Mari Fong is a veteran music journalist and certified Life Coach for musicians. It seemed only natural then that her next step would be to launch a podcast talking to musicians about mental health.
“My first thought about doing something with mental health and musicians was in 2017, when Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park both lost their lives to suicide,” Fong says. “It was that ‘one-two punch’ made me think of all the other musicians who have died from a similar fate, either by unresolved mental health issues or addictions tied to mood disorders like depression or anxiety.”
So, in 2019, Fong launched the CHECK YOUR HEAD podcast, which she hosts and executive produces.
“I’ve also had bad bouts of depression throughout my life and knew about the ongoing pain, and the fear and confusion that went along them,” she says. “After some persistence and detective work on my part, I finally found the solutions that worked for me. It was such a tough struggle that I wanted to do something to help others.”
Fong first become an advocate for mental health and musicians by partnering with a local charity and put on a dance and music benefit, called The Chinatown Get Down, to raise funds and awareness. They ended up selling out the venue.
She struck up a partnership with the nonprofit Sweet Relief Musician Fund and pitched them the idea of a podcast. Fong found a location in Los Angeles, LemonTree Studios, that donated their recording studio and an audio engineer, and the CHECK YOUR HEAD Podcast was born.
As a longtime music journalist, including a stint at Sirius XM, Fong was able to tap into the goodwill she had built over the years with music publicists to find musicians willing to come on her podcast and talk about some pretty personal issues.
“The first notable musician on board was Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo of The Bloody Beetroots, an electronic DJ and musician who often performed with Tim Bergling (aka AVICII), who lost his life in 2018 to a mood disorder and addiction,” Fong says. “Sir Bob was also on a mission to speak out on mental health, so he agreed to being a guest.”
She has since landed Gilby Clarke (Guns ’N’ Roses) to talk about his struggles and addiction. Drummer and comedian Fred Armisen also came on to talk about his years in the punk band Trenchmouth. She has also started featured interviews with top experts in the mental health field who would give listeners an understanding of mood disorders and various solutions to try for recovery. Everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Kevin Lyman has appeared on the podcast.
Admittedly some guests are easier to persuade to talk about these personal matters than others.
“Before the interview, I start with a short conversation about the podcast’s mission, encouraging guests to be open and honest with their story, and to speak from the heart,” she says. “Just like with music, the more vulnerable and honest musicians can be with their lyrics the emotions put in their melodies and singing style, the more the music can connect with fans and provide healing. A guest musician’s ability to open up really depends on their personality, but I do my best to make them feel comfortable and safe.”
The format has changed a bit over the past couple of years, but the essential core of the podcast has stayed the same: one musician’s story with their solutions for recovery, one mental health expert to speak on the topic at hand, and an introduction, transition, and an ending. Occasionally, the featured musician performs a song acoustically to close out the show.
“For now, I feel like we have a good format,” Fong says. “I keep the interviews flexible, but primarily focus on open, honest stories of hope and recovery, told with heart and humor. Starting the podcast, I knew there’d be a learning curve along with tons of mistakes. I’m glad I allowed myself [that], because if I expected perfection or anything close to it, I would have been sadly disappointed.”
The one thing that has not changed is the mission of CHECK YOUR HEAD: to normalize the conversations on mental health, to encourage others to get help, and to provide solutions for recovery. In fact, through the podcast’s website, checkyourheadpodcast.com, 110 organizations, groups, apps, and more are available to assist musicians and listeners in finding the mental help that’s right for them.
“2020 has been a difficult year for so many reasons and 2021 will be another unpredictability and change,” Fong says. “You may be experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions, feelings of anxiety, loneliness, depression, and more, and those are all normal feelings. However, if your emotions start to have a bad effect on your life or relationships, start to look for the causes and resolutions. Listen to your emotions and pay them respect, they are telling you something.”
Images courtesy of Mari Fong.