‘It’s very simple, very heartfelt’: Mat McHugh and the pursuit of authenticity

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‘It’s very simple, very heartfelt’: Mat McHugh and the pursuit of authenticity

Mat McHugh
words by Sam Beros

Mat McHugh lives in a world of duality.

Soon, he’ll be playing nationwide shows to thousands of adoring fans but right now, we’re talking over the phone from his Sydney home as he does the daily chores. We agree to a brief call. He has to pick his son up from school in half an hour.

McHugh’s voice is tranquil; he’s found the things that matter to him most in life. That doesn’t include a prominent ego – he’s humble about his current output, acknowledging that he’s an artist in his greatest hits era. 

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“It’s probably fair, to be honest,” he says. It’s taken 20 years for him to decide to bring his solo project and his work with Sydney-based roots band The Beautiful Girls into one show. At the same time, he’s worked out what he wants to give the audience most: as genuine a connection as possible, on stage and beyond.

The Sydney-sider grew up surrounded by music of all sorts. 

“It was a lot of country, a lot of pretty easy listening jazz, a lot of George Benson, Lou Rawls. A few of the greats –Miles Davis and Betty Goodwin. My dad was an amateur musician, and he had pretty far-reaching tastes, so there was a lot of different music that was played in the house.

“I don’t really put genre boundaries around music. I credit that kind of musical upbringing to that, because to me it was all the same. Anything hit me, and I liked it or I didn’t. But it wasn’t based on style or fashion or any of those kinds of things.”

He still holds respect for the role that genre plays, even if it’s never been that important to him. 

“As I grew up and dug into music as an art – then you realise that there is really a lot of cross-over. This rhythm moves over to this style and the only change is that you put the snare drum on an off-beat instead of an on-beat, or with the voicing of a chord, you add a note and it instantly becomes a gospel chord instead of a blues chord,” he says.


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Powered by only a small generator and word of mouth, teenage McHugh spent countless hours playing tunes at skate parks and beaches. Music was a big part of the local community. 

“The culture I grew up in… it was kind of important to represent that. I grew up in not a very affluent beachside suburb. Housing commission, a lot of single-parent families. No real pretense, no airs and graces, just real people living real lives and there was a lot of music involved in that.” 

Even now, he’s careful to make sure his songs are representative of that culture. 

“I always flash back to that still to this day. Does [my music] pass the test of scrutiny by a jury of my peers? I think about that all the time.”

“I have to represent my culture and how I grew up and the things I heard and the feelings I’ve felt, and I probably always will.” 

His music is still very much its own thing. 

“We have a dub and reggae influence in a large part of the recipe, but it’s our version. It’s the version that feels authentic to us, for whatever that’s worth. Trying to graft something together that will magnetise popularity, that’s never been of interest – it’s just whether or not it’s authentic, and will pass that test,” he tells me.

 Gratitude emanates from him as we talk: reciprocation is always on McHugh’s mind. “It becomes a devotional thing. You give back to the spirit that gave to you and that’s it, that’s your entire job description.”

It was a fellow member of the community that helped kickstart the musician’s first real break. McHugh and co. had thrown a couple of demo tapes together in the hopes of trying out a few open mic nights near Bondi, but got more than what they bargained for on the way back after an excited friend snuck the first Beautiful Girls album into a radio DJ’s inbox.

 “It felt like an international event for us, crossing the Harbor Bridge. We were packing the car one night, and we turned the engine on, and the song was on the radio. It felt like there must have been a CD in the machine. We had to check a couple of times to make sure that wasn’t the case.”

The song in question was Morning Sun – it would go on to receive radio play all across New South Wales in the following months. 

“I felt kind of embarrassed, to be honest. It was like a private moment being broadcast to the world. The whole [album] was intended to be a demo. There was no intent to get on the radio at all. The intent was just to get some more backyard shows and pass the tape around. It was very weird.” 

He’s more grateful these days. “It was a huge, huge break. I’ll never discount what that did for us. Word of mouth was the only power we had. We were very fortunate. I just try to do my best. I try to deserve the opportunity. If you put us on our festival, I’m gonna try and deserve whatever spot you allow me.”

McHugh has spent decades toying around with all sorts of musical styles. His fourth album Spooks is a smorgasbord of horns and samples, while collaborations with The Yum Yums approach the realm of tropical house.

 But recently, he’s been holding back. 

“I’ve been trying to use less stuff. When we first started it was experimentation with trying to get this crazy new sound and that crazy new sound, and trying to make guitars not sound like guitars, and turning vocal loops into synthesisers. I was very ambitious in that direction, trying to put myself in places that I felt uncomfortable in and had no expertise or no knowledge of. 

“Lately, it’s been about what can be shaved off. We’re trying to have minimal, elegant tools, and express ourselves the best way we can with those tools. I think every musician’s been a little guilty of letting the gear drive the car.” 

The philosophy extends past music, too. “You’ve kind of gotta get rid of all the superfluous things that you have hanging around you as a human to be authentic, and express yourself in an authentic way. It’s a lifelong pursuit.”

It’s a testament to McHugh’s character that he isn’t interested in performing like a legacy act instead opting to put on a show that feels as real and relevant as it can be in the current year. The decision aligns with his choice to combine band names.

 “The way that I make a Beautiful Girls song and record is exactly the same as how I would make it under my own name. The Beautiful Girls was the name that I put on it at the start just to play these open mic nights and it accidentally took off.

“There have been times where I’ve felt like that’s just another layer of artifice. It’s just another thing that’s in between the music and authenticity. It’s a glass of water with a drop of colouring in it, whereas I’d rather the water be clear. It’s not really a thing that I want to disown, because I’m very proud of it, and I love it. It’s a complicated relationship.” 

Billed under Mat McHugh & The Beautiful Girls, he rids himself of the pressure of having to cater to one vibe or the other. In the past, he’s felt the need to force a party atmosphere during Beautiful Girls sets – not anymore. 

“I would kind of not let the moment be what the moment is, and I’d try to dictate what it should be, and I think that there’s a bit of a rub in that too. For all of us that are in the band, there isn’t that anymore. It’s just, here are the songs, how can we fashion them to be as authentic as they can be?”


For decades, it’s been the same crew. He tells me the band is as good as ever. 

“I’m not interested in having hired guns. That’s not really that important to me. I like to surround myself with people I admire and respect, and musically connect with. When I find those people, I hold them tight. I love these guys.” 

Once avidly experimental – sometimes for worse, he admits – the current iteration of his show feels honest and humble. 

“It’s kind of gone in this weird circle back to where it started, where it’s very simple, it’s very heartfelt, and we’re right at the edge of our ability all the time. The difference is, it’s been informed by all of the pushing that’s happened over all of those years. And now it just feels like, okay, cool, we can kind of get started now. 

“For a while, it was important to me not to be one-dimensional or even easy to embrace. I don’t know why, but that’s just kind of how I am. That’s lessened. I’m pretty comfortable and content in how I express myself musically, and how we relate as a band. My motivation for this music is to offer it up to the universe in a humble way, instead of just caring at all what anyone thinks and doing the opposite. I don’t care anymore.”

 With an impressive nine albums behind his belt, he recognizes the challenge of putting together a setlist that gives fans the hits while also keeping it fresh for the band. “It’s impossible,” he laughs.

Mat McHugh & The Beautiful Girls are set to grace the Corner Hotel this May with newfound authenticity. Now might just be the best time yet to catch them.

Find tickets here.