Astral Swans frontman Matthew Swann is no stranger to introspection or self-analysis.
After completing an undergraduate degree in Buddhist studies at the University of Calgary, Swann went on to pursue a Master’s in continental philosophy before dropping out in 2007.
Around the same time, he began performing with Calgary punk band Hot Little Rocket, and ultimately started his own solo project, Extra Happy Ghost!!!, before ending that to play under his current moniker in 2012.
With the newly-formed Astral Swans, Swann released his acclaimed first album All My Favourite Singers are Willie Nelson in 2015, touring extensively across Canada with JUNO award-winning musician Dan Mangan, who also helped produce the record.
He’s been a mainstay at the Sled Island Music & Arts Festival, which takes place in the last week of June every summer in downtown Calgary, playing there for five consecutive years. With his new record, Swann is even performing a handful of dates in Japan for the very first time.
Throughout this prolific run, however, Swann has struggled with his own mental health. A prominent issue that, according to the CMHA, affects one in five Canadians every year.
Strange Prison, Swann’s latest record released May 18, is an analysis of some of these struggles.
“I was diagnosed with [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] and bouts of recurrent depression for longer than I care to state, really,” says Swann. “[Strange Prison] is really a description of obsessive, intrusive thoughts, and the process of feeling completely locked in yourself.”
Swann explains that the intent with this new album is to create a sonic representation of these ideas.
“I’ve always dealt with my own views of mental health and mental illness in a lot of my songs,” says Swann. “But I was pretty covert… with this record, I decided, you know what? F--k it. I’m just going to be upfront. Times are changing around that sort of conversation, and it feels like… important to share those experiences just for the normalization of mental illness.”
Amidst his peers in the Calgary music scene, Swann also notes a kinship between himself and other “outsider artists” such as Daniel Johnston and Syd Barrett, founding member of Pink Floyd, two artists who also struggled with mental illness. The latter, doubly, because of both Barrett and Swann’s shared experimentation with LSD.
“I have a background in psychedelic use, and exploring that as a creative tool and a philosophical tool,” says Swann. “[With Barrett], chances are, it wasn’t taking acid that brought about his mental illness, it probably just exacerbated something that pre-existed.”
Swann describes Strange Prison as a very empathetic record, a commentary on the challenges of being a human being.
“Life is f--king crazy, and oftentimes just sh--ty and full of terror, and fear, and death, and bigotry, and violence, and I feel like I don’t have any fundamental solutions to those types of things in any linear way,” explains Swann.
“A lot of the biggest problems are that we do have so much stigma [around mental health], and there isn’t an adequate normalization of the fluctuating states of well-being that normal human beings have.”
With nine years having passed since the end of Hot Little Rocket, and the release of his first record as Extra Happy Ghost!!!, Swann notes that, even now, a career as a musician is both hard and expensive, full of under-appreciation, competition and rejection. He also describes it as a compulsion.
“This is my great love,” says Swann. “I just really want to try and make beautiful sh-t. Beautiful records, beautiful music, that moves me in the way that I am moved by the things I hear, that influence me and inspire me to write.”
- By Alec Warkentin