By James William Scott
I'm going to talk about a difficult subject, but an
important one the link between depression (and other mental illness) and
music, the idea of the "troubled artist" and the extent to which
music and creativity interact with psychological issues. It's a bit different
to what I usually discuss, but it's important and links to the other things
I usually talk about (recording, songwriting) in more ways than you'd think
as will become clear.
Mental illness and music isn't a subject that is often discussed, but it is
one that affects a disproportionate number of musicians. Many, probably most
of us, can think of a time that music listening to it, playing guitar, writing
and performing songs helped us through a difficult time in our lives. I know
I can. Playing music is a way of achieving catharsis, to deal with our emotions
by expressing them. I'm a long way from the troubled teenager I once was, but
even now, there's nothing like grabbing an axe and rocking out to lift my mood
if I get low.
The danger, and I have seen this happen too many times to stay quiet about
it, is that people with depression or other problems seek solace in their music
and do nothing else to solve their problems, and self-destruct as a consequence.
I deal with a lot of amateur musicians who want to turn professional. Many
of them do. But amongst the ones who fail, this is often the reason why they
are just too messed up in the head to succeed, and they think that their music
is the way out of their problems when it isn't.
These guys fall victim to what I've started to call "tortured genius
syndrome." They fall in love with some kind of romantic ideal of the troubled
artist, who expresses their pain and despair with beautiful music. They base
their dreams of success on that idea, and cite people like Janis Joplin, Layne
Staley, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse as their role models.
All those artists certainly did create amazing music fuelled by their pain
and distress. They have another thing in common, though: they're all dead.
Success didn't solve any of their problems. Arguably it made them worse, to
the extent that the pressures of fame drove them to kill themselves, either
through suicide or substance abuse. Writing about their pain didn't cure it,
no matter how many fans they had or how many records they sold.
That doesn't stop troubled musicians from emulating them. In fact, many of
them refuse to address their problems, be they medical problems or issues in
their lives that are bringing them down, because they somehow think that their
pain is the source of their creativity. You can't be a tortured genius if you're
not tortured, right? Some of them even deliberately mess their lives up to
make sure they have something to be depressed about, so that they can write
songs about their self-inflicted misery. I've seen it happen again and again.
NONE of these people succeed, in music or in life. Expressing your pain does
not make it go away. Basing your life and career plans on your pain is a one-way
ticket to self destruction. I've seen it happen to close friends. Some of them
have taken their talent and their beautiful music to the grave. That's not
romantic, that's a waste of a life. Those people aren't role models, they're
Music is an amazing pick-me-up if you're feeling down. Believe me I know.
But it's not a solution to your problems. If you want to build a career in
music, then understand that you are going to need to get your head and your
life in order first. Happiness won't kill your creativity. What it will do
is give you the mental space and focus you need to overcome the hurdles you
will face in getting your music out there. All the money and the record sales
in the world won't make you happy if you don't get to the root of the problem.
We've lost too many great musicians to that belief, let's not add any more
to that list. There's no glory in self-destruction.
If you're down, then by all means use your music as a pick-me-up. But get
help. Get happy. Get into a position of strength, and use your music to help
others. If you have to put your music to one side for a bit while you sort
things out, then it will be more than worth it and you will come out the other
side as not only a better person, but a better musician as well. Please. I
don't want to lose any more friends.