INTERVIEW: Matt Hsu (MATT HSU'S OBSCURE ORCHESTRA)
Wielding a smile as warm as his world music-tinged tunes, multi-instrumentalist Matt Hsu has continually stepped beyond his own comfort zone to craft tunes that are organic, unique and unequivocally thoughtful. A one-man-band who equally thrives in a collaborative environment, Hsu's compositions under the moniker Matt Hsu's Obscure Orchestra bear ethereal undertones with heady arrangements, self-described as: "reminiscent of soundtracks to a weird international arthouse film with a heist, Tibetan monks, sentient plants - animated by Studio Ghibli".
Undoubtedly an artist in every sense of the word, Hsu has whipped up plenty of attention over the years, in part for his ability to play 20 (and counting) instruments, but also for his songwriting prowess, seen most recently with him taking out the World Music Award at the 2020 Queensland Music Awards. But it's not just ear candy and warm soulful wares in the Matt Hsu arsenal, with his latest track Welcome To The Neighbourhood juxtaposing a lush sonic backdrop with some much heavier Australian and broader issues, notably the unethical detention of people seeking political refuge, black deaths in custody and systemic racism. Offering a glimmering light amongst its message of welcome and acknowledgement to those facing injustices, Welcome To The Neighbourhood also finds Hsu teaming up with a team of artists from First Nations, refugee, immigrant and gender diverse backgrounds. And in honour of this important new track, Tiana Speter grabbed some time to dive into the fascinating world of Matt Hsu and his obscure orchestra - and beyond! Interview below.
TIANA SPETER: Hello, and thanks for having a chat today! While it’s been an extremely testing year overall, 2020 has brought some sparks of inspiring moments along the way, and Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra is definitely bringing some of that (and then some!) with the new tune ‘Welcome To The Neighbourhood’. Can you talk me through a bit how you brought this song to life? It’s obviously extremely timely from a lyrical perspective, but did you always envision this song to bring some of these ongoing issues to light when you first started the writing process?
MATT HSU: Thanks for having me Tiana! Yeah, it’s most definitely been A Time™. We live in a weird complex world, and often awful and beautiful things happen at the same time, and sometime arise from the same moment. From the tragic and brutal deaths of black citizens by the hands of police, brings about this powerful counteraction of the long rising Bla(c)k Lives Matter movement coming into our global centre focus, with more and more people talking, rallying, really thinking and realising this isn’t how things should be. When I write music I don’t usually stride forth with purpose and decide I’m going to write a song about X topic. I sort of, live my life, see the people I love, notice things about the world, and let those things percolate in my mind, and if I happen to be writing music that same time, those thoughts and happenings might seep into the music. But I often won’t realise I’ve written about that thing until day 10 of composing, when the tone and mood of music seems to be urging toward something. In this case, I’d been in involved in protests and the Kangaroo Point blockade — and have always been cognisant of my own place as a person of colour in predominantly white culture. Against this backdrop, I’d recently been gifted a flute (since starting Obscure Orchestra people often just give me instruments) and listening to how it’d been used in 70s soul and new jazz, particularly Atunde Adjuah’s music as well as Slum Village. Then I tapped by Thom Browning, the Creative Director of Imaginary Theatre, to compose music for a theatre installation opening this month for Brisbane Festival called A Curious Arcade. Thom is a really sweet guy with a deep love of music, so through our chats, he’d show me musicians who I reminded him of, creating this feedback loop of inspiration for this track. In particular, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, a composer who created a beautiful orchestral tribute to the late hip hop producer J Dilla.
WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBOURHOOD (MATT HSU'S OBSCURE ORCHESTRA)
TIANA: I found, for myself personally, what stood out the most on the track was how you weaved so much musical joy into many heart-breaking and terrifying truths. It’s informative but with so much soul, both literally from a stylistic point of view as well as an emotional one. And you’ve teamed up with a range of diverse artists on ‘Welcome To The Neighbourhood’ too, was it a nice change of pace to have these collaborations mixed into your usual one-man band tendencies?
MATT: Yes! I think you nailed it. I guess the obvious choice might've been to create music that was moody, dark, ferocious. That’s been done really well and is important, but the optimist wanted to approach it as a celebration of a time we are hopefully arriving to, where we succeed in having seeing refugees as just people, and we collectively realise the utter ridiculousness of criminalising the act of seeking safety for yourself and your family. So, I really like the contrast of something warm, and bright to juxtapose the heady and powerful lyrical themes. That’s where those touches of 70s soul and Cuban jazz come in. In seeking people to help explore these experiences of blackness, being a person of colour, and seeking refuge, I was really lucky. I’d worked with Aurora/Solchld before on a song called ‘In Colour’ and I reconnected with her as part of a La Boite Theatre Company production called ‘The Neighbourhood’ earlier this year, where we were both performers alongside Anisa Nandaula, Naavikaran, Cieavash, Nima and Naavikaran — all diverse artists and activists in their own right. I love collaborating. I truly fell in love with making and performing music as part of The Mouldy Lovers, so it’s always been a social communal thing. So although Obscure Orchestra is a solo project, I go out of my way to work with people, to explore ideas together and be accountable to actually finish projects.
TIANA: You’ve cultivated a pretty formidable reputation as a multi-instrumentalist throughout your musical journey so far…your Unearthed profile lists 20 instruments in your repertoire, have you always been that person who will play whatever instrument they can get their hands on? And what was the first instrument you ever picked up, what kick-started this journey?
MATT: My first instrument was trumpet in grade 5. I didn’t realise just how much it would shape my life at the time. I feel a bit warm and fuzzy about the trumpet, like a lucky totem. Having said that, I want to to admit that I’m a very mediocre trumpet player. Any Brisbane musician you ask will confirm that, haha! That goes for all those 20 instruments quoted too. I’m terrible with solos and can never play virtuosic off-the-bat. But what I discovered during my time in The Mouldy Lovers (a huge turning point for me) was that strength is coming up with catchy melodies and hooks that slot really well into a chordal bed. So, my secret to Obscure Orchestra isn’t that I’m some formidable “master of instruments” but that I’ve got a knack for jamming with other musicians… I’ve just taken on the role of all the musicians. Instead of being a classically-trained composer, maybe I’m a punk-trained composer.
pic: Aki Photography
TIANA: Your music undoubtedly resonates with people from so many walks of life, and along the way you’ve scooped up a Queensland Music Award (this year in fact! Congrats!), released an album as a fair-trade T-shirt instead of a CD and performed countless shows as well, to name but a few achievements. What is it that ultimately inspires you as an artist, whether it’s musical influences or broader things that impact how you create?
MATT: Thank you, winning at the QMAs was a wonderful moment! And such a nice little platform to talk about diversity in a room full of mostly white middle-aged music industry leaders. What inspires me — that’s a really deep question! I think at the core, it’s being utterly entranced by this infinite canon of music that exists around the world, which we only hear a sliver of it, because what we hear is largely filtered through taste-makers, gatekeepers and big corps. I love seeking out and exploring those lesser heard sounds, and being inspired by the sheer diversity of those sounds to try new things and break away from obvious choices when I compose. As for releasing this single and my album on a shirt, it came from questioning the ‘rules’ of music releasing. Printing on plastic, packaging in plastic, then those CD becoming eventual waste once the music is on devices. I happened to be reading a book about sustainable and ethical design by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard at the same time I listened lots of Nipsey Hussle, admiring how clever he was in offering something tactile to music fans who want some kind of keepsake from the artists they love, in a time when music has become so digitised and intangible. My ethical ‘shirt album’ idea was the natural fusing of those two influences.
TIANA: And on the topic of live music…with these solo compositions, how does a live Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra show usually go down? Are you racing back and forth incorporating as many instruments as you can live? Or perhaps you’ve secretly perfected cloning and can kick back and just focus on one instrument in a live setting…?
MATT: Hahaha! I would love to have a team of Matts to collectively fix my/our lives. In my solo performances up to now, I’ve borrowed a loop pedal out of necessity, layering each instrument. But to be honest, I don’t actually enjoy it — re-memorising my parts for 12 instruments, relying on electronics, running back-and-forth hoping I don’t mess up timings, not to mention fitting all those instruments into a hatchback… it’s frantic. I remember a TEDx performance where I was sweating bullets and my loop timing went off the rails, but thankfully people seemed to enjoy it. I’m in the midst of putting together a live ensemble of a dozen musicians to perform with — so the figurative name Obscure Orchestra, will become an actual orchestra of multi-instrumentalists. Something I’ve been hoping for since I started this thing. I’m really excited for it.
TIANA: So, looping back to ‘Welcome To The Neighbourbood’ for a moment here, you also unveiled a music video for the track – and firstly, I could spot that Theatre a mile away, I used to have some of my Creative Industries classes in that La Boite Theatre nearly ten years ago…I’m pretty sure I even had a literature exam in there, which made no sense because there were no desks. But I digress. What was that energy like in that room when you filmed this epic song, you’ve managed to capture so much passion even with the necessary social distancing…
MATT: Hah! Like the exam scene in Men In Black with the egg chairs! I teach at Creative Industries when I’m not composing, so I get to spend a lot of time there and borrow instruments I can’t afford like vibraphones, marimbas and big gongs! It’s spectacular in that theatre. With all of the song’s featured artists being from La Boite’s ‘The Neighbourhood’, it was so nostalgic reuniting with them all. We’d gotten to feel like family during the show, so it was heartwarming and fitting being together again in that theatre, re-opening these themes of compassion and humanity for this song. Aleea Monsour, my Creative Industries teaching partner and a great friend, was also a co-director on that La Boite show. She and fellow director Sanja Simic helped me organise the shoot and film the music video. It was nice to have everyone back together both in front and behind-the-scenes. You can peek Aleea and Sanja in the ‘CUDDLES!’ section of the music video, alongside Peet Gardner, an incredible Brisbane producer and recording engineer who did me the huge solid of helping me mix and master the song — and who also lives directly above me in our West End sharehouse.
TIANA: To slowly wrap us up today, while it’s already been an exciting week with the release of the new song…what does the rest of 2020 hold for Matt Hsu, have you got anything else bubbling away on the horizon that you can reveal? Or will we just have to wait and see?
MATT: Yes! In between writing this song and making the music video, as well as organising the release (being non-label dependent means I get to do it my way, but I have to do it all!), I’ve also been composing the soundtrack to really innovative Brisbane Festival theatre installation called A Curious Arcade — in a nutshell, it’s a collection of ancient part-mechanical-part-magical storytelling machines. I can’t wait for people to see and hear it.
TIANA: And last but not least – with the release of an anthem of solidarity and transparency about those suffering so many injustices…what’s ultimately a key message you hope people might take home after hearing and experiencing ‘Welcome To The Neighbourhood’?
MATT: I want people to have a moment of realising, we live as part of a community: our street, our suburb, our city, our country, our planet. It’s all layers of the same onion. It’s easy to be empathetic only to our close family and friends. But strangers, are just family and friends a few degrees removed. It important that we see ourselves as part of that community, from the micro to the macro. It’s that too vague, it’s as simple as going a little out of your way to start conversation with people outside of your onion layer, to those ‘strangers’ in our community, the person at work outside your little clique, the international student no-one wants in their assessment group. When we stop talking about people and forming judgements based on second hand information, and instead start talking to people and forming relationship based on authentic person-to-person encounters, that’s when understanding and compassion begins to grows.
WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBOURHOOD IS OUT IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW, AND YOU CAN CHECK OUT MORE MATT HSU'S OBSCURE ORCHESTRA INFO RIGHT HERE.
FOLLOW MATT HSU'S OBSCURE ORCHESTRA:
BY TIANA SPETER