When Nirvana filled Sony’s Hell’s Kitchen studio in New York for an uncharacteristically tender MTV Unplugged appearance, Maala wasn’t even born yet.
In ’93, In Utero had signposted a more abrasive direction for the band, though it would be their last studio album, and the stripped-down MTV franchise was creating iconic music history in an industry where bold exuberance was king.
24 years and dozens of Unplugged performances later – including those of Bob Dylan, Oasis, Adele and KISS – 22-year-old Maala has been tapped to launch the series in New Zealand.
Marking the very first Unplugged seen this side of the equator since the series launched in 1989, Maala, aka Evan Sinton, was so aware of the undertaking, he broke down before taking the stage.
“[It was] the first time I’ve ever broken down, it was fucken’ dramatic,” he says backstage after the show. “I was just so nervous. Like no other show.”
Granted, his 10-song set in the famed Concert Chamber of Auckland’s Town Hall made global headlines before it even occurred; but Sinton wasn’t just at the top of some Unplugged shortlist. He was the first and only choice by Simon Bates, vice president and head of MTV Asia Pacific.
“MTV is famous for working with the world’s biggest superstars. Additionally MTV locally (ANZ) are committed to supporting local artists,” says Bates.
“We launched Maala via (new talent initiative) MTV Brand New in 2016, his incredible talent stood out and our audiences loved him,” he adds. “This year when we decided to launch Unplugged locally he was our first choice. We knew it was the perfect format to showcase his incredible ability.”
Of course, the NZ’s Got Talent alumni who took out the best male solo artist Tui with his debut LP (Composure) last November, was determined to create his own Unplugged opus.
“It’s like this iconic thing,” he says backstage. “There’s all these stars that have done it, so there’s already that layer. That’s the bar. This clearly means a lot to people. So how can I make this mean a lot to me?”
Watching Maala take the intimate crowd on a 10-chapter epoch felt as career-defining as it actually was. Under a queue of low-hanging Edison lightbulbs, his reworking of tracks like ‘In The Air’, performed on a Steinway piano, and new, not yet released single ‘Crazy’, revealed an artist both assured and uncomfortable in his own skin.
Backed by a string quintet who manipulated the Concert Chamber’s acoustics with precise mastery, there were moments when Sinton sat so far outside of his comfort zone it felt gloriously vulnerable. When he covered ‘People Say’ by UK band Ceramic it was the first time he’d played acoustic guitar onstage in five years. Then, as he sipped beer from a water bottle and paid homage to producer Josh Fountain by performing his band Leisure’s track ‘All Over You’ – a surprise for his longtime collaborator – Sinton could very well have been in his bedroom with his MIDI keyboard on his lap.
“Given the status that Unplugged has,” he says from his dressing room, “it felt like I needed to tie up some things, or say some thank yous, or approach it as a pretty sentimental thing.
“I’ve written work and I’ve released stuff that I’ve kind of gone, ‘that’s safe’. It’s easy to do. Unplugged was always going to be out of my comfort zone but I really wanted to push it.”
People have poured over, replayed and dissected the various Unplugged editions – some say Kurt Cobain’s inner turmoil was put on display during Nirvana’s set. Perhaps this is why Sinton refused to watch any of his predecessors – “I was too nervous because of all the names that had done it,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘If I look at these I’m going to hate myself after this’.”
This isn’t to say Sinton didn’t meticulously plan out his setlist. He did. He even enlisted award-winning composer and music director Godfrey de Grut to help with the arrangement.
“I was terrified that people were going to be bored out of their skull as far as ‘oh okay another fucken’ ballad, like 10 in a row, you reckon…?’” Sinton reveals. “I was like, ‘if I’m going to play 10 ballads, let’s play 10 ballads in different ways and broaden the experience’. […] I wanted to shape the set a little bit and share a different story that kind of felt like a narrative of sorts.”
When Sinton performed ‘Kind Of Love’, his co-write with ‘Wrecking Ball’ lyricist MoZella, the lyrics grew tall with meaning – “Man, who knew an acoustic gig could get so rowdy,” he quipped onstage. And when he closed the set with ‘Touch’, the honest, raw portrayal at the heart of the track was laid bare; a trance only lifted by the abrupt silence of his backing band.
“Artists and audiences want something different, something unique and intimate,” says MTV’s Simon Bates after the show. “To hear artists perform in an intimate, stripped back environment was, and still is, totally unique.
“It’s all about the music and the fans. With MTV Unplugged, there are no gimmicks which is why it’s been dubbed with its iconic status.”
When Maala finished the inaugural MTV Unplugged Down Under, he had nothing more to give. He had invited us inside the inner-workings of a project which took him two years to helm, and for many, it was the first time they had truly understood the project in the same way MTV had.
“I knew that this was going to mean something,” he reflects backstage. “[…] It just keeps kind of blowing my mind. It’s not something I’m striving for but I keep being presented with these opportunities and it’s magic.”
Maala’s MTV Unplugged debut will be aired on August 6 at 8:30pm on MTV. The week prior, MTV is airing an archive of Unplugged performances from the series’ 24-year history.