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‘I’m not trying to be that mysterious cool guy’: MAALA on going from dorky to cool and back to dorky again

Next month, Spark presents Seamless, an all ages show at Auckland’s Tuning Fork. Henry Oliver talked to headliner, and winner of  Best Male Solo Artist at last year’s VNZMAs, MAALA.

The Spinoff: So you released an album last year, have just finished a run of festivals and have a new single out. What are you up to now? Taking a break?

MAALA: This is the first summer where I’ve been able to book a couple of shows. Had a bit of success and a bit of notoriety which is nice. Now it definitely feels like the clock’s ticking to keep churning songs and albums, so I’m back in the cave.

Is that just you?

It starts with me. At this stage I’m reluctant to get in the studio yet and polish off songs, I’m trying to throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks first and work from there.

And you started by yourself, right? Was the first EP just you?

No, I worked with one guy, Josh Fountain. He’s the guy who knows the very technical side of it better. I use whatever language I think makes sense and he translates it and polishes it. I can do the production, but it sounds shitty as fuck. It’s not a finished product by any means. So I’ll start with an idea at home and bring it in.

So do you write on a laptop?

Yeah, when I started the MAALA thing, it was started on a computer.

What were you doing before?

I was the dorky singer-songwriter. Acoustic guitar, jangly indie pop thing under my own name. I came off the back of New Zealand’s Got Talent my last year of high school, doing that kind of thing. I put out an EP of that stuff, then I got bored of just playing an acoustic guitar. Piano’s my main instrument, so I just felt like it was time to look at something else to inspire something different.

Hence the change of the name?

Yeah, that was not the intention at first, it was still an Evan Stinton thing, but it just didn’t feel right. It sounds like an accountant. I can’t release my music as an accountant.

And when you came out as MAALA, it was all very mysterious. No-one knew who you were.

It was a trend at the time. Of course it was part trend. People were doing it and I followed it like that dude. But there was a part where I was very tied in with this dorky TV show but then another part, I didn’t feel the need to give people too much. We just put out the first song ‘Touch’ with a cool piece of artwork and the song on Soundcloud.

And you were on a label already?

Off the back of the show, I locked in with them. But I didn’t want this abrasive release to start with. I just thought the song was cool. The label has this stigma of being this machine, but there’s eleven people at the office and they’re all mates. So I’m very lucky.

Was it a relief to tell people who you were or was it a pain in the ass?

It was always going to be part of it eventually. I just wanted to start it off with not too many strings attached. And then develop the story a bit more and let people know a bit more. And from this new single, I’m taking a new approach to not trying to be that mysterious cool guy. I’m real bored of that. It’s so stressful trying to keep it up, trying to be all moody and shit. Nah, I’m very much happy to just be the dorky accountant now.

You went from this mysterious EP to a more collaboratively written album. How was that shift?

Even the EP was collaborative, but only between a couple of people. With the `album, the approach was, if a session came up, or any invitation came up, I’m up for it. I find it hard to finish a song by myself. I don’t like the sound of my own ideas all the time. I like the idea that someone else is better than me and I can take something from them.

I’m guns-blazing for writing with other people. Especially people who write these meticulously crafted pop songs. That’s so fucking exciting. So it was never a hesitation. Like with the ‘Kind of Love’ single, there was an APRA event where they has a couple of these big, big songwriters and the one that wrote with me was MoZella. Her big one was Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’. It was just fascinating being in a session like that and seeing how fast she works.

How does it work? Are you just turning up and meeting people for the first time? ‘Hi, I’m Evan. Here’s my song’?

That one started in the session. She was saying that she writes songs every day, gets a full demo in four hours. So the pace she’s working at, you skip the hellos, you’re all game on, just getting the song done. I enjoy that, the way she figure out melodies so quickly and works out mini-hooks within sections. That’s a thrill. So I’m then trying to apply that to a session with Josh, like how can we make this the most amazing pop song in the world? that’s my goal at the moment, to write quite shamelessly pop.

What did that experience teach you about how to do that?

Well, I gotta get faster! I like having a format to work around and then filling in the gaps. But doing some session in LA, these people work hard. And I want to be doing that.

It’s like a craft more than an art.

That’s something I learned. I had a very romanticised approach to writing. That it would hit me. Or that if I’m not feeling it, don’t worry. Not I’m very much, you just work through it all. That way, it’s not lucky when you write that big song. Of course it happened, I’ve worked out how to do it.

Do you ever write for other people?

I’ve done sessions, but nothing that’s been released. I’m into it. Especially now. My output’s been sufficient and I’m feeling good so it’d be good to take a break and look to how I can help someone else with a song or contribute.

Do you have a lot of ideas that aren’t MAALA ideas?

I think so.

Do you still sit around with an acoustic guitar?

Ha! No! The story was that in 2014 I stopped the acoustic thing because my car got broken into and they stole my guitar. So it was almost like I was forced to not play with it anymore. So I don’t even have one anymore. It’s all piano. I was around at a mate’s yesterday who had an acoustic and I couldn’t do it. I’ve fallen madly in love with synths now. I’m becoming that guy.

You did a bunch of festivals over the summer – do you tour much?

Not so much. I played two solo shows last year. I just don’t want to overplay. I kinda want to make it an event of sorts, to have that rarity.

But you’ve got this all ages Seamless show this weekend…

Well my manager presented the opportunity for an all ages thing and there’s not a lot of chances to do that. Because I read all these comments online like ‘When are you doing all-ages?’ So this is my chance.

What was also enticing was Soundsplash. I think that was the first time I’ve done an all-ages festival and it was insane! They were crazy! And I loved it!


The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Seamless (also supported by Spark) is on at The Tuning Fork, Friday 24 March. Buy tickets here.

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