Any student of psychology knows that a basic tenet of human behaviour is to search for and attempt to create answers when there seem to be none in sight. Isolated over the course of the pandemic, it’s no surprise that many started overanalyzing their past and the decisions that led them to where they are today. For a vulnerable storyteller like Vancouver pop-soul singer Mathew V, dedicating time to understanding his past through introspective writing sessions proved to be a liberating and therapeutic experience.
Mathew V had been starting to pick up global attention with last year’s Two Faced, his biggest foray yet into maximalist pop thrills, and hitting Shazam charts in more than 70 countries when his cover of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” was featured during a pivotal scene on Love Island UK. While he’s been open about heavy topics in his past music, always striving to communicate his authentic experience, he describes his new pandemic-fuelled The Outer Circle EP as his most personal work yet.
The result is an emotional rollercoaster that he’s able to communicate well with his background in classical training – eventually drawn to powerful pop balladry through superfandom of Celine Dion and Shania Twain – and pitch-perfect soulful vocal runs. Waiting out pandemic travel restrictions from his Vancouver home, the lyrical scale got smaller and the focus shifted back to Mathew V’s emotive voice. “I’m drawing little tally marks on my wall as to how long I’ve been stuck here,” he says. “I’m six foot four, and I used to complain about how uncomfortable it is to fly. I don’t care, I’ll take a ten-hour flight with my knees in my chest, I just want to get back out there.”
Remaining in one place without any exciting new experiences is understandably difficult for someone who writes so openly about their life. Rather than lyrically tackle the topic of loneliness and isolation, Mathew V instead tried to untangle some unresolved issues from the past, recognizing noticeable patterns that were beginning to affect his mental health. Growing up as a proud member of the LGBTQ2+ community, suffering abuse and discrimination meant that certain places in his Delta, BC hometown became perennially linked with trauma and anxiety, an issue that Mathew V hoped to resolve by getting his deep-seated issues off his chest in the recording studio.
“I realized that a lot of my memories were glued to these spaces that I’d spent time in, and I already felt those tangible emotions come back with the thought of returning to them – so I thought that was an interesting way to approach this project,” he says. “I find that I do the best with my mental health when I’m super busy, and leaving me alone with my thoughts was not the most beneficial thing. I was like, ‘if I’m going to be bombarded by all these different things, then I may as well process them.’”
The EP’s centrepiece is the track, “Healing,” a stark and contemplative acoustic ballad where Mathew V recognizes his need to simply acknowledge and understand his trauma while looking at the light on the horizon. Throughout his career, “healing” also happens to be one of the most common words used by critics to describe his music. “It’s very flattering,” he says. “It’s a big word that I definitely take to heart. My two goals with making music are to help me process everything that I’m going through, and helping someone out there, whether it helps them escape or just go have a great walk. I’m thrilled that it’s hitting even one person in a positive way.”
Throughout his career, Mathew V has kept an updated playlist on his phone dubbed the “Inspiration Playlist,” a place for songs featuring specific, moving artistic choices that he tries to put his own spin on. Lately, it’s been coloured by Selena Gomez’s latest Spanish-language EP and early 2000s pop throwbacks by Christina Aguilera and Destiny’s Child.
One of the most heart-rending tracks on his latest is “Written Out,” which details the true story of falling for someone who was still hiding their sexuality from the public eye, Mathew himself being rendered a secret to be discussed behind closed doors instead of a thrilling new connection to be celebrated. His booming vocals waver, a powerful vibrato breaking through as he releases the emotions that were weighing him down.
In telling personal stories like these, Mathew V often sees his music elevated to a level of importance and activism that he never fully intended. The act of his music becoming political by simply speaking plainly on his experiences is a little strange to him, feeling unequipped to be the voice of a community of tens of millions, but he’s still glad to be a voice that other young people who might be going through the same struggles he writes about can look up to. “There’s a weird fine line. Just living this way openly, you’re put into a political space. I understand that there’s a responsibility that comes with that,” he says. “It’s worth speaking about our experiences – love, breakups, jealousy, guilt, or any of these things which are universal emotions. It’s just who we’re directing them towards. Where I’d like to see things go in the future is not just putting queer people on a queer playlist with all different genres. I would love to see them included in the playlist of their own respective genres, so that people who aren’t a part of the queer community can hear a queer love story and still be able to connect with it, because they understand what love feels like.”
If these stories are all told with as much palpable emotional fervour as Mathew V’s, you’d have to try pretty hard not to understand.