In one of the most difficult and challenging times ever known in the history of the world, we are all trying to fight the right motivations and reasons to our everyday's life and in our own way. For music artists in general, these are even harder times than many other walks of life, because the absence of live music has become an aspect increasingly more significant to their livelihood, given the huge falls that music industry has faced (and still face) in the last two decades.
Obviously, to battle issues that may rise through a long period of live performance inactivity, the most effective way to, at least, let the musical mojo going for an artist, it is to continue to make music and let their creativity flow, just as British singer/songwriter Mark Reilly, the Commander-In-Chief of Matt Bianco, does.
Whilst it is true that the Latin/Jazz/Pop/Soul collective reached the peak of their notoriety and commercial fortune back in 1984 through their debut album Whose Side Are You On, a record that saw the band selling several millions copies of the album worldwide, Reilly and Matt Bianco kept on releasing records of great depth and class, throughout the last four decades, still with a very solid commercial success, despite several changes in their line-up.
Mark Reilly was, since the early days of the band, the true driving force of Matt Bianco as he is now, several decades later. With a new album out now called High Anxiety, released together with the Dutch band New Cool Collective, a brilliant ensemble of musicians that had worked with Reilly back in 2016, on an album called The Things You Love, Reilly/Matt Bianco's forward-thinking musical vision has now given birth, in 2021, to an album that assembles all the elements that has made Matt Bianco one of the most renowned and recognizable music machines around the world to a new level of perfection.
Our website had the opportunity and privilege to have an audience with Reilly, in a dark, winter afternoon in the United Kingdom, where perhaps only Matt Bianco's music may help to lift up the general mood given by the weather outside.
Naturally, the topic of our conversation today with Reilly, it is focused primarily on the High Anxiety album, a record that must have been extremely challenging to put together, given the pandemic and the fact that Reilly had to work with the New Cool Collective from afar, not mentioning the travelling restrictions that were not allowing anybody to travel from country to country too. Still, the outcome is an album among the strongest and most creative that Reilly/Matt Bianco has ever done in his career. "Thank you. The recording part of the album was completed before the start of the pandemic, fortunately. We were also planning, myself and the New Cool Collective, to mix it on both sides of Europe (NCC are based in Netherland) but, when we all realized the gravity of the pandemic, we understood that it was not going to be very simple to make that happen. In the end, we agreed that I was going to mix the whole record and then I was going to send the mix to the guys in Holland, so to gather their impressions or to discuss possible changes to be made, on the mixing aspect of High Anxiety. In the end, it all worked well and we were happy to have done all that we could have possibly done for the record, despite the distance between UK and Holland".
The Things You Love, Matt Bianco and Reilly's previous musical experience with New Cool Collective, it was received very well by the fans and the whole worldwide press. But that was 2016, when the world was in a different place, therefore it comes a little like an obvious question, to ask Reilly whether the album's title and some of the album's lyrics got influenced by the time of the world in which we are living right now, whilst in the making of High Anxiety. "Most definitely, yes. It's purely a play-on today's society really, just observations from the people close to me on a daily basis, like my daughter, for instance or, in a more wider meaning, on how people behave generally, not just now but also on the way they were living their lives before the pandemic. Like, for example, stress deriving from long hours at work, pressure in a workplace and how the whole manifests itself into anxiety or stress, as I was saying before. There is a bit of humor as well, of course, throughout the record but the recurring theme is, fundamentally, an everyday observation on where we are, at the moment, as a society. Well, when the album was made, about a Pre-Covid society at least! (chuckles)".
In view of Reilly's last answer, our website was now eager to find out with the British singer/songwriter whether any of the original lyrics changed, in comparison to the original plan that Reilly had in mind for this record and also whether some of the songs present on High Anxiety were songs written long ago by Reilly and, perhaps, added to this album just now, because of their lyrical content. "No, basically, with this album, what happened was that, when some time ago I was in Holland touring, I had a meeting set up with the New Cool Collective, where we discussed the possibility of making another album together, because we all enjoyed working on the previous one, as I thought we had still some musical ground to cover, together. They showed a lot of enthusiasm and interest, in that prospect. By this time, for this new album we did together, we discussed the direction that High Anxiety was going to take. They were very much into using Cumbia rhythms and stuff like that, which I hadn't used before on any of my previous records. I thought that was one area for me that I really wanted to look at, from a musical aspect. They started working on a lot of ideas for songs and (this was long before the pandemic kicked in) then I went to Amsterdam a couple of times, where they are based, to rehearse together with them in a recording studio and put the outcome into song format. Things would then happen in studio, where I would have one backing track idea and I was quite keen for them to supply the musical side of it. Fundamentally, we had a lot of common ground for the music we like; it was solely a matter of putting musical aspects together and translate them in a way that we could both agree on. Since that time, they have then been back in studio to rehearse again but I couldn't be there, due to other commitments, therefore they sent the audio files to me via email, basically saying "Here's the music, get some songs out of it". For me, it's always the sonic side that takes the precedence, when working on songs. Then, the mood of the music would paint pictures for me that I then translate into lyrics".
2016 Album The Things You Love
Bluebird Reviews certainly rated High Anxiety very highly, appreciating especially that unique gift that Reilly possesses in pushing musical boundaries, by mashing up different genres and combining them together in such an effervescent style, something that Reilly has mastered so well, during the years. With that in mind, we ask Reilly whether there was any particular song, within the High Anxiety album, which arrangement proved to be particularly tricky for him to shape in the way the English artist wanted. "I think that a really tricky one for me to work on, it was the song The Spice Of Life, because it was more just a groove, there wasn't really a song structure. As a consequence, in order to keeping it interesting, there was a little chop and change that needed to be done here and there, so to maintain that sense of dynamic ongoing. Maybe a slight chord change but not much. It is all about the groove, in the end, therefore we needed a bit of work on that song, going back and fore with things, until we were happy with the end result".
Surely, for those who have followed the career progression of Matt Bianco from the very beginning, there is one fact that almost everyone will agree on, a fact that stands strongly behind the constant success of the band, which is the strength of Mark Reilly's vocal range. On each passing record, the English artist seems to be able to bring an extra spicy element to his catchy tunes thanks to the power of his vocals. On the latter, our website is curious to know Reilly's secret, behind this inner artistic gift. "Probably I can tune in a bit better than I used to, when I was younger! (laughs). No, seriously, I suppose that I've never started out as a singer, in this business, but rather playing guitar, you know. like when I was with Blue Rondo A La Turk (with Basia Trzetrzelewska, who then later joined Reilly in Matt Bianco). Then, when we put Matt Bianco together, we were writing songs but we didn't really have a singer, so I found out that the best one, out of the three of us (Matt Bianco was formed as a trio, originally in 1983 with Reilly on vocals, Danny White on keyboards and Kito Poncioni on bass) that could sing better, it was me. So, it all happened by chance, really (smiles)".
Reilly (far right) with Blue Rondo A La Turk, 1982 circa
Out of an album of the quality that High Anxiety has, it is extremely difficult to pick highlights off it. Perhaps and purely based on the overall fabulous combination of song arrangement, vocals and quality of the musical delivery put together, a song that particularly impressed our website is the Jazz-infused Unconditional, where Reilly delivered one of the most powerful tunes he has written in recent times, off his already very rich songbook. Although Reilly/Matt Bianco had already released in the past albums with a strong Jazz element, we were wondering whether Reilly may consider, one day, to record a Jazz album with piano solo and voice. "I am really glad that you liked that tune. To be honest, the last album that I did, called Gravity, it was very much Jazz influenced, an album that I recorded like a Jazz combo. It was like the Full Monty; Jazz drums, double bass, piano and two horns, the lot! That album is the one that I consider really my "Jazz" record! (chuckles) It's funny actually, thinking about that record and the fact that I keep on calling it my "Jazz" album, which is something that Dave O'Higgins (saxophonist and composer), who played Tenor and Bariton saxophone on that album, also did. Mind you, the same happened to me, when I worked on one of Dave's records, which, back then, I stated to be Dave's most "Pop" album ever. So, we get to have a laugh together, every time we talk about our respective records, where it just happened for the two of us to be both part of our "seminal" Jazz and Pop albums (smiles)".
From 1986 onward, Reilly formed a new Matt Bianco line-up that included, for almost two decades, the presence of keyboardist Mark Fisher, somebody that had a strong impact on Matt Bianco's sonic evolution. Fisher sadly passed away in 2016 and it must have been certainly difficult, for Reilly, to keep on carrying the Matt Bianco's name in the music business without his friend and band-mate. "It's a difficult question. Mark fought his personal battle for almost two years and he was very brave throughout the whole time. Prior to his diagnosis (cancer of the oesophagus), I had start working with the New Cool Collective more as a side project, in my mind, because at the time, I wanted to keep the two things for me, Matt Bianco and New Cool Collective, separated from one another. But when Mark passed away, I just felt natural for me to carry on, purely because I thought that it was right for me to do so, given the fact that the original line-up of Matt Bianco, when we started, it was made by me and different people. As sad as Mark's passing was and still is, I just wanted to keep on working as Matt Bianco with different people, trying new musical alleyways and not thinking of replacing Mark in the slightest".
Matt Bianco's Mach II: Reilly with Mark Fisher
In the early 90's, Reilly decided to part company with the record label he was contracted to, at the time (WEA), to pursue his musical career as a freelance. A decision that most certainly paid off, through the years, given Matt Bianco's fame and success through the last four decades. Although one may question how challenging might have been for Reilly and Matt Bianco, back then, to gain that amount of radio airplay and media visibility of their material without having a major label pushing the radio stations to do so. "It was something that we tried as a sort of an inevitable step to take, because as an artist, you are aware that your contractual life with a big label is going to end, sooner or later. Like many other artists, we were looking as well for license deals, something that, back then, was a new things for artists to do by themselves. We did so with Victor Entertainment in Japan, which was very successful plus we did the same with other labels in Europe too, something that worked out very well for us from both sides of the world. I think that, throughout Matt Bianco's career, the most important aspect was for us to carry on that element of excitement while making music and to have places where to go and play our material, which is ultimately the most important thing, to be honest. You know, I guess you do realize, at a certain point, that we were not going to be as prolific as we were in the heydays, in the '80s but, equally, you know as well that you can do still very well on your own in what you do, as an artist. Even now, I am still doing a lot of license deals, distribution deals and it's just the case of looking at different avenues for you to be able to play your music".
Throughout the 35-plus years of Matt Bianco's glorious career, Reilly has never fallen into temptation to record and release a live album. Sure enough, through the years, Matt Bianco must have so much material recorded and archived of live performances that would make the happiness of thousands of their many fans. "Yes, you have a point. In the past, we have released some live tracks as B-sides of singles but what you just said, that may be something for me to think about, in the future".
Matt Bianco 1984 circa - Reilly with Basia Trzetrzelewska & Danny White
When listening to the songs comprised in High Anxiety, one may perceive that the album is perhaps one of the most personal of Reilly/Matt Bianco's discography to date. Like our website, many of Matt Bianco's fans might have wondered whether, through the lyrics of the songs included in High Anxiety, this album is the closest that Reilly's fans can ever get to know Mark Reilly, the man and the artist. "Well, that's another good question! In my songs, there are normally emotions and feelings that I have experienced myself, or at least, belonging to somebody very close to me that has lived those feelings on their own skin. Off the new album, I am thinking that the song Unconditional is, perhaps, the best one describing the way I feel, in a relationship. I am thinking also on how the idea for a song like Grains Of Sand came about.. One day, when I was out for a walk with my mother, who lives in Oxfordshire, we saw an old tree falling down, with lots of passer-by inscribing their names on this dying tree. I think I mentioned that in the first verse of the song, but I rather like to consider the whole song as a reflective piece on one's life overall, not just on mine".
Mark Reilly has always been a fairly private person, in life as in the music business, while Matt Bianco's music has, always had and, very likely, will always have, the unique gift to carry an explosion of joy in its music. To close our conversation, we'd like to ask the British artist whether does every angle of his enthralling music show truly a different side of Mark Reilly's real personality or does he rather like to play a teasing game with his fans, when it comes to guess on "Whose Side of his music is he On". (smiles) "I guess that fans and people can read through my personality by listening to the lyrics in my songs, because they truly express what is going on in my head, at a certain point in my life, when I release a new record. I have never liked to be a "celebrity" and promote myself outside of music, something that I always felt very uncomfortable with. Often, when rhythms, pictures and places come into my mind, it feels like escapism, in a way, where I can see and feel music in my head. I never studied music in an academic way and I tend to associate rhythms and flavors together in a spontaneous and organic sonic way. In my head, I can see pictures, characters or even seeing myself in new and different places or situations that excite me. People can have an idea about the real Me through my music and the lyrics, because they are personal to me and reflect who I am, otherwise it doesn't feel real, you know".