Matthew Koma Never Sleeps: Working With Britney Spears and Shania Twain, Touring The World And Oatmeal Ambitions
When Matthew Koma arrived in our New York office yesterday, he'd just come in from doing an event in New Jersey, where he'd just landed from Los Angeles right after spinning a DJ set in Las Vegas, which happened just after touching down in San Francisco following a stop in Germany, and, right before that, Ibiza.
A whole summer tour? No, that was merely the past 72 hours.
If the blur of crowded airports, customs officers, strobe lights and sweaty clubs has worn him down, he doesn't show any outward signs of exhaustion: "You just can't think about it," he advised with a smile while recounting his overstuffed itinerary from the past few days. "Breakfast for dinner happens a lot."
Even if you've not been formally introduced to the 28-year-old musical multihyphenate by name, you already know his work — and likely his voice, too.
As a songwriter, Koma's crafted dozens of pop gems and dance floor anthems in the past few years, including Zedd's Top 10 global hit, "Clarity (feat. Foxes)." He's worked with some of the biggest names in pop — Kelly Clarkson, Hilary Duff and Carly Rae Jepsen all have album cuts barring Koma's name in the credits — and he's just added two bonafide legends to his repertoire: Britney Spears and, unexpectedly, Shania Twain.
As a singer (which he doesn't consider himself to be — more on that later), he's supplied his distinctive chops on festival-ready smashes for Alesso, Hardwell, RAC and Tiesto. But as an actual artist in his own right, Matthew is only just getting started.
Last week, the singer-songwriter formally announced his newly inked deal with RCA Records with the debut of his cheeky new single "So F**kin' Romantic," a throbbing, horn-filled surge of energy that feels like an appropriately joyous celebration of his latest feat.
In between an ongoing tour and hitting the studio with pop royalty, Matthew sat down and discussed songwriting, his forthcoming debut record and building a cross-platform musical legacy. (Err...and potentially an oatmeal store, too.)
Bradley Stern: Let's start with "So F**kin' Romantic." I think the most interesting thing — right out the gate — is that you say "f--kin'" in the first second. It's a bold move for your lead single! Was there any hesitation with deciding to put this song out?
Matthew Koma: No, I don't know. In a lot of the songs that I've released or been a part of in the past, I've come from...I wouldn't say a serious place, but a more serious place than this. This just felt like something kind of fun, and it came about naturally. It felt suitable. It was something to listen to with a smile on your face. It didn't feel risqué or anything like that. It's just a sincere caricature of sorts. I don't think anybody could really take it too seriously and say "I'm so f**kin' romantic!" It didn't feel like it carried the weight of the cuss — it's just part of the humorousness.
Somewhere in the song's press release you said it's about a sense of overconfidence, like you're "Ryan Gosling's middle ab."
Totally! To me, that's what's been fun about the song. It's a statement of overconfidence — it's an exaggeration.
Is it safe to say this isn't really a representation of what you're building for your debut then?
As far as my personal life, yes, absolutely. It's 100% what I'm building everything on as a foundation.
[Laughs] Right, of course.
I feel like I've gotten to show a more serious side through songs like "Clarity" or "Spectrum" or "Years," and through songs like "Wasted" and "Cheap Sunglasses," there's been a bit more of that cheekiness. I think the record kind of continues on building along that thought process, because those are both sides of me. There's not necessarily just one lane that I belong to, or that I only write one specific thing. I have that serious side and I have that playful side, and I think this is a representation of that particular side, which is absolutely a part of the record, but it's not defining in the sense that this is the only side of the record.
You've written a lot of songs, presumably, that were meant for you and ended up going to other people. Kelly Clarkson's "Someone," you said, was for you originally.
Yeah. It's funny. The best songs always come from a place where you're not necessarily thinking about it for another person. If you're treating it as if it's your own, regardless of who records it, it still needs to go through that same process. I don't necessarily think about it in terms of 'Oh, I'm writing for so-and-so' unless it's a specific sit-down with somebody for their record.
When I heard that she had liked the song — that kind of voice delivering that song as a songwriter? It's awesome. She's an incredible talent. You never know what songs are going to go where necessarily, especially now. It's such a single-driven world. It's almost the equivalent of 10, 15 years ago, being able to put out a record where people would absorb all those songs. Now, being able to have different artists and different voices as vehicles for the songs, it's nice to be able to release a couple different songs around the same two-to-three month period that maybe you wouldn't be able to do just as yourself.
I was just listening to "Breathe In. Breathe Out." A great record, by the way. Was that part of a writing camp situation or was it written with her in mind?
I never do writing camps, per se. If there's an opportunity to write with an artist, and I like the artist, I'll work on something catered to what I think could be a cool angle for them, but it's usually always based on a conversation I have with the artist. I don't want to just pitch a song blindly. It's more of like: Who are you? Where are you coming from? What's your vision? What do you like? How can we marry that to what I do? I can help you execute your vision with my toolbox.
With her, it was a mix of both. "Breathe In. Breathe Out." was written specifically for her. "Arms Around A Memory" was a song that I had previously written, and it just kind of fit the script after conceptually speaking with her about what she's going for. It's always different. Every song, it's never the same process or birth. It's always so specific to the situation.
And she's super cool, too.
She's super sincere. Super hard working. From the standpoint of working with a lot of different artists, that really matters. That's who's going to go out there and sell it. You're making what you do a part of their world, and to feel good about the person doing it just makes it a lot more rewarding.
You had some studio time, or you're continuing to, with Britney. What is that like?
She's extremely talented. It's funny getting to work with her sometimes, you know, because you just think about the history and how much of pop music is influenced today by things she's done and invented.
It's gotta be surreal.
It's super surreal to sit there and hear Britney Spears sing one of your songs. It's like — it's one of those things on the checklist. You know, I checked off Kelly Clarkson too. There are very few of those marquee artists where it's like, okay, check, that's really cool. It just feels like...it holds a different weight.
I love working with new artists because you're always getting to start with a clean palette and something that hasn't been treaded on yet, but when you're working with artists like that...I'm producing Shania Twain's album right now, and that's another complete—
Wow, that's out of left field!
Yeah! You go back and you're like "Let me reference one of her old records to see what they were doing on 'Man, I Feel Like A Woman.'" It's like...jeez. It's crazy!
Before I get to Shania, which I'm very interested in, everyone's always fascinated: What is Britney like in the studio, and what is the recording process like?
Super, beyond pro. Beyond sweet. Comes in. Nails it. Knows the tunes. With her, it's been a very different thing, case by case. There are songs where she has a lot of input, as far as "I wanna go for this vibe and this is what I'm listening to, and this is what I'm into and this is what I want to execute," and there are other times where she's like "This song speaks to me. I learned it and I wanna kill it." And she does. She's been wonderful.
There's one song that's inspired by...
Squeeze, yeah. What is that all about? That seems entirely unlikely.
It's cool. It's a little left-of-center. I'm a huge Squeeze fan, so anytime I can — no pun intended — try to squeeze them or Elvis Costello into some sort of influence in whatever it is we're doing, the happier I am. I'm excited about how the music's coming out.
And you're working with Tinashe as well?
Oh, absolutely. She's one of those cases where, after you meet with her, it's not an if, it's a when. She's just doing it. People catch on as they catch on because she's just good. Just real. Another example of a voice bringing a song to life, where you're just like "Wow, she brought another texture and another dimension to something that I had." It's an amazing thing to feel like "Okay, you took something that I had and made it way better."
Every step of the way.
Back to Shania — I couldn't see that coming. How did that happen?
I randomly saw a tweet one day, and it was a photo of her in her car saying she was singing along to "Suitcase," one of my songs. She had heard my music through her son. I went to go see her show in Vegas. We wound up hanging out for a bit, connected and starting working on music together. It just clicked. Before I knew it, we were in the Bahamas starting pre-production and listening to a bunch of her songs. It's just been a great relationship. It's been really fun. She's been touring a ton and I've been touring a ton, so we've had to do a lot of it remotely. So we just talk a lot and keep sending ideas back and forth and we'll block out chunks of time to connect in person. You don't find a sweeter person. You can just sit there and talk to her for days — about her experience, about that table — she's just such a well-rounded, great person. It's been such a pleasure to work with her.
And she holds a best-selling record for her album (Come On Over)...
And you would never know. You would never, in a thousand years, think that she was anybody different than someone who went to college and got a degree and pursued whatever it is they're passionate about. She just looks at it as a gift and loves what she does, and loves the craft, and is married to the craft. Truly. Maybe more than anybody I've ever met. Just married to the craft and the art of songwriting and creating. It's all about that for her...it's truly sincere.
Does that mean we're getting electronic Shania?
No, not at all. No, no. It's definitely a departure in some ways from some things she's been a part of previously, but in no way is it an insincere stretch. It's her vision that I'm hoping to execute.
You wear several hats, because you're also touring as a DJ.
Yes, and hats get crushed in luggage. Thank you for noticing.
With DJing, how is that compared to songwriting? It's a totally different vibe.
You know what it is? People ask that a lot. Sometimes you play band shows. Sometimes you play acoustic shows. Sometimes you DJ. They're all just vehicles for the songs. I consider myself first and foremost a storyteller and a songwriter. I never consider myself a singer. I use my voice as a tool.
You do sing well, though.
Thank you. It's funny, because a lot of people discovered me first and foremost as a voice for features, and they're like "Oh, I thought you were a singer." Well, no...
Right, you're mid-tour right now as a DJ.
It's great. It's another way to deliver the songs. A lot of the songs that I've been fortunate to be a part of have connected with an electronic audience. To be able to go and play for those people, it's incredible. It's just as satisfying to stand in front of a crowd that's singing back. In some ways, it's even more of a license, because I'm getting to play songs that I've written or produced that I didn't sing on, which is something you can't necessarily do in the context of a live show. To be able to play "Clarity," because it's a song I've written and see the response firsthand, is something that I wouldn't be able to experience without that platform. It's totally different than the other ways I tour, but I love it. It's great. We're pretty deep right now in tour.
You were just in Vegas.
Just got back from Vegas. We were in Ibiza — two weeks there, four shows, festivals...
How was that?
It was great. We did shows with Steve Aoki and Hardwell. It was fun. We're about to go to Tokyo. We're about to do some US stuff. About to do a really cool show in Mexico with Brandon Flowers. Just kind of all over the map...
So, you don't sleep.
I never sleep.
You couldn't. How could you?
I never sleep. I love coffee very much.
You're off to a different country every week?
It's insane, yeah. In the next two weeks, we're in Mexico, China, Canada, Japan, and then — just to keep it normal, we're in Denver and Chicago and San Francisco. We're all over.
Your body can't even adjust to that.
In the past 72 hours, we did Ibiza to Germany, Germany to San Francisco, San Francisco to Vegas, played a show in Vegas, got offstage, took 7 hours of traffic to get to LA, dropped some bags off, was home for 3 hours and took a flight to New York. Drove to New Jersey, did an event there and then drove back here, and then we go back to LA tonight for shows this week. It's just non-stop. But it's great! It's fun! You just can't think about it. You can't try to plan — breakfast for dinner happens a lot. You just kind of go with it.
Do you want to still be doing this in five years? Do you have different ambitions?
I want to open up an oatmeal store, for sure. I love oatmeal. Particularly overnight oats — I think they're the greatest thing in the world. I totally wanna open up my oatmeal store one day. But, I still feel like I'll open it and have somebody else run it so that I can do what I'm doing right now.
It's funny. The goal has always been [to be an] artist first and foremost, and I've been really fortunate. That's what I've been able to do and continue doing. It's great to be able to work on something like Shania, which is so different, and such a challenge mentally and musically, and outside of the lane for what people know me for. I just did a song with The Knocks for their album, which is something more in the lane of what people know me for. I'm getting to do my record. Me and Flux Pavilion just did a song that's totally different. Dillon Francis and I are working on something. I'm getting to do stuff that kinds of ticks all the boxes for me personally, as far as being satisfied. I don't like working on the same stuff over and over. I'm the person who makes a record or makes songs, and three weeks later, I'm like "Oh, that's old. What's next?"
Are there any particular tracks you're excited by on your own record?
I just wrote a crapload in Ibiza that I'm really excited about.
So the album's still coming together?
No, it's done! I just never stop. It's a finished record, but until it's out...
You'll just keep going.
I'm excited to have a real, recorded version of 'Suitcase' out there. There's only been a live version. There's a song called "Day & Night," which is probably one of my favorite songs I've ever written that I'm excited for people to hear. I almost try not to get too caught up on people listening to just one record. God willing, it's a continuous conversation. It's not just this album or this song, it's about the next twenty years of finding and building an audience to just keep talking to and having a conversation with.
Safe to say we can expect some collaborations?
Yes and no. I worked with people on it, but it's definitely time to step out on my own. It's a record where people can say they're getting familiar with me as me. I have been a part of so much that is collaborative, and I think that is a base and a foundation created where people can say, 'Okay, that's his world.' But of course, I worked with some people on the record.
Any people down the line that you'd love work with?
Man, so many. I mean, I've been really fortunate to work with [Bruce] Springsteen — he's been my hero forever. To be a part of anything creative with him has been awesome, and will be awesome in the future. Probably just my heroes. I'm a huge Elvis Costello fan. I'd love to do something with him one day. There's a band out called Dawes that is my favorite band on planet Earth, who think I don't want to ever meet or work with because I love them so much that I just don't want to — but in theory, yeah, I would love to work with them.
This kid Jai Wolf, I think he's really talented. I've been doing some stuff with him. And a kid named Tim Gunter, who's also really talented. They're kind of newer producers that I've been doing some stuff with that I'm looking forward for people to hear. They're on the cusp of cool stuff.
Awesome. And do you have a song of the summer?
You know what? I'm going to shout out Jai Wolf and give him "Indian Summer." It's appropriate. It is an indian summer — and it's a hell of a track.
"So F**kin' Romantic" is out now. Check out Matthew on tour through September.