It’s been a year of peaks and valleys for Matthew Monias.
The blind Oji-Cree recording artist from Garden Hill First Nation graduated high school in the spring, travelled 475 kilometres to Winnipeg to fix his broken laptop in the summer, released his debut album in the fall and has been dealing with the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic throughout it all.
The latter is a familiar feeling.
"I grew up in an isolated community," says Monias, 20, who performs as Mattmac. "(And) when I overthink, I can’t stop, so I end up isolating myself in my mind."
His struggles with depression and anxiety feature prominently on 20/20 — the eight-track pop/trap album he released in November — alongside melodic songs about healing, relationships and life on the reserve.
Monias was born blind. Learning exactly what that meant at the age of eight was difficult to process.
"My mom would always take me and my younger brother for walks. She would describe the world around us, she would describe the sunset, the trees, the sky, the colours. And I guess it was around that time that I found out I couldn’t see," he says. "It got me upset that I felt different from others and I felt like that for a few years; it really hit my mental (health)."
Music was a major part of his life growing up. The community radio station was always playing at home and Monias started singing in the local gospel jamborees at age four. He gave up music entirely when he was in the thick of depression, but came back to the artform as a teen.
"I started playing the piano… and learning to produce (music) at 13," he says. "That kind of gave me the motivation to do something with my life."
Singing and rapping about the things that were going on in his life proved easier than talking about them. Music has become a career path and a form of therapy.
"It allows me to be more expressive and creative," he says. "Making music… allows me to release that energy that builds up and try to be OK."
Monias was thrust into the spotlight when N’we Jinan, a travelling music education program, visited Garden Hill in 2016. The organization produced a music video called Help You See inspired by his story. The song was circulated widely online and led to an opportunity to perform with Nelly Furtado the following year during National Aboriginal Day at The Forks.
He’s been developing his craft and connecting with other artists virtually over the last three years. Monias’s laptop is his lifeline to the music industry and his "central workstation," where he records songs, makes beats and mixes it all together.
Being without it for a week this summer left him in limbo and prompted the long journey to the Apple Store in Winnipeg.
"I felt kind of stuck," he says. "And I was kind of upset that I couldn’t create at the time because I had so many song ideas."
After several years of releasing singles, having a full album to his name feels a bit surreal.
"A collection of my work is out there for the world to hear and for me, it’s just amazing," Monias says.
His work has been well-received. Paradise, a pop-infused love song, made it to No. 1 on NCI’s weekly Indigenous Music Countdown at the end of November.
The album is a point-in-time snapshot of his life and inspirations, including his mom, Lilly. "She has been behind me all the way… and she’s a hard worker; that inspires me to work hard."
Monias performed, arranged, composed and produced nearly all of the songs on 20/20 — so called for the artist’s age, the calendar year and his crystal-clear vision for the future.
"I know what I want to do with my life," he says. "My goal is to continue to take this music career as far as I can, to inspire others and to make good music that people can relate to."
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.