Matthew Koma on finding your voice as an artist [Op-Ed]
Matthew Koma is easily one of the more distinct voices in the dance music sphere. His charming toplines have enraptured millions on the backs of blockbuster singles like Zedd’s “Spectrum” and Alesso’s “Years.” More than just an accomplished vocalist, Koma has proven a prolific songwriter, having written some of the biggest dance hits of the past decade like “Clarity” and “Calling.” While Koma may have made his global break in the EDM world, his abilities have led him to collaborate with everyone from Lady Gaga to Bruce Springsteen.
To celebrate his new single “Hard To Love,” co-produced by Louis The Child, Matthew Koma has offered an extensive op-ed on the topic of ‘finding your voice’ as an artist.
It’s a fitting subject matter for Koma, given his ever-changing journey through the music industry and his perpetual self-reinvention. More than just a few friendly words, Koma has diligently offered his entire story as an artist — everything from initial success to his current trajectory. Whether you’re an vocalist or not, Koma’s words will ring true for any creative endeavor.
Watch the video for Matthew Koma’s acoustic cover of “Hard To Love,” taken from his forthcoming album on RCA.
Matthew Koma on Finding Your Voice
“Finding your voice sounds like something that should be purely instinctual. When you’re first discovering music, you only know a few things; music excites you, it speaks to you, the sounds make you feel understood, the energy makes you feel represented. You realize you’re wired with this desire to communicate using that language, so you start to figure out how you do that. Maybe you’re 13, maybe you’re 22 – you have a favorite song or artist or band and you want to emulate them. Either you sing, you write words, you produce, you learn an instrument, you join a friend’s band because they needed a bass player…Whatever the entry point is, it’s coming from this pure and romantic place where anything and everything is possible. It’s a freedom. You don’t really realize in the moment how special that frame of “you-falling-in-love-with-music” is. You eventually look back and become aware of the untampered ignorance you could never relive or duplicate.
I started playing guitar and singing when I was about 6 or 7, writing when I was 10, started a band when I was 14, got signed when I was 17, dropped from the record label by 18 just in time to realize I wasn’t as special as I thought with my Senior Year Atlantic Records Contract. I started a fake booking agency with my best friend James to keep my band touring for three years while also assisting in the booking of Wu Tang’s reunion tour (when they would show up), hustled for songs for other artists to cut and for opportunities to produce, then played guitar for the band Eve 6 while making solo records. I started out wanting to be Dave Pirner. Then Kurt Cobain. Then Billie Joe. Then I wanted to be Bruce Springsteen.
Then, I accidentally became a songwriter and voice in a genre that had been the farthest thing from my initial roots. That led to an inevitable “I want to be David Foster Wallace because I’m misunderstood and bandanas are rad” era. Thanks Marms.
The way you see yourself and how people see you are sometimes polar opposites. Or the things that you aspire to be great at, are sometimes different than what you naturally have a knack for. I spent years trying to find my “truth” and I don’t think I even understood what that meant. The first person to ever tell me to write my “truth” was a guy named Jake Ottmann who managed one of my favorite bands called Superdrag. He probably doesn’t even know or remember that conversation but it stuck with me. Until then, I followed road maps and tried to Elvis Costello-ize my words which mostly resulted in cryptic C+ versions of his already existing sentiments. Or I wrote Americana heartland songs that were imitations of Badlands or songs I loved. But it wasn’t me. It wasn’t mine.
It started to click when I began working with producers and artists that came from a completely different set of influences. Hearing tracks and productions that were so different from my organic-rootsy-band upbringing, made me feel like I’d discovered that “new” feeling again. It forced me to think and tread differently. Though I was still subconsciously calling on the years of influence I had from singer songwriters and bands, the context was so different that it disguised them well.
The first songs I wrote with electronic artists were almost like experiments because I’d never done it before, so I didn’t know what I should or shouldn’t say or do. I just did whatever felt good and I wrote songs that I could play on an acoustic guitar as easily as they could be sung over these tracks. The first two songs I wrote to tracks were for a new DJ at the time named Alesso. I wrote a song called “Calling” and then a song called “Years” over a two week or so span. I recorded the vocals in a kitchen of an apartment I hadn’t fully moved into yet. Dave Rene, who was an A&R at Interscope at the time, had made some introductions to producers and thought my style of writing would be interesting to pair with these guys. I found myself excited again by the process and not feeling restricted to guitar, bass and drums. One of the first intros Dave made was to a new producer he started to manage named Zedd. We worked on a few ideas via email and then the first time we met in a room together, he played me a track idea and I sang a melody over it that became the start of a song called “Spectrum”. It was interesting because he was coming from a background of metal bands and electronic, and I wanted to write the missing song off of Elliott Smith’s XO. We had a musical bond that was honest and trusting. I felt like I had this license to do what I do and he had a license to do what he does. Over the next few months, I was touring and trying to figure out how this new burst of direction was going to affect my solo work. It was easy to get in the headset of writing when it was with the idea of it being “for” someone. But when I came back to the drawing board dreaming of a body of work I could deem mine, I struggled with integrity. Where did I come from, who am I, and what’s the difference between being opportunistic or genuinely intrigued by a change of tide. I always felt like I was supposed to know from birth who I was as an artist, and that I had to stick to that path no matter what came my way. But here I was sincerely enjoying this shift in direction and it started to connect with an audience. “You can’t choose what you’re famous for” – James Taylor. It was disorienting because, on paper, I would’ve plotted a totally different path. But my end goal was to be someone who wrote words that resonated with people and could matter to them the way my favorite songs mattered to me. And I started to see hints of that happening.
Over the next few years, I was very fortunate to write and produce records for some of the biggest electronic artists. I wrote “Clarity” and “Find You” for Zedd, “Wasted” and a bunch of others for Tiësto, Hardwell, Afrojack, Steve Aoki and more. Those collaborations got me in the room with everyone from Britney Spears to Lady Gaga to Shania Twain and Bruce Springsteen. And while these were all artists that were massively different from one another, they all spoke their truth. That was the takeaway. Honesty connects.
In approaching this album, I knew I had to tell my story and that would be the thing that separated my previous works from this body. Unlike my original theory of “finding your voice” being something that you’re born with inside of you like a chip, it took me years of living, years of trying on different shirts to see which one fit me. And it’s always evolving. Who I am and what I have to say right now is truthful and real. But I know circumstances will change and this will resonate differently with me years from now.
From a lyrical standpoint – I tackled everything from my struggles with crippling anxiety, eating disorders, relationships that changed me forever and the lighter sides of myself; obsession with seaweed crackers and Axl Rose. And I felt like I had an opportunity to make a soundscape that felt unique to these songs – so I called on producers who I was straight up just fans of to collaborate with. Louis The Child, Grey, Jai Wolf, lophiile, Flux Pavillion, Steve James…they all helped bring to life a sound and spirit that feels like I have definitively found my voice. It was a humbling lesson to realize it wasn’t a “one size fits all” when it comes to finding that truth. For me, I think I’ve found peace in always being involved in drastically different projects that all satisfy a unique hunger and fill a different well. To produce a Shania Twain album really let’s me drown in the wet dream of tracking incredible musicians and striving for the spirit of the E Street Band that I love so deeply. To help Zedd realize a vision and collaborate on the songs that paved the way for his career, allowed me to do my best Elliott Smith at Pacha. I feel fortunate to feel like for the right here, right now, I have a voice that is mine because I’m telling my story. I look forward to looking back at this album and collection as another memory of who I once was.”
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not” -Kurt Cobain