INTERVIEW: MA/SA opens up about 'In My Breath' and his new EP

MA/SA

Two-time Grammy-nominated MA/SA Matthew Santos recently unveiled the video for “In My Breath,” a track lifted from his latest EP, MMXXII. A collaboration with gifted songwriter and producer Xela, who has worked with No Rome, Kevin Garrett, and Adam Lambert, “In My Breath” rides a low-slung rhythm topped by misty, ethereal leitmotifs and MA/SA’s captivating voice.

MA/SA began singing and songwriting as a teenager. Later, he moved to Chicago to study music composition and performance at Columbia College. He recorded his debut album, Change Is Better, followed by his debut EP, As a Crow Flies. While at Attic Studios, he met Lupe Fiasco. Their chemistry resulted in collaborating on music, including the smash hit “Superstar.”

Since then, MA/SA has collaborated with Grammy-winner Daveed Digs, Rafael Casal, NGHTMRE, and Saba Pivot. Along with EPs and singles slated for release this year, SA/MA also has two upcoming scoring projects: Beyond The Trees, an indie documentary, and Kasama, a short film.

XS Noize spoke with MA/SA to discover more about the persona behind the music, his writing process, and the inspiration for “In My Breath.”

What inspired your single/music video “In My Breath”?

It’s a song about grieving the end of a major, long-term relationship and facing that void left in its wake. The loss of a partner, a lover, and a friend who became a cornerstone in your life, and how that legacy haunts you in its absence as you realize things will never be the same, and you are forever changed by it.

The video explored the darker aspects of that loss and how easy it is to lean into perpetual distraction and avoid dealing with the emotional havoc happening underneath.

“In this video, I wanted to explore the dark place we can fall into when grieving a relationship,” director Didier Konings explains. “Coming to terms with the loss is the only way to eventually grow out of that darkness.”

Talk us through your mindset going into the project?

Creatively, I wanted to try something completely different from what I had done in the past. I had met Xela through some mutual friends, and we were both from Minneapolis originally and vibed right off the bat. He is such a wildly gifted and talented artist/producer, and when he showed me some of his rough ideas, vocal melodies just started pouring out of me.

We started working together on this project in early 2019, and I was a low-key mess. I was regularly micro-dosing on LSD to self-medicate/offset this inescapably profound sadness I was enduring. After months of being on the road, I had just settled down in LA after 16 years of living in Chicago. So, there was a lot of adaptation and acclimation to a very different life, stepping into a new relationship while still grieving the end of my last.

You just released a new EP, MMXXII. Of the tracks on the EP, which is the most meaningful or personal to you?

That’s a tough one. I think at the time, the most therapeutic song for me was “In My Breath.”  It lent such a rich context for me to pour my grief into. The original demo was almost six minutes long and oozed with sweet melancholy. Xela had created this musical atmosphere that was so deeply intriguing to write over.

Tell us about your writing process. 

It varies from project to project, but on this EP, two of the four songs (“In My Breath” and “Too Late, Too Little”) were pre-existing musical ideas that Xela brought to the table that resonated with me. We set up a mic in the studio, and I just sang whatever came to mind, improvising melodies and lyrics that mostly amounted to gibberish but provided a shadow of a form. I later sat on the demos and came up with lyrics that fit with the best melodic ideas.

For the third song (“Two”), our brother from another Will Wells came through the studio and laid down some gorgeous chords on the keys. From there, we constructed a chord progression we liked, and I improvised some more melodies/lyrics and then refined them.

For the last song (“Pedal to the Floor”), we were deep into the pandemic, and I recorded a demo of it in my bedroom studio and sent it off to Xela for him to work his magic on. This one turned out to be my favourite song from the EP, as I absolutely love Xela’s treatment.

How did you first get into music? 

It seems I always had an ear for it as I would hear a melody on TV or in a movie and would try and figure it out on my mother’s old upright piano. It wasn’t until I got into my early teens that I realized the emotional power of music, not only in being able to bring you into all the feels but how it aided in processing those emotional realities while giving you permission to feel them.

Movie soundtracks really got me, too, as they brought me right back into the emotional context of the film, sort of like how certain smells can trigger vivid memories associated with them. It was like magic for me, this sort of auditory spell that would steal you for a few moments.

Then as I got into high school, I started writing my own songs, trying to find my own voice as an artist beyond my initial musical influences.

Where are you from? 

Originally from Minneapolis, MN, but spent most of my adult life in Chicago.

Did your hometown impact your sound? 

Ummm…. yes and no. I don’t think there was much of a geographical influence, but the culture I found myself surrounded by surely introduced me to specific aspects of music that played a large part in my trajectory. Luckily, I had a few people in my life who thirsted for new and unconventional sounds. I grew up in a time just before the internet was a thing, so I learned of new music via friend’s mixtapes, the radio, live show bootlegs, word of mouth etc., and through sifting through record stores sampling CDs through the dirty cans at listening stations.

Which artists/musicians had the most impact on your sound?

I come from the Jeff Buckley / Radiohead / Martin Sexton camp and loved classical Indian violinist Dr L. Subramaniam and classical Indian music. Most of my friends loved the late ‘90s / early ‘000s hip hop, so I was constantly listening to that as well.

Which artists, in your opinion, are killing it right now?

Beyond the obvious chart-toppers, I really admire the career and sensibilities of Labrinth, who currently composes the music for the show Euphoria. On top of being an incredibly gifted writer/producer/singer. Glass Animals are killing it, too, along with NAO.

Who or what inspires you?

I think the surest shot is a good film or series. The marriage of music and film is, again, magical. There’re no boundaries to what can inspire, and it just depends on what I’m into at any given time. Sometimes I’m inspired by current events, relationships, shadow work, and other times it’s someone you see out running errands that catches your eye. I just wrote a song about a woman standing in line at the grocery store the other day because she had a look about her that told a compelling story.

What can your fans expect over the next six months? New material? Live gigs?

Surely some new music, some pretty exciting placements in a couple of Netflix shows that I can’t speak about yet, but one of them is a new vampire drama which is apparently where my music belongs! I hope to start playing more live shows, too, as the world opens back up and do some live streaming sets for the online base as well.

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