Interviews

Matthew Young on isolation, mental health, and writing ‘Headcase’

NZ’s eclectic Matthew Young spent some time away at an isolated cabin, nestled in a mountain valley. At long last, he’s emerged with a glimmering new track.

Celebrated alt-pop artist Matthew Young is a writer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer from Auckland. In 2018, he found acclaim with the incredibly catchy Fruit EP, leaving fans itching for more material to fall into.

Following some tumultuous times, not to mention a pandemic that shall not be named, the artist has returned with a single, Headcase. Spoilers, it’s an absolute earworm jacked up with lyrical substance and gut. Naturally, we caught up with Matt to learn more about how the single came to be.

matthew young headcase
Image: screenshot from ‘Headcase’ visualiser

HAPPY: Hi Matt, could you tell us why Headcase is your tune of choice for the “reintegration back into society”?

MATTHEW: In all honesty, a lot of that side of things I trust to my team; my manager and label. I’m so pedantically obsessive during the writing and production phase, and a complete pest with mixing and mastering engineers (sometimes getting up to eight different versions before sign off), that by the time I get to the release strategy, I’m so spent that I’m grateful to rely on everyone else’s instinct on rollout.

I’ll always offer what I think is the best first step though, and Headcase was my first pick for release, and coincidentally everyone was on the same page. The song does a good job of introducing the project thematically, and it’s also kinda different from my previous work, so it was nice to go out with something maybe less expected?

That’s such a boring answer, but that’s the reality of most artists’ rollout lol. We just pretend there’s meaning behind everything because we’re so *deep*. This song almost got released twice before, but COVID and other delays kept fucking up the program.

HAPPY: You wrote Headcase at a wooden cabin in an isolated mountain valley. How did the environment influence the lyrics and story?

MATTHEW: It was the first time I’ve worked almost completely cut off from civilisation. I work alone a lot, which can be fucking excruciating sometimes – relying on myself to always have ideas – but this time around, the total seclusion was kinda therapeutic. The solitude gave me a lot of time to think since there’s basically nothing to do but work, or rest, with no distractions really for either.

I think it was hard not to write more honestly, when you’re locked in your own head for hours on end, surrounded by a landscape that looks like you jumped into a scene from the Calm app. The peaceful solitude gave me the space I needed to make some sense of my life and process the previous few wacky years.

HAPPY: You talk about mental health as ebbing and flowing, which is a really interesting idea. How did you capture that experience in the track?

MATTHEW: I guess I just mean it in the sense of how it fluctuates, like how it’s experienced by most people. It’s rare (outside of trauma and grief and more extreme episodes) for anything to feel like constant pressure.

There’s this weird perception that bipolar disorder is like having two personalities, or you’re constantly at odds with yourself or something and that it’s always peak intensity. But for the most part, it’s really like you’re just less in control of the emotional highs and lows, and the shift can be harder to forecast.

Tension and release are baked into music, so it’s pretty easy to demonstrate “ebb and flow” in any song, but in Headcase, I didn’t want it to feel melodramatic, instead pairing the content of the lyrics with music that feels pretty casual, or emotionally ambiguous. Music dramatises everything, but people carry distress through every part of life, so I wanted the music to carry that energy if that makes sense.

 

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HAPPY: How did the saxophone and electric guitar call and response come to be in the track? It’s so much fun to listen to.

MATTHEW: I’m a sucker for the tried-and-true songwriting techniques and I guess this is just re-contextualising that. The point was to give a sense of ‘this vs that’, the two poles of bipolar disorder. The sax is high energy and the guitar is low energy. The benefit of stereo sound is that you have two speakers to work with, so I can emphasise this by panning one thing to the left and one to the right.

Headcase does that a lot, all of the backing vocals trades sides from line to line to give a sense that you’re constantly shifting back and forth.

 

Headcase is out now.