In this column 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 failures.
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.
About the Author: James Scott is a music producer and writer based in London, UK. He works with up and coming artists to get them noticed in the industry. Subscribe to his newsletter for a whole bunch of free songwriting and recording resources.