By his own reckoning, British singer/songwriter Matt Hales was born to play music. By the age of 4, he had written his first songs; 11 years later, he released his first album, and two years after that, he heard his self-composed symphony performed by a 60-piece orchestra under his direction. "Prodigy" seems almost too mild a word to apply to Hales' youth and accomplishments.
By his late 20s, Hales founded his first Pop band, Ruth, which metamorphosed into The 45s after a year. Although The 45s achieved considerable success with a string of singles in England, it wasn't enough to keep the band together, and they dissolved in 2002.
Hales' failure to break through on a larger scale and his exposure to the inner workings of the industry had left him disillusioned and disheartened. While he never lost faith in his own abilities and potential, he admits there were times he gave serious thought to turning his back on music as a business.
"I think I'd have to be pretty far gone to contemplate a life without music," says Hales from his London home on the eve of his second American tour under his nom du plume, Aqualung. "I did consider a life without the music business, that's for sure. It was a pretty low moment, but not that low.
The question was how to carry on making music and survive."
With his cash flow non-existent and few prospects on the horizon, even from his sideline gig as a composer of advertising jingles, Hales felt like he was approaching the end of his rope. As a momentary distraction (and after "a couple of days of intense drinking"), he decided to take in a show by one of his favorite artists, the Japanese Indie/Electronic deconstructionist, Cornelius. The show offered Hales a powerful epiphany.
"His whole thing is he's this self-sufficient, one-man-band artist/producer, and he makes his whole musical world himself," says Hales. "I came back from that show buzzing and thinking, 'Well, I can work a computer. Why can't I be like that and not need other people around to make this happen and not need all the paraphernalia of bands? Let's see if I can start making an album at home for no money and see where that takes me.' "
As Hales began assembling his first batch of songs with his new methodology, he was contacted by one of his advertising cronies who asked if he had any music available to pitch for an upcoming Volkswagen campaign. The only piece Hales had in near-finished condition was a demo he had titled "Strange and Beautiful (I'll Put a Spell on You)," which he submitted to his friend for the Volkswagen meeting. The automaker's representatives loved Hales' song and bought it immediately. The track was featured in a limited run commercial, but the music caught the attention of England's record-buying public, which ignited label interest in Hales. He quickly finished the 11 songs that comprised his eponymous debut in 2002, dubbing himself Aqualung, not as a reference to the Jethro Tull classic but to the otherworldly and almost submarine atmosphere he was trying to achieve with his new technique.
"It was an exercise in budget record-making," says Hales of the first album. "It was me and my old computer, which could barely cope with what I was trying to make it do. It could only play a certain number of tracks simultaneously, so in order to listen to what I'd done, I needed to mix it down to two tracks then check it then go back to the full thing then mix it down to check it again. It was crazy. The thing was practically smoking. Limitation is a good thing in this limitless world of 21st-century recording."
The overwhelming success of Hales' first album led to his sophomore release, Still Life, the following year. Constructed in much the same manner as its predecessor (save for a few guest musicians, including Hales' brother and former bandmate, Ben), Still Life's songs were more rooted in the present tense, as opposed to the first album's ruminative sense of perspective on the past. It was as commercially and critically well received as the first.
For his American debut, Strange and Beautiful, Hales chose a sampling of songs from his first two U.K. Aqualung albums, then remixed the collection to give the resultant new album a greater continuity. Hales notes that the process was relatively painless but that the album could easily have tipped another direction had he made different choices.
"What informed those choices was a good question: 'What do I want to do next?' " says Hales. "It was an opportunity to shape this record. I could have made a very different combination from the other half of both albums, so it was about sort of steering this album towards where I felt the focus for the record that would come after would be. It wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be. I thought I was going to have to do every possible combination of all the tracks I had to choose between, but it became clear quite quickly what the key tracks were going to be and I did some new mixes to make it all hang together. When it was done, it actually made sense, and it's quite cool. I can almost think of it as a separate record from the other two."
AQUALUNG performs Saturday at Covington's Mad Hatter with The Cary Brothers, And How and Rescue Effort.