Sometimes, as Coleman Hell discovered when it was time to follow up his hit debut LP, Summerland, you have to get yourself to a better place for life to make sense.
By the tail end of 2017, the Toronto-via-Thunder-Bay singer-songwriter had every reason to feel like it was all too much. After years of slogging things out to little reward, Hell stumbled onto something great with 2015’s “2 Heads”, a platinum-shifting single that ripped up the charts on both sides of the border. His subsequent full-length solidified him as a breakout star, spawning two more hits (“Devotion” and “Fireproof”) and turning life into a blur of constant touring. In many ways that was the realization of a dream for Hell, who started writing songs before his teens and later spent time in Hogtown’s indie hip-hop trenches. But as anyone who’s ever spent endless hours staring out of a tour bus window and checking in to a parade of hotel rooms will testify, at a certain point it all becomes hopelessly disorienting.
“There’s a lot of travelling, and when you’re travelling that much, you become accustomed to a certain type of momentum,” Hell says, on the line from his home in Toronto. “You’re always physically moving, and because of that you do a lot less of taking self-inventory. So when you finally take a break, you’re like, ‘I haven’t really thought about anything or dealt with anything for a really long time.’ I realized that I needed to take a break and do that.”
For an idea of the headspace the singer was in after the Summerland tour and promo cycle, consider the blazingly powerful “Real Me”, off his upcoming sophomore album, which has a working title of Topanga. Unflinching and raw, the song has Hell pulling back the curtains of his private life, where things are not nearly as idyllic as they might seem from the outside.
Over plaintive piano and 808s & Heartbreak percussion loops, Hell gets disarmingly revealing with lines like “I feel so insecure sometimes wish I could disappear” and “Hide in my house in a housecoat/Never going out/No sunshine and rainbows/Just a stormcloud that’s been following me/So down I think I got a disease.”
Now that he’s beginning to do press for Topanga—the release date of which is still TBA—the singer has started thinking about how personal much of the album ended up being. When he finished up touring Summerland, Hell found himself with plenty of time on his hands in Toronto. As anyone who’s ever been wide-awake in bed at 3 a.m. will tell you, sometimes being left alone with one’s thoughts can be a dangerous thing.
So Hell decided that he needed to mix things up. He fled Toronto for the fabled hotbed of creativity that is Topanga Canyon, California—a place that has famously inspired such artists as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Doors, and Fleetwood Mac.
Setting up in a rented house, Hell ended up in a better place.
“Changing up the scenery was kind of what initiated things,” he recalls. “And it ended up being a really positive experience, so I’m happy I did it. I had this idea where I wanted to rent a giant mansion of a house with a pool that was somewhere you could go and take hikes. So I rented this big house and just sort of existed there for a couple of months. It was kind of like a retreat, but this one a little more glamorous than a cabin in the middle of the woods.”
A cabin in northern Ontario was, of course, where Hell worked with friends on Summerland, a record that bridged easygoing Ed Sheeran–era folk with rootsy Great White North Americana. Topanga marks a new direction for the singer, with laid-back guitars and banjos swapped out for gleaming synths and blissed-out club beats.
Hell notes that he didn’t end up in Topanga Canyon by spinning a globe and pointing.
“It’s kind of a famous place to record,” he says. “Because of its history, I thought I’d catch the spirit of everyone who’s spent time there.”
And once he arrived, he was not only instantly enchanted, but also ready to work.
“I pretty much got right to it, because I had a lot to say and a lot on my mind,” Hell says. “I bought this old typewriter and brought it with me. I wrote all of my lyrics on this typewriter, which was kind of cool unto itself—there was a certain rhythm to writing on it. I think that really influenced the lyrics.”
One might rightly surmise that the singer has had plenty of dark days over the past couple of years, as he’s been open in interviews about dealing with depression and anxiety. Rather than wallow in the blackness, he chose to try to pull himself out of the darkness.
The theme of missing someone close and longing for human contact surfaces time and time again in the songs. Summing up dating perfectly in our iPhone-obsessed times, the slinky soul jam “Left on Read” has him lamenting, “Oh, you don’t even pick up your phone now/I’ll bet you don’t even scroll down/I’m doing fine on my own now.” The ethereal new-waver “Video”, meanwhile, looks back to a long-gone past with lines like “I can still picture you, like an old video/Never stop missing you, memories on a loop.”
“I went through a recent heartbreak, along with just dealing with my general health,” he reveals. “There was a breakup as well as other things, so there was a whole bunch of stuff at bay there. It’s definitely not as light of a listen as the last album. Summerland was sort of a conceptual thing where I was telling a story. This one is more like a diary.”
The degree to which Topanga reads like one person’s inner monologues is starting to hit Coleman now that he’s having to talk about the album. He quite intentionally took a break from social media during writing and recording, choosing to direct his energy to the creative process.
“I wasn’t thinking and feeling things that I wanted to tweet or take pictures of, so I sort of isolated myself in that way too,” he says with a laugh. “So when you’re making the kind of record that I did, with no feedback, you don’t really think about how personal it is. Now that I’m revving up for the release, I’m starting to go, ‘Hmm, I wonder what people are going to think about this?’ because it’s pretty different. There were two ways to go about following up Summerland. I could have concerned myself more with following up the commercial success of that record. But I felt somehow that I was in a place where I had people’s attention, so instead of trying to top the last record in terms of theatrics, I decided I would instead pull back the curtain and go, ‘All right, here’s a little bit more about myself, and hopefully you’ll still like me.’ ”
One of the chances he took was in making Topanga different not just lyrically but also musically. Hell rolls out everything from tribal jungle pop (“Twenties”) to cognac-laced soul (“Mixtape”) to thumping electro (“Killer”).
That he might alienate those who first fell for “2 Heads” is a chance he’s willing to take. From the Beatles to U2 to Radiohead to Kanye West, the acts that have managed to transcend time are the ones that decide they’re going to play by no one’s rules but their own.
Noting that the shape-shifting Radiohead has been something of a lifelong obsession, Hell says, “To be honest, I’m just excited to release this record and see where it takes me. I’m curious what fans are going to be willing to grow with me. What I’ve always liked about acts like Radiohead, Prince, David Bowie, and André 3000 is going, ‘Okay, what’s their next phase going to be?’ With Summerland I was almost like a Method actor—I got so committed to the songs I was having séances in the woods and painting moons on my head. I was so deeply into it, at the end I was like, ‘Okay, this had to die now—it was fun and great, but I gotta do something else.’ ”
What’s interesting about Topanga is that, even when he’s at his most melancholy, Hell never sounds morose. Instead, the album radiates a sense of hope. For Hell, his time in Topanga Canyon was a big step in a journey that continues. It’s no accident, then, that the dream-hazed title track for Topanga concludes with the line “Don’t cry, Topanga, everything’s going to be alright.”
“My life is a lot more stable now, so that’s a real positive,” he notes. “Life is just a series of high points and low points, and there’s suffering everywhere, no matter which way you cut it. So it’s really just all about coping. I’ve learned to like living in the purgatory between the good and the bad moments—it always gives you something good to strive for, which is kind of what life is about.”
Hell pauses, and then laughs.
“My sister always describes me as someone who’s incapable of keeping it light. But I like to get into the nitty-gritty most of the time—that’s kind of where I live. So what would I have to write about if everything in life was just a straight, flat line forever? The answer is ‘I wouldn’t be doing this.’ ”Coleman Hell headlines the first installment of Red Truck Beer’s 2018 Truck Stop Concert Series on June 16. The series takes place at Red Truck Beer Company (295 East 1st Avenue).