Henry Oliver talks to pop artist Matthew Young about his new EP and re-evaluating success after mental illness.
“I’m very obsessive,” Auckland-based pop artist Matthew Young tells me near the end of the almost two hours we spent talking over juice and chocolate tart at a bakery in Pt Chev. Every night since the first week of the year (except for a short trip to Hawaii), he has watched the same movie, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, on an old TV he bought for $4 on TradeMe and a VCR player he found in his parents’ garage.
“I don’t love the movie,” he says. “But I’ve been trying this thing where I just like overload my senses to try and get myself to sleep. I was trying to sleep by depriving my senses of any stimuli. And that didn’t work – I still wasn’t getting any sleep. So now I have the TV going, I have incense burning, I have a fan on me, so every sensation but taste is being like kind of bombarded at once. And it’s working. Sometimes I won’t be able to sleep and then the movie will end so I get up and I rewind it and play it again. Sometimes it’s twice a night.”
Young is tall and lanky under baggy clothes. With his pale skin and white-blonde, curly, bowl-cut hair, he looks like someone who might have seen in The Face in the mid-‘90s. He’s blurry-eyed and tired – we sit on opposite sides of a picnic table and slouch vaguely towards one another.
He tells me this is his first in-person interview since releasing music as Matthew Young and he’s suspicious – not of me necessary, but of the media in general. Whenever he feels he’s said too much, he quickly corrects himself and satirises a potential sensationalist headline or pull-quote. But, as an artist who’s signed to a major label, whose every song is eagerly awaited by a certain corner of the music internet, whose only forthcoming New Zealand show sold out months in advance, and who, ultimately, wants to make a living in music, he’s become increasingly aware that engaging with the media is unavoidable. “I understand that so much of being a musician is tied up with your personality, your ego or ability to self-promote,” he says. “And even though I don’t really want to be involved, I understand that there’s a necessity to being involved in order to gain a career or have some semblance of a career. So I’ll do as much as I have to.”
To many, Matthew Young’s career has seemed somehow blessed. In the last four years, he has released only one EP, Dive, and a handful of singles. His first show was opening for Lorde at the Powerstation, his second a Laneway showcase in Sydney. Today, he releases his second EP, Fruit, and next month he embarks on a six-date tour of New Zealand and Australia. “It’s a lot comparatively to what I’ve done previously, but it’s not a lot comparatively to most other people’s music careers,” he says. “Maybe it’s all a lie, but it looks a lot more full on than what I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Or maybe I should be putting as much effort in, but I don’t.”
If his approach to his career seems ambivalent, it’s because it is. Fruit – seven songs of slick, sparkling, R&B-infused buoyant pop – is “the fruit of the most fruitless season of my life,” according to the EP’s press release. “I’m going through a process of identifying what my priorities are – what I want out of a career,” he says about preparing for the opportunities the record, and tour could offer him. “I’m not really driven so much by success in the most conventional terms. I don’t really care about money. I don’t really care about how many people know me…
“Initially, when I started working with the team that I work with and signed with Sony, I was a lot more interested in being successful within that kind of conventional definition of success. But my priorities have shifted. You know, the biggest asset for any living person isn’t really how many zeroes they’ve got in their bank account, it’s how good your health is, which is something that so many people seem to just throw caution to the wind about.”
Beginning in late-2013 and throughout 2014, while working on the songs that became his first EP, Young realised wasn’t really coping with the stresses of day-to-day life. He was working an office job from 7 am till 3:30 pm, then going to the studio to work with producer Djeisan Suskov until the early hours, get what little sleep he could, then go back to work. “I’ve never been like a big drinker and I don’t do anything to alter my perception of reality – I don’t do drugs and stuff – but it felt like I was tripping a lot of the time from sleep deprivation. We started releasing this music and as it was starting to kind of pick up and then I guess I just kinda lost it one day.”
In early-2015, he shot the video for ‘Panama City’ on locations around the central North Island. After three days with little sleep, he returned home to Auckland, went to bed and didn’t get out for six weeks. Eventually, his mother got him up and took him to a doctor who diagnosed him with depression and prescribed him antidepressants (“I think it was Escitalopram or Citalopram. I don’t know what the difference is, maybe it’s just an ‘e’ at the beginning.”) The medication helped contain the lows but not the highs, leaving him manic – staying up all night, being financially reckless, “doing all sorts of dumb shit.”
He was referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and changed his prescription. “It’s been a process of medication and therapy and all these things, so music kind of took a back seat,” he says, explaining how what some saw cynically as the cultivation of mystique was actually a rededication to his mental health. “So there was like almost a two-year bracket where I wasn’t releasing anything or doing really anything at all and only updating my Instagram when people said I should probably update it.”
“I’ve definitely come through what I would consider to be probably the hardest portion of my life so far,” he continues matter-of-factly. “I just want to be healthy. I just want to be happy. I just want to be productive, less self-centred and more focused on the relationships that I have with people and potential relationships I’ll have with people in the future. That is my focus.”
Young’s parents are music people. His mother is a classical guitarist who studied music at university. His father is a fan: country western, funk, old R&B, old soul. When he was ten, his dad’s friend brought an electronic drum kit over to their house and, seeing Young’s natural rhythm, his dad asked to borrow it. The electronic kit was soon replaced with a real drum kit before Young discovered the guitar. At school, he met like-minded kids who played instruments and soon he formed Artisan Guns, who would go on to release two acclaimed EPs and an album that failed to meet the high hopes surrounding it. The band started out making earnestly poetic alt-country, incorporating elements of indie rock and, increasingly, contemporary pop production: drum machines, synthesizers, autotune.
“That was a lot of fun,” Young says looking off nostalgically into the afternoon. “We started making that stuff in high school. We were really young. I think back in those days I was hoping that things would blow up.” But instead of blowing up, they imploded. And in the aftermath, Young wanted to disassociate himself from his past. He changed his name and deleted what he could of his old self from the internet, not so much as a rejection, but a cleansing. “I have fond memories of all that stuff,” he says, slowing his voice, clearly realising he’s about to talk about things he hadn’t planned to talk about. “If I’m being honest – because I’m such like a privacy freak and I can be a bit paranoid – I tried to basically remove everything about myself off the internet before I released any new music and I think that was pretty detrimental to the relationships I had with some of those boys. Because they saw it like that I was ashamed of our work – which I wasn’t. It was more that like I just felt like I needed a fresh start, but I just went about it in the wrong way.
“People change and people adapt. And sometimes people might think I’m a sellout, but I basically did like a 180 and started just making music that was scratching the itch that I wanted to scratch. It can be difficult for an artist to reemerge and go in a completely different direction. But I think people are less concerned with that kind of stuff these days – I don’t think it necessarily makes you less authentic. I hope that people don’t view me as that, but if they do, that’s fine. I’m not precious about it.”
Making music on his own, Young wanted to draw more heavily on his pop inclinations and make music closer to what he was he listening to, and that a broader audience could relate to. “Back in the day, I didn’t really care so much if people liked it, but I actually want people to like it now and that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to like make something purely to satisfy anybody else … But I definitely want to make something that resonates with people. I think it’s fun and I mean, why else would you bother doing it?”
Young’s first song, ‘Lean Close’, a restrained, futurist R&B love long, was released in November 2014. Its cover was a close-up of Young from behind, in a turtleneck with some sort of throw over his shoulder, against a solid cold grey-blue background. His next three songs had the same cover with different background colours: ‘Loveblind’ a pinky-taupe, ‘Knock’ a desaturated burgundy, ‘Bend’ a muted green. In between, he posted photos to his Instagram (close-ups of clothes, shoot out-takes), none showing his face.
Since The Weeknd’s 2011 mixtape House of Balloons, anonymity has become a useful strategy for new artists to leverage their newness into a mystery, garnering attention by withholding information in an information-saturated world. “I was only going to do that for like a week just so that nobody could relate what I was releasing to anything I’d done before – so they’re listening to it solely for the sake of the music,” Young says. “Then about a week later I was going to just throw up a photo of my face and just be like, ‘It’s me!’ If you knew what I’d done in the past, then great. Otherwise, you know, I’m new to pretty much everyone. But me being me, it just took longer. And we kind of accidentally let it go on for too long. Then when I finally was like, ‘Here’s a picture of my face’, I’d gotten so comfortable with not showing who I was, even though it was like such a small scale at that point, that people were writing things like ‘Matthew Young shows his face’.”
Two years later, Young’s face is again front and centre. Fruit’s seven songs show a development in Young’s songwriting. Its seven songs are less reliant on familiar 2010s touchstones – Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Drake – and more on a music-obsessive multi-era eclecticism filtered through Pro Tools plug-ins. While the foundation of contemporary pop R&B remains, Young injects ‘70s Elton John piano, ‘80s Prince guitar, and a Hall & Oates hi-fi sheen, all with an upbeat, confident strut. The songs are about parties, new love interests, “dumb little romances”. “I love ‘love songs’ because they’re such a cheap fix. I like those kind of like nice ’80s nostalgic love songs and heart on your sleeve type shit.” His lyrics are filled with hyper-realistic cultural references that blur the present day with the recent-past: he’s trying to book tickets on Expedia or telling an ex she’s “gone from Obama to Trump”, yet he’s telling someone to call him collect.
But for a record whose creator went through so much personal turmoil during its making, it’s largely devoid of melancholy. Young says that while he’s glad to be open about his mental health, he’s careful not to use his music to “needlessly glorify depression” or feed into any cliche: “you don’t have to be a tortured artist to make emotive, beautiful music that really pulls at people’s heartstrings regardless of whether it’s a sad song or a happy song … I think nowadays I have more hope in my future than I used to. And I think that that’s a great asset and I think it’s important to write music that addresses the whole spectrum of human emotion.
“Whether or not people remember me when I die, I don’t care. But if somebody enjoys my music and it seems to parallel something that they’re dealing with and add value to their day, that’s nice. That’s like, that’s success to me”
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