Talking with Matthew Gravolin is always a pleasure. His humble and gently spoken manner comes with endless kindness and a selflessness. History has revealed that the guy is a talented wordsmith and songwriter, and while he could have a gigantic ego to reflect this, he absolutely does not. Matt has a way that makes you feel like his equal, and that your ease is important to him.
On the other end of the phone, he had hummed with excitement (and a little nervousness) about the upcoming launch of his Agnes Manners solo project at the time. We’d casually spoken about the project name some time ago while Matt was still mulling it over. And though it had taken me off guard when I’d first heard it, it is surprisingly perfect. Mr. Manners and his kind old lady ways has some musical stories to share with us all.
The recording process for the songs of Agnes Manners took place with Shane Edwards at Karma Sound Studios in March last year. Given the timeframe required to bring it all together to finally share debut single “As Long As You’re Mine” with the world, it has been a long time coming for Matt. Though theatrical musical inspirations like My Chemical Romance run through his veins (he says “I couldn’t get rid of it if I tried!”), he’d worked with Shane to go for an older and more nostalgic sound. Instead of digital creations as had been done on Hellions tracks, Matt shares that “We went for real amp sounds and went shopping for old tape,” and that they ran it through an old cassette player to give it a “grainy, intentionally shitty sound”.
Talking about other changes in contrast to how he created music with Hellions, Matt spoke with enthusiasm about opening up his songwriting to allow more telling of stories. He is inspired by the style that musicians like Bob Dylan and Father John Misty bring, particularly when it comes to the use of verses. He says “I wanted to open the verses a little more so they were a little bit non-linear, and I have more room to speak and say the things that I want to say.” In exploring music with artists like this in mind, Matt was reminded of the fact that there are no rules, and that he could let go to previous formulas that had worked for him before.
With a quick glance at the artwork for “As Long As You’re Mine”, you’d be forgiven for thinking it fell out of a previous generation’s vinyl collection, especially based on the font and colouring of it. Matt worked with designer and friend Pat Fox on the creation of something that reflected this 60s-70s kind of era. Just as he’d told Shane that he’d wanted to make “something that sounded like it was from another time,” and to “aurally represent the abandon of that time”, it extended to tasking Pat with bringing the idea to visual life.
I’m a details person, and the more I looked at this artwork, the more I noticed. The suitcase is overflowing with origami cranes, as well as featuring some suspended in the air. There’s also a letter sitting atop the cranes, and these features sparked curiosity in me. While Matt hadn’t wanted to reveal too much too soon, he shared that the cranes are representative of grief reference Sadako and The Thousand Paper Cranes.
From Wikipedia: “After being diagnosed with leukemia from radiation caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Sadako’s friend told her to fold origami paper cranes (orizuru) in hope of making a thousand of them. She was inspired to do so by the Japanese legend that one who created a thousand origami cranes would be granted a wish. Her wish was simply to live through her disease so she could fulfill her dream of being in running team.”
Elaborating on his personal connection with this, Matt shared “There’s a lot of different connotations with it, but I think the primary one is that you’ll be granted a wish. There’s a lot of connotations with just the healing process of doing it, in regards to grief. We wanted to nod toward that and its many different meanings.” And yes, Pat had indeed folded each of these cranes, and had several big bags of paper cranes in his house. Originally intended for another project of Pat’s, Matt says the cranes weren’t used, “So we had some fun with them.”
With more revealed with album details to come, Matt describes the letter as being “a very personal one.” His father had left a letter amongst his belongings which had had instructions on it to not be opened until after his passing. It had contained personal journal entries and other things that he’d reserved for the seriousness of that time. “The Agnes Manners recordings do deal with a lot of grief, so it just felt appropriate to have that in there. And having that resting on top of those paper cranes just felt like the right place for that to be in the whole scene.”
Matt’s partner, Charlotte “CJ” Gilpin (who you’d know as vocalist of Dream State), features on “As Long As You’re Mine” and though the single is a love song, her presence is also threaded through Matt’s grief at the loss of his father. He shared “My father passed away suddenly and our relationship was flourishing in the middle of that process. We were just getting to know each other really well and then he died, and she was probably the biggest part in helping me through that. It was a big solidifier. It really concreted our relationship, you know? I guess in a way that’s sort of the connotation there with “As Long As You’re Mine”. She pulled me up and out of that.”
Dream State fans may be familiar with the phrase, “As long as you are mine” from the song “Twenty Letters”. It’s not a coincidence that they match, as the process of writing the Dream State album Primrose Path ran concurrent to Matt writing music for Agnes Manners. The fact that this was the case had actually slipped Matt’s mind, and he seemed giddy about this little easter egg. He said “I’d sent her a voice memo of just saying ‘What do you think of this chorus, babe?’, and just sent the [sings] “If all we have is each other now” chorus part, and she loved it. And she was writing that song at the time and it made its way into that song. I’d actually forgotten about that, Kel! That’s going to be such a cool thing for Dream State fans to tie that in. It’s really cute. [laughs]”
As two people that clearly live and breathe music, it’s kinda lovely that “As Long As You’re Mine” shares their connection in the writing of music as well as in the song’s meaning. Agreeing that the photo of the two of them together is beautiful, Matt shared that Lachlan Monty has taken a big set of photos at Matt’s house when CJ had been in Australia. Similar to the cover of Matt’s poetry book, Permanent Swim, the intention was to have items to represent his and CJ’s personalities. Keen eyes will notice a framed photo at Matt’s side which features him and his dad and is a favourite of Matt’s.
Though the choice of including flowers both in the cover art and the promo photo with CJ was an intuitive choice, it is important to Matt that feminine and vulnerable touches are present and clear on what he does. As a man with a gentler manner about him than may be expected of his gender, I feel like Matt (and other artists like him) are important role models in a world of ‘Toughen up’ and ‘Be a real man’ chastising of emotional expressions or softening. He says “There’s always been a femininity about myself. And I’ve been afraid of it? I don’t know, it’s a scary thing to be vulnerable and to be that way. It’s a lot better now than it used to be; the expectation for men to be burly or for men to be stony or whatever.”
Turning the idea of a stony defensiveness on its head, Matt sees this radical approach to honesty and vulnerability as an advantage. In his words: “I notice as I’ve gotten older, vulnerability has been more of a strength than anything else. It’s like you have nothing to hide. If you’re honest about the way that you feel all the time, it’s like nothing can harm you. If you own everything about the way you feel instead of hiding, it becomes more of a shield than anything else. I really want to get that out. Just in case there’s anybody else out there that’s struggling with something like that; with feeling vulnerable and feeling afraid of talking or the way that they feel, because it comes across as not masculine.”
On this note of talking about how embracing who you are (flaws and all) makes you “unfuckwithable”, we unfortunately ran out of time, and I left Matt to continue with other interviews. Since the time of our chat, Agnes Manners has been so heart-warmingly well received! And the best part is that this is only just the beginning of the adventure!
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