M. T. Hadley is a Frank Ocean-endorsed enigma

© Michele Cote

Words by:

Every now and again an artist arrives fully formed, filling a gap in your music listening habits that you didn’t even realise was there. With his finely balanced mix of cynicism and pain, M. T. Hadley is one of those artists.

Emerging in the summer of 2016 with the track Janet, he attracted the attention of Frank Ocean, who played the song on his much-lauded blonded RADIO. Suddenly elevated from obscurity Hadley did the opposite of what you might expect an aspiring musician to do with that co-sign: nothing. Rather than rushing to release an EP or another song, Hadley waited the best part of three years to share new music. Instead, he collaborated with the likes of Nilüfer Yanya, Vegyn and Bullion, only emerging back into the world earlier this year with first single proper Rattle, a track written to warn a newborn baby just how awful life can be.

That sense of deliberate pomposity and pessimism runs through the vast majority of Hadley’s music, which sees him cast an almost nihilistic gaze over anything that should have the misfortune to wander in front of him. Strangely enough though, there’s also a sense of naivety – and dare we say affection – in Hadley’s work. This crops up often in his videos, all of which contain subtitled stories that expand on the words created within his songs. The combined effect can be funny, unsettling and moving in equal measure.

Ahead of the release of his debut album Empty on Friday (8 November), today M. T. Hadley shares the video for Janet – the track that started it all. Named for and written after the passing of his mother, to say it’s disarming would be an understatement. Shot in Cornwall at the holiday home where Hadley and Janet would spend the summer, the video shares intimate details of his childhood, poking holes in Hadley’s carefully created aesthetic with devasting effect.

We caught up with Hadley to chat about the song’s creation, his adopted cynicism and his favourite track on Empty. Watch the premiere below and read on for our interview.

How did Janet come to be?

My mother died on the 16th of June, 2013, and I released Janet exactly three years later. She died and I still had a year of my degree to finish; yet each minute spent at desk 73 of the British Library felt – to me – meaningless. It felt obscene to be doing any more than taking stock of what had been the bleakest time of our lives. But it was my mother who’d persuaded me to study, and I vowed to try to muddle on for her. Scuppered by a poorly set exam on Gottlob Frege, I left achieving a mere 1% less than required for a first, and without having explored any subjects that truly piqued my interests.

The following year was a dismal haze. I had finally earned the right to mourn. Only a year after her death did I summon the courage to sing. I began writing Janet on a piano at a friend’s party. As other guests sat in bedrooms, drugging themselves into the next day, I dragged myself up with this song. The verses were written almost immediately, but the chorus took two years to finish. It had to be uplifting; an antidote to the bleak, matter-of-fact verses. Mothers are probably the first people in our lives to lie to us, claiming that we’re ‘special’ or that they’re so glad we happened. These tender falsehoods are unattainable once your mother is dead. You miss them, but always remember.

The video is very intimate and personal. Was it difficult to share those memories in such a public format?

Not at all. Specifying the moments of joy and, perhaps, pain contained within something like a family holiday is the only way to capture its absolute generality, which emerges from the frays I describe. The whole emerges from its parts. Crucially, we have all felt the unfathomable loneliness the sea brings us and, even as we enjoy the rare treat of an ice cream, we may also happen, in that very moment, to despise our mothers knowing all too well we will not be allowed another. It seems impossible to take substantive stock of any relationship without including the moments of overbearing difficulty that, like the sun behind an eclipsed moon, outline it. Without such tension one reduces their memories to the realm of inane divinity.

We wore ourselves out each day beneath an unusually hot April sun – me, Ciaran Wood (who also cut the beautiful edit) and Jacek Zmarz – lugging equipment across the cliffs, beaches and in between the gentle cottages of the Cornish coast. I hadn’t been back there since visiting with Janet. This was a dreadful pain I had to carry alone.

© Michele Cote

Your music videos often have narratives that relate to their respective songs but also stand apart from them. Do you write them yourself?

Each video is intended, inherently, to distract from the music itself. I seldom watch music videos. Like many others, I open a tab, tap in the name of a song and listen to the YouTube link that emerges, regardless of its video accompaniment. I made videos that ought to be seen and not heard. The aim with Janet was that people hear its lyrics occasionally – as vague echoes of the subtitles and ultimately the relationship – but that their attention is with me, Janet and the north coast of Cornwall.

Similarly, I aimed that Private Eye confront people with the absurdity of love and its justification; that Rattle tackle the strangeness of living, and indeed wanting others to live, in our odd, sad world. I was encouraged by my friend Charlie to keep writing subtitles for each video, but these skeletal outlines would be nothing were it not for Jacek and Ciaran whose undying patience and skill were antecedent to anything worth watching.

Your debut album Empty is out on Friday, what’s your least favourite song on the record?

At some point, I’ve despised them all. Roof Party took an inordinately tortuous path and is the song that had the most, albeit needless, external input. Bullion at some stage tried some drums, as did Vegyn at some other stage. Eventually, I settled for what I already had – as everyone eventually must. I nearly put it out in 2016. Then in 2017 I nearly released it with the Paul Institute. Now it’s just an album track.

I hated Rattle for a long time too. It’s the oldest track on the record. It was written in 2011, and feels far less finessed to me. Harmonically, lyrically and in terms of production, it feels much shonkier. It was actually the first full song I ever wrote. I wanted it to sound like County Line by Cass McCombs, but it ended up sounding a bit like the Father Ted theme music. That’s a fine thing too.

First Floor took an extremely long time to mix. There were 17 attempts before Nathan [Boddy] and I found something we were happy with. Read Receipt nearly didn’t make the album at all. It felt dull and listless to me. I only ended up revamping it earlier this year. To me, it feels like the most developed in that sense, and that it is the last track on the record serves as a signpost to what’s next I hope. My friend Jock who plays in Puppy recorded the guitar solo. He did 70 takes before I told him I was going to cut the first and third together.

Empty is out 8 November via Empty/[PIAS]

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