From choirboy to composer, Matthew Jamal has seduced fans and beyond with his string symphonies and boundless musical imagination.
As a composer and multi-instrumentalist, best known for his work with the bass and cello, Matthew Jamal’s groundbreaking projects – and we might add, amazing style – belong in the spotlight. Joining Madonna’s The Celebration Tour, which kicked off spectacularly in London’s 02 Arena earlier this week, Matthew’s talents are now being witnessed by the world.
How did the 24-year-old musician arrive on stage with the Queen of Pop? Unwavering determination, phenomenal talent and a lifetime devoted to bowed strings. We all know that cronyism plays a big part in an artist’s breakthrough these days, but if anyone proves that hard work pays off in the music industry, it’s Jamal.
Growing up on America’s East Coast, Matthew’s first foray into music was as a choir boy. Singing at the church where he first fell in love with the art form, he then seized an opportunity to learn the bass at school and honed his instrumental talents in an orchestra, performing for family and friends at every opportunity. Even after earning a scholarship place at America’s top fine arts boarding school, the hustle didn’t stop. He spent a summer busking to fund the extra educational expenses.
In these early days, Jamal could never have foreseen that his work would be recognised by Madonna, but after moving to New York, this is exactly what happened. As well as staging improv performances and composing music for illustrious Fashion Week runways, Jamal records and releases songs as a solo artist, hallmarked by five tantalising Spotify singles. The most recent of these, ‘Blue Vervain’, saw the artist incorporate poetry into the instrumentally-led song, something that he hopes will more intimately connect with listeners.
Matthew still doesn’t believe that he’s had his ‘big break’ but the self-made musician marks career milestones by learning something new. Next up? Dance and acting classes, of course. Here, the composer outlines what else inspires him on a day-to-day basis. Tap in below.
So, how did you end up joining Madonna’s tour?
We met on set for Vanity Fair; Luigi and Iango [the photographers] liked my work and asked me to be a part of this spread they were doing for Madonna. I was basically serenading her the whole time we were shooting. After a brief conversation, a little cello improv, and some twirls in an archive Gaultier dress, she invited me to audition.
I knew she’d already checked out my work and liked it but to be confident for the audition, I dedicated some serious hours to this instrument. For two months after, all I did was practice cello. Once I got to the audition in February, she had me learn some of the dance choreography as well. By the end of the audition, I was dancing and playing cello.
How have you been preparing for The Celebration Tour?
Practising my solo, listening to her whole discography, and learning how to vogue.
What does the tour mean for you and your career?
I’ve been asked to tour by different artists before but I’ve mostly said no because I prefer to play my own music.
But when Madonna asks you can’t turn that down; it’s an opportunity to be immersed in the pop culture of the last 40 years. I’m excited to travel the world and learn from the icon over the next 6 months.
Going back to the beginning, when did you first fall in love with music and the double bass?
In the church. I sang in the church choir just as my mother had done. Gospel and R&B were always being played at home too. In fifth grade, my school introduced a new programme which let us learn any instrument for the year. I wanted the double bass; I knew it was the lowest and biggest instrument. They didn’t have basses but they gave me its cousin the cello.
I switched to bass the following year and never looked back. Experimenting with the bass’ vocal range, I fell in love with the instrument, its versatility and likeness to the human voice.
When was the moment you decided to make music your career?
I really started to take music seriously when I was 14. I played in a youth orchestra and would perform for my family on holidays. I started to see the impact my playing had, sometimes it would move family and strangers to tears. That’s when I decided I wanted to go to Interlochen, the top fine arts boarding school in the country. I got in with a scholarship, but still needed to raise money for room and board. That summer I spent hours, every day busking outside train stations; I’d made just enough the last week before school. That was the moment I committed to doing music for the rest of my life.
When was your first big musical break?
When I was 17, I was a semi-finalist in the Sphinx competition, it was the first time I was recognized for my bass playing on a larger scale. Later I got a full ride to Manhattan School of Music, studying classical and jazz double bass. As a producer and composer, the last few years I’ve taught masterclasses at schools and been commissioned for various different projects. Even with all of that, I’m unsure if I’ve had my “big break”… maybe ask me in five years.
Who are some artists from the past and present that musically inspire you?
I listen to pretty much every genre of music and it all inspires me. Prince is one of the greatest artists and performers to ever walk the earth. I think the present moment and the future are held by Cleo Reed. She’s bringing back storytelling and theatrics and always experimenting with different sounds. That’s family and one of my favourite artists to watch.
Aside from music, where do you find most of your inspiration?
I get it from around the world. I have friends from all over: Morocco , Spain and India, who all teach me their music and put me on to artists that I’ll later deep dive into and study. I’m inspired by fashion, plays, movies, Black American culture as well as the colours in nature and the soundscape of New York.
What are you trying to communicate through your music – do you consider your audience or is it more about personal expression?
It’s very therapeutic for me. I tell stories of my past traumas, loves and joys, but ultimately I’m looking to connect with as many different kinds of people as I can. When I’m curating a performance, I definitely think about the audience, I try to give them a new experience each time.
Can you talk about your musical process, for solo and collaborative projects?
As the name of my ensemble suggests it’s all organic. My compositions always start with improvisation which I then develop and add layers to. If I’m adding on to or reproducing a song for an artist, the first listen is just to listen – to appreciate the work as it is, without thinking about what I can add. On the second pass I’ll listen with the intent of finding what’s missing, if anything, and then out for what will best serve the music.
You seem to have strong ties to fashion – where did this arise from and what’s it been like working on fashion projects?
I actually started modelling after being scouted from photos of me busking. From there, I tried to find ways to combine my love for fashion and music, scoring runway shows and campaigns, creative directing and styling my own music covers and doing the same for other artists. Vogue Ukraine was my first time casting which I really enjoyed. The Ahluwalia x Gucci collaboration was a real honour to be a part of too.
Music is such a big component of storytelling so I’m happy that more brands are reaching out to artists to collaborate; they go hand in hand. In 2020 I signed with Kev management and recently also joined SUPA. We now work collaboratively, thinking about new ways for me to merge fashion and music.
What are some things you find frustrating about the music industry today?
There’s so much. The exploitation done by streaming services and record labels; how women are underrepresented in producer spaces; the fact there’s now an emphasis on creating a product, rather than creating art or reflecting the times, and don’t even get me started on AI.
You’ve released two singles and a three-track EP, have you got more music coming soon?
I’ve actually released another work exclusively on Bandcamp titled ‘Prayers & Palm Oil’, which was originally commissioned by Maximilian Davis. My three-track EP, ‘Itinerant’ serves as my exploration of the double bass. The whole project uses nothing but the bass and voice.
After this tour, I’ll premiere my first symphony for orchestra and electronics which will involve my collective ‘Organic Sounds of the Black Mind’. I’m also producing for a few artists while on the road. Maybe I’ll even release some folk songs, who knows!
What else have you got planned after the Celebration Tour?
I’ll be spending a lot of time recording music. I hope to take more dance and acting classes and implement those into my practice. I’ve been doing a lot more electronic producing so some of those collaborations will be coming out next year. As for this year, I directed my first music video which drops very soon.
Finally, what do you want to be remembered for?
I want people to remember me as a student. My dream is to collaborate and learn from artists from different backgrounds, around the world, across genres and mediums.