Inside Matt Corby’s Reclusive Rainforest Lifestyle
By Darren Levin
WE arrive at Rainbow Valley to the sound of a barking dog and the final faint bars of what was
probably a blistering jam.
The barking dog is a kelpie named Django. The jam has just wound up in a converted granny flat-studio at the bottom of a embankment. It’s not particularly steep, but it’s been raining all week and I’m glad I’m wearing boots. A shoeless Matt Corby – skinny jeans, a tatty Quicksilver jumper, a warm smile – greets me at the door.
It wasn’t Matt behind those hot blues licks but Sasha, a local tradie who’s been working on his house. “Sasha’s on a smoko,” Matt says, rolling a cigarette of his own.
Sasha is here to finish off a small renovation to the main house, a modern open plan residence with high windows looking out over imposing palms, acres of national parkland, and a plunge pool. He’s a friend of Matt’s partner, and he’s spent the past couple day making modifications to accommodate their busy nine-month old son Hugh.
“As soon as I saw Django, he was just my mate. We had a bit of a bond.”
Sasha’s waiting on the delivery of gyprock, but the sound of Matt practicing drums has lured him down to bash out “a coupla chords” in the studio. Now he’s telling a cracking yarn about a stolen Hilux – his stolen Hilux – and the kind of complications that can happen when you live near the border of Queensland and NSW.
“The cops were looking for me because the car had been involved in evasion of police and heaps of crazy shit,” he says. “I just reported it stolen in NSW, but they were in Queensland – and they don’t communicate.”
Sasha’s got a skeleton tattoo that says “rock’n’roll” and a soulful John Mayer-like tone – though he’s pretty humble about his chops.
“I’m just a dad that likes to play guitar,” he jokes.
Matt fires back. “So am I.”
RAINBOW Valley is the title of Matt Corby’s second album. It’s also the name of the secluded five-acre compound he bought in 2016 for the price of a rundown Sydney terrace.
The name was coined by the previous owner, who spent 17 years lovingly tending to the grounds, renovating the main residence, and building the guest house-studio, where Matt wrote the bulk of the album.
During the sale process, the owner felt a connection to Matt and decided his young family would be the perfect custodians of this labour of love. He even knocked back a higher bid.
“I was really really lucky and I think someone actually offered him a fair bit more than what I could,” Matt recalls. “But he had met us, he really liked me and my partner, and I think he knew we were going to live here. I think the other people into the house were investors.”
I can’t tell you where Rainbow Valley is as a condition of taking this interview. “Near Byron” is the best I can offer, lest some super fans show up one day on Matt’s door.
He appreciates the support, but prefers the solitude. “People wig me out,” he reveals later that afternoon about his aversion to doing in-stores.
Instead a rep from his management company has flown up from Sydney with a box of 200 CDs for him to sign.
This is hardly an off-the-grid lifestyle, but Matt is not the easiest man to pin down. This is an opportunity to knock off some odds and ends ahead of the album’s release including approval on a time lapse video for ‘All That I See’ – shot on Matt’s property with huge projectors beaming coloured light onto the pines – and some idents to record for Spotify.
“Do I say ‘audio plays’?” Matt asks the rep. I can’t tell if he’s joking or not.
Not everyone who performs in front of huge crowds is an extrovert. Matt will be playing the 7500-capacity Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne next year as part of a national tour, but he’s much more suited to this reclusive regional lifestyle.
“Always such a solitary one,” he sings on ‘Ordinary Love’, a nod to living your best simple life, with an arrangement as lush as the greenery surrounding us.
“I find it hard to leave here, really,” he tells me, as we walk along a creek that winds through the property. Matt points out a row of pineapple trees. “I’m pretty happy here most of the time.”
But leaving Rainbow Valley is on Matt’s mind today. He’s flying to Norway at 1am tonight for a 10-day European promotional visit. It’s three flights: Brisbane to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to London, London to Oslo – so he’s upgraded himself to business class for the third time in his life.
He’ll likely knock back a few G&Ts, watch a mindless film, and listen to his go-to plane album: Nicolas Jaar’s ambient-electronic project Darkside . But it’s not the long-haul flight that’s making Matt anxious – it’s the idea of being away from his family for so long.
“I know Hughey’s going to change heaps in the next 10 days. And just the fucking fear of like, ‘What if the plane goes down?’ I’d never get to see him grow up. Statistically it could happen, but that’s just silly.”
“Do you ever get plane emo?” he asks me.
Against my better judgement I tell him about the time I sobbed during the opening credits of Marley & Me. I blame the altitude pressure.
“That happened to me with Cloud Atlas.” He’s talking about the sci-fi fantasy film, starring Halle Berry and Tom Hanks, and directed by The Wachowskis of The Matrix fame. “That got me man. I’ve never revisited it on the ground – I’m too scared to.”
WE’RE back in the studio listening to a record called Basement Seance by a mysterious American outfit called Dirty Art Club. Matt mainly listens to instrumental music these days. “I’ll fill in the melodies,” he says. “Every now and then I’ll be like, ‘That’s kinda cool’, and I’ll get my phone out.”
Basement Seance proudly repurposes “old songs and records that barely anybody’s heard”. A lazy way to describe it would be like The Avalanches, but darker.
While its influence on Rainbow Valley is subtle, both albums share a crackly sonic palette, most notably on ‘No Ordinary Life’, which has a similar sense of wonky otherworldliness coloured by mellotron and looped breakbeats.
“When he grows up this is what he’s going to hear and this is going to mark the start of his life.”
There’s a beautifully weathered piano in the front room of Matt’s studio with a stubby holder perched on top. Matt bought this piano four years ago at Hutchings, a “fancy” shop in Woollahra, Sydney. At $900 it was the cheapest piano in the shop.
“I arrived just as they were about to close and I probably touched every fucking piano that was in the place,” he recalls. “Literally that was the last thing I touched. It was really cool, had heaps of character. Was a little bit out of tune, but still kinda nice. I was like, ‘Songs will come out of this bad boy.’”
They did. The piano occupies a central place on Rainbow Valley and you can hear it clacking away on ‘All Fired Up’ and ‘Light My Dart Up’.
Matt plays everything on the record including bass, which would top a list of the ‘Top 25 Instruments Matt Corby Plays’; drums, which he finally feels comfortable enough maintaining a groove while playing to a click track; and the layered multi-octave harmonies, which are an ever-present on the album.
The harmonised flute on ‘Light My Dart Up’ – a common theme of this afternoon – took four hours to comp together in Matt’s home studio.
While bits and pieces were recorded here, most of the vocals were tracked at Music Farm, a proper studio in nearby Mullumbimby. Matt would spend hours trying to piece together a choir of his own voice.
“I’d stand in different sections of the room. Move around each take, change the tone of my voice, change the octave, and then start to assimilate a whole choir.”
About midway through ‘Light My Dart Up’ it sounds like a female voice comes into the mix.
“It’s all this guy,” he says, laughing. “Singing takes ages for me, which is funny, because that’s what I’m the best at. For me there’s so many options with timbre, or how I’m going to do the pitching, in what octave.”
Matt had two main co-conspirators on the record. Producer Dann Hume and engineer Matthew Neighbour. He describes Dann – who’s worked with the likes of Amy Shark, Kirin J Callinan, and
Troye Sivan – as his primary sounding board.
They met at a session for Matt’s friend, Perth singer Grace Woodroofe, and wrote most of debut album Telluric together in a spider-infested house in Berry, NSW. They’ve since built up a working relationship based on shared musical interests, friendship, and a mutual sense of trust.
“We had such a clear feeling of where things should fit on this record. It was ‘no’ or ‘yes’ directly after each take. It’ll be three takes and then we’d move on.”
“But I need to be reined in,” he jokes. “Dann calls me Captain Fiddle Fingers. I’ll play a simple part and he’d be like, ‘Don’t play anymore. That’s really good.’”
Matthew Neighbour helped Matt recorded some of the music here at Rainbow Valley. He also snapped the album’s cover – an almost perfectly composed shot of Django among the palms – on an analog camera.
“He loves Django to bits. He’d get up really early and take him walking.”
Django is hard not to like. Matt got him off a friend, who got him off a farmer who was going to “put a bullet in him” because he wasn’t a working dog. This was two years ago to the day. Matt thinks there’s a bit of dingo in him, which will probably hold him in good stead during snake season on the property. For the second time today I’m glad I brought my boots.
“As soon as I saw Django, he was just my mate. We had a bit of a bond.”
THERE’S a Noah’s Ark-themed playmat laid out next to Matt’s piano and the pair of congas you can hear at the start of ‘New Day Coming’. Matt’s been bringing Hughey down here since he was a baby. He’d lay him out on the playmat and play piano, or whack him in the ErgoBaby and play some light beats on the kit. Hughey’s Sophie The Giraffe – a classic in the teething toy genre – has been left in the floor.
”Every time he sees a piano now he’ll just want to play it,” he says. “Same with the kit … He’ll grab a drumstick and hit a drum. I’m like, ‘Nine months old, you’re going pretty alright mate.’”
Matt himself was a musical child. He could sing from “as soon as I can remember”, and recalls driving past a music shop with his dad and asking for a guitar. He was six years old.
“He stopped the car and bought me a $90 three-quarter acoustic and had me in lessons a week later.”
Rainbow Valley is world’s away from Matt’s suburban upbringing in Oyster Bay, south of Sydney. The Corbys lived in a double brick house – “a little doll’s house looking thing” – in a quiet street with a cul de sac.
Matt credits his dad with introducing him to formative staples like AC/DC and Cat Stevens, but also “weird stuff” like Edgar Winter Group’s ‘Frankenstein’. His mum, the singer in the family, loved Tina Arena. Matt later embraced the R&B of Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo, whose influence can be heard in the smooth falsetto vocals of ‘New Day Coming’.
“I was so involved in music,” he says. “When I got my first Walkman. I’d be listening to tapes for two or three hours a day. I’d tape stuff off the radio.”
At age 14, Matt left home to tour with an evangelical band. He’s not religious now, even though he does understand the draw to a church, especially for young families. “It’s a community thing,” he explains. “The collective moral for a church is really good – people just generally want to connect and be kind to each other.”
As much as Rainbow Valley is a snapshot of Matt’s innerworld, there are moments on the album where his gaze shifts beyond this idyllic rainforest existence. On ‘Better’, he sings of being bogged down by apathy but resolves to “make it better”.
“Everyone gets in their own head and doesn’t give a fuck about whatever the hell is going on,” he says. “I mean, what the fuck are you supposed to do? There’s a feeling of helplessness and you’re not willing to be engaged because it’s too big of a problem.”
That song features a “Hughey moment”, where he confronts the idea of racism by looking at it through the eyes of a child. “There’s no black or white,” he sings, “just culture and tradition.”
“That was more like me talking to Hughey in a weird way,” he explains. “That’s the way kids see it.”
He describes the album as “commonly inward”, but admits to finding the lyric writing part quite difficult. Like most music-first songwriters, there’s an awkwardness to wrapping words around vocal melodies that have already coalesced in your mind.
“Sometimes it’s a literal story, sometimes it’s about six different things. Even Bob Dylan songs are all over the shop.”
SOMETHING you may not know about Matt Corby is he makes a mean latte (complete with coffee art). He’s also made the ceramic cups we’re drinking from; a recent-ish hobby he’s now passed on to his partner.
Matt’s coffee skills were honed after moving back to Australia after a short stint in London, aged 18. He had racked up an $80,000 debt after a record deal went south, and took a job at a Sydney cafe – first as a dishie, then as a barista – to pay it off.
In a similar sense, the imminent arrival of Hughey put a rocket up him.
“As soon as I found out my partner was pregnant, I was just like, ‘Alright. Let’s get to work’. I’m not gonna fuck around for another year and experiment with sounds. ‘Let’s write a bunch of tunes and get going.’
“A switch flicked and I was more thinking about things from his perspective, when he grows up this is what he’s going to hear and this is going to mark the start of his life.”
The title track – which opens with sounds recorded on the property; birds chirping and the slow trickle of the creek – fittingly closes out the album. “There’s a place I know that’s paradise to me,” he sings.
“This album is about place and Django and responsibility and being grounded; building a community and starting a family. The track, ‘Rainbow Valley’, is all about that – and the anxiety of that. Having to bring your scope into the micro.”