At the time of interviewing Matthew Gravolin about Agnes Manners and the upcoming album Fantasia Famish, I was fresh from reviewing the album and full of curiosities. And when you have a wide open canvas of a dedicated conversation about something, it can be a daunting and overwhelming thing; condensing a tsunami of curiosity and appreciation into droplet form. It’s rough, because (as you probably know if you’ve read Depth articles for while) brevity is something I struggle with.
Talking over the phone, the tsunami was uncontainable, with my initial comments being a gush of how each listen of Fantasia Famish evokes emotion, and how I’d kept being drawn back to it (and weeks later, I still am). The album was born in the wake of the loss of a parent, while simultaneously discovering a blossoming love in the form of the inimitable Charlotte ‘CJ’ Gilpin, whom you may know from Dream State. There’s a lot of beauty in Fantasia Famish, as well as it being achingly painful at times. I’d asked Matthew whether the album came from attempts to make sense of what he was feeling about his father.
“I’d always idealised something a little more personal,” he began, feeling like he had things that he wished to say through music that wouldn’t have felt right via Hellions, even though the songs would have worked musically well for the band. The idea of this ‘something more personal’ had stirred for several years in the back of Matthew’s mind, and he says “When dad went, it pushed it up a gear. I couldn’t ignore it and I felt the need to focus on it.”
Describing the experience of creating Fantasia Famish as a “very big soul searching experience”, Matthew shared that he’d found it rewarding, both being able to purge negativity, but also shining a light on more positive things, and sharing an honest capture of the way that he perceives life. I acknowledged the importance I felt with this album, and Matthew had felt the hum of this along the way. “I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was about it, but there was certainly that sort of magical sheen to it throughout the process. As much as it was a labour of grief, at some times it did have this feeling that is magical when you’re really onto something that’s quite unique.”
My thoughts went to the album artwork then, specifically to the fact that there are two different versions of Matthew on the cover photo. It was something that I wondered whether it connected with the several lyrical mentions of “Mirror Man” through the album. Matthew shared how this concept represents his own experience of looking in the mirror and what that experience can stir up in him. With unflinching vulnerability, he explains, “So the mirror man is me. I guess sometimes when I look in the mirror I can get stuck there thinking about how I’m perceived by other people and getting lost in that and sort of worried if I’m representing who I feel I am, and if I’m doing justice to the better parts of myself. The mirror man is a manifestation of the things that I fear about myself. All of the worry that I’m not putting myself out there in the right way for people to see me if I’m not being transparent enough about who I am and how I’m feeling.”
Though being one of the most beautifully honest lyricists I’ve known, Matthew still feels that he’s not yet expressing nor showing what he feels he’s capable of, and Mirror Man is part of that. He describes it as “An overwhelming desire to marry up the way that I feel and meeting the potential that I feel I have and being able to present that outwardly, which I think is something I’ve always struggled with; really truthful articulation. Because as much as you want to be perfectly honest about the way that you’re feeling and the things that you want to do in life, it’s really easy for those things to get lost in conversation with other people and generally the way you present yourself. Try as you might, it’s a difficult thing.”
Hearing this inspired thoughts of romanticism and that some of us (hello) have an uncomfortable disparity between the shiny ideal of the inner world and the more crude workings of the outer one. And this dreamy romanticism seems to show up early on in Fantasia Famish, with the two opening tracks; “As Long As You’re Mine” and “Evergreen”. I commented how the album starts on a definite high with the ‘loved up’ feelings being shared.
Matthew explained that the ease of atmosphere of the two songs was important to him in terms of album structure and feel. “I wanted to come in with that clarity, as those are some of the clearer moments of who I am and where I’m at. It felt important to me to begin and end with that clarity. I always like to stick to the narrative of structure of an album: You’ve got to leave the complication and the wading through the mud to the middle of it, the guts of the record.” Though I didn’t consciously realise this was a ‘thing’, it’s something that Fantasia Famish has definitely accomplished.
As we were starting to talk about specifics of the album, I was flooded with a series of ‘What did he mean by that?’ thoughts that had come to me through reviewing Fantasia Famish. I began by asking about “Sincerity In Retrograde”, which follows the aforementioned high vibing duo and is a favourite song of mine. Matthew describes the song as “Essentially a flowery interpretation of my dismay with the world of social media and the way that people put themselves out there more for the benefit of others, the way they’re being perceived by others. And by doing that, they tend to lose the good parts of themselves. Well I know that can be true for me anyway. When you try to cater to other peoples’ perceptions of yourself, you end up doing yourself a disservice and unknowingly putting out all of these egotistical and undesirable facets of yourself.”
Matthew’s talk of the difficulty of perception, and also tying in to what we’d talked about with the disparity between potential and reality, had me think about the Hellions song “24”, which has Dre Faivre sing in its opening verse: “I was too lost in the way that others perceived me to remember that being oneself is supposed to be easy.” Matthew acknowledged this constant theme in his life and also his art, and momentarily seemed frustrated with that persistence. But I too know full well that despite having ongoing challenges that seem unchanging, overcoming something can be something like a spiral, learning more about yourself with every loop around that you make. I noted how “I don’t feel like the Matt that wrote “24” is the same Matt that you are now,” and he shared how he’s learning to not be so hard on himself when he stumbles across old journals or other notes that are rich with realisation, while finding that he’s still stuck in similar habits or patterns many years later.
Toward the end of “Sincerity In Retrograde” features a moment of shaking yourself off and lightening up, and when it comes to being deeply introspective and sinking into negativity, it was a perfect shift in the song that offered a much needed lightness. Matthew gave some insight into the song’s creation then, saying that it usually takes “just forever… a matter of months” to write and perfect a song, saying that “I’m never really sure until I am” when it comes to the point of completion.
Instead with “Sincerity In Retrograde”, the chords to this latter section had come to Matthew early in the process; “It was like ‘Wow, that’s the end,’ and at that moment I’d only really had the verses written.” Though it didn’t have a chorus at the time, having clarity of this part of the song formed what Matthew called “a destination” – something that never really happens for him – so it was an exciting and helpful thing as part of the song’s creation, adding to his intuition and skill as a musician.
While still talking about “Sincerity In Retrograde”, I had to mention a particular point in the song where it slides delicately downward while Matthew sings “It’s such a lovely little cage”. Little moments like that are dotted through the album, and they are tough to put into words, but they feel like moments of perfection, and I’d wanted to hear from Matthew about them, with this particular one as an example.
“That downward slide with “It’s such a lovely little cage” was one of those ‘Eureka!’ sort of moments, where the music marries up perfectly with what you’re saying. That’s always what you aim for with writing a song, and it doesn’t always happen perfectly. You can only get so close to it sometimes. You can only have the ability to articulate that so much with music and lyrics together. I really did love that. I thought it was quite special to be able to, because it really reflects that feeling of being comfortable. As much as you have a disdain for the ‘cage’ that you’re living in mentally, there’s also that comfort of not wanting to leave it because you’re so used to it and it’s scary to breach. That downwards sort of movement was really reflective of that. That movement feels how it feels to be in that cage.”
Another musical gem was the gentle melody that persisted through “Brilliant Blue” like a ripple. Matthew captured it well as saying “It’s such a nice momentum that you just want to stay in there, really just live in it for a bit. And that song is kind of like, why not? You can. It feels involving enough to just let you tell the story. Let that be the warm bath for the listener to sink into and then it gives you the time for the story.”
The ‘Why not?’ factor prompted me to wonder if there was an adjustment for Matthew in creating for Agnes Manners, given that he hadn’t needed to consider other peoples’ ideas or perspectives in the process of bringing Fantasia Famish to life. He described that independence as “one of the joys of making this record”, given that he was free to experiment. With Hellions, the underlying intention was to keep the listener on the edge of their seats and make a dynamic experience for them. With Agnes Manners, Matthew could lean into the inspiration he’d gained from artists like Bob Dylan and Elton John and have the storytelling take central focus instead. Of artists of this ilk, Matthew says “They’re focusing on the vocal melody and the way they tell the story through that, and the music doesn’t change a whole lot, it’s just a matter of making that repetitive music strong enough to tell the story on top of.”
It’s this reason why I could see Agnes Manners songs played in a live setting with opportunity for the story to evolve over time; something that Matthew had never had room for in his life before. We spoke about John Floreani and his knack for creating “malleable live experiences”, and sounding inspired, Matthew said “To find that comfort in your performance is just a really special zone and it’s something that’s just a wonder to witness.”
While talking about “Brilliant Blue”, keen ears might wonder if the line “Mortality’s a thresher” is a nod to the Hellions track, “Thresher”. Matthew’s answer is “Sort of”, before expanding on that. “That song was such a turning point at that time in our lives. I guess it was an analogy that I’d made, not thinking it would catch on the way that it had. After seeing it be so understood and people really relating to that, it’s something that stayed with me. It’s something that’s certainly a pessimistic view, but it’s also a pretty beautiful one as well, that it’s just made its way back into the writing.” Matthew is unafraid to repeat themes or words in this way, instead opting to honour those links as they arise. “I think repeated themes in music is a wonderful thing and I always like it when other artists do it.”
The unexpected raw production of the short and sweet “Lime Light”, as well as its shared chords with Hellions’ “Harsh Light” absolutely inspired a question from me. It was Justin Timberlake‘s “LoveStoned / I Think She Knows” that had planted the seed for “Lime Light”, with Matthew adoring how this “Upbeat top 40 hit goes into this beautiful, string-led emotional sort of burrow.”
Matthew had envisioned the track as a reprise for “Harsh Light” on Rue, but unfortunately they couldn’t make it work at the time. Keen to want to use it, perhaps as a sequel, Matthew had instead found that the demo had a lovely vulnerability in its raw quality that he didn’t want to lose. Also by way of the album structure, Matthew felt that it was the perfect simmering down between the “heavy, skyward strings, and timpani layering” of “Brilliant Blue” and the theatrical “thriller” that is “Spiced Plum and Cherry”.
Seeing it as most honouring of his theatrical tendency, Matthew says that he really let “Spiced Plum and Cherry” “come out and do its own thing”. Not specifically channelling any of the bands he appreciated in his youth that do the theatrical factor so well, Matthew just went for an adorned effect due to the state of mind he was in when the song was written. Picture Matthew just having watched Hereditary, sitting in a dimly lit room of his mother’s house, drinking wine and writing music.
“I was reading the label of this wine and it said ‘spiced plum and cherry’. And just looking at the glass and just envisioning this clawed hand brandishing this glass by the bowl, everything came to me and fell into place. It’s about my experiences with myself and my general tenuous.. how do I word this.. really walking that fine line of not losing your shit. I was on the verge of insanity at that moment and trying to articulate how that felt, in a theatrical sort of way. It was generally about feeling your sanity slip a bit.”
My own interpretation was to do with the music industry and the saddling of expectations and pressure that may come with the role of musician. This wasn’t actually the case at all, but Matthew shared that he’d liked the interpretation so much that he’s since preferred to look at the song in that light. (!)
Adding to the dark theatricality is a female vocalist (Flora) that Matthew had the good fortune to have connected with in Thailand. A singer herself, Flora had really liked the song and was also fluent in French. “I asked her if she could translate the chorus for me and reinterpret it herself at the end of the song. And that’s what really complimented the eeriness of it. Her performance was stunning. It was really really lucky to have run into her and for her to say ‘yes’ because it really made the experience what it is.”
One of the factors of Fantasia Famish that I adore about it is the continuity across the album, and an altered voice recording (“The world is not thy friend”) is one element that offered this. Keen to demonstrate a cloudiness of the mind, and feeling stuck and frantic, producer Shane Edwards had worked his magic to turn the idea into sound, all from a reading of Shakespeare. Matthew says “I was reading Romeo and Juliet at the time. I’ve seen the film and I’ve delved into that on and off throughout my life, but I’d never really sat down and read the original play. I’d done that recently, and the conversation between Romeo and the Apothecary, that dialogue really spoke to me, and sort of was appropriate for some of the themes in that song and moving into “Sydney”. I read the Apothecary monologue out and then Shane and I plucked that little sliver out of it and we were just playing around with it, because we thought that best articulated what I was getting at, just that one phrase.”
Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear’st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;
The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law;
The world affords no law to make thee rich;
Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.
~ Romeo, Romeo and Juliet
In speaking about Shane, it’s likely that Matthew has sung his praises in every interview we’ve had the pleasure of doing… but there’s always room for more. Matthew says “There’s not enough good to be said about him. He’s remarkable. We really have this great understanding of each other after working together for I think 13 or 14 years together. I’ve just done so much with him that I can explain something to him and he can just make it happen, which is just such a special thing.”
I’d been struck with the pigeon pair of “The Young Man and The Seed” and “The Old Man and The Sea” since I’d read the tracklisting. As well as a reference to the Ernest Hemingway novel’s title, it’s meaningful in the fact that Matthew’s father had spent his last years living in a yacht. Having an encouraging and optimistic wisdom seed planting track was an important element of balance for Matthew. “Midway through the writing process, I realised I was focusing a lot on the negative touches of my experience and I hadn’t really given any light to the beautiful things that he left behind for me and the lessons he imparted. I had the music and the melody for that and I didn’t know what to do with the words. It just felt like the right thing to do to shed light on the beautiful things he taught me, and [laughs] give him some sun instead of all this sad stuff all the time.”
This eighth track of the album provided yet another ‘hard to word’ moment of satisfaction with the chiming “Your mother taught you better than..” section that races off into “Money will regenerate”. The moment was so great from Matthew’s perspective that he was initially fearful that he’d stolen it from another song, subconsciously. “There was something about that. It’s one of those ones where I was afraid of.. you feel as though you’ve heard it before, and I think that’s a good thing with music when you feel like you’ve heard it. It just has immediate connection.”
Matthew and Shane had wanted a driving beat to express the optimism of the track. Matthew shares “Shane got a real sort of Coldplay vibe from it, something out of Yellow or something like that and we wanted to honour that and give it that kind of vibe for the chorus.”
The heartwarming and important song “Forest Swing” was initially written for Rue. Unfortunately due to time constraints, and due to not reaching a consensus on a few factors of the song, it didn’t come to life via Hellions. But this seems to have been fortuitous for Matthew and how things had progressed since that time. He says “It was more my baby than it was for the other boys. I’m not sure they felt what I felt about it. I felt a little bit sore and sorry because I was so adamant it should have made it onto Rue. But I’m so glad that it ended up the way that it did, because it needed Charlotte. It just needed a female voice in order to articulate the message of the song, and I wanted it to have that androgynous feeling of a man and a woman singing together to get that. To properly say ‘You can make a mother of a man’, ‘I’m both your brother and your sister’, it needed to have the man and woman together, or it wouldn’t have been articulated properly otherwise. I’m so glad that it has. This is the home for it.”
It seemed like a good opportunity to talk about Charlotte’s magical voice, and Matthew had plenty to say on the topic. “Oh! It’s crazy. She puts me to shame. [laughs] I really struggle with.. I don’t have the comfort of belting things out in that manner. It’s not really a natural sort of thing for me. I like to let the melody talk, but hearing her do that, I just had gooseflesh all over. Like God, isn’t she just.. That second verse is really reminiscent for me of Brody Dalle from The Distillers. She’s just got this really raw.. it sounds like she’s smoked a thousand cigarettes and just gone to the vocal booth kind of thing. Just some of the grit that Charlotte’s capable of, particularly in that second verse there, I was just like ‘Damn, this is such a crazy mode’. As much as Dream State use that a lot, I’d never heard her go quite into that particular mode, so I was very humbled to have it on the Agnes Manners record.”
Talking about Charlotte in the process of recording, Matthew says she “really unleashes”. “It’s such a physical thing. When she records, she behaves as though she’s playing live. She’ll sort of throw herself around a little bit, and really get into the moment. You can see her bouncing from one leg to another and shaking her head about. [laughs] It’s lucky that you can capture it without her throwing the headphones off or pushing the microphone. And it really translates in the music as well.”
Moving forward to talk about “Worship”, a favourite of mind on the album, I outwardly appreciated its dreamy atmosphere. Matthew shared that the track was one of the first of Fantasia Famish that they’d fleshed out, with him thinking “Wow, maybe the record is just going to be this trippy 70s acid vibe,” because of how the chorus feels, with the effect on the guitar. It’s a different sound than you’d expect to come from Matthew-made music, and that fact was energising for him, saying “I guess I didn’t know that I was capable of a song that felt that way. It feels distinctly different from anything I’d done before. It was a perfect one to explore celebrity worship culture and just how stuck in that we all are. I just wanted to give it that dream quality. That’s another one we were able to hit the nail on the head with it.”
The song is about the detrimental nature of some things that entertain us, particularly when we lose a part of us to an “excessive immersion” into that worship. Being clear to differentiate between appreciating the art that’s created in film or music or focusing upon personal lives or physical appearance that’s more questionable. Matthew says “I get stuck in it, I think everybody does, but there’s a part of me that feels pretty gross doing that. It’s like I don’t know this person. You should appreciate them for their art. Each to their own but it’s something that feels wrong to me, to be overly enveloped by that.”
As with the gentle ripples of “Brilliant Blue”, “The Old Man And The Sea” is another song that gives opportunity to tell a story over. The song’s chord progression was kindly given to Matthew after being enamoured by it from when he first heard it. He says “My friend Duane, my sister’s fiance, he used to be in Heroes For Hire. He’s actually been a common collaborator. He’d written that chord progression and he’d sent it to me and had said ‘I don’t know how I feel about this.’ I’m like ‘That is just GORGEOUS. What are you going to do with it?’. I was really lucky to have gotten that from him and he was humble enough to have given it to me.”
Somehow we got talking about the theme of blue, in its many forms that appear on Fantasia Famish. Whether blue, distant, or brilliant, the blue is an idea that captures three specific things; ‘feeling blue’, the colour of Matthew’s eyes and his father’s eyes, and the colour of the ocean. He shares “Whenever I think of my father, I think of the water. And I guess those three things sort of came into one for the blue that you hear on the record. When I look into my own eyes, I see him and I see the ocean and I feel that blue. It’s pretty loaded. There’s a lot in there for that colour and that theme.”
Just as Fantasia Famish began, it was important for Matthew to finish the album with clarity, and “Mangosteen Foothills” provides this. He says “There needed to be some clarity, and most of all there needed to be resolution, just because there’s such a torrent of difficult or negative emotions throughout the middle part of the record. I felt it was so important to leave the listener with some hope rather than leaving it at “Old Man And The Sea”, which I thought would be such a morbid way. And maybe leaving not a bad taste in the listener’s mouth, but you’d certainly walk away not feeling very good with the world, if you were immersed in it. That was the objective of this one. It was the last one that was written for the record, so it felt most up to date and most appropriate with where I was at with the time of recording. I had the chords and I had the words and the vocal melody, but the rest of it – like the beat and the bassline – was organic and on the spot. I noticed in your review how you said it felt like a jam, we’d wanted to give it that real natural sounding vibe, like it is people in a room just playing a song. And it certainly has this old classic vibe to it with the instrumentation.”
Yet again, intuition is mentioned as being a key feature of Fantasia Famish, specifically about Matthew’s approach to singing, and also how the final song came together. He tells the story of the audio clip that features in it: “It was my last night there. Shane stayed up so late with me and I was having a drink with John [Floreani] and the guys that you can hear outside on that last part of “Mangosteen Foothills”. And poor Shane was locked away and I’d run into him with this recording. I was like ‘Man, this needs to be on the album. I’ve just caught this beautiful moment and it has to be in there.’ And he just looks at me like ‘Are you serious?!’ [laughs] and ‘I am so fucking tired,’ like ‘Dude, listen to it,’ and then he heard it and he was like ‘Okay, we’ll make it work.’
“Then we added in that last chord, that last resolving chord on the fly after inserting it into the end of the song. I just can’t believe I caught that – that epiphany for my friend Alex – he really meant that and it was with some embarrassment I had to ask him for permission to use it. Like ‘Okay, this is going to sound weird, but I was recording you, and not only that but I want to use it for my record.’ You could see his face go ‘What did I say…’ [laughs].”
Describing the whole thing as “almost divine intervention”, Matthew seems stunned even now that he’d actually captured the moment at all, and also how it spontaneously seemed to encapsulate the whole experience of the album. “It’s obviously not something I could have conceived without him having said it, and it had to be natural. It wouldn’t have felt that way unless it was an organic moment.”
What more can be said about this beautiful album? It’s an experience to behold and yours to listen to now via streaming services.