if he won he would kill himself. He had expressed his discontent as early as the first day of auditions, telling that same producer that “I don’t know if this is for me”, but he “somehow got my arm twisted” and went back for the televised audition in front of the panel of judges. On the occasions he tried to quit mid-season, he says he was told “you can only pull out if you’re sick and you have vocal problems”.

Today he talks of being manipulated and exploited for the cameras, of psychologists being employed to “get juice” to fuel content, and of not wanting “people to see me in this light because it’s not really who I am, it’s like some caricature dressed-up version”. By the finale, he was so despondent he just wanted “to go and cry in a ball for two weeks in my room. Cos you can’t see the big picture, you haven’t lived long enough to be like, you have ups and downs, I’ll get through this. I was like, I’m destroying my reputation, my image; it’s not even my image, they dress me up in fucking fruit loop clothes so I can get more attention. Just a big mess.”

Corby describes the year after Idol as “one of the most difficult of my life”, as he didn’t understand “how to go about changing this mess that I’d created and that I was a part of”. Jarryd James remembers his friend “being pretty conflicted inside… because the thing that he loved the most, which is music, had turned into something that made him feel so dark”. Compounding the issue was his level of fame. Dann Hume, drummer for Evermore and producer of Telluric, first met Corby not long after Idol wrapped up. “People would just scream and jump out of their cars and literally jump on top of him,” he says today. “I’d met lots of people with fans and fame through what I was doing, I thought I understood what that was, but seeing the way people reacted to him I remember thinking, wow, that’s going to be difficult to navigate.”

“I had a massive chip on my shoulder,” recalls Corby. “I had so much to prove. You can hear it in the five EPs [he released before Telluric], there’s just this desperation to show whoever, I don’t even know who, that I’m not that anymore.” Later, he adds, “I was in damage control mode for five years.”

The importance of Australian Idol to Corby’s career isn’t that it defines him as an artist, but that it’s determined so many of the moves he’s made since. He passed on a record deal offered by Sony, who’d exercised their option to sign the 17-year-old after the Idol finale. (“My parents thought I was throwing everything away.”) He shied away from the spotlight, using a pseudonym to jump on low-key bills put together by friends (“I would never use my name… I was so ashamed of myself publicly”). Rather than capitalise on his profile he opted not to release any music straight away, and figured his best option would be to head overseas in search of an objective audience.

The week after he turned 18 he landed in London, shacking up in a friend’s attic. After months of fruitless open mic nights, representatives from the then-fledgling Communion label – future home to the likes of Catfish and the Bottlemen and Ben Howard – caught one of his sets and offered him a handshake deal. “It was the first moment of hope I had with doing this seriously,” says Corby.

Following on from 2009’s independent Song For… EP, he released two EPs with Communion in 2010, My False and Transition To Colour, but was forced home when he ran out of money, having accrued a debt of around $80,000. For a year Corby stopped playing music and started paying bills, working in a friend’s cafe in Sydney. He refers to this as one of the happiest times of his life. “I think it was the first time I actually felt like I was part of a community, not some weird person to be gawked at. Some people would remember who I was, but it wouldn’t be weird because, I’m making your coffee, look how it’s turned out. And to make that joke with people, it’s cool, then you’re their friend.”

When Triple J added “Brother” to rotation in 2011, Corby was so happy he thinks he may have cried. “Before that they were like, we have no interest in playing an ex-Idol, and I was like, fair enough, I wouldn’t either.” He’d already reinvigorated his love of playing live via the Secret Garden concept, whereby he’d travel to fans’ houses and play in their backyard – the perfect grass roots set-up for a man who’d spent the years since Idol attempting to take away “anything which is trying to attach itself to the music which shouldn’t be there, because it makes it impure”.

“Brother” went on to sell more than 400,000 copies, land at number three in the 2011 Hottest 100, and win an ARIA for Song of the Year. In many ways, it earned him the respect he’d so badly craved. And yet such is the riddle of Matt Corby that today he can’t stand it.

“‘Brother’ is a gimmick, man. It’s my version of a pop song. I wrote it because my manager was like, ‘Write an upbeat song!’ I never intended on it being this huge deal, and that fucking ‘ooh-we-ooh’ – the bird call at the beginning of that song – is the bane of my fucking existence. That’s what a lot of people use to mock me with.”

But that’s also what your fans sing loudest at your shows.

“That’s true, I guess,” he shrugs. “I think I take things the wrong way a lot of the time. Chip on my shoulder.”

So how did it feel winning the Song of the Year ARIA for “Brother” and, a year later, the same award for “Resolution”?

“I feel ashamed to be [at the ARIAs] sometimes, cos I’m like, I shouldn’t be winning this ARIA, this definitely shouldn’t be Song of the Year. There is so much music out there that is so much fucking better than I am, and [those acts aren’t] even here tonight. I don’t want to be part of this joke. This seems more like a major label marketing scheme than it does a night about Australian music and a celebration of it.”

Corby may have spent the years since Idol desperately trying to prove his worth, but such is the standard he sets for himself you can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever be satisfied he’s achieved it.

corby collage
Clockwise from top: at the Australian Idol finale with winner Natalie Gauci; Corby at home, he first picked up the guitar at 5; with Jarryd James in the vocal group Iron and Clay, where they first met as teenagers.

Perhaps Telluric will be the album that gives Corby peace. Lord knows its creation has been mired in the requisite amount of torture, self-loathing and anxiety, having been delayed for several years (news stories as far back as 2010 report the album will be coming out that year) and preceded by at least one full-length recording being entirely scrapped. That came in 2013, when Corby decamped to America to record in Los Angeles. Comprised of songs written throughout his career, the album ended up being ditched shortly after Corby recorded his final overdubs. “That night everyone sat around and listened to it. And I was like, off in the distance, sitting on a chair, not looking at anyone, thinking in my head [whispers], ‘You fucking failed, man, you fucking failed.'”

The conversation to scrap it, he says, “went really bad”, and yet both he and his label agreed it was the right course of action. In retrospect, he says, “I just wasn’t ready to do it the right way, and I wasn’t really ready to say anything. And just because you can sing well doesn’t mean you have anything fucking relevant to say, and that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for the last couple of years.”

Corby returned home to Sydney depressed, but with a fire in his belly. “I’d been scared of failing at stuff since the whole Idol thing,” he reasons. “I guess it was a really human moment. I don’t know how to explain the power of it, but I was fine with admitting I’d failed. That was a real kicker: ‘Oh, so I’m free now!'”

He moved into the store room of a friend’s cafe in Sutherland and set about buying music equipment and learning how to play a multitude of instruments, excited at the prospect of being able to “start making music the way I want to do it”.

His creative journey took him north to Brisbane, where he stayed and jammed with former Middle East co-frontman Rohin Jones, a time he says “was really encouraging”. He also met Alex Henriksson, who would go on to co-write several of the songs on Telluric. From there he hired a house on the Tweed River in northern NSW, and spent six months writing and trying to figure out “how to make moving compositions”.

“‘Brother’ is a gimmick. That ‘ooh-we-ooh’ – the birdcall – is the bane of my fucking existence.”

By mid-2014 he was in Paris recording with Mocky, one of the producers attached to the discarded first album, whose credits include Feist and Jamie Lidell. Together the duo recorded eight songs (“they were the first little glimmers of hope for me”) before Corby returned home to keep writing. When he flew to Melbourne to sing back-up vocals on an EP by R.W. Grace, it changed the course of what would become his debut album. Reunited with the EP’s producer Dann Hume, who’d worked with Corby on 2010 single “My False”, the two decided to get together for four days to jam, for no other reason than to see what would happen. By the end, Corby was convinced – they were going to make his record together.

“We talked about doing it in a house in the middle of nowhere, and got more and more escapist by the minute,” says Hume. “Before I knew it we were in this house in Berry overlooking Berry Mountain with an entire studio’s worth of gear, and just me and him making bacon and eggs and jamming. It didn’t feel real the entire time.”

In the morning Corby and Hume would get up and go for a surf, come home and start working. Corby would play all the instruments, making loops of beats and playing along to them until he had something that worked. With the exception of some “four or five hour chess battles”, the pattern was repeated daily for six weeks. By the end of it, save for some re-records in Melbourne’s Sing Sing studios, Corby emerged with Telluric.

Hume talks of them wanting the record to “be a reflection of where Matt’s at, [not] where the world is at right now”. Given that Corby says he rarely listens to the radio (and is shocked by some of what he hears when he does turn it on) and doesn’t own a TV, it’s perhaps not surprising the end product – a spacious melange of jazz, pop, funk, folk and neo-soul – sounds so unaffected by the trends of modern day pop.

“I remember the moment we did the very last thing on the record, which was at my house down the south coast, I think I was doing a couple of bass takes for something, and I played a bit of recorder on ‘Sooth Lady Wine’,” says Corby. “We finished it and me and Dann were like, ‘Cool, we’re done!’ We gave each other a little hug and I walked out of the room and started washing up. I didn’t know what to do! I’d just spent the last six months, but actually the last six years, conceiving of and going back on and freaking out about and trying to work on [the album], and now it’s done I’m just washing some cups!”

Back in L.A., Matt Corby is standing onstage, lit only by a faint white backlight. Dressed uniformly in black, he begins the show alone, hypnotically building the acapella vocal loops of opener “Monday”. One of the key songs on Telluric, earlier in the afternoon he referred to it as a “purging… this is where I’m at as a person”. Featuring the lyrics “No bible no more/I don’t know faith like I did before/I gave it enough/I saw the fallen white doors”, the song addresses in part his leaving the church at the age of 17. Raised in a religious household, when the congregation he joined post-Idol started to exploit his image, alarm bells started to ring: “At that point I was like, fuck you guys.”

Disillusioned, he started asking questions of himself and his beliefs, and came to the conclusion that “I’ve been duped”. Suddenly his world opened up. Though conscious of not wanting to “bash” religion (“I don’t want to take it away from anyone, it’s just not really my thing”), he does admit that “when you’re brought up in that kind of Christian environment it’s like everything exterior to the church is the devil. And so you can’t engage with reality, you can’t be inquisitive and you can’t get to the bottom of why we do this. It was a real turning point in my life.”

By the time he was 20 he was reading books on philosophy and neuro science, the latter because he wanted to know how the brain functions, partly because of his experiences with depression and anxiety. “People have said I have depression before, especially when I was younger,” he offers. “People were like, you should really go see someone. But I just thought, no, I’m pretty sure the human brain is capable of so much more than what I’m being told I’m capable of. When people say you need help it’s like, do I? With what? And if you could just tell me what I need help with, couldn’t I just go and work on it myself?”

His search for self led him to spiritual authors such as Eckhart Tolle, and to experimenting with magic mushrooms: “You take mushrooms and then you go, I have no problems,” he explains. “I am an ant walking around this planet in a speck in the middle of nowhere. And that’s the truth, it’s all we are.”

“I think he’s put time and effort into finding who he is in the world,” reflects Dann Hume. “Which is not something everyone has to do, but for where he was at he had to do it, and I think he got a lot out of it.”

When Corby walks offstage at the Teragram Ballroom a little over an hour after the show began, he does so to cries of “Corby! Corby!” After a few minutes it becomes clear there will be no encore – possibly because bassist T-Bone is throwing up out the back, the victim of a nasty bit of food poisoning – so the crowd slowly filters out past the merch stand and into the cool L.A. evening. One fan, Abbey Ramsey, 20, first heard of Corby via YouTube, and says she burst into tears tonight during “Runaway”. “For four years I’ve been following him,” she gushes, “and I was actually thinking about going to Australia to see him live, because his music helped me through such an intense time of my life that I just had to see him.”

Nearby, Jill Johnson is clutching a signed seven-inch single of “Monday”, which Corby asked his tour manager to give her after seeing her in the front row singing every word. She didn’t get to meet him, but you sense this gesture alone will be enough to make the return journey to Utah seem a little easier. Before she leaves, she has a message she wants me to pass on: “Tell Matt that what he does is important.”

I do. And finally, and without qualification, Matt Corby smiles.

From issue #774, available now. Top photo by: Diana Mantis.