Matt Mays’ long road back to Kingston

Indie rocker details new album ahead of Friday show

Credit: 
Supplied by Julie Booth

When Canadian rock fixture Matt Mays takes the stage opening for the Arkells at the K-Rock Centre this Friday, it’ll be after a five-year wandering absence.

Mays’ new album Once Upon a Hell of a Time.... is his first release since 2012’s Juno Rock-album-of- the-year-winning Coyote

The interceding years between releases were challenging. Mays crisscrossed the continent and beyond as he coped with the 2013 death of his guitarist Jay Smith and his own various romantic troubles, eventually seeking out inspiration for new music. 

“I lost a couple really close friends tragically and that throws anyone into a tailspin,” Mays said. “It takes a long time, it’s not forever, but it takes a while to get used to living with that kind of loss.”

It’s the kind of loss that unfurls creatively over a long time, reappearing in Mays’ new song writing. 

“I have a hard time banging out a record in [a] year and half like some people that can write lyrics about things that are fictional,” he told The Journal. “I have to live a bit of a life to find things that I can write about.”

Finding this inspiration was wide-ranging. During this hiatius, Mays surfed in Morocco, had stays in Copenhagen and Scotland and a year-long residency in Los Angeles. Here, he recorded an entire unreleased album in late American musician Elliot Smith’s old studio.

“I was just getting out of the cold, really,” Mays said of his travelling. “I was planning on just going down for a week and I just sort of stayed, which is generally how it works for me.”

Over that time, he and longtime collaborator, indie rock band Wintersleep’s Loel Campbell, recorded a full album’s worth of 12 songs that have sat on a shelf ever since. Mays said much of his songwriting during this period was inspired by the everyday sights of a big city. He often overheared conversations on the streets of L.A. while he thought back to his home in Nova Scotia. 

Upon returning to Canada, Mays stayed with Campbell. Here, he completed another album that would become this year’s release. 

The songs are indicative of Mays’ established style — rock music that’s content to be rock music, all with the personal touches that comes from a long five years.

One of the record’s first singles, ‘Ola Volo’, takes inspiration from the Vancouver artist of the same name that created his album art. 

Mays first encountered Volo’s artwork at a Vancouver club, where Mays was deejaying a rock night. He saw Volo’s mural behind the club’s bar and was enamoured. 

“It totally blew me away and I was like ‘this is amazing.’ I asked the manager who did it and he said it was an artist named Ola Volo.”

Mays was mesmerized with the artist’s unique name and work and “couldn’t stop think[ing] about it.”

He researched more of her work and got lost, finding the work comforting both “edgy” and “interesting” at the same time.  

Mays wrote a song titled ‘Ola Volo’, dedicating it to her artwork.  

“I was going through kind of a rough period,” he said. “So she could paint me into one of her paintings. Kind of like that a-ha video for ‘Take On Me,’ to get me out of my life,” he said, referencing the ‘80s music video that featured live-action actors becoming animated.  

Later, Campbell texted Mays from a show in Vancouver saying he was having a conversation with Volo, who happened to be a fan of Wintersleep.

Mays remembers his friend asking if he should show her the song.

“I’m like, ‘What? No, man, she’s going to think I’m a creep.’”

After a few months, Volo finally heard the song in Montreal after Mays relented. She was a fan and soon became a friend of Mays, agreeing to do the album’s artwork. Funnily enough, its depiction of Mays ultimately realizes the song’s lyrics — he became a part of her artwork.

Meanwhile, Mays continues to visit galleries and museums, taking inspiration from art, new and old, to put into his music. He says the pieces are always valuable, regardless of when they were made. 

“Artists being around other artists is a good thing, even if some of them are dead,” he said. “It sparks something inside that you don’t even notice.”

Opening for the Arkells on Friday night, Mays’ new album‘s worth of songs covering loss, travel and inspiration will mark a long-desired return to Kingston 

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