Music and Mental Health

Blog Header Image: Music And Mental Health

Last night I sat down rather begrudgingly to work on a new version of the studio website. I had been procrastinating over it for a while, but finally I freed up an evening to accumulate recordings from years past to showcase on the new site, accompanied by a suitably clickable image of each artist. As is often the way with things like this, what started out as a laborious chore soon turned into an unexpected pleasure; a meander down an avenue of fond recollections as the various recordings brought forth the times, places and people involved. You know when you go rummaging through dusty old boxes stored in the attic and discover long-forgotten treasures? Old school books, photo albums, trinkets from your childhood; before you know it several hours have gone by and all you’ve achieved is to wedge yourself in amongst those boxes inhaling decades of mildew, and assimilating yourself into the very artefacts you were looking through. That’s one of the things that I love about recording music – it’s not only a project for the here and now, but it also serves as a historical document of a specific time and place, a sense memory shining a light on a long since darkened corner of your life by simply replaying the material that is so intrinsically tied to it. An audio photograph, if you will. I have always kept all of my recordings for this reason.

Towards the end of my evening adventure, with a couple of vacant artist spots still to fill, I dusted off one of the first full length albums I had ever worked on as a bona-fide audio freelancer back in 2011 – a project belonging to Country/Folk/Americana aficionado Matt Wise and his band Society. Matt was one of the clients that kickstarted my misadventures in pro audio back in the 2000s, when I was conscripted into his ongoing Brickhouse recording sessions as the only person around who knew how to hook up a PC to a Tascam DA38, fly the material into a DAW and do some drum editing. Such wizardry still constituted burgeoning technology at the time, but my age ensured that I was helplessly swept along in the current between one form of digital recording and another, and could therefore showcase my magic powers in the direction of bands hampered by the limitations of the old way of doing things.

Not long after we had wrapped up Society’s debut album “Songs From The Brickhouse”, a message one day plopped into my inbox:

Hi James, hope you’re all good mate. Gearing up for recording a new album and would really like you to be involved, would love to work with you again. I’ll phone you anyway, matt

And so it was. For the first time in my life, someone had specifically requested me as the producer for their album, and was willing to pay me for it.

The project took place at the studio in Portslade for the initial tracking sessions, and later at Matt’s flat in Crawley for overdubs and mixing, accompanied by my laptop, a set of small Genelec speakers and whatever microphones I had accumulated at that point. I routinely packed it all Tetris-like into a suitcase, drove over to his place, set up a makeshift studio on his breakfast bar, and recorded/mixed whatever instruments he saw fit to embellish his hooky, alt-country songwriting; harmonica, resonator, lap steel, fiddle, honky tonk piano, three-part harmonies, and of course his prized, heavily customised Gretsch. As a descendant of punk and grunge, my entire frame of reference was constituted mainly of bone-headed distortion, bombastic drums and raspy, screeching vocals. This new world of acoustical elegance was something of a departure for me, but Matt inducted me into it with enthusiasm, collaborative joy, and generous use of his Tchibo coffee machine. Throughout the process, as well as working tirelessly on fashioning his otherwise three-piece songs into full-blown productions, we became genuine pals – him broadening my musical horizons with his encyclopaedic knowledge of rock music history, and me reciprocating with a sympathetic ear in our broad conversations about life, love, art, anxiety, and the struggle that we all face as creatives in a corporate world, all while I clicked away at my laptop, editing and mixing his material into shape, and ploughing my way through copious amounts of his tobacco as I went.

The project unfolded over the course of about 18 months, and through its various trials and tribulations our determination to complete it remained steadfast, with the pair of us growing more brotherly as the months went by. It’s true that I occasionally found Matt to be quite an intense person, clearly someone whose ambitions are underpinned by not insignificant inner struggles – sometimes explicit, sometimes not – but our collaboration nevertheless gave us a common focus for our artistic compulsions, and fostered a genuine bond born of a shared creative goal: to get this bloody thing done. He was a fantastic musician, and I sympathised deeply with his desire to see this project through, regardless of how absurd it may seem to most “normal” people. Never mind them. This was important.

After we finally finished the album we parted ways, each to take care of our respective avenues of creative expression; Matt with his band, armed with their new album, and me with my studio in Brighton. Our interactions over the years since were limited to occasional emails back and forth about the possibility of further collaboration, or exploration of unfinished material that never found its way onto the album, but nothing ever came of it. In the intervening time I occasionally wondered how he was doing.

In what I am astonished to discover was as far back as 2016, Matt and I had the following brief exchange over social media:

Matt Wise
Hey James, How are ya? I hope you’re well. I’ve been down in the trenches of life fighting a war. Everything went on hold or more to the point went to shit for some time. So sorry I’ve not replied to you, I was in a bad place for a while and nearly lost who I was. Me and the chaps are cranking up the machine again….

James Gasson
Hey Matt! So nice to hear from you, man. I had often wondered what is going on. It all went quiet for a while there. No need to apologise, whatsoever. Things go to shit from time to time – that’s life. I can totally relate. I hope things are looking a little brighter now anyway. A message from you is welcome any time mate, whether it’s about band stuff or not. I’ve always enjoyed working with you and consider you both an inspirational musician and a thoroughly decent bloke, and our relationship has always – in those long hours of vocal editing and guitar overdubbing – transcended a mere “working relationship”, as we laughed and cried and confided about the stresses of life, love and music, and all the emotional highs and lows in between. This is one of the many ways that music connects people – those bits of life that happen in between the songs which are exorcised in the catharsis of the music making process, and that is one of the reasons I really enjoy what I do. It’s as much about the bonds of human empathy that are built off the back of a common interest in music, as about connecting over a good riff or an awesome drum beat. So don’t you fret about going off the map for a while, mate. I understand how life works and know only too well that that is a part of it. Just know that, if you end up dropping me a line whenever you feel it’s a good time for you to do that, it will always be met with a smile. Cheers man. And take care of yourself.

Matt Wise
Thanks so much for that message James, it really means a lot. I will be in touch very shortly.

James Gasson
Don’t sweat it.

Last night I learned that Matt committed suicide.

Apparently it happened 10 months ago. I had no idea.

Today I felt compelled to write this.

This is the second suicide of a sensitive, creative friend that I have seen in as many years.

The question then begs; What’s going on with creativity and mental health? Why are we such an anxious bunch? Why do we find life so difficult? You’re on this website. You’re reading this. You know what I’m talking about.

Being a creative person – an artist – is a difficult lot to contend with. We are compelled to create, yet we don’t know why. There is an itch that begs to be scratched, and to not do so is to live a life of unfulfilled, withering misery, even when the alternative for many appears to be a state of perpetual anxiety. We are not born entrepreneurs, we’re no good at business, we don’t know how to promote ourselves and we struggle mightily to strike the uncompromising balance between supporting ourselves financially and fulfilling our creative obsessions; irrational, inscrutable, profound and beautiful obsessions. We feel lost, like life was designed for everyone else but not for us, perplexed by “normal” people and their “normal” lives of 8-hour work days in the tedium of some office that we couldn’t even begin to give a shit about, leaving just enough time to eat, shower, sleep and start the process all over again. We feel resentful that we should conform to that standard, and guilty that we don’t. We imagine that there must be something wrong with us, and so we go to therapy and take prescribed medication to fix our broken brains and fit in to a world that seems so hostile to our desires.

It’s hard. I get it. It’s really hard.

For us, our imaginations bustle with ideas, things we want to build, music we want to record, blogs we want to write, clothes we want to make, art we want to create, videos we want to edit… it never ends, and it will never end. We need it like we need air. Without it, we can’t live.

Of course – to park my space ship back on planet Earth for a moment – that’s not to say that the scale and rationale for certain projects should not be subject to scrutiny when balanced against life’s myriad other priorities, because a desire to realise a certain creative goal must necessarily be constrained by what is actually possible without upending everything else in your life, if only to procure an otherwise healthy existence. I have seen many projects run on for far too long, the misplaced desire for “perfection” being itself a mental health trap that often leads nowhere other than a cascade of dissatisfaction. Poor old Matt himself fell too readily down this particular rabbit hole, unable to let go of his idealised conception of the perfect album; “it must have 12 songs, not 10, even if I need to force myself through torture and tears, with no money and bills piling up, to write another 2”. But regardless, the endeavour in its own right, for its own sake, is one that I have absolute sympathy and respect for. It is wonderfully irrational.

And so what do we do? “Why don’t you just get a job?”, you might say. For the most hardened creatives out there, this is not a good solution. Scarcely good “team players” at the best of times, a year in and they’ll just be signed off sick. Sick of the tedium, sick of the monotony, until eventually any pretence to care about that job or the inane bureaucracy that underpins it caves under the pressure of the desire to work on something more interesting and meaningful. Instead the only acceptable path forward seems to be to commodify your art or your creative skill to the best extent that you can, in order that you can force it to align with the capitalist structure that dictates everything about how our society operates. Talk about square pegs in round holes. And this strategy clearly carries with it obvious pitfalls, not least the potential calamity of creating an interdependence between your art and your income. What happens when your passion becomes your burden? Let’s ask Kurt Cobain how that one pans out. Besides, that’s even if you’re lucky enough to figure out how to make good, consistent money from your art anyway. Great perhaps if your passion is for designing buildings. Less so if your passion is for making music. And then there’s the question of how to successfully run the whole thing as a sustainable business, particularly since, in another cruel twist of irony, creatives like us tend to be introverted, lacking self-confidence, and prone to closing the door on the world while we sit inside obsessing over the sanctity of our obsessions. I mean, that’s one of the biggest reasons we do what we do anyway, isn’t it? So we don’t have to talk to anyone…

I wish I had good answers here. I’ve tried to find my own ways of solving these problems, with varying degrees of success. All I know for sure is that there are many of us who shoulder this burden, and I can assure you that we all feel as naked, exposed and lost as each other, despite the distorted portrayals we enviously peer at through our social media screens. Don’t believe the hype. We are all fragile, and we are all trying to figure out how any of this bullshit is supposed to work. Through that common cause, let us be not alone, but let us fight the fight together. We, the creatives.

Matt Wise and Society
Matt Wise 1968-2021

Share this article:

James Gasson
I am James Gasson, music warrior. With my mighty skills of imperfect objectivity and excellent tea making, I am on a mission to encourage critical thinking whilst trying to avoid tripping over stuff. Fancy chatting about audio, drum recording, life, the universe, and/or everything? Drop me a line!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Replacing you drummer with a llama

Download our free ebook

Subscribe to our newsletter to claim your free copy of this essential guide, and solve your drummer woes once and for all!

Download our free ebook

Replacing you drummer with a llama

Subscribe to our newsletter to claim your free copy of this essential guide, and solve your drummer woes once and for all!