Dimly lit glass chandeliers and marble floors decorate a grand, Gatsbyesque lounge. “We’ll be taking a brief intermission,” says a woman in an silver, floor-length evening gown, as three tuxedo-clad men behind her rest their instruments. I double-check a text to make sure I’m at the correct location for my interview with blackbear. “The Plaza Hotel on Central Park,” it confirms.
The elevator to my right dings, and out he comes wearing an Astrid Andersen T-shirt, Gucci basketball shorts, a pink cap, and white hotel slippers. He sits on one of the red velvet chairs across from me and picks up a piece of pistachio dark chocolate bark in a bowl on the glass table between us. “Anything to drink?” a waiter asks him. “Can I please have a Coca-Cola?” blackbear requests, his voice just above a whisper. “And a strawberry shortcake.”
The jazz ensemble returns, and the laboriously tattooed, sleepy-eyed pop artist suggests we do the interview in his room to escape the noisy lobby, until he realizes he forgot his room key with his assistant upstairs. “I’m calling Travis to come down here with the key,” he says, pulling out his phone. “I don’t think we can get to the penthouse without one.”
Before he was blackbear, the Florida-born Mat Musto dropped out of high school when his punk band signed, before moving to Atlanta to study under Ne-Yo and develop his solo career. Since then, he’s accumulated a number of accolades on his songwriting resume, working with Justin Bieber, Linkin Park, Olivia O’Brien, and G-Eazy, to name a few. He’s also found considerable success as a performer, releasing a half-dozen projects as blackbear since 2014. His latest is digital druglord, which debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 and features Gucci Mane on its Top 40 lead single “do re mi.”
“I lived here for six months while recording digital druglord so now whenever I come back, they give me a penthouse,” blackbear says, pretty unenthusiastically. Perhaps this is all part of the routine when you sign a label deal allegedly worth over $10 million, write songs for superstars, and have hundreds of millions of streams under your belt. As soon as we walk inside, he retreats to his bedroom upstairs, where he stays until his assistant insists we get started.
Blackbear's behavior might be taken for apathy, but his public past suggests there’s some practicality behind his passiveness. His perspective has been shaped by a number of vivid events: a close encounter with death after being diagnosed with potentially fatal case of pancreatitis in 2016, a string of distressing relationships with Hollywood women, and a tumultuous history with drugs. Blackbear isn’t celebrating the luxurious life he’s entered, because his biggest accomplishment has been surviving through it.
How did songwriting transition into your career as blackbear?
I didn’t want to be famous or any of that. But then I had an awful relationship and I got offered a tour the week after we broke up. So I took the tour to get my mind off of things, and it healed me. Most people would not leave their house for weeks or gain 20 pounds or something, but I left and didn’t look back. And it worked for me.
I was supposed to die. One in three people die with the severity of my disease. And it didn’t kill me yet, so until it does I’m gonna celebrate.
What parts of it healed you?
Let’s say I just changed my mind right now, and I decided, you know what? I don’t want blackbear to be on Pigeons & Planes. I would leave this room and not come back until [one of my team members] called me and told me that you left. So that’s kind of what I did with being a performer. I left. And when you leave a situation behind and travel, I mean I couldn’t go to Pluto, but I could go to like…
Arkansas. I don’t know if there was an Arkansas show on that tour, but there were some cool cities.
So touring for you is kind of like an escape?
Well, now it’s my job.
Do you enjoy it in the same way that you used to?
Honestly, no. It’s different. I don’t really like living in a very small space, like a tour bus, even though I have an amazing tour bus and I’ve had multiple tour buses, it’s still not a lot of room. My green rooms aren’t that big, and they don’t look like this—the penthouse suite at the Plaza. It’s usually a blank room with a couch and a fridge, and lunch meat, cheese, no condiments, no bread. Or vice versa. Like, just bread and condiments—just to give you an idea of how much they really care about you as an opener. As a headliner? You ask them to print out a picture of Brett Rheeder, the BMX rider, every day and put it on every door backstage, and they’ll laminate that shit. But when you’re the opener, it’s their show, and you should be grateful.
Is that humbling?
Yes. Yes. 100%.
So this new album, cybersex, is it finished?
Yes. I’m not like any other artist, point blank. But I have tendencies like other artists, kind of like Kanye West, where after it’s out, I’ll make changes to the audio. [Laughs] I’m somewhat of a perfectionist. But I also believe in a perfect demo and a perfect flaw. Sometimes the songs sound like there’s something wrong, but it’s a perfect flaw to me.
I used to use drugs to party, and then partying made me sick, and now I use drugs to stay alive.
What kind of headspace were you in while making this album versus past projects?
It’s a whole lot of "fuck yeah."
What do you mean?
Celebration. I didn’t die. I was supposed to die. One in three people die with the severity of my disease. And it didn’t kill me yet, so until it does I’m gonna celebrate. I’m most excited because so far, this is my best album.
Why do you think that is?
Probably because I didn’t make it for me. I used to only make music for me, as an outlet, to get my feelings out or whatever. I made this album for the world. My goal is for people to feel as good as I felt not dying, beating pancreatitis. It’s a celebration of life.
So where does the title come from?
All of the titles of my albums have been an ode to the internet. So since this is a celebratory album, I’m celebrating the internet. The internet is why we’re sitting in this room. For all of this to happen, the first computer had to send the first message. And the first computer was bigger than anyone’s refrigerator.
Cybersex was the first form of sexting. And now you can practically fall asleep with the person you’re in love with in another country. I’m so intrigued by the internet. It might be the death of humanity, but so far it’s made me a lot of money and caused a lot of happiness for me.
Drugs are also an image you use in your album artwork. What significance does that have to you?
I used to use drugs to party, and then partying made me sick, and now I use drugs to stay alive.
Did being in the music industry foster your relationship with drugs?
It’s all there was to do. Even growing up, there just wasn’t much else to do. Until I was 19 or 20 years old, I was a pothead since I was 15. Me and my friends would just go to someone’s house, play Mario Kart and smoke weed for hours.
You said in an interview earlier this year, “Thank god I’m not on a label.” But now you’ve partnered with Interscope—why did you make that choice?
I partnered with a company that happened to be a label. I could have partnered with anyone who wanted to lease the rights to my music. It just so happened to be a label. But I’m still practically unsigned, it’s just now I have more resources and hardworking people around me, and a machine that cares about me and my music reaching people internationally. Before, I did everything I could up until the point where I needed a big machine to break my music and my brand internationally.
When someone offers you eight figures to lease rights off of one of your albums and the next one, and then a couple singles or something, I would be ignorant to not do that. Especially because the people I’m doing it with I really, really, really respect. John Janick—he started Fueled By Ramen—and Todd Moscowitz—he works with Gucci Mane and is co-founder of 300—are two of the best people to be working with. My music is Todd Moscowitz and John Janick, in a way. It’s so them and their style. They were willing to come together, and I knew it would work.
When I said "fuck a deal" I meant I wouldn’t ever do a 360 deal, and I didn’t. They don’t touch my merch or my touring, and if I were to do a sneaker brand deal—which I would never do—well, never say never, I guess. I said I wouldn’t do a deal and I did one, so who knows.
One thing I want people to know is that I will only be doing music for as long as this contract is fulfilled. After that, music will be a hobby and no longer a career. So AKA, I’m retiring. I’m an album or two away.
One thing I want people to know is that I will only be doing music for as long as this contract is fulfilled. After that, music will be a hobby and no longer a career. So AKA, I’m retiring.
What’s the reasoning?
Because I’m smarter. And I hate wasting my time on earth doing something that I can do in my sleep. I write songs in my dreams. Maybe it’s because I’m always working, but I have dreams of being in software and I’m moving audio waves around and stuff, and then I wake up and I can’t save it, I can’t export it. No one can hear that song I just made and I just spent all night making it.
Do you think any of your potential is unfulfilled?
I think I just know when to quit. I don’t ever want to have to do music for money. And I don’t anymore, therefore everything I do is for a different purpose, but it’s not money. None of my decisions are based on money. Money is something that automatically comes with being great. I think that’s what changed. I’ll be able to feed my kids’ kids’ kids at this point, and not just because of music, I have shares in so many companies and I privately do things. Music is becoming more of a hobby every day. But I love music, and I’ll never stop making music. I don’t know if I’ll be doing world tours forever. I’m not sure. Never say never.