He may have the hair, but Matt Wills isn’t like the rest. He’s a songwriter who pours romance and vitriol into his songs in equal measure, and who seeks out collaborators from the worlds of electronic music and grime to fuse his guitar compositions into something new – as evidenced by his forthcoming Hurricane EP, propelled by electronic beats and featuring guest bars from rapper Devlin.
“I love acoustic music, and I wanted to take the heartbreak and feeling from acoustic music and mix it with beats and a little bit of electronica,” he says. “Electronic music doesn’t have to be upbeat; it can still have emotion, but it’s got to make you want to dance.”
You’ll find dancing at Matt’s live shows, and plenty more too. His first headline gig was at Dalston’s Servant’s Jazz Quarters in 2015. To mark the occasion, he hired an owl for a doorman. “A giant Eurasian owl,” he notes. “I saw it on Leicester Square and was like, Bruv, can I hire this?” At another gig, he hung disposable cameras from the ceiling for fans to take pictures of themselves, which he had developed and hung the pictures up at his next show. “For me, my shows are so important. I want people to see something different. I want people to have fun.”
Singer-songwriters typically tend to want to tell you about their emotions, and in this respect Matt Wills is no different. But there’s more: there’s a lyrical bite, a fork in his tongue. “Singers are nice these days, because of social media, but I say what I want to say,” he says. “I grew up listening to Jamie T, Oasis and all this shit, plus hip hop and grime and Roll Deep, and the thing in common is the attitude of it all. No one is nice all the time. Everyone fucking hates someone!”
Matt’s lyrical barbs were sharpened in teenage battle raps. For him, his songs are gifts for – or weapons against – people he’s encountered. “I started out freestyling – I wanted to be a freestyle rapper,” he says. “I’m obsessed with rap battles because I love that the two opponents are equal in rhyme, coming at each other. I sometime do them at my shows, but you can end up saying stuff from your stream of consciousness that’s not right for some of my fans, who are quite young – like, ‘I know you come out here like a witch for the hunt/but in that T-shirt you’re wearing you look like a…’ Then you realise you shouldn’t have said that.”
Matt’s journey as a musician began after a troubling time for his family. As a teenager, he left his Kent home to attend a performing arts school in London, where he was something of a square peg. “It’s something that my parents wanted me to go into, but I hate being told what to do,” he says. “With that whole career, you’re always pretending to be someone else, and my whole thing is I just want to be me, saying what I want to say.”
Moving to London gave him zest for life in the big city, but his time at the school – and in the capital – was cut short when his parents lost their chauffeur business and their home. Matt returned to Kent to help pick up the pieces. “I was living with my grandparents, I’d split up with my girlfriend, I had no money, no qualifications as such, I’d had to leave college and I had to work in River Island,” he says. “But I had a shitty guitar and Garage Band on an old Mac, so I started to write songs, and friends started listening to them. It’s cool because you have so many people in their 20s writing about relationships and heartbreak and shit like that, but when you’re a teenager it’s a completely different world of heartbreak. Like, ‘Oh my God, my girlfriend doesn’t want to speak to me any more so I’m going to cry for four days and write angry status updates.’”
So Matt spent years “sofa-surfing and playing shows anyplace” while pouring his heart into his songs. Music became Wills’ plan to avoid the nine-to- five or – worse – the seven-to – whenever he’d seen his parents work. “My parents were very, very hardworking people and they lost the lot,” he says. “I don’t want to have that life. I want to get up at one in the afternoon and if I earn some money, great. Everyone wants to be a rock star and live that life, don’t they? No one’s ever looked at Mick Jagger and thought, ‘Oh fuck, his life must be miserable’.”