by Robert Flis / August 27, 2020
Our webinar series Music Industry Talks Summer Edition had another great guest, a flourishing Montreal artist, Mathis Xavier. Mathis, who relocated to New York City last year, describes his music as “neo soul” and pulls influences from R&B, jazz, rock and soul. His first EP “Violence in Cinema” is due later this year and he joins us to talk about his musical journey as a queer artist.
How did it all start?
Mathis’s first big musical influence was his grandfather. Although his grandfather’s main occupation was farming, he had an intense passion for music, playing multiple instruments, writing and recording his own music, and touring nearby towns. Although he passed away when Mathis was only 10 years old, he left a lasting legacy and inspired him to start his own musical journey. Mathis says that the biggest lesson he learned from his grandfather was how to hustle. “He had 6 kids, a farm to run and was living in a town of less than a thousand people,” he says. “After feeding the kids and taking care of the farm – which is so much work – he would work on music and play shows and market himself. And this was way back. He was really doing everything by himself - even learning music - and he did it because it fed his soul more than anything else.”
The hustle is something that Mathis has clearly embraced in his own life. As a self-taught musician in his own right, he’s spent a lot of time around life-long music students and he maintains that there are benefits to being self-taught. “There’s that freedom that everything comes from me and not because somebody is forcing it on me,” he says. “I think if I were trained, my relationship with music would be very different.”
This relationship with music did not develop overnight. Mathis endured bullying in elementary and high school, which initially turned him off from playing music for years. After his very first on-stage performance during his first year of high school, two of his teachers pulled him aside and told him that he shouldn’t be a musician because he sounded like a female and people would make fun of him. That discouragement kept him away from music until he bought his first electric guitar at 16. “Since then I never looked back and I realized that ‘born a musician, always a musician,’” he says. At 17, Mathis moved to Montreal from the farm he grew up on and found an instant connection with the music scene. That sense of inclusion gave him the confidence to start taking his songwriting more seriously, working with producers and developing a career as an artist.
What are some challenges you faced as a queer artist starting out in the industry?
“Probably because I come from a place of trauma - as most queer people do - the challenge in every situation, whether it was booking a gig or doing an interview, was to present myself with the most confidence,” Mathis says. “I think that’s a learning process because when you’re starting out in music you want to please everyone and make sure you’re at a level where everyone’s going to like you.” It was a process of becoming comfortable being himself and gaining control of the way he presents himself in every situation. Mathis continues, “When I’m in performance mode I think that’s when I’m at my strongest in terms of being comfortable with myself.”
Mathis emphasizes the importance of being true to yourself as an artist and highlights some of his influences who were not truly able to do so. “Growing up I would see these artists censoring themselves, when clearly they were queer,” he says. “That’s an industry issue for sure and I think it’s getting better and better but I would never put out anything that’s not from my perspective as a queer person because if I have the privilege to either release music or be on a stage and have attention (even if it’s for 15 seconds) as a queer person, I need to use that voice. That is really important to me.”
What are some of your biggest musical influences?
Mathis draws a lot of inspiration from the 70s – from the music to the fashion and the style. “It was a turning point in society,” he says. There are also many contemporary artists that are huge influences on his music, such as Amy Winehouse and Lana Del Ray. “I’m really drawn to these more vulnerable characters that have such strong presence,” he continues. “That contrast to me is very inspiring.”
How has the pandemic changed things for you?
Mathis was preparing for a release and was lucky enough to do a few shows in New York City right before the pandemic hit. In many ways, the solitude of the lockdown was beneficial for him. Because he was prepping for a fall release, he made the most of the downtime, perfecting his craft and just playing music for the sake of playing music. “At first it was kind of distressing, but the thing about being a musician is that you rarely know what’s going to happen next,” Mathis says. When asked if he has any advice for musicians adjusting to the realities of the pandemic, he recommends trying not to overthink too much and using the downtime to reflect on what you’ve been doing and evaluate whether you’re really happy with the position you’re at in your career.
Besides playing music, Mathis also spends a lot of time meditating, stating that it helps him be present while making music and tune into the moment. Has also recently taken up tattooing, saying “it’s in sync with music; bringing art into the world.” Taking care of his physical and mental health, is of the utmost importance during these times and he recommends that not only artists, but everyone make it a priority in their lives.
What are you working on now?
Mathis started writing his first EP “Violence In Cinema” last year – a project inspired by the way director Gaspar Noé captures violence on screen in his 2002 film “Irréversible”, and he describes it as having a sort of “dark romantic” vibe. Because of the pandemic, he is now back in Montreal and has continued working on the EP, with singles and music videos planned for release in the fall. Mathis is excited to say that he wrote some French songs for it, which is a first for him even though French is his first language. He’s currently working with producers from Toronto and LA to put the finishing touches on the project.
What do you think we can expect for the music industry post-Covid?
Mathis expects to hear more DIY projects coming out from both indie and major artists alike. But more important than that is the perspective shift that is happening, not only in the music industry but throughout the world. “Trust yourself, trust life,” Mathis says. “That’s something I learned this year because at some level we’re all control freaks over our own lives, but with Covid I’ve learned that we just need to let go because at the end of the day life is going to do what it wants to do.”
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