what it’s like forging a music career when you’re bipolar
New Zealand’s Matthew Young is the latest in a increasing number of musicians opening up about mental health. And making brilliant tracks in the process.
The art for Matthew Young’s EP Fruit shows cerulean eyes framed by bleach-blonde hair tucked into a cap. His face is frozen in a quasi-pensive state as if he’s about to say something really important, or sneeze. It’s basically a visual iteration of his music: equal parts nostalgia and modern. Love songs salted with references to Expedia and Trump. Funk-inflected bass lines, driving beats, guitar, synths. Sometimes everything stops and you're suspended in a thrilling split second of silence. It’s a hint of Prince, a cover of Kate Bush, all churned through a R&B machine. Essentially, it’s great.
But it wasn’t easy. In 2015, Matthew Young had just released his debut EP DIVE, to numerous reviews littered with aggrandizing prefixes like “exciting” and “promising”. But instead of flitting around interviews and hacking Internet algorithms to keep the hype rolling, he spent most of his time binging on either booze in bars or The Simpsons in his room. He got through 11 whole seasons. Turns out he had bipolar disorder. “When I got diagnosed, I realized I knew almost nothing on the subject of bipolar disorder or mental illness in general,” he explains. “I found the diagnosis kinda relieving because I fit into a category -- one that a lot of other people are in.”
“It’s been a long process, learning to read the signs and prepare for changes in my mood as best I can, and find the right treatment to help limit the extremes of bipolar.”
But relief isn’t a cure. And soon 2016 crept in with Trump, Brexit, and a harsh reminder of our immortality through the sweeping loss of musical deities who just weren’t meant to die -- including one of Matthew’s main idols and influences, Prince. It was a pretty abysmal year of “life-altering shit.” But slowly, surely, he picked himself up by recording demos; planting seeds of songs to return to when he would finally make it back to the studio. “It’s been a long process, learning to read the signs and prepare for changes in my mood as best I can”, he explains, “and find the right treatment to help limit the extremes of bipolar.” Out of the rubble burst Fruit, “because this is the fruit of the most fruitless season of my life.”
'Pearing' (sorry) the EP tracks up with their fruity counterparts, he likens the first, "Fix Me Up," to an apple. “That’s the medicine of the fruit world, right?” It’s about being hooked on a feeling, trading diazepam for love, and when he slides into falsetto on the word ‘low’, it’s a high. Last year’s single "Hey" is a vodka watermelon, “so you can get through festival security with booze.” The intro sees a lazy guitar slammed with a topline hook that’ll latch onto your brain for hours, before you’re even 10 seconds into the song. Play it at your next sun-drunk barbecue. A yearning cover of "Running Up That Hill" can be whatever flavor of Fruitopia is Kate Bush’s favorite.” "For You -- Low Life" is a passion-orange popsicle, a two-in-one deal, an aching groove tracing a disintegrating love. "Over This" is repetitive, both sonically and thematically -- willfully banging your head against a brick wall because it feels good. It’s also sour grapes “cause the expression kinda fits?” "Problem" -- a melancholic lament fed through autotune -- is fruitless. Finally there’s "Collect," a throbbing bop, an EP highlight, and a banana: “cause those payphone handsets remind me of bananas, plus they’re sometimes yellow.”
Yellow is, of course, not the color of phones or their boxes at all. Not here in the UK at least. But Matthew’s from New Zealand: the land of postcard panoramas, prime minister Jacinda Ardern, and apparently, yellow phone boxes. But while very pretty, and a rare jewel in a fairly bleak international political landscape, it’s still a tiny island at the bottom of the world that most people forget about. Seriously -- there is a whole Reddit thread dedicated to all the maps that have just left New Zealand off. One of the country’s last tourism campaigns is hung on this very phenomenon, starring Jacinda herself and the hashtag #getnzonthemap
Similarly, most people’s NZ music knowledge is limited to Lorde, and maybe some Flight of Conchords. Which is a shame, because there’s disproportionate amount of talent simmering under the stereotype that NZ’s USP is scenery or rugby. “Your reach doesn’t seem to extend as far as artists in the US or UK, so it can feel a little exhausting sometimes”, Matthew says of being a musician there. “But I’ve learned to be grateful for what I do have. The reality of life is that we can’t take fame or fortune with us to the other side, so why make that a priority?”
Watch an exclusive acoustic version of Matthew's "Problem" here:
In an industry where success is increasingly defined by Instagram followers over skill, it’s a refreshing outlook. It also explains why he debuted his first album anonymously and his social media is sparse. Instead, he’s seeking the ephemeral notion of work/life balance. Not that it’s always easy in New Zealand. (Full disclosure: that’s where I’m from.) As a nation, we’re notoriously crap at talking about feelings. Young men’s success is traditionally measured in school sports teams, or how many Weetbix you can eat for breakfast. It’s a macho culture, kept afloat by the plaguing narrative of ‘don’t talk about it, didn’t happen, she’ll be right mate.’ Which just adds another layer of stress to already tiresome mental health struggles. “When I kinda ‘re-emerged’ in a social sense, some people I’d known for years had no idea how to talk to me,” Matthew says. “I think it’s because we aren’t equipped to handle these things, in a culture that doesn’t really accommodate weakness or vulnerability as much as we should.”
"There’s comfort in knowing other people are going through similar shit. That it can and does affect anyone, no matter how glossy their life is, how many people worship at their alter, how artfully curated their Instagram profile is."
And we should. Mental illness is an epidemic, snowballing with pace and without support. Last month, children's’ charity Barnados told the Guardian that the UK’s facing the worst mental health crisis in 150 years because there’s simply not enough resources or funding to respond to the growing number of cases. Stress and social media are reportedly fueling spikes in anxiety and depression amongst young women. New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate in the world.
And while these statistics are deeply concerning, it’s encouraging to see the proliferation of musicians opening up about their own struggles. To shave a flake off the iceberg: Ariana Grande has opened up about her anxiety following the Manchester attack, Loyle Carner’s fronting a campaign dealing with male mental health, Earl Sweatshirt cancelled his European tour citing anxiety and depression, Selena Gomez has talked about her depression following a kidney transplant, and the cover of one of the most hyped and controversial album releases of the year reads, “I hate being Bi-Polar / it’s awesome.”
The downside of this dialogue is the risk of reducing it to a trend, with mental health morphing into a buzzword hijacked by PRs for a cheap and easy hook. But, on the whole, de-stigmatizing the conversation through media and music is a positive. As Matthew says, “if any of my experiences can be used to encourage anyone facing similar hardships, then it’s worth being open about.” There’s comfort in knowing other people are going through similar shit. That it can and does affect anyone, no matter how glossy their life is, how many people worship at their alter, how artfully curated their Instagram profile is. It’s integral to know there’s in no shame in speaking out about mental illness, and that it’s crucial to reach out to those suffering. After all, “caring for people is more important than anything else. Even,” Matthew concludes, “more important than music.”