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Matthew Young & the fruits of life

The NZ-born singer talks both the ripe and the rotten

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The tree of life can be a hard one to climb. There’s often bark that sticks out to weaken you with every jab, or vines that tangle you in a rut, but each graze or scar is a mark you have made in this world. Some may represent accomplishments, some may represent mistakes, some you may never want to think about again. But the skin of our emotions can always heal, provided we keep climbing alongside friends and family. For Matthew Young, it’s been a journey of struggle and pain. Now he’s stronger than ever before.

Matthew Young is an R&B singer from New Zealand who has had a tough career climb thus far. He started to ascend in 2015 with his Dive EP, which found him writing a series of personal, alternative pop tracks that landed between Prince, David Bowie and Frank Ocean. But shortly after this release, Matthew vanished in a wind of fatigue, with depression and bipolar disorder attempting to blow him off the tree of life itself. Despite this, he held on, clinging on by attending therapy and taking a much-needed break from the hurdles of existing. Eventually, he found the strength to climb again, supporting Lorde on the New Zealand leg of her Melodrama tour. Now, he’s ready to reach for that fruit that dangles in front of him on his quest for contentment.

While Matthew was in Australia for his headline tour in support of his new EP Fruit, I chatted with him over the phone about his journey thus far. We talked about his music, his influences and the trials and tribulations he’s faced throughout his life thus far. Although still young and learning, he sounded as if he had found a sense of wisdom. With maturity and growth inbound, it feels like there are no ends for Matthew Young in sight, and according to him – his career only just started.

Fruit marks the end of a long hiatus. How does it feel to be back in the music world with this release?

It feels really good. It’s nice to finally have some output, which I think is good for my headspace. I think it marks the start of my career really kicking off, which I am excited about.

If you look at the world, things have changed dramatically since your last EP Dive. Did this landscape that we’re living in make you nervous to return?

Not really. I try to pay as little attention as I can to the hype machine that goes on in this media landscape. I try to live my own life and have real human connections, so heading in I didn’t really think about it. I guess my fear of moving into the music landscape again was being more active in interviews and having an online presence. Those are the things that I struggle with.

You’ve described the EP as “the fruit of the most fruitless season of your life.” How did you make that fruit grow?

In the process of deciding to visit doctors, attend therapy and sort my mind out, I found the freedom to kind of dive back into the music a little bit. One of the nice things that came out of that process – despite it being quite a hard time in my life so far, is that I decided to take the reins of my craft. I didn’t have the ability to make music the same way I used to in terms of working with other producers, so I started doing everything myself. It’s kind of interesting that in such a tumultuous time, I gained a lot of skills just by taking a break.

Did the break you took to focus on mental health change the way you view your previous output?

I don’t think it necessarily changed the way I view the content, but it did change the process. I used to wear myself pretty thin and get about an hour of sleep a night. I also had a job –  which is the first and only real job I’ve had – and I would work from seven in the morning till 2 in the afternoon. I would then head to the studio at four and often not leave until early morning, giving myself time for a small nap before I repeated that process again. I’ve definitely tried to redefine my process now, and that’s been the biggest change so far.

Someone who has been outspoken in the media about mental health recently is Kanye West, who describes his diagnosis as a superpower, not an illness. As someone who is open with their struggles, what is your stance on this?

I think him feeling that way about his bipolar disorder is much healthier than it being something that holds you back. Even though you pick the boxes that diagnose you as bipolar, it’s still a pretty nuanced thing, and some people have more traits than others. So his process of getting treatment and working through it alongside the media circus that surrounds it can have both positive and potentially negative connotations. But I think as long as people are talking about it and no longer sweeping things under the rug, it’s going to be a good thing.

I’ve read that you consider yourself “hyper-obsessive”, is that a trait that you think seeps into your music?

Oh, definitely. I’ve had people tell me that the song’s finished for me to only say “no it’s not” (laughs). What I love about making music is that I can put all these little subtle changes in the songs. For example, on the song ‘Hey’, the chord structure is essentially the same over and over again on a continuous loop.  But there are over 200 sounds in that song that give your ears something that you may not even notice at the time. Being able to create something both monotonous and dynamic at the same time, with peaks and troughs throughout that get you from start to finish is something I’m obsessed with.

Even with the past few years you’ve had, your music never feels morose. Do you think the music you make is more therapy or a distraction from the troubles of life?

Both depending on the song or the time. The songs I made on this EP are fun to party to, but I wasn’t partying when I made them. A lot of the tracks are either inspired by wishful thinking or memories of a fonder time. I’ve definitely written songs about heavier topics that are currently unreleased, but I don’t ever feel like I want to romanticize my mental and emotional struggles. I personally avoided these themes for a long time in my life, which is why it reached that critical mass and took me out for a little while. But now even with the harder, more depressive songs that I write, I want there to be signs of hope or something that makes you feel that humanity is inherently good.

A song that is the epitome of that is Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, that of which you cover on your latest EP. Why is that song so important to you?

At the time where shit hit the fan, I was listening to a lot of Kate Bush because her music is so incredibly emotive. She uses very interesting language in her music that’s not necessarily conversational, and I think ‘Running Up That Hill’ is slightly different from most of her output. I love how that song is about trying to see the world from the other person’s perspective in a romantic relationship, which is something people can relate to all around the world. The song’s themes paralleled my relationships as I went through my issues. With my cover, I tried to bring as much of my own personality out as I could.

The EP itself feels in many ways like an ode to vintage R&B and soul, and I’ve seen you mention Prince in previous interviews. Is he someone you consider to be an influence?

Prince is like my favourite artist. I could talk for days about Prince. He’s been the most freeing influence I’ve ever had because he just did whatever he wanted and somehow created magic. I love Diamonds & Pearls and I love The Artist Formerly Known As Prince when he released music under a symbol. He seemed so fearless and was an amazing musician. He did everything himself, which is something I tried to do myself with this new EP by producing a large bulk of it.

In the video for your song ‘Panama City’, you are surrounded by some of the best scenery on earth. Is nature something that has a direct inspiration for you?

Absolutely. Basically, I’m trying to get enough money to move to a place called Queenstown, which is on the very-southern end of the south island of New Zealand. It’s just the most breathtaking place I’ve ever seen and is my favourite place on the planet. I actually wanted to film the ‘Panama City’ video in Queenstown, but unfortunately, it was too big of a project to fulfil at that stage. I kind of just want to live with no internet connection – the landline phone being the only way to contact me. I want to survive off the land and have my own little slice of life.

My end goal is to retire near the Fjords of Norway, drinking at an isolated tavern and fishing for food.

Oh yes, I’m totally on board for that. The other thing about is that there’s always the dream to retire in a place like that, but I would like to do it next year if I could (laughs).

Fruit is a piece of work that encapsulates beauty in some of the darkest times of your life. So, how would you advise others to find that growth in times of grief?

Find your people. The thing is, what I’ve realised is that people, especially in our western culture, put so much focus on being the best individual you can be. Things can become a little self-centred. If you’re willing to open up to people, they often have a really good reaction to vulnerability. I think there’s an inherent sense of empathy in people, and that you can often find commonalities in each other if you’re willing to talk about things. In the process of finding out about my mental illness problems, I kind of isolated myself from the world before realising I wouldn’t be able to get through without having good people around me. So I went out there and met some people that have become some of my closest friends. You don’t have to put everything on the line and you can choose to keep some aspects of your journey to yourself, but the first step is choosing not to be afraid of having a hard conversation. There’s something so beautiful about relating with another human.

Listen to Fruit by Matthew Young here.

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