Blackbear Opens Up About His Health, His Process and His Future
Words by Ella Kemp
Styling by Damian Collins
Photography by Christian Witkin
Hair & Grooming by Arlen Jeremy
Somewhere in Shadow Hills, California, a little boy called Midnight lets out a gurgle to say hello. I’m waiting to speak to his dad Matthew Musto, who you might know as blackbear but who prefers to go by Bear above all else. The dark grey Zoom window flashes green when Midnight decides we’re ready to chat. “He’s eating a big slice of pizza right now,” Bear says once he joins, sounding happy himself after a morning spent with his son at a gym class for toddlers, bouncing around on soft foam squares and rushing down slides with all the other kids. It’s sunny in Los Angeles and blackbear is feeling good.
It’s the result of immense hard work. Both long-term diligence on his career and everyday effort to maintain his health, both mental and physical– which has tried and failed to stop him in his tracks more than once. “A good attitude really goes a long way,” Bear says for the first but certainly not the last time a couple of minutes into our hour-long conversation. “PMA all day, that’s what I say.”
Yet he says this just before releasing his latest EP misery lake, which is “where happiness comes to die” according to its cover art. Is blackbear okay? The songs, steady and infectious clean-cut pop music, promise you a good time if you’re just humming along. But listen closely and the warning signs are there. Bear’s never been one to shy away from pain. “It was a miserable time in my life,” he says of his headspace while making misery lake. “I’m struggling with health issues at the moment so I’ve been in lockdown and really isolated. I only have a couple of friends to call so my social circle looks more like a dot these days.”
I believe it. Our conversation was supposed to happen the day before until a last-minute doctor appointment took him out of commission for the subsequent 24 hours, something he’s pretty used to by now. “I had six surgeries last year so anytime I’d get out of the hospital I’d get into the studio,” he remembers. “Making misery lake was my escape. My only form of anti-drug was the studio.”
If you’ve been following Bear for a few years, you’ll know he was forced to seriously reconsider his lifestyle after being diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis in 2016 after a little too long was spent drinking far too much. Today he’s sober and he released his biggest record, digital druglord (which featured his mega-hit “do re mi”) in 2017 as a document which helped him get there. Here’s a man who is laser-focused on making healthy choices partly because of the mental impact it’ll have on his son and his family (he got engaged to his long-term girlfriend and Midnight’s mum, Michele Maturo in early 2021) but also because his body is giving him no other alternative right now.
But if you think that means this is a man who’s ready to take a sign from above that he could just take it easy (after co-writing Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” in 2012 and suddenly becoming a millionaire, the option’s been there for a while now) and enjoy a slow life, then you really don’t know Bear at all. When we talk, he’s preparing intensely for the biggest physical milestone of his career: a nine-week stadium tour across the US opening for Maroon 5.
“I’m running three miles a day and singing the set along with me on the treadmill,” he says. “It’s intense. I’m trying to be physically prepared.” Touring isn’t a new thing though as the musician dropped out of high school to hit the road with his first band Polaroid (a post-punk outfit not quite the radio-ready sound we know today) in a 15-passenger van, sleeping in Walmart parking lots. “Touring has always been exciting for me,” he admits. “I love being in a new city every day, I love my morning routine of going to the gym and meditating. I feel like I’m my best self when I’m on the road. I’m excited to feel adrenaline again.”
It might seem like a bit of a sharp left-turn– from provocative, swaggering post-punk to the kind of anthemic pop Maroon 5 have earned their enormous fanbase from– but Bear isn’t fazed by genre limitations. He got to work with fellow songwriter Jacob Kasher and sent him a track as soon as he heard Kasher was involved with Maroon 5. A few sessions later they had the earworm of “Beautiful Mistakes” which became the band’s lead single. Frontman Adam Levine immediately knew Bear had to feature on the album (that’s the seductive track, “Echo”) and the tour was the logical next step. “The only genre it would be hard to fit me in would be really heavy trap music,” Bear points out. He nods to his recent single with country artist Kane Brown as an example of this. “Memory” has been out for a week when we speak and is on its way to becoming one of the best performing singles of his career. “If it’s a good song on acoustic or piano, really at its core, I’m excited. I love a good lyric and melody. I’m a simple- ton when it comes to that.”
He’s being humble for a minute, though. Sharing his love for Travis Barker – who went from being his hero as a kid when Bear was obsessed with Blink-182, to now being among his closest friends and most trusted collaborators. He says they, alongside Machine Gun Kelly are “leaders of a new era”– it’s about getting to the root of music setting a whole world on fire. “Pop music is short for popular, and what’s popular right now is the kind of stuff I grew up on,” Bear explains. “It’s part of my expertise, so a perfect time in music right now for me to be myself, which is amazing.” He’s his best self on misery lake when he’s joined by Barker on the heady “imu”– a lament about the simple pang of yearning for someone long after they’ve moved on from you. It’s Bear’s favorite track on the EP too, a testament to a working relationship built on effortless understanding. “We’re almost like the same person, it’s really scary,” he says of Barker. “We have the same vibe, we’re both very chill, we both love punk music and getting tattoos. I saw a tweet one time that said ‘blackbear looks like Travis Barker before he went to prison.’ Travis sent it to me – he thought it was really funny!”
Bear has always kept his finger on the pulse when it comes to the internet. It’s not in a savvy let’s-see-what- the-kids-are-up-to way because he’s participating just as much as he’s observing. See @shibasbear and @ midnightshibaa. Two Twitter accounts posting side- by-side photos of Bear and his son with Shiba Inu dogs in various places and moods. On Instagram, Bear will frequently link out to his other account @bear.onachair where over 40,000 people follow Bear to see him, well, sitting on a chair. He tweets: “my favorite sport is smiling through the pain” an hour after we get off the phone. Twenty minutes after that he posts a grainy image from an old yearbook of a kid with hair swept down over and beyond his eyes, with a silver lip ring and a lime-green sweater tied around his shoulders, “emo since the 5th grade” his caption reads.
But there’s been something of a shift in the last couple of years, particularly since the birth of Midnight. A fascination with and optimistic belief in the overwhelm- ing, weird powers of the internet have defined so much of blackbear’s brand– both in the lyrics of his music and the way he’s lived his life– but spending so much time in the middle of an angry marketplace where someone’s always been robbed of something, cheated of something, desperate for something or yearning for everything, can feel a little heavy. Bear used to pride himself on studying the YouTube comments and fol- lowing the blackbear Reddit thread as a means to stay connected, and learn from criticism to keep growing – but is it sustainable?
“First of all, I’ve definitely had to put my phone down and start playing with trucks and Legos instead,” he laughs. “But for my own mental health I finally unfollowed the Reddit page, because I realized most of the things being said on there were bullshit. Anonymous people were saying things like, ‘blackbear’s new music is just nothing’ and it got under my skin. I’m putting my heart and soul into it.” He’s talking about his last album, everything means nothing, his most direct satire of the internet and, he points out, his fastest album to go gold. “Obviously the world has a different view to Reddit so I’m distancing myself from the toxic energy of pissed-off fans.”
He speaks to that distance in misery lake. You might think that with the world still in flux and Bear still so self-admittedly isolated he might swim further into the abyss of a digital existence and excavate all the revelations and insecurities sitting down there but this new page in the book of his career is much simpler than that. “I think everything means nothing spoke a lot about the impact the inter- net has on society and our mental health and I’ve said all I need to say on that,” he says. “I was inspired by life for this one. It was like a therapy session I was sharing with the world.” Indeed, “alone in a room full of people” thrums with raw vulnerability, Bear’s voice cutting through the noise and speaking to his current social circle-turned-dot.
He’s aware of what people might want from him but that’s not what he fully cares most about right now. “I’d be lying if I say I make everything for the fans,” Bear says. “It’s a form of therapy for me to make music but the fact that it helps other people keeps me going – so they’re the rea- son I keep doing it. But I also do it for me, to help with the chaos of the day.” Still, long-time listeners might be in luck as they’re always in Bear’s heart. “I hope it reminds them of a time where they fell in love with me originally. every- thing means nothing was like I wanted to make a song for every time of party but this is meant to be listened to on a train or a long car ride, when you’re on your own.”
It fits nicely with Bear’s new pace of life where joy comes from extremely small things. “I don’t have to go out and rage to have a good time anymore,” he says. “I’m a family man now.” Is this also the end of Bear’s mischievous streak though? The one who needs to make fun of the world in order to survive it? “I mean, satire is my middle name, that’s what blackbear is built on,” he says when I point out that his cheery chorus rallying everyone like Alexander did in the famous children’s book, hope you have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on the track “bad day” seems pretty direct. But that’s the thing. Bear as we find him in 2021 can and does contain these multitudes. He doesn’t need to make a whole album satirizing Twitter anymore but he can still gleefully tell you how much you deserve to have a rotten time. “I’m just consistently evolving and this EP is a stepping stone to the new direction I’m headed in,” he says. The rules, so to speak, are bending. “I’m going to keep making music and if I’m in a good mood it’ll be cheery, if I’m in a bad mood, maybe not so much. There’s really no pressure. I’m staying true to how I’m feeling and I always want to keep it real.”
One constant that remains in Bear’s shapeshifting journey is his loyalty to countless collaborators. Where some artists might flirt with a small handful of guest appearances, he gives as much of his energy to work- ing with others as he does to making music on his own. A quick refresher of artists who boast a featuring blackbear in their back catalog: Ellie Goulding, Pharrell Williams, 2 Chainz, All Time Low, Rivers Cuomo, Linkin Park, Nick Jonas, Tiny Meat Gang. On misery lake alone: Tate McRae, Sasha Sloan, Barker. The list goes on. “I only work with people when I feel their song is missing something,” Bear explains. Does he ever worry about losing a bit of himself or standing in the sidelines when sharing the spotlight? “I don’t feel like I’m taking a backseat when collaborating, I’m going to add to the record and if I feel I’m taking away, I’ll say no.”
Right now there’s a very long list of people he’d love to say “yes” to. He’s said it before and he’ll say it again, his favorite band is Red Hot Chili Peppers—“it’s common knowledge by now”—and it’s only a matter of time before mansionz, his beloved hip hop project with long-term collaborator and friend Mike Posner, returns with new music. Of his partnership with Posner which has felt like nothing short of kismet since they co-wrote “Boyfriend” during their very first session together, Bear says: “We just under- stand each other. Andrew Goldstein and Mike are the only people who fully understand what I’m trying to do when I pick up a guitar and I sing something. They can hear the finished product as soon as I do it.”
He knows the fans are keeping the fire burning for mansionz too, but ever playful, he is choosing the right moment carefully. “I see something about mansionz every day in my Twitter mentions so it’s anticipated for sure. We’re just making the people wait!” And what about rumors that he had a phone call with Elton John last summer? “No updates from Elton but I do have a new song with Avril Lavigne that’s really incredible,” he casually announces. It’s a return to Bear’s balls-to-the-wall, pop-punk roots, marking something of a full-circle moment. Although don’t expect a full pop-punk album any time soon. “Her boyfriend Mod Sun has been one of my best friends for years. We have each other’s logos tattooed,” he says. “He sent me over a song and I jumped right on it, they FaceTimed me after and they were just like, this is perfect. This is exactly what we needed. It’s a song about toxic love, I love it when you hate me is the main line.” He doesn’t know when it’s out, but ever-savvy, he knows when it should be. “I think it’ll be released pretty soon because when something’s that good you want it as soon as possible.”
With countless projects alongside other artists, the temptation to quietly retreat and focus on family – and in Bear’s case, his health – might start to grow right now. He’s definitely not romanticizing an eternal life under flashing lights. His feet are planted firmly on the ground. “Every artist’s goal is to sell their catalog for $40 million, to write songs for people and spend time with [their] family,” he says. “But I feel like I have a lot of fight left in me. I have so much energy. The stage is where I want to be right now.” If you’re looking for a very specific potential expiration date, Bear’s got a plan for that too. “I have three more albums in me because that’s what I’m contractually obligated to do! After those, we’ll talk.”
It strikes me as pretty rare to have an artist at the very peak of his power being so candid with a journalist about his contracts, financial performance and expectations. It’s not that there’s usually any obligation to hide it, but also you might imagine he just wouldn’t need to notice these things anymore. But Bear will never lose his focus or relinquish control. How would you retain ownership over the talent that got you this far otherwise? He’s been this way ever since 2014 when he became one of the very first artists to monetize Soundcloud streams independently. Seven years later, he still releases his music there for free (alongside other platforms) purely as a sign of loyalty to those who’ve been rooting for him there since the start. “I just love it and I love the fans and want to do stuff for them, even if it means I don’t make any money,” he explains.
It raises a frustrating question about an artist’s options and their power when it comes to streaming. He earned his stripes financially speaking from an independent streaming platform but is talking about it today, after so many other musicians have spoken out about the unfair revenue splits from streams. Namely during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic during which artists were unable to tour and were left with no other option but to count their pennies from the number of people listening on Spotify. Which unless you’re Dua Lipa will never amount to very much. “Let’s just put it this way: if I didn’t write songs and produce for other artists and sell merch and tour, then I would not be able to afford my home and the life that I live,” Bear says.
“Streaming is definitely not my top source of income. I wish it was because I have a lot of streams.” The solution right now it seems is to make your own. “I found my way financially by working overtime and making songs for other artists besides blackbear,” he says before astutely clueing me in on another clause that’s saved his skin. “I put more emphasis on my merchandise and I made sure that in my contract merchandise wasn’t a part of the deal so I get to keep all that revenue. I just encourage other artists to think outside the box and invest your money into something you are passionate about, because streaming really won’t make you mil- lions of dollars and just never will.”
Bear has always voiced his support for other artists thinking outside the box, never more so than on his record label Beartrap Sound. It’s somewhat on pause right now. A new baby, another EP, a forthcoming stadium tour, something’s got to give– but he’s always got an eye on new talent. “There’s a band called Life After Youth who I love right now and an artist called diveliner who I’m really excited about. I just look for real, raw emotion. Lyrically, I want to hear poetry that’s raw.”
This outsourcing goal has made Bear reflect on the words he’s been using in his own songs too. “I’ve recently taken the word ‘bitch’ out of my music, even though I’ve used it a lot in the past. I really just find it ugly and derogatory towards women,” he explains.
“There’s a few key words like that that I’ve said in the past that I won’t say anymore because I guess I just woke up a bit.” It makes me think of Hayley Williams and Paramore, who openly addressed one of their most incendiary hits, “Misery Business” by distancing themselves from its brutal lyrics: once a whore you’re nothing more / I’m sorry that’ll never change. They vowed to never play the song live again. Are there any blackbear tracks that might similarly stay hidden in the booth now? “I understand where Paramore are coming from but it was a real time in my life. I don’t know if that’s a justification to keep performing it but I really did feel hatred towards that specific girl and I want to keep performing the songs the way they are,” he explains. There it is again: the awareness of past mistakes but a confidence and command over the future. “All I have control of is what I do in the next song.”
Our time is coming to an end, and we’re thinking about what comes next. About the world Midnight will grow up in, about the choices Bear can make for him and for all those who have looked up to him for so long. Once a lost kid to a single mother in Florida, now one of Hollywood’s most incandescent producers, performers and songwriters. He’s painfully aware of his privilege and his power. It’s about legacy. “I’m grateful every day for the willingness to keep growing, to get out of bed and wake up early and make the next healthy choice,” he says. “I want to be some- one’s hero. I want the next blackbear to hear my music and become the next blackbear.”
It’s hard to grasp that this is the same guy who spends his life in and out of hospitals. One who needs the catharsis of writing songs about “where happiness comes to die” just to get through the day. The guy I’m speak- ing to right now is one who is determined to stay fueled by hope, who staunchly believes that your mind does have control over your body and everything else around you. PMA all day, every day. “I’m reading a book about love and how you can just use love to bet- ter every situation and your perspective,” he says. “When you’re feeling angry at someone, if you can react with love it’ll change your life.” Bear ends this wise aside with brief panic as someone in his house just left the hotplate on. He wryly reassures me: “I lovingly shut it off.” To flit from earnest, existential wisdom to a quip about a dumb mistake someone made in the kitchen epitomizes blackbear better than any single release ever could. He’s con- stantly evolving and growing in keeping with the world.
Having told me about his newfound love for literature as a source of inspiration, (Charles Bukowski and Alan Watts are current favorites, and he’s just finished The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson), I feel compelled to leave Bear with a recommendation of a book that might – or maybe already does – fit perfectly into his and Midnight’s life. Benjamin Hoff’s wondrous New York Times bestseller, The Tao of Pooh explains the principles of Taoism through the eyes of every inhabitant of the Hundred Acre Wood, starting with Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s an unpretentious introduction to an Eastern belief system asking you to live in harmony with the Tao – the nature of the world and the way things are. Without pressure, with- out force, follow simple, spontaneous signs and live your life with compassion, frugality and humility. It helps that you’re led by Winnie-the-Pooh, a bear of very little brain we could all learn a lot from. No fuss, no stress, if you respect the way things are and follow the principles of wu wei or non-doing– life will be kind. Matthew Musto is a bear with so much brain and so much heart. He tells me he wasn’t familiar with Taoism but maybe that’s how he’s already accidentally so good at living according to it. “Sourness and bitterness come from the interfering and unappreciative mind,” Hoff writes. “Life itself, when understood and utilized for what it is, is sweet.” But there’s something in Bear’s voice, as he tells me how beautiful he thinks this sounds that tells me he knows this better than anyone already. @bear