Mat Smith spoke to Secret Flight to get inside her creative process, her influences, and the impact living in Milton Keynes has had on her work.
Music is a way for me to confront social and political dynamics that I feel do not receive enough attention.
My lyrics are often the most direct way to do that. Lyrics can be like words of comfort, acceptance, or resistance, spoken either to myself, or to someone else.
I do want to clarify that I have not experienced directly some of the things I sing about in the first person. For example, a lot of ‘Vertigo’ is hyperbolic – if taken literally it is about someone who is trying to escape sexual violence by migration, but who finds themselves trapped in the same vicious cycle. I want to make clear that I have not experienced this myself and wouldn’t want there to be any ambiguity about that. I also do not belong to a class of people who have no choice but to run from one violent situation to the next. But the fact that this happens, has always been something I cannot accept - and I have known people, including those closest to me, for whom this was a direct reality. That's why I sing about it.
Musically, my influences on the new album range from classical to experimental, post-punk and synth pop music.
The time just before I recorded some songs on the album (‘The Wound’, ‘A Prism’ and ‘Vertigo’), I was listening to a lot of contemporary classical music due to the influence of one of my friends at the time. For example, around autumn 2019, I first heard Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. I listened to it for hours, the threads of the basses weaving into and out of each other endlessly, and the heaviness of that... that experience influenced the instrumentation on ‘The Wound’. The outro of ‘Inner Crypt’ was influenced by György Ligeti’s music for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, which I watched maybe a year before that. There have been a lot of Ligeti concerts this year to mark his hundredth birthday, so I recently saw ‘Requiem’ and ‘Lux Aeterna’ performed and was reminded of how much those pieces changed for me when I first heard them.
Another influence has been Cindy Lee, the project of Canadian musician Patrick Flegel. It’s hard to single out even a few elements from their work which have been influential – just the totality of the project, everything about it, has had such a big impact on me over the years. The albums ‘Act Of Tenderness’ and ‘Model Express’ were particularly significant for the self-titled Secret Flight release.
Going back further, when I was a teenager, I listened to The Drums a lot, and through their interviews and a blog by one of the (former) band members, Jacob Graham, I learned a lot about synthesisers and 80s British bands like Durutti Column, The Wake, and Orange Juice. Jacob was actually one of the first people to encourage me to carry on making my own music, in a conversation that happened via mine and his blog. This was years ago now.
Less of a musical influence, and more of an influence on my emotional development and perception of the world, were Soviet animation and Soviet films that I watched in my childhood. I don’t remember seeing many cute animals hopping around among the flowers. Instead, there were these great fights between good and evil, stories of unrequited love, children losing parents, ecological catastrophe... For example, the Soviet versions of ‘The Little Mermaid’, both film and animation, are accurate to Hans Christian Andersen’s writing of the story, because they end tragically. When you watch that stuff as a 5-year-old, it shapes the person you become. My view of the USSR (including its cultural output) is more critical now, but the anti-greed and anti-profit messages still resonate with me, and there’s no denying how formative those films were for me.
I could go on. There are so many things which have shaped my music, from life events, through to media and the literature I was exposed to, through to people I’ve met and my personal politics.
I rarely sit down with the intention of writing music.
For me, the creative process usually starts with needing to confront a set of feelings, which build up until I can no longer ignore them. I’ve found that the bare bones of a song need to be recorded within two to three days, otherwise it can be hard to retain the initial emotion or impulse you sat down to record with. The elements that I find are subject to revisions over a longer period are instrumentation, sound design, and vocals / lyrics, but not so much the basic structure of the songs. There are of course exceptions to every rule though.
My writing and recording process is solitary, and I’ve never seriously considered bringing other people into it. But I’ve recorded and played in group settings before, and it feels much more carefree and brings another kind of value. Making music on your own can be almost a form of meditation or mining the depths of personal experience. Making music as a band connects you to other people like nothing else, taking you out of yourself to capture something greater than the sum of its parts.
When writing most of the songs on the self-titled album, I wasn’t doing well. That wasn’t because of anything cataclysmic, just something brought on by events that most people of my demographic would experience in their life. But after all the songs were recorded, and then shelved during the pandemic, some of the more serious things I was singing about were illuminated with new meanings. It was only in 2022 that I really felt able to return to and complete them in earnest, and even then it took a long time.
I now realise that the creative process doesn’t have to feel heavy. Creativity can be less of a coping mechanism and instead, a reflection of the joy that someone feels in their life, or a reflection of the important things in their life. That’s something I’m aspiring to more these days. It’s also a practical consideration, because, as it turns out, working on music about these heavy subjects takes ages, due to what can come up in the process.
I've lived in Milton Keynes most of my life now, and I have grown to love it.
I have my favourite places here. I really like all the lakes and have drawn direct inspiration from them in this album, especially in the last two songs, ‘Inner Crypt’ and ‘To Lose’. I think the sprawl of the city, and the contrast between urban and rural areas, really does something for me too.
The live music programme at MK Gallery between 2015 and 2019 was really formative for me. Not only did I see some great artists, I also met a few people who changed my musical direction and, in some cases, my life. It was also the place I played my first gigs (in a band and solo). Having said that, the absence of a music scene can actually be a blessing, especially for people who are introverted and never really think of themselves as ‘artists’. I have met some of the most talented and discerning people I know in MK but have never felt crowded into a ‘scene’.
There is space to breathe and build new things, as much as to learn from others and be part of already established networks.
Secret Flight are playing alongside Thraa, the Duke of Zuke, and Super Isolation Tapes at the Cannon, Newport Pagnell o Saturday 23/9/23 – more details here