Matt Hales is Aqualung, a classically schooled pianist and composer who writes, sings, and plays enchanting pop rock music. He began his career as a member of the Britpop bands Ruth and the 45s, but it was his soundtrack to a English television commercial for Volkswagen that led to him being signed as a solo act and getting a record contract. He released two records in the UK. These have been combined and condensed into his American debut album, Strange and Beautiful, which has garnered universal praise in the states (including a strong recommendation by PopMatters). Hales is currently in the midst of a long tour across the US.
Aqualung’s music reveals his classical training. Hales plays the piano beautifully and with a delicate grace. He rarely raises his voice. His quietly reflective songs concern love and loss. It’s difficult to imagine why Hales named himself after the noisy, progressive rock classic album by Jethro Tull about a dirty old man who leers with bad intent at young school girls. The truth is he didn’t, according to Hales.
“Sometimes when people choose a name, they deliberate for a day, a month, or even a lifetime. I had a 20-minute window. I was far into making the first album in my London flat without a deal. Suffice it to say, someone was interested in playing it on the radio and so it needed to be called something quick. I thought the music had a real sense of atmosphere, an undersea feeling. I thought of underwater words. Better to call it Aqualung than Fishy,” Hales said clearly over the telephone. “I never heard of the Jethro Tull record. Despite being a British album, it had no enduring impact in the UK. In the States the specter of Tull looms large. I heard it for the first time recently at the Amoeba record store in Los Angeles. I did an in-store performance, and the employees thought it would be a great thing for me to hear the original, so they played the title track from a hallowed copy of the vinyl record.” Hales spoke from his hotel room the morning before a gig in Indianapolis. My interview was one of many his publicist had arranged that week. His American tour began almost two months before and will continue for at least another month. I saw him perform more than a month before in mid-March at one of his many South by Southwest gigs, noon on a Thursday (“12 o’clock—great time for a rock ‘n’ roll show,” he said dryly) at the Driskill Hotel.
“Promotion is not as odious as you might imagine,” Hales said. What he hated was being apart from his wife Kim Oliver (who co-writes many of his songs) and young child Kofi. “Kofi just took his first steps and I wish I was there to see it.” Hales has been away from England during much of the past year and played across Europe and Asia before coming to the US. “I’ve been amazed at how similar audiences have been despite the different cultures. You would expect there to be distinctions between Japan and Boston, but the feeling in the room, the intensity of the crowd, happens everywhere in the same way,” he said. He did acknowledge that it could just be that his music attracts a certain type of sensitive listener.
“It would be disingenuous for me to pretend my songs are happy, but I actually don’t have a broken heart. Although my material is personal, it is frequently retrospective. I am usually unproductive when I am sad,” Hales said. “What’s weird is when I’ll sing a sad song, like ‘Breaking My Heart’ or ‘Another Little Hole’, and when I am done there will be a moment of silence, and then ecstatic cheering.” Hales said he frequently smiles and laughs while playing becaus,e while the song may have a melancholy topic, he has gotten over the pain.
Songs of love and loss seem to resonate in comparable ways across the globe, but despite his inward-looking songs, Hales is well aware of the troubled state of the world. He knows America and Britain are currently at war and says this impacts his songwriting. “It does enter into my head. You cannot possibly separate yourself from the world. What happens affects me and the people around me that inspire my music. My songs haven’t directly addressed those issues. I’m not the guy for that job, because my agenda is emotional rather than cerebral. Our governments are playing havoc on people’s lives in England, America, and abroad. The state of the world seeps through my material in subtle ways,” Hales said passionately, paused, then continued, “I am a father. In this world what affects one affects us all. My music is not an escape from the world. It’s a part of the world.” Hales emphasizes that the connection between the personal and the political comes from the same instinctual matrix that binds us together and keeps us apart.
His method of composition is to focus on his feelings and let the songs come out. “I don’t think about what I’m saying or the audience, I just try not to get in the way of what’s right for the song. In the recording process I consider how to make it more exciting, interesting or moving to the listener. That’s where the craft comes in,” he said. Hales adds lots of quirky touches on his productions: odd tinklings and chimes, the sound of breathing, a light tapping on a hard surface during a quiet moment, and such. He even bills himself as playing Amateur Percussion on the liner notes to Strange and Beautiful. “Recording is one thing, but performing material on stage is totally different. I am constantly rearranging songs. I like to bring unexpected moments to the stage. I like the idea that certain parts of certain songs can be played in many different, satisfying ways,” Hales said. He also performs with other band members when possible. He frequently tours with his brother Ben, and said he should be playing with a three-piece and even four-piece group at some of the larger venues on his current American tour.
What seems to separate Hales from other piano playing singer songwriters, besides his prodigious talents, is his sincerity. In an age where irony abounds and cultural artifacts are not meant to be taken at face value, Hales plays it straight. When Hales unaffectedly says he never heard of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, he means it and expects you to believe it. I believe you, Matt.