Mental health is a prominent issue within the music community, so New Noise Magazine reached out to a diverse group of artists and asked them to speak about their personal experiences with mental illness. This is an exclusive ongoing spotlight—coinciding with Issue #31, The Mental Health Issue, of the print magazine—that showcases a refreshing transparency on the struggles many individuals face and the coping mechanisms they’ve developed to overcome them.
Gresham Cash of Oak House
Athens, Georgia-based grungey psych rockers, Oak House—comprised of guitarist and vocalist Gresham Cash, bassist Connor Sabula, and drummer Wes Gregory—formed in January of 2014 and released their debut full-length, Plastique Cash, later that year in September. On April 7, they self-released their assured sophomore LP, Hot or Mood.
Are there any personal experiences with mental health issues you’d like to share?
Whether you personally suffer from mental illness or not, you can probably think of a few people close to you that do. It is a confusing, exhausting, and pervasive medical issue that not only affects those with the mental illness, but those loved ones who diligently persist with the afflicted.
I think that mental illness is often more evident within the artistic community, because being in touch with your internal artistic impulses allows you to think and express—and often commiserate with other artistic people—more openly about daily atrocities and struggles—not to say that you are more intuitive or aware of societal stresses and injustices to humanity than an office worker, but that you feel more inclined to express that distaste.
Conditions such as depression, anxiety, and OCD plague more people than are willing to admit it, but I think that artists end up in environments that allow these things to be aggravated. No one would argue that drugs suppress anxiety or that alcohol abuse makes you treat your family better or that a traveling lifestyle might lead to weak bonds in relationships, or worse, toxic sporadic relationships.
Do artists feel depressed more often than working folks? I would argue no. Look at Japan for instance: they have officially declared karōshi—to work oneself to death (suicide)—as a cause of death. An extremely productive working culture with an unemployment rate that hovers around 3 percent doesn’t sound like the circumstances in which people should have extreme anxiety and depression that leads to suicide, but, in this case, it is.
Not to use hasty generalizations and jump to illogical conclusions, but I think that artists feel much of what humanity feels yet can’t express. Let’s forget about Trump and the political mess our world appears to be in. Did you eat three meals today? Probably. Did you sleep-in at least one day this week? Probably. Did anyone brandish a gun at you at the grocery store? Probably not. There are obvious injustices that are occurring in the world today, and I think that artists would be wrong not to highlight and discuss these things within their art and communities. But let’s get real. Trump doesn’t give me anxiety: wondering why a booking agent won’t respond to my email gives me anxiety. Trump doesn’t depress me: feeling like no one will appreciate or connect with my music depresses me. Trump doesn’t aggravate my OCD: wondering if I left the gas stovetop on when I leave for tour fractures my OCD and leads to anxiety.
My point is, of course, I feel intense feelings as an artist. That is what makes music, painting, theater, and other artistic mediums interesting: they evoke feelings while telling some piece of the story of the human condition. So, perhaps artists are more in touch with mental illness and those who suffer from it, but I don’t write music for people with mental illness or to assuage my own mental illnesses. I write music because I believe that people are stuck on the world with different versions of anxieties, fears, depressions, schizophrenia, manic swings, bipolar—all rooted in unhappiness, insecurity, and fear. I want to tell that story. To be an artist means that you have tapped into something. You have exposed a side of your very essence and being. Perhaps that is why artists feel intense anxiety, manic depression, or suicidal thoughts. It almost seems as if they feel like they have “figured something out.” And if they don’t “show other people,” they will go crazy; ironically, if they do show other people, they will go crazy.
The world is scary and volatile; it always has been. I think that mental illness is a sad reality of the world that we should seek to heal and cure, but I think that office workers and artists alike will continue to feel what the writer Nescio felt when he said: “For the earth everything was simple enough. It just turned on its axis and followed its course around the sun and had nothing to worry about. But the people on it fretted out their days with troubles and cares and endless worries, as though without these troubles, these cares, and these worries, the day would not turn into night.” And fittingly, Nescio pursued art as a young man, felt the pressures of society and the world, took an office job, and later, had a mental breakdown.
We should help and defend the mentally ill of all communities. As an artist [and] songwriter, I will continue to try to write tales of universal issues and concerns—sometimes, admittedly, from a myopic perspective, but always trying to think more broadly that if the world keeps spinning and I have food every day, how can I make the world a better place, connect with a few people, and tell a better story?
Kobra Paige of Kobra And The Lotus
Calgary heavy metal mavens, Kobra And The Lotus—featuring guitarist Jasio Kulakowski, bassist Brad Kennedy, and drummer Marcus Lee—were founded by lead vocalist and songwriter Kobra Paige in 2009. The band have released three studio records—2010 debut, Out of the Pit; a 2012 self-titled LP; and 2014’s High Priestess—as well as the 2015 Words of the Prophets EP, and have survived numerous lineup changes. Now, Kobra And The Lotus are poised to drop the first installment of their new double-album, Prevail I—which explores themes of universal human struggle and oneness—on May 12 via Napalm Records. Prevail II will follow shortly after.
Are there any personal experiences with mental health issues you’d like to share?
I have grown up experiencing and witnessing quite a profound mental health struggle for two of my family members. One person directly impacted my childhood, and the other person is still directly impacting my present life in a very big way. When a person you love struggles with mental health, it is not only the person suffering that becomes affected, it is an internal pain that the whole family carries and experiences in their own way.
How does your mental health status interact with or inform the way you make music?
Last year, my band wrote two new albums in amongst a very large amount of terrifying chaos inside my family system. It felt as though we were watching an incredibly special person slipping away and quickly losing the will to live. They fought so hard and long against their mental challenges without any progress. Eventually, this person forgot their beauty… their talents… their purpose. All that remained was an identity with the illness and no concept of who they were anymore. There was a point where my family and I were grieving so deeply, the whole family seemed to fall apart. This person was alive, but no longer living a life. No one knew how to support each other, and I could not recognize this person anymore.
I felt it was my responsibility to carry forward a message within my music for people needing support while going through a crisis either themselves or with someone else. My experience has directly impacted the music I’m a part of, and I hope it will help other people feel like they aren’t as alone while going through their own experiences.
What are some mechanisms you’ve developed and/or discovered that help you cope?
The best tools that I could personally offer are all regarding our own state of mental well-being. “What do I need?” becomes a critical question for everyone to consider—the mentally ill and those trying to support that person.
I try to have a “curious” mindset instead of a judgmental one—yes, it’s tough, but we must try—when experiencing behavior I don’t know how to relate to. I try to take a step back, understand, listen, and then think before acting. What was the mental illness talking? What was manipulation or victimization talking? Or, what was them talking? It can be hard to decipher, but we must forgive ourselves for not knowing how to cope all the time. I learned to acknowledge that people have different coping mechanisms, and it is up to me to learn how to support myself as best I can. Actually, I am the only person I can control. Sometimes, everyone will break down at the same time and you need to be there for yourself to lean on.
A strategy called “mindfulness” has been particularly helpful. I allowed myself to take a careful step back to see what this person was capable of doing on their own, so I could be aware of any dysfunctional codependent habits taking place. It’s very critical to not diminish a person’s sense of independence and value if you do everything for them all the time or accidentally invade their space by thinking you are “helping” them. Ask them what they need. I set firm but kind boundaries so as to protect myself and the other person from lashing out in emotional ways. Never stop working on figuring out how to forgive, for yourself and for others.
Sometimes, being close to someone that has been affected by mental illness can come with a massive amount of guilt and shame. I only can speak for myself, but it has been hard for me to accept why I was dealt such a different deck of cards from this affected person. People don’t choose to have mental illness, and when you see their whole life turned upside down, it seems unjustified, cruel, and unfair. Try to remember that you have nothing to be ashamed of and the best way to honor that person is by living your life as fully as you can.
Are there ways you think the music world could better accommodate and/or include those living with mental illness?
Absolutely. Music is the most powerful language of the world because everyone understands it. That is why I believe we have to be so thoughtful about the intention behind it. By exposing our vulnerabilities through sharing stories or being honest and clear within a message, we sew the human net even tighter. We prove our relatability in an undeniable way. Through relatability, there is intrinsic support. We can perhaps realize that we aren’t completely alone within the battle, and I really do believe that feeling alone or misunderstood is half the battle for us humans.
Over 80 percent of people affected by mental illness will never be diagnosed or receive treatment, and one in four people will be affected by some degree of mental illness during their lifetime. This is very sad, and we must do what we can to help. We are chemical beings, and that is a dangerously creative and ironic thing. We need to be there for each other in the ways we can. I can only hold two hands, but a song can hold a thousand.