Born and raised on the picturesque island of Arran off the west coast of Scotland, The Narcissist Cookbook, led by the enigmatic Matt Johnston, has carved a distinctive path in the music scene. Fully self-taught and driven by the rebellious spirit of punk, Johnston’s musical journey unfolded through busking, playing in bars, and navigating the complexities of life. However, a dark period, including the loss of their voice for nine months and a deep dive into substance abuse, spurred a transformation. Experimenting with spoken monologues inspired by diverse influences, The Narcissist Cookbook emerged, using the guitar to amplify the power of their words.
Their recent album, This Is How We Get Better, marked a turning point in The Narcissist Cookbook’s career. It helped propel them into the spotlight. With a devoted global fanbase and a sold-out UK tour, Johnston witnessed unforgettable moments. Venues were filled to capacity, and meet-and-greet lines stretched for hours. Their unapologetic approach to songwriting lends itself to listeners seeking honest, introspective, and fearless musical narratives. The core message revolves around self-acceptance and acknowledging the parts of oneself that may be deemed too scary or vulnerable. The Narcissist Cookbook encourages fans to embrace their fears through music and storytelling, believing that true healing comes from openness rather than hiding.
Looking ahead to 2024, The Narcissist Cookbook aims for international tours and the release of a 40-minute compilation album. It will feature the highly-requested “Courtney (Director’s Cut).” Johnston is also crafting a new album, MYTH. That album will explore codependency, fairytales, and a haunted children’s book-on-tape. V13 sat down with Johnston to dive deeper into who they are as an artist and what has shaped their career thus far.
For those not familiar with your band, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
Matt Johnston: “My name is Matt Johnston (they/them); I’m a Scottish writer who fuses monologues and storytelling with songwriting. I’ve just finished a sold-out tour of the UK playing to ~1000 people across seven shows.”
What is the story behind your band/stage name?
“I lost my singing voice badly in 2015 for around nine months and started writing monologues and spoken pieces so I would have something to perform even when I couldn’t sing. But I had a bunch of voices – internal and external, telling me that it was preposterously self-involved to think anyone would be interested to hear me just talking. The name the Narcissist Cookbook was like a shield to protect myself from that criticism. I’m levelling the criticism I’m most afraid of at myself before anyone else can, you know?”
How would you describe your creative process?
“A lot of the time, my creative process is sitting down to write or record something and realizing I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing and treading water with the hope of something decent coming along to fish me out. A lot of the time my tracks are coming from pinpointing something I’m too scared to talk about. Then, I use the writing process to kick-start the emotional process of figuring out why I’m so scared to say the thing. Other times, I’m more like a frustrated painter. I see visuals, landscapes, characters in my head, but because I can’t draw to save my life, I’m left using the mediums I’m somewhat proficient at: songwriting and monologues to try and get those images out of my head.”
Who are your biggest influences?
“I love Sidney Gish’s songs. I actually managed to catch her live in the UK supporting some band or other last year after assuming she’d never make it over here. I think I was one of maybe ten people who were there exclusively to see her. The theatricality of Say Anything has been a huge influence; the way Max Bemis can squeeze meaning out of words through his performance always felt like it went beyond simply singing.
“I’m also a huge fan of both Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, and in particular, the triple live album they put out was a massive influence on how I approach writing and recording and the bleeding line between storytelling and songwriting, behind the scenes and front of house.”
What’s the best criticism you’ve ever received about your music or performance?
“Oh wow. I did have someone tell me, and not early on into the Narcissist Cookbook project either, that they could tell that, on some level, I didn’t believe I should be on the stage performing this stuff. That got under my skin because, in a way, they were right. Maybe it’s strange, but the bigger the audiences have gotten, the harder I’ve needed to work before the shows to tell myself that people are here to see me, that they’re here to sing along and have a good time. It’s not quite stage fright; it’s something else.
“For someone who has spent a long time honing what they do to get people to pay attention when people did start paying attention, I found it hard to cope with. Most nights, I get past it easily. But there was one night in London in 2022 where I had a full-on panic attack on stage and barely held it together.”
What was the highlight of the last tour you went on?
“I can’t lie, going on stage every night and hearing the room sing my songs back to me, and recite my monologues along with me, I hadn’t gotten used to it by the end of the tour, and I doubt I’ll be used to it by the start of the next one. But beyond that, the meet and greet lines after the show often went on for an hour or more. I got to meet all these amazing people who had tattoos of my work or had made fan art or fan clothing, whole jackets with hand-stitched lyrics covering every inch of the fabric, too much to recount here. And all just the most wonderful, kind people. I’m wildly excited to get out there and see and meet more of them.”
What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened at one of your shows or on tour?
“My show in Berlin landed on Halloween, and so I brought along this insane costume I put together a few years earlier. A character called Beanman made up of a baked bean mask, a baked bean vest and baked bean sweatpants. It’s honestly horrifying to look at. It seems to set off the fight or flight response in about 20 percent of people who encounter it.
“Anyway, I dressed up as Beanman for the Berlin show, and when I went on stage, I got to hear the cheers slowly change to groans of discomfort as I walked into view. Excellent. Ten out of ten experience. Very funny for me, potentially traumatizing for everyone else. After that, I received a whole bunch of Beanman fanart, which now lives on my wall in my rehearsal space.”
What are you still trying to figure out?
“I’m always trying to figure out what the scariest thing I could do for my next project is. With my album MOTH (2017), I wanted to see if I could get away with an album where the second half is almost all spoken. For HYMN (2019), I had the terrifying idea to base an album around one song being rewritten and rewritten over and over again. On This Is How We Get Better (2021) I’d gotten worried that my albums would fall apart without a solid concept to tie them together, so I put out something much more freeform.
“On MYTH (coming 2024), I’m playing with an idea I’ve had for a few years. It’s doing things with album structure and storytelling that I’m not sure I can get away with, and that’s always the most exciting place for me to be.”
Politics and music. Yay, nay or what the hay?
“My music has been overtly political from the start. I can’t avoid it because that’s who I am. Is it cliche yet to say all art is political? I feel like that’s the stock answer. Anyway, it is. Unfortunately, for some artists, refusing to take a political stance is a political stance. I make music for me, music that makes me happy and which represents me, and so my audience unsurprisingly consists of people like me. Neurodiverse people, queer people, people who value compassion and are tired of society hurting their loved ones. I want those people to know I see them, that I respect them and want them to be happy. And the easiest way to do that, the way that is least ambiguous, is just to fucking say it and not hide behind fake nothing statements like Love Is Love.
“Conversely, I want people who don’t want what’s best for my people to know I don’t like them and don’t want them at my shows or in my community. Because them being there makes my people less safe in a very real way. So yeah, I don’t hide my politics. I feel like doing that is a disservice to people who are sometimes committing a courageous act just stepping out their front door, let alone into a music venue full of strangers.”
Share one thing about the band that has never before been revealed.
“I used a sample from an… adult film in one of my tracks. Not for any particularly perverse reasons, but because it fits surprisingly well in the original recording session. When I tried taking it out it made the track feel diminished. You almost certainly wouldn’t know it to hear it. To anyone reading this, no I will not clarify which track unless someone manages to pinpoint the exact clip from the exact video.”
Tell us about your experience going it alone as an artist. How hard is it to get your music distributed, promoted, shared, etc?
“In 2024, it’s easier than ever to put your music out there without a queue of middlemen making things unnecessarily convoluted and insisting on their cut. It used to be that you couldn’t get played on the radio or even get your music in physical stores without a distribution deal or a label behind you. Now, my music is in the same place as Bad Bunny and Taylor Swift, and the same place as the person who recorded an album on their iPhone and uploaded it through Routenote or wherever.
“We all share the same storefront now, and that is devastating to the traditional music business, which has historically relied on gatekeeping and other underhanded tactics to ringfence and protect their investments. I love being independent because I am in total control of the decisions I make, the music I write and record, how I promote it, how I portray myself on social media and live, what shows I take on, etc. I don’t have a team of people all looking to get paid. The only person I need to worry about pleasing is me. That’s a very comfortable place to be as a creator.”
What’s next for you?
“More touring, bigger shows, more people to meet and hug/shake hands with. I’ve got a new album coming out this year and a compilation vinyl that’s going to put one of my most requested songs, the full eight-minute version of my 2018 song ‘Courtney’ that I’ve been performing live for the past couple of years, on streaming services for the first time. And second season of the songwriting podcast Jam Mechanics, which I host with Bug Hunter.”
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