As the singer-guitarist-drummer-pedal steel player that is the constant between area folk acts like Alanna Gurr and the Greatest State, Lowlands, and Odd Years, Matt Monoogian is a vital player in a fertile southwestern Ontario folk scene and has been playing music, charitably and tirelessly, in Guelph, Ontario and on the road for some time now. On his debut solo record, HIDE, Monoogian is operating in that same sphere of rich, sentimental folk music, but HIDE is singular in that, despite its name, it represents a coming out for an artist usually resigned to the stage’s perimeter. HIDE engages Monoogian from all angles, and the performer responds by bearing all, battling his demons and scrutinizing his own responses to them.
A coming of age story, the record is a document of Monoogian’s struggles with self-care, specifically with regards to his past difficulties maintaining personal relationships and positive mental and physical health in relation to the epilepsy he was diagnosed with at 16 years old. That means doing some real soul searching, but an important aspect of that entails letting others in on his journey—something that can make a world of a difference when trying to approach the condition with a healthy mentality, Monoogian says. “When you have a seizure you’re basically out of commission for a couple of days, and I don’t think people really know that. It’s not one of those things that’s talked about very much,” Monoogian says. “People don’t really know much about it. So there’s a lot of built up emotion that goes on, and if you don’t deal with it in the right way, it can be very debilitating.”
On HIDE, Monoogian reckons with that subject matter by surveying the range of emotions surrounding his condition. Decoratively populated with gorgeous sounds from organs, mandolins and chamber instruments and defined by Monoogian’s dusky pedal steel, HIDE conveys those feelings through spirited passages that are made all the more compelling through the performer’s pointedly surreal lyrics. Often throwing listeners to restless scenes involving long roads and moments of dark, vulnerable confusion, sometimes presented through vignettes depicting unnerving awakenings (“Is that how you found me? I was left out in the dark,” Monoogian sings on “Ancient Bodies”). At other times, there seems to be a bounce in Monoogian’s step while he’s barrelling down the path to self-enlightenment (“Bottle Blues,” “Wake Me Up”). It’s a markedly unparalleled release, and while its focus is finely tuned, the themes that are discussed —self acceptance and self-awareness, good health, a longing for interpersonal connection and support—are universal enough that the songs are instantly relatable, sending listeners on a vision quest of their own. We got a hold of Monoogian to learn about the path that led to HIDE, and premiered his new video for "Sentimental Sounds."
Noisey: How long was this album in the making?
Matt Monoogian: Probably just over two years from start to finish. I’d moved back to Ontario and got started in Guelph and I started writing a couple of songs and just took those singles to the studio and as I started recording, the ideas kept going and it progressed from there and turned into a full length. Which was kind of unexpected, but that’s just kind of how it happened.
And there’s obviously some very personal stuff here. How did you realize that you were open to pursuing some of that as content?
I think it was just built up for so long, not dealing with my affliction—of having epilepsy. I’d kind of closed it off, and then writing these songs, it was like a therapeutic kind of thing. I really just poured myself out into it.
What can you tell me about those parts of your life?
They’re very intense. If you’ve ever met anyone that has epilepsy or seizure disorder. It’s pretty insane, it’s very debilitating. When you have a seizure you’re basically out of commission for a couple of days, and I don’t think people really know that. It’s not one of those things that’s talked about very much. People don’t really know much about it. So there’s a lot of built up emotion that goes on, and if you don’t deal with it in the right way, it can be very debilitating.
The press release also emphasizes a focus on alcoholism.
That kind of correlates with the disorder of seizures. Not so much as being an alcoholic, more just [alcohol] being a big trigger for [epilepsy] and trying to basically live a normal life. You go out, especially if you’re a musician here and you’re in bars a lot, that becomes a very regular occurrence, drinking and letting that get out of control. I think I’m more prone to that. Keeping alcohol to a minimum is kind of tough. But I wouldn’t say it’s too much alcoholism, it was more just that being a problem with the seizure stuff.
How are you navigating that?
I’ve been able to control the seizures here in Ontario. They’re under control and I’m able to have beers… I can’t go overboard, I can’t get drunk. I’m able to have a social drink and if I keep that in order, then I’m good. It took a long time to get to this point in my life where I’m actually stable, which is amazing. And it’s kind of like a new start, which is awesome.
A lot of people don’t know this, but epilepsy actually refers to a group of neurological diseases. What can you tell me about yours?
I have generalized focal seizures. They’re tonic seizures or grand mal seizures. If I were to take medication they can be brought on by drinking too much caffeine or lights and stuff like that are a trigger, but I actually don’t really know what the diagnosis is for what type of seizures they are. I get grand mal seizures and petit mal seizures, which are… you don’t lose consciousness but you’re kind of just out of it.
Obviously, there are a lot of stigmas associated with mental and physical illness. Can you talk about some of the struggles you’ve had dealing with that?
I think it kind of catches people off guard and they don’t know how to deal with it. So I used to be embarrassed by it because I didn’t really know what was going on. I was unconscious. And then it would be hard to explain it to people and people got kind of awkward about it because in my lack of understanding of it, it was kind of perpetuating the awkwardness of it. But I think that the more people talk about these kinds of things, the easier it is for people to understand it. I think younger people living with epilepsy are having a hard time because people don’t talk about this kind of stuff.
Going through the songs on this album, all of the lyrics are either written in the first or second person, which sort of forces the listener to approach all of the songs like they’re these really intimately framed portraits. All of them are coloured with these expressions of a want for connection and companionship and support. What can you tell me about that?
I seem to be driving people away with not dealing with my problems, whether that’s relationships with a woman or… not dealing with my epilepsy puts me in a dark place.
Are these songs about specific people in your life?
They’re past relationships and my current relationship. The more I didn’t deal with that stuff, I pushed my girlfriend away. That kind of thing happens. “Set Sail” is based on that, you know? If I continue to go down this destructive path, it’s almost inevitable that we’d break up, so it’s kind of that kind of thing.
Do the people these songs are about know they’re about them?
They do, which is interesting. My girlfriend Ashley really was a huge part of the album coming to fruition. A lot of the experiences are from our personal stuff, you know? She saw it all go down. We’ve been together about five years now, but she’s seen a lot of seizures and she sees how if I don’t control it, it’s really bad. Past stuff, when I was a bit younger and with another girl, it never got talked about, we were maybe too young, and it was one of those things. I was just not in a good place to progress in taking care of it.
What’s Ashley’s response to you making a record about this stuff?
She really thinks it’s important. She backs me up so much on it. She’s gone through a lot of trials and tribulations with the relationship because I slip back in and out of following the rules, which takes a toll on her. But when she sees the positivity, like if a song is written and I’m in a good place, it’s great, she’s very supportive of that.
Distance also plays a big role here in that you seem to measure your relationship with the world through your proximity to others.
Just being shut off keeps me away from people in ways that… before I kind of got stable here in Ontario, I didn’t really talk about the affliction.
Going into making this record, what was your motivation? What were you hoping to address?
When I started writing it, it was just based on pure emotion. The lyrics kind of came second for me, so when I started thinking about what these emotions were, I really started thinking about the lyrics. And that’s when I wanted to really just talk about mental illness. I see a lot of people that struggle with it, and it’s definitely not talked about in our society, so that became a key focal point. Also just relationships in general. The biggest thing was just getting across the epilepsy thing.
How did that play out on the record?
There are other things that I focus on, like travel. I did spend a long time in the Yukon traveling around and kind of not staying in one place for very long, so that’s conveyed on the record a lot as well. That stuff played a huge role. In my time in the Yukon I wasn’t dealing with my epilepsy, and I loved living there, but I think I try to portray moving around and the affliction.
Now that you’ve made this record, what are your next steps? How does this release square your relationship with everything we’ve talked about?
I think that I want to continue to write songs about this. That’s always a challenge in writing. I want to tour this album and I want people to hear it, and if I can convey that message to people, I think it’s gonna come off as a very honest thing. As for writing new songs, I just go day by day and play what feels right.
Tom Beedham is an arts and culture journalist living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.