When encountering rapper Matt “360” Colwell on the campaign trail, one of the easiest things to mock is the life transformation story, the “this time I’m going straight” line.
It’s not uncommon with artists – or sportsmen, politicians or your garden variety personalities - to be told that marriage, or a child, or a setback, or a near death experience, has “put things into perspective”, changed priorities or driven a lifestyle change.
Colwell has been there before once or twice, since breaking through in 2010 with the double platinum album Falling And Flying. As I remind him, the last time we spoke, in 2014, he was making declarations then about cleaning up his act. His most recent album, Vintage Modern, is telling that story again. This time for sure?
The 31-year-old, extremely tall, extremely inked, his close-cropped hair as usual hidden under a cap, acknowledges our right, maybe even a quite reasonable expectation, to be cynical. But the Melburnian also wants us to know that saying this publicly is about a message to us, yes, but also a reminder to himself.
“It’s to let people know that I have changed but I think the best way to show people that is to show by example,” he says of a record which also signals differences in key sonic aspects, not least the revelation that he can sing reasonably well.
“To say it is one thing but to prove that you are a different person is the most important part. I’ve said it before, in the past when I’ve got clean, and then I’ve relapsed, so it’s something you have to prove and keep going. You have to prove with action.”
Is it unfair that he then has to keep proving it to us, and presumably to himself?
“As an addict, as they say Narcotics Anonymous, you are never not an addict; you are always at the risk of relapse. I can never say that I’m 100% changed and definitely will never go back. At the moment I feel like I won’t, and that’s genuine, but who knows what could happen if some horrific shit goes down and makes me snap?
“I’ve been pushed to my limits in the past. The difference is in the past when I’ve got clean I’ve got clean because people have been pushing me to get clean. So I haven’t done it for myself; I’ve done it for other people. And whilst it was great to get clean, and I had a great time while I was clean, a lot of the time subconsciously in my head I was thinking ‘I’m not ready to stop, I want to keep taking drugs’.”
Looking out over the eastern suburbs of Sydney from a balcony of his label’s offices, Colwell, takes long drags on his vaper, which incongruously smells of pancakes, and moves onto the thing which changed his mind, if not his perspective.
“This time when I had the overdose, I genuinely wanted to stop. I was so over it. It was fucking up my life in so many different ways that once it came to a head it was like, now I am ready to stop.
“I had to relearn to live again as a person,” he says. “It’s like starting from the start and then having to deal with all the stuff that you would usually escape from and just deal with it, embrace it. That’s the thing that I found this time around - it’s actually the longest that I’ve been clean - that when you’re faced with something like a crazy episode where you’re going through some fucked up shit, back then I would have just gone bang, gone and got high. But this time it’s like, nah, deal with it like a normal person.”
The problem is a normal person doesn’t have to keep explaining to people. They may have to explain it to friends and family but for someone regularly facing enquiry it becomes part of your narrative and that is fresh each time someone hears the record, sees the show or sits down with a bunch of questions.
It’s self-evident that frankness has never been an issue for Colwell but was there a consideration this time that maybe we didn’t need to know?
“Definitely. 100%. If you listen to the album it’s the most non-personal album I think I’ve written,” he says. “There are personal elements in songs but not every song is from personal experience, with some social commentary and talking about other people’s experiences.
“One thing I noticed is I went vegan for a bit, after being vegetarian, and I was open like I am with my mental health and addiction, and I mentioned a couple of products that weren’t vegan and I got absolutely destroyed for it online.
“The same thing happened when I was talking about what medicine I was on for my bipolar issues and I got people going ‘you should never be on medication’ and ‘you should be on this medication or that medication’. All that just made me go, well I’m not gonna talk about this anymore; I’m just gonna keep this shit to myself. It’s not anyone else’s business.”
He is fine with talking about things that could help others going through similar turns but now, maybe for the first time, Colwell is feeling that he doesn’t want to reveal everything. Some things maybe are just private.
The other side of that is when a lot of your life is taken up dealing with either addiction or mental health, everything is focused on yourself. You have to, because you have to deal with it, and of course part of life as an artist is being conscious of your inner self.
But when you are no longer having to think about how you are going to get your drugs, or go without the drugs; or how you’re going to get through the next 10 hours or 24 hours period, you start looking around and noticing things and people and social movements. You know, life.
“It’s probably exactly how this album has come about,” says Colwell. “Those [familiar problems] are not at the forefront of my mind so what can I talk about? What shall I rap about now because what I’m going through would not fill a whole album?
“I love that and I want to do more of that storytelling, putting myself in other people’s shoes and telling descriptive stories.”
That really is a life, or lives, with and from a new perspective. This time for sure.
360 plays the Evelyn, Melbourne, Saturday February 24; The Metro, Sydney, March 2; The Triffid, Brisbane, March 3; The Gov, Adelaide, March 9; The Astor, Perth, March 10; The Forum, Melbourne, March 16
Vintage Modern is out now through EMI