2014-07-04T10:00:34-04:00 2014-07-07T19:06:34-04:00

Matthew Koma on songwriting, collaborations, and providing the voice for today's dance music culture [Interview]

It is irrefutable that today electronic dance music is more popular than ever in America. I could direct you to multiple facts proving this, such as record-breaking attendance for EDM-based festivals, or Billboard's constantly rotating cast of chart-topping dance tracks. But if you're even reading this, you're more than likely aware of EDM's ever-growing popularity. You're also likely aware that no other singer/songwriter has had more influence over the direction of EDM's sound and influence than Matthew Koma.

Perhaps best known as the majestic voice on Zedd's all-time classic "Spectrum," for the last three or four years Matthew Koma has suddenly found himself lending his talents to many of dance music's biggest hits. But whatever you do, don't just write him off as a singer! During Electronic Daisy Carnival weekend I had the opportunity to speak with him, and our casual conversation quickly morphed into a rather deep discussion on many topics, such as songwriting, production, and the overall state of EDM as an emerging form of popular music. I came away with not only a better understanding of his approach to music, but his hopes and aspirations for both his career and the culture as a whole. So please, read on to delve into the mind of one of today's most prolific and important voices in EDM. 

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EARMILK: So to start off, let me ask you this: What's it like to be the voice of EDM today? And, what I mean by that is, you pretty much own the territory of mainstage EDM music. Obviously, "Spectrum" was a #1 dance hit, and from there, you have "Cannonball", "Dare You"... the list goes on. How does it feel to be so heavily involved in some of dance music's biggest hits?
Matthew Koma: I really appreciate that, but you know I don't really look at it like that. I think I've just been really fortunate to collaborate with a lot of really talented people, producers, talented artists... and it's nice that we all belong to a similar community, which has been a lot of fun, inhabiting that space, and to have the opportunity to write as many songs as I've been able to write, and release. It's a pretty unique time in music, and its a unique opportunity for me, to have all these different avenues to release music. A lot of old traditions of releasing a record... or developing a body of work generally... having that be your one release... things have changed now. Now you're able to work with Audien, Hardwell, Tiesto, and put stuff out simultaneously with all of them. Which is great because it creates this constant flow, which I really appreciate, because I do really like writing and I do like being involved in different kinds of projects from a sonic standpoint. Learning from each side of it, and really pushing it forward. It's been a really great learning experience.
EM: So how you got into this in the first place? I know you're from Brooklyn originally.
MK: Well, you know, growing up, playing in bands, my style and structure was really more from the traditional, singer-songwriter perspective, and that's kind of always been my reference point. It's always been important to me to, you know, not just say something, but finding a way to say something in a way that hasn't been said, but still emotionally connecting in a very traditional sense, or universal sense. And, when I first had the opportunity to start collaborating with artists in this layout, it was exciting for me, like their production models were pretty forward thinking...

It's always been important to me to... not just say something, but finding a way to say something in a way that hasn't been said, but still emotionally connecting in a very traditional sense...

EM: Oh, for sure. Very different than what previously encompassed the pop music field.
MK: Yeah, I mean, everything, from the technology to the attitude, to the influences that allow them to push further past being in any sort of box, and the fact that they're so open minded to start collaborating with songwriter like myself, that comes from my world of influence... it felt like there was an opportunity to create something very unique. So the first time I worked in electronic producer in the commercial space (because I had done some collaborations earlier, but nothing really came out, or nothing that was very serious) when Sebastian Ingrosso and Alesso came to me with "Calling."

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EM: Of course, I knew you had a hand in writing that.
MK: Yeah, a friend of mine reached out, and sent me the track for it, and we kind of developed a rapport from working on that first song, so immediately things followed up from that. Working on Alesso's next song single which became "Years" and from there, I linked with Zedd...

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EM: Wait, I'm sorry to interrupt, but just to clarify, you're telling me that the Alesso collaboration actually came before "Spectrum"?
MK: Yes, yes... "Years" was actually written BEFORE "Spectrum" came into existence, but "Spectrum" was released first commercially. So then I hooked up with Zedd, and you know we were actually working on another artist's record... so it wasn't for him or myself. But we just became fans of one another, you know? Sort of had a "fanship" kind of friendship before we did any sort of collaboration for either of our records. And then one night I came back from tour, and I hit him on gchat and said, "hey, I'm in midtown, we should link up" And he responded, "Actually i'm in the studio tonight, want to come here a track?" Of course! So... we met up and wrote "Spectrum" that night.

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EM: Whew! You mean to tell me you wrote "Spectrum," essentially, in one night?
MK: Yeah... it was a really organic process for me... it's what works for me, in a spur of the moment kind of inspiration, or... well if not all of it at least the bulk of it, sort of comes in those first few moments. So yeah, it kind of opened my eyes to new songwriting processes. I could do what I've always done, and keep intact what's always been important to me about songwriting, and now, I could marry it to these production that were more forward thinking, you know? Still incorporating organic elements, but now doing it in a way that just felt like it could reach more people. And that's really exciting to me.
EM: Yeah, for sure.
MK: So, I found myself in place where, I was still doing me, but I was now doing what I love, in the context of something that felt like... I was being more daring, you know? As daring as I knew my songs could be. So yeah, it was really exciting to find an opportunity where I could have my own space, and my own world, where I belonged. Because, I think as an artists, you're always searching for direction... for truth... for perspective... and for me, it felt good to find something that wasn't an obvious direction for myself, because it allowed me to explore more things.
EM: Wow. So to follow up from that... it sounds like you didn't really see yourself into the electronic/dance music direction at all...?
MK: Well, it's the kind of thing that... electronic music, especially in the last two years, has become so commercial, particularly in the united states... it wasn't traditionally something that I felt I could marry to the type of songs I wrote... so to start thinking about it from the standpoint of writing "dance songs" wasn't as attractive to me, because that's not what I do. So when it became a scenario of, I can write songs that I write, and have them live in this space, because we're kind of marrying the two worlds together now... it felt more like, well now I can be truthful to myself, now that my music can successfully co-exist with dance music. So yeah, before I had never really thought about it previously because it never really seemed like a viable option. And as the genre progressed... well, i shouldn't say "progressed", but as it changed...
EM: Transformed, to some extent, and as it incorporated new and different influences...
MK: Exactly. As it adopted more influences, and songwriting, and more organic elements, it became a space that I had more value in. And now, it feels like home.

As the [electronic dance music] genre progressed... it adopted more influences, and songwriting and more organic elements... it became a space that I had more value in. And now it feels like home. 

EM: That's awesome man... Seriously, you sound right at home on your songs. You can hear the passion in pretty much every lyric. Let me ask about your voice actually, because it's evocative, and unlike anything else in dance music.
MK: Thank you.

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EM: So what were some of the influences and inspirations in adopting your unique voice?
MK: Actually, it's funny because I don't really consider myself a singer. I consider myself a songwriter, first and foremost, and I've used my voice as the mechanism to deliver my songs. but I've never really looked at myself as a singer. So it's kind of been a strange experience for me, for people to introduce me as a singer...
EM: Or know you primarily as...
MK: Yeah, or flat-out associate me only with singing EDM songs. Because for me, delivering my words and melodies is most important. So I never really grew up being a a huge fan of any particular singer... I have a number of favorite songwriters that I believe have unique voices...
EM: Mind telling me some of them?
MK: I'm a HUGE Elvis Costello fan. Big Bruce Springsteen fan, Tom Petty... you know, real storytellers. Those kind of voices really attracted me. But yeah, not so much just listening to singers or voices... not in the same way that I listen to words and melodies.

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EM: So where does all the emotion in your voice come from? How did you develop such an evocative style, with all your range and technique?
MK: Haha, I really don't know! Honestly, it's just what comes out of me, a result really of singing words that I believe in and care about, and every time I do it, I hope my craft comes through.
EM: So, you just mentioned you never saw yourself being described as only a singer... or attached to EDM as just a singer/vocalist. I was actually going to comment on that because, a lot of your music has pretty much been in the same "realm" of EDM... that being electro, progressive house. some big-room, some Dutch, but pretty much everything has been in the house genre. Do you see yourself branching out, and into what?
MK: Yeah. Again, I don't really see it as a genre specific thing. I can't really write a song unless I feel that it can exist both on a festival stage, and in a space more personal. It's always important to me that whatever I write, words, melodies... are things that are still truthful, and evocative, no matter who's singing, or what genre the song is. That's not to say that some songs aren't more lighthearted than others... I mean, I just finished "Wasted" with Tiesto! [laughter]
EM: haha, true, true.
MK: Not every song has to be a deep, introspective things that must be taken super seriously. But for me, it's less about being genre specific or fitting in nice, neat boxes, and more about the quality of where the song comes from, and can it withstand the test of being dressed up in a number of different ways. For example, we look at some of the best songs that stand the test of time, and they're covered in different ways, by many different voices. And they continue to exist because it's the song itself that's great, it's not dependent on the genre, or the production.

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EM: Or even the artists, with some covers.
MK: Exactly. That's why it stands the test of time.
EM: It sounds like you're well on your way to doing that with your career as well.
MK: Yeah, I mean, as long as you use that as a roadmap, but you should always be using your gut to guide to a place that feels truthful, honest, and meaningful to you, as a songwriter. That's all I'm really looking to do.
EM: So speaking of your music working on multiple levels... I had the chance to listen to some of your acoustic work on Cherrytree Sessions.
MK: Oh cool. Thanks for checking that out.

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EM: And yeah... the acoustic version of "Years?" I mean, I'm getting goosebumps just remembering it.  And I just wanted to talk to you about the production of that EP. can you elaborate on the production process behind it?
MK: Well, everything comes about differently, you know? It all depends on what role I play in the construction of the song. Sometimes its someone sending me a track, and I write a melody for it. Other times, I'll have written a melody with my guitar, and I'll work with someone on producing something to compliment it. So it's kind of a different path every time. With "Years" in particular, Alesso had that track and he sent it to me, and I was actually on a plane from Nashville to LA, and I had booked a studio to record the vocals for years... and I hadn't written them yet. [laughter]. Yeah, and I knew I was landing in two hours... and I had nothing. So I basically wrote it, and finished the song as the plane was landing in LA.
EM: You wrote "Years" in two hours...?
MK: Essentially, yeah. And we went straight to the studio, and a good friend of mine, Sam Watters, he made a few suggestions, and yeah, we basically recorded "Years" right there. So every process is a bit different. And you know, when you're writing a song, during the process, you honestly can't tell if it's going to be special or not. You can listen to it for the next three weeks, and you still don't really know. So to see, and feel that song resonate with people was really special, because that's what's really given it definition.

When you're writing a song, during the process, you honestly can't tell if it's going to be special or not. You can listen to it for the next three weeks, and you still don't really know. So to see, and feel that song resonate with people was really special, because that's what's really given it definition.

EM: For sure, man. And it's like we said earlier, a good song should work on so many levels, and the fact that years works as an EDM track, but as an acoustic track too, it gives you a completely different feeling, but just as strong. It's impressive.
MK: Appreciate it man, thank you.
EM: Well let me ask about "Find You"... It's one of the few times, if not the only time, that you've worked with another vocalist on the same track. Can you talk about that experience?
MK: Well it's interesting actually. It was more disconnected than some of my previous collaborations. Zedd and I had started working on that song awhile ago, and he already had Miriam Bryant's portion of the song already, the part that she sings. We both really liked it, thought it was really cool. And we had worked on that song over the course of the year... and kind of chipped away at it, so we weren't really in any rush to finish it. It wasn't like... we weren't in a position where we felt like we had to finish it, you know? We just chipped away on it. Like, we worked a bit in NYC, or we were in Tokyo doing promotion for "Spectrum", worked a little more. So yeah, it was really an organic process. It was one of those tracks that we just let breathe on its own... and it kind of finished itself.
EM: Well again, its a great track, and to hear you harmonizing with another singer so perfectly... I mean, you had already established yourself as working well with Zedd... so to hear an additional voice compliment your work so well... very, very nice.
MK: Glad you enjoyed it. yeah, i really love that song.
EM: So let's talk about what's coming up for you. I've been waiting on your upcoming album for sometime now... any news on that?
MK: Yeah. I just finished a new single, "One Night", and I'm about to shoot a video for another single in about a week, or two weeks. I'm really excited about it, because, obviously, I've spent a lot of time on the record. It took me a little while to really find the lane that the record belonged in. I've had some of the songs for a minute, and some of them were inspired by the past few years of my career, and finding the direction that felt truthful, and good for me. I think people are going to be surprised when they hear it, because it's definitely something that's more connected to the collaborations that I've done, and not necessarily the music I previously released as a solo artist. It's a lot more realized... and as a new artists, you're always looking for what shirt you're going to wear, and how you're going to wear it, and that takes time. And fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), you do that under a spotlight, which I've done since I was 14, really.
EM: Yeah, with everything out in public view, for public dissection...
MK: Oh yeah. Artist development is so different now than it was a few years ago. But I'm really excited. I feel really good about the album, and I'm happy to be completing it.
EM: So can you tell me anything about it? Who are you working with? I know you don't want to reveal too much about it...
MK: Well yeah, I actually produced a lot of it on my own. And I brought in a couple of guys that I feel like are kind of the next wave of high level production so. Arty is on some songs, who I'm a really big fan of... and this kid from Florida named Michael Brun...

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EM: Michael Brun...?! Honest to God, "Halfway" was one of my favorite productions of last year, so I can't wait to hear that.
MK: Yeah... they're both really really talented. I'm kind of staying away from any big features. I feel like I've done a lot of the bigger collaborations already. I've been happy, thrilled, to be a part of those big collaborations. But now, it's time for me to make a statement with my record, and I'm excited to do that. Zedd and Alesso was exciting, because the first songs I wrote for them were their first singles, and were kind of instrumental in helping them build their stories... and I'm excited to use some new guys that I believe in just as much as I believed in them when I first heard their tracks. And to continue to have that be a part of my statement... that's exciting to me.

Zedd and Alesso was exciting, because the first songs I wrote for them were their first singles, and were kind of instrumental in helping them build their stories... and I'm excited to use some new guys that I believe in just as much as I believed in them when I first heard their tracks. And to continue to have that be a part of my statement... that's exciting to me.

EM: So, as my last question, anything you want to say to your fans out there? Anyone who might be reading this? Those fans waiting for the upcoming album...?
MK: [laughter] Well for those that have been waiting... thank you, thank you, thank you for waiting. It's been a long process, but I'm confident the result will be worth the wait. It's been incredible to see a lot of new fans and a lot of new people sort of discovering what it is I do... and it means the world to me to see people connecting with lyrics, and connecting with my words... and spiritually feeling on the same level... man, that's what it's all about, you know? I think we live in a time where, everything is so accessible, between Facebook, and instant communications... and everyone's entitled to an opinion, but things that really stand out to me are the simplest words, and emotions... and its incredible to see that the simplest forms of music really matter to people. So thank you guys, for the gift of letting me know how much it means to you. 

Thanks for reading guys, and be sure to check in with EARMILK for our complete review of EDC weekend. And make sure you check out the links below for more Koma!

Dance · Feature · Interview


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