Bristol-based producer Matt Preston aka Phaeleh has been accruing a massive underground following since the release of his debut album Fallen Light in 2008, honing his inimitable style of cinematic electronica with live instrumentation ever since.
Floating in the cavernous space between dubstep, garage, electronica and house, whilst flirting with jazzier tones similar to artist such as Four Tet and Floating Points, Phaeleh’s sound is difficult to define. Though his sheer originality and ability to innovate is what has earned him a reputation as one of the most intriguing producers to emerge out of Bristol.
2018 saw the release of his eighth studio album Clarity, an 11-track record steeped in rich, textural sound that adds further layers to Phaeleh’s already-complex production.
steeped in rich, textural sound that adds further layers to Phaeleh’s already-complex production
In keeping with his other releases, Clarity does not disappoint, as the Bristol-based artist succeeds yet again in utterly immersing you in the beauty of his sound, whilst further pushing the versatility of his production.
Having learnt a lot in the decade since his debut LP, Matt returned to a DIY setup for his latest album, drawing a line under a very frustrating few years trying to release his previous album Lost Time, which eventually came out in 2017 on Undertow Records.
The important thing for me with Clarity was about the process being enjoyable, more than musical style
‘The important thing for me with Clarity was about the process being enjoyable, more than musical style’ Matt explains. ‘With my previous album, the music was three or four years old by the time it came out due to delays and I ended up making lots of changes. I felt like the music suffered as a result – it ended up feeling watered down from taking so long. A lot of my earlier work, the most popular stuff, was made relatively quickly and came out within six to nine months. I wanted Clarity to come out in 2018 because the music, one track aside, had all been made that year.’
Going solo, Phaeleh was able to adhere to his own deadlines and go at his own pace rather than succumbing to the pressures of the industry, allowing him a level of autonomy that he missed in previous releases – choosing creative control over a more immediate path to success.
‘I have had management that have been great and really helped me get my music out to people,’ says Phaeleh ‘but the more people involved, the more you’re making music by committee. You’ve got lots of different opinions pulling you in different directions – too many cooks sort of thing.
the more people involved, the more you’re making music by committee.
‘You end up with four or five people coming back to you as well as your friends saying “oh, I don’t like that”, when I was actually happy with the idea’ Phaeleh continues. ‘I should try and be stronger minded, but I do listen to others as I value their opinions. I felt like a lot of the tracks ended up very different to when I first made them, so with this new album I trusted my gut and my primary focus was to make something that I wanted to make, with my secondary focus being whether people would like it.
‘Not necessarily every track, as I’m quite marmite, but I think I succeeded in doing that. Other than my ambient albums, I can’t even listen to any of my other releases, yet I can listen to this one. I like it and there’s a level of autonomy there that I haven’t had in a long time.’
Matt explains that he has become cynical about work offers and opportunities as it’s very easy for an artist to sign away their rights and freedom for amounts of money that don’t reflect their talent or potential. So, in keeping with his ‘freestyle’ approach, Matt self-released Clarity online without physical copies, singles or videos.
I wanted the music to speak for itself. If someone finds it a year or two later, that’s fine
‘I just stuck it online and went “hey everyone, there’s an album out today”, which was a big risk. It doesn’t necessarily generate much exposure, but I wanted the music to speak for itself. If someone finds it a year or two later, that’s fine, as there is no one saying this album has to be successful now so we can get our investment back, which is what you get with labels and management. If no one else is dependent on your music doing well, you can be more, I dunno, freestyle with it.’
Free from external pressure, I asked Matt how Clarity’s recording process differed from his other albums, as he was able to return to a more traditional recording setup of live instruments, hardware synths and drum machines, rather than getting lost tweaking things on a computer screen. He explains he took comfort in not having to compromise his creativity for the sake of someone else who’s priority is a product and the reception of that product, rather than artist authenticity.
‘If you take something like Fallen Light or Tide or even Lost Time, for each album I make 100+ tracks and force myself to sit in the studio all day every day, staying up all night and not sleeping, churning and churning out ideas. With this album, there’s 11 tracks on it and I think I considered about 15 songs. When there’s no one pressuring you, I felt that I could trust my gut and when I wasn’t feeling creative I thought it was pointless being in the studio.
I felt that I could trust my gut and when I wasn’t feeling creative I thought it was pointless being in the studio
‘I’ve taken more time for myself and taken days off to go for nice walks and actually listen to music, instead of churning out ideas like a machine’ Matt continues. ‘It has meant that when I do sit down and make something, I end up making something worthwhile. It was weirdly enjoyable and there wasn’t this pressure that a lot of creatives – whether they’re artists, musicians, writers – will torture themselves over, feeling like they need to be making stuff all the time.
‘The quality control was also higher this time and if I started something and I liked it, I could see it through to the end.’
Taking the reins on the production of his latest release, Matt was able to create something that was organic and more true to his sound as a result.
‘Clarity summed up how I was feeling. I’d had a rough few years in the industry dealing with a few problems and things not necessarily going to plan, and I found it very stressful. The life of being a music maker isn’t as fun as you might imagine and the pressures you put on yourself are probably more than the pressures externally.
‘I found I had a fresh start, a fresh perspective and, it sounds cheesy, I had a certain clarity in life as well as with my music and where it fits in, with no illusions. When you have a team of people working with you, even though they know you might be quite underground and have a specific fanbase, they’re always trying to make you a bigger name because there is bigger money, but that’s not what I’m about. So, it’s about clarity in what matters to me most – which is making music that I like. I’d rather make an album that I enjoy and a thousand people buy it than make an album I don’t like and 100,000 people buy it. For me, it’s more about artistic authenticity than making money.’
I’d rather make an album that I enjoy and a thousand people buy it than make an album I don’t like and 100,000 people buy it
Matt’s impressive back catalog has already seen him establish a strong fanbase, contributing to more than 2 million monthly views on YouTube. The Bristol-based producer’s beautifully distinctive sound full of substance and melancholia has also received support from Radio 1, 6 Music, 1Xtra and Rinse FM and he’s also risen to prominence as an in-demand remixer, reworking artists as diverse as chart-topping dance outfit Rudimental to classical composer Ludovico Einaudi, as well as popular acts such as Charli XCX and Niki & The Dove. With the release of Clarity marking 10 years since his debut album, I asked Matt how he felt his music had progressed and developed since then.
‘It’s got deeper in terms of evoking an emotional response in the listener. I think I’ve been more ambitious with what I’m trying to do. I listen to my old songs and they sound really stripped back and minimal and I kind of miss that as it was a lot easier to finish the music!
The process now is a lot more complex, even though it is similar ideas
‘The process now is a lot more complex, even though it is similar ideas. I feel like I’ve pushed myself more so that I’m not quite as comfortable with what I’m doing, and I guess that makes it a riskier process when you’re writing. I’m a lot freer in a way; you know, I have found myself making albums that I actually don’t like, but I thought I was making the music that people wanted, so there wasn’t that personal connection with it that there is now.’
In terms of how living in Bristol has influenced Phaeleh, as well as fostering the culture of open-mindedness that has helped today’s DIY school of thought artists such as Young Echo and IDLES prove that you make a career out of music on your own terms, Matt says that starting out it was the early ‘Bristol sound’ artists showed him that he was not limited to making sounds on his computer.
the old Full Cycle stuff like Roni Size and the breakbeat era was really important for m
‘It was the old Full Cycle stuff like Roni Size and the breakbeat era that was really important for me. There were a couple of albums that made it clear to me that you can make electronic music with instruments, it didn’t just have to be synths and drum machines.
‘I think Bristol is a great part of the world. Everyone genuinely seems to be very creative and open-minded and I think people in Bristol are very accepting of different things – it’s far less rigid than other places. I think most people get a buzz from the city . Everyone’s pretty down to earth and there aren’t too many egos. I think it’s just an inspiring city and a good place to make music.’
Photos by Dominika Scheibinger
4 May – Phaeleh (live), Old Crown Courts