On a sweltering summer day, the East Village’s Tompkins Square Park is a refuge for all walks of New Yorkers. Old heads, skaters, local teenagers, women who shop at L Train Vintage because they saw it on TikTok, and more all gather for a reprieve from the grind. This summer, that included the option of catching a mini pop show. In an oversized jersey, baggy shorts, and slick fade, Mat Kastella is far from fitting the typical picture of a park performer. During shows for his cheeky “NYC Summer Park Tour,” Kastella does charming crowd work, jumps in and out of immaculate boy band-level choreography, and sings his heart out to throwback pop hits. On a typical day, he’ll hit everything from Britney Spears’ shimmering “Lucky” to lost-to-the-ages deep cuts like Willa Ford’s “I Wanna Be Bad.” It takes a special level of charisma to make sitting on a park bench feel like a packed arena experience, and Kastella doesn’t just exude pop star energy — he is one.
As fun as Kastella’s cover performances were, what really stood out on the July afternoon I strolled through Tompkins was his original material. On his single “Capital D,” premiering today on NYLON, Kastella showcases his pop chops, soaring into a boy-band-worthy falsetto as the industrial, machine gear production, courtesy of PC Music’s umru, growls just below. It’s hard pop, and like any stand-out pop track, the hook — “All I need is some Capital D” — is one that stays with you for days.
As Kastella gears up for a six-song EP release, there’s a sense of catharsis. It’s been a long time coming; his journey kicked off in 2008, when at 18 years old he moved to Japan with a one-year development deal with Sony Music Japan. Things didn’t pan out, but the dream refined itself. Kastella, now 31, is doing things on his own terms. “So many people have been like, ‘Mat, you need to make a song for TikTok. You need to get a TikTok. You don’t understand the algorithms. You don’t understand, it’s how all the singers are getting signed.’ Or, I can go to the f*cking park, be IRL, be true to myself,” he says. “Those are the beautiful things that come with just being yourself, and doing what you want to do.”
Listen to “Capital D” below and read on for an interview with Kastella.
What’s your relationship with music been like? Have you been a lifelong pop music fan?
You know when you're really little and you wake up early in the morning, everyone's still asleep? I would be the 7-year-old who wouldn't turn on the cartoons; I would go to MTV because I knew in the morning back in the day they would play all new music videos in the morning, and I would lay there and just stare at music videos all day. I had a sister who was older than me, that's how I think I was really lucky. I remember watching the 1997 MTV VMAs. It was Lauryn Hill, Jamiroquai, Spice Girls, a lot of people. We had the Spice Girls VHS, so we'd play the VHS over and over again, and then my sister came home with the Backstreet Boys CDs, that was the next thing. Then I remember around 2002 when Avril came out and it was cool to hate Britney all the sudden.
I started gravitating toward Japanese pop music because I was already really into Asian culture. I noticed Japan was still on that. They still had boy bands; the boy bands never went away. I started listening to J-pop, and Japanese music. I was that kid who wasn't classifiable. It was like, he's wearing hip-hop clothes but he's also listening to Japanese pop music. And he's gay? Which wasn't, as you know, trendy at all. It was very hard to box me in anything, which is fine. I remember when I first tried to become a singer, I was 16, working with producers.
This has been a long-time endeavor for you.
A long time. I started when I was 16, working with producers in Houston. We would make R&B kind of pop; it was the only thing that was really working. It just wasn't really, truly, obviously me. Then at 18, in 2008, I was like, “I'm going to Japan.” I moved to Japan to do music. I signed a one-year development deal kind of thing where they basically train you and work with you, and then after a year they decide if you get a label.
It was crazy, and I was like, “I just want to do pop music and sing and dance.” I hadn't really thought more beyond that; I didn't know I could write songs. I had no idea I could write songs; I didn't know any of that. After a year they decided not to sign me, and then I just kept going and working with different agents. I ended up living in Japan for about four and a half years. At the time, I was like, “I'm 18 now, I'm a grown up. This is the start of my adult life,” but actually looking back on it, I was still growing up then.
I spent those years literally chasing a music dream, and in my mind that pop sound was never going to come back to America. I wanted to do fun, happy pop music that makes people happy and want to dance. At that point, there was no pop music in America; Lady Gaga hadn't even gotten big. Once Lady Gaga came out, all the sudden the word pop started coming back into people's heads again. Within the last five years people proudly use the word pop. They're like, “I'm a pop artist, I want to write pop music.” I hear the word pop being dropped all the time.
Do you remember how “pop” as a term used to feel derogatory?
I don't think the kids younger understand it. If you said you like pop or you did pop music you were stupid. You weren't even credible. You didn’t like music. You didn’t have taste. We're so far past that now. Now, on the contrary, I want to be careful with the word pop now because it's so embraced, which is a really good thing, but now I need to be very specific about what I'm talking about now. Now pop is so open, I don't really use the word that much anymore, I just say what I like and do what I like.
We’re actually in an era of music where that’s possible, too.
Totally. When PC Music came out in 2014, I was instantly mesmerized. A lot of us were. I felt like I had been in the Sahara Desert of the kind of music I've been searching for, then all the sudden, someone like Hannah Diamond comes out. The production didn't sound like a Backstreet Boys or a Britney song, no. It had this fun-ness that I was dying for, so I immediately jumped on that. I basically manifested my way into meeting SOPHIE, and we became very good friends.
Wow, tell me more about that.
I was at the PC Music showcase back in 2015. There's everyone at PC Music, I don't know any of them, and I'm freaking out. I had just found out SOPHIE is going to be at one of these parties. It’s very 2000s of me, but I had a mix CD. I write “Mat Kastella Demos” on it. I print out a little picture, I put it in the little slot, I make five of them, and I put it in my backpack. I go to these parties over the span of three days; there's three different parties. SOPHIE is supposed to be at all of them. I think it took the third party, and finally, SOPHIE was actually there.
You know how you imagine things are going to go? I was thinking, “She's going to say this, I'm going to say that. I'm going to be like, ‘Hi, I love you,’ then she's going to be like, ‘Thank you.’ Then I'm going to be like, ‘I'm a singer,’ and then she's going to be like, ‘Do you have any music?’ And it happened. The script that I had in my head happened. But it was even better, because she was like, “Do you have anything online you can send me?” I was like, “I have CDs in my backpack.”
Oh, my god.
I wish I could show the world the face that SOPHIE had when I told her I had CDs in my backpack. She was like, “What? You have CDs in your backpack?” I'm like, “Yeah, do you want one?” I gave it to her, then I woke up the next morning thinking, Wouldn't it be funny if she actually listened to it? I felt good, whether she heard it or not; I felt like I did my job. Then I opened my email, and the email was like, “Hi Mat, I listened to your CD. I love it, do you want to come to the studio today? I'm at Universal Records in Time Square.” Some place that I would never be allowed into! “Do you want to come write with me?” It was a dream come true, a real magical moment.
That must have been so surreal. How did your friendship progress?
Over the years, every time SOPHIE was in New York, we'd meet up. I went to L.A. with her and she would play me the stuff that Charli [XCX] hadn't released, and we would share ideas. That whole scene, I only knew SOPHIE and QT, whose name is Hayden, and I really came to find out that it was really Hayden who was my fairy godmother. It was really Hayden pushing it: “You should work with him.” Years later, in 2018, we were at a SOPHIE show with Hayden and she introduced me to umru. She was like, “Mat, this is umru. Umru, this is Mat. Y'all should know each other. Mat's a songwriter.”
Again, how surreal.
I was blown away. [Umru,] when I first met him, he was like, “Are you sure you want to work with me?” He heard my stuff, and he was like, “This is really pop. Maybe I should introduce you to someone more bubbly?” People always think that about me. They're like, “You want to work with someone really bubbly and fun.” I'm like, you don't get it. I am bubbly and fun, and I write this kind of stuff. It's already in the melodies; it's already in my voice.
What were you looking for in terms of production?
If you go back and you listen to “Stronger” by Britney Spears, even “Oops! I Did It Again,” even “Lucky,” it was actually some pretty hard-hitting sounds. Max Martin, the producer behind that back in the day, had those explosion sounds. It's a machine. I want that explosive machine. I need those hits. Especially for dancing.
I'm always imagining the performance part of it, so I always want the smashes. That's how I really dance. I told umru, “Don't worry, I don't need a more pop person. You're fine the way you are, you don't need to change and get all pop-y for me because my melodies and the way I sing and the way I perform, that's enough.” It's the marriage that comes together. That's I think what was so special about Backstreet, *NSYNC, and Britney, the magic was that Max Martin had come from this metal background.
How did you decide on your summer park tour?
A lot of things came into play. If you would have asked me a few years ago if I would ever perform in the park, that version of me that didn't have the right mindset, I was in a darker place, I would have been like, “No! Are you kidding me?” So much has happened. Performing outside has a whole different meaning ever since last year. Also, I was wrong, by the way. Performing in the park was awesome, and I should have been performing in the park years ago. I do think this is the best decision I have ever made in my entire life, literally.
Sometimes, it hurts to be a little bit stuck in 2000 all the time. I'm always thinking artists have to have a label, you have to be like this, you have to have a music video. You have to have all these things because again, it's about creating this world. Whenever you're watching MTV or those music videos, it's escapism, almost. When you're in the “Bye, Bye, Bye” music video and they're in that cube, rolling upside down, or when Janet's got the little robot puppy, it feels like this magical pop star world. Even when Jessica Simpson was “I Think I'm in Love With You” and she's at the theme park. OK, fine, that was the real world, but they were so happy, everything was so perfect. I guess when you're in that mindset, and then also knowing it's labels, you don't think of going to a park. You're like, “I've got to have a stage. I've got to have lights!”
How’d you shift out of that mindset?
At first I thought I needed all of these things. Especially after going to Japan, I thought I needed a label. You can't perform unless you have backup dancers. There's all these rules that are really bullsh*t. That came away through several things, obviously 2020, everyone being locked up for so long. I think everyone wanted to discover a new part of themselves. But honestly, SOPHIE passing away was really huge for me, and it was really, really sad. It made me think a lot about what matters and where I want to go. It put a lot of things in perspective. That happened in February, and I didn't even decide to do this until right after that. It was about changing my mindset, and just being like, “All right. I want this, people want this, we're ready.”
I think Rolling Stone put out an article; they had accumulated the BPM of every hit song on the charts for a while, and they had found out recently that hits, like top hits, have never been slower. It gives you an idea of where we've been at, recently with music, we've been in this very slow, darker kind of sound. I've been knowing that this sh*t is going to come back.
The park performances seem to have been really liberating.
I was in a dark spot where I was basically just, maybe I'm not going to make it. I was just in a really dark hole. All this whirlwind of things happening, anyway, it just came down to the point where I was like, “F*ck this. I don't care if I don't make it, whatever. I'm doing this sh*t my way.” Because, this is so corny, but you have to be true to yourself. I don't know a better way to say it.
I'm never going to win this battle of Instagram because I don't like it. If you don't like what you're doing, you are never going to succeed. I like it as a tool, but I don't like it as a world and I don't like it as an environment to be an artist. Sure, in the past you had to go through MTV, you had to go through the channels or the magazines. I'm telling you that my MTV is not going to be Instagram. It's not the same thing.
Are you staunchly anti-posting?
I'm still very much online because you can't escape it. It shouldn't be escaped, it is what it is. Now I'm on even more platforms. I have to post my music. People post my performances and I always say tag me, so then I repost it on my story. I actually have never been more involved with Instagram and TikTok than now, but the funny part about it is it's a tool. It's how you use it.
It's now kind of on your terms, too. You're the one being recorded versus the one creating the content.
It is on my terms. It's not the perpetrator. It's the tool. I can take Instagram, I can stare at everyone, and I can try to get more likes. So many people have been like, “Mat, you need to make a song for TikTok. You need to get a TikTok. You don't understand the algorithms. You don't understand, it's how all the singers are getting signed.” Or, I can go to the f*cking park, be IRL, be true to myself. I don't have to make my own stories, because people do it. Those are the beautiful things that come with just being yourself, and doing what you want to do.
Let’s talk about “Capital D.” Its hook stayed with me for days after I saw you perform.
Honestly, as a songwriter, the best compliment, at least for me, is when people can remember your song after one play. That's how you know that you've written something, at least for me. I'm not trying to be a troll and give everyone earworms, but that's my goal as a pop song. Melodic but at the same time, you know what the hook is. I don't ever want to write a song where you're like, what part was the chorus? That's not my style. Also, as a listener, I like songs where the chorus gets stuck in your head. I never understand when people are like, “Ew, it's stuck in my head. I don't like that.”
How did the song come to be?
I never decide what I'm going to write about. What happens is I start humming sh*t. I can either write a song from scratch, or a producer can send me a track, and then I write to the track. My job is to make the track sound as good as possible, that's the first goal. With this one, the phrase “Capital D” came to me. The rest was mumbles and fake words, and that's when I sat down and word-vomited this out of my head. I think it's because words are an instrument. The words phonetically help the melody, so they sound good. The reason my brain popped them out has nothing to do with the message, unfortunately. It's because that's what sounded good phonetically.
I'm sure that those words are close to me in some sort of way because they popped out of my head, but it was subconscious. I've been single my whole life, I've never had a boyfriend that I called boyfriend, which is crazy. I've definitely gone around the block, hooked up a lot. I would love a boyfriend, but I haven't had one. Anyway, my point is I'm one of those b*tches that is very, very much wanting the D and doesn't have the D. I don't have any relationship songs. They're always either songs about admiring someone from afar, or they're songs about wanting D. That's my experience. I can't write a song about a breakup because I've never been in a breakup. I would like to; I'm not against it. I just don't think, I don't know how to.
It’s not only relatable, but it’s also very unexpected.
Yeah, and it's funny, because it shouldn't be, but it is. I feel like the things I sing about are pretty basic. To me, wanting dick is really basic, but in the world of pop music and singing, no one sings about it. It's so human.
It’s also really fun to see so many different types of people drawn to your music in public. How does it feel seeing your music resonate across the board?
I think my No. 1 goal as an artist is I want to be the kind of artist that brings people together from all different places. What I didn't even realize about performing in the park is you learn a lot by f*cking performing in the park. There’s a group of 13-year-old kids and they're jamming to you. A 60-year-old man, one of those old New Yorkers who knows their sh*t, comes out and is jamming. Then, you have kids like us, jamming. I’m from Texas, and straight guys used to traumatize me because I associated them with making fun of me, but honestly, the biggest group of people that are like, “Yeah! ‘Capital D!’” are straight dudes. This is the kind of sh*t you learn in the park.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.