There’s a rather large chance you have no idea who I am, and that is to be completely expected.
My name is Peter, I am a 32 year old musician/producer/etc, and I live in London, UK. My bandmate, Kerry, and I were asked by For The Record to write a piece for their audience and we both chose the, at times elusive, at times blindingly obvious, correlation between my ‘art’ and my ‘mental health’. Here I will write from my own personal experience, so am largely referencing that heavy cloud which we label with ‘depression’. So, even though you may have never heard the music that I have written or worked on before, I hope we can find some common ground in these open fields; there are a hell of a lot of us improvising our way through them. We may appreciate a kindred hand to hold as we clamber down the path, and if there is someone reading who has an emotional thirst quenched, then I will be a very happy boy.
I feel I should clarify here that I am in no way psychologically trained, and not clever enough to find, or provide, any real answers. But that is fine - we are not against the clock, there is no finish line, there is no ticker-tape at the end for us to slam home through. What I do have is my own experience - and that is what I want to share with you.
You see how easily I described myself as ‘happy’ above? I find it interesting how natural it is to label ourselves with an emotion, but how difficult it can be (especially for males, I’m sorry to say) to talk about them with authenticity and depth. One of the best things about emotions, or emoting, are the layers, and the depth that we want to dive and swim through them. My closest friends occupy both opposing ends of that spectrum, and I find them all equally wonderful, lovable people.
One of them said something to me a few months ago which tore a deep (metaphorical) hole through the (metaphorical) fabric of my (metaphorical) mind. Let’s call her T, one of the most pure of heart, intelligent and talented individuals that I am lucky enough to know. Well, T was listening to me talk, probably fairly aimlessly, about love. She asked innocuously if I’d been writing any new music, I said yes, and she then asked, less innocuously, if I seek out emotional pain to fuel writing music.
Do I, Peter, the 32 year old musician from London, UK, seek out emotional pain to fuel writing music? The thought hung over me softly like a speech bubble in a cartoon. Fast forward a few months and I was talking to another close friend, M (pure of heart, intelligent, talented, lucky enough to know) and she gave another idea: I am primarily an artistically minded person, which then naturally makes me more open to experiencing and exploring emotional pain. Both of these conversations came from the same core: the parallel interconnectedness of feeling emotions, climbing up the diving board, and being creative with them.
I started to write these words to ask what comes first: the emotion, or the music. But the more I asked, the less I cared, and I found it was much more important to know that it just happens. For me, it started to happen when I was about 11 years old. I am so fortunate to have received all the care, resources and love that I have done in my life, but something within me started to shift around that age. My parents had divorced four years earlier, and when I was seven I began to resonate extremely deeply with the music that was around me (the pop and soul music in my Mum’s kitchen, the jazz in my Dad’s car, the guitar bands in my brother’s bedroom, the 19th century classical music that my sister danced to onstage). I’d been a quiet child, and I now realise that music didn’t just speak to me; it spoke for me (the irony of this is that my brother and sister, both older, literally spoke for me until I started school at four). For my eighth birthday, my family bought me a Yamaha PSR320 keyboard, and I fell in love. Two months ago I found a pad of paper in my childhood bedroom from around this time, with three musical noodlings sketched out. The first is a hilarious thing called ‘Jungle Ocean’, which is notated to start with the Yamaha PSR320’s safari sound effects (literal…) and to end with the sound of seagulls (LITERAL!), and was most likely written with the kind of blissful unawareness that a lot of eight year-olds have.
From the age of 11 to 17 I was verbally abused and socially outcasted pretty much daily by others in my school, both peers and professionals. Physical abuse, though much rarer, could be brutal and the very worst put me in hospital, after a group of fifteen young men knocked me unconscious in the unassuming broad daylight of a city park - without reason. This was balanced by two very loving households - but it is absolutely no coincidence that in tandem within these ages, with the aid of my family, I started playing the piano and guitar semi-religiously; writing songs explicitly expressing what I was feeling (though I didn’t necessarily set out to do that); recording music on a Tascam 4-track tape machine; teaching myself computer recording/editing; and venturing tentatively into ‘performing’ live. Deconstructing this now, I realise that I was unable to speak to anyone directly about personal issues; so, again, music spoke those things for me.
Those ages are typically incredibly tough for most - there are so many biological, physiological and sociological factors. By this time I had about two cassette tapes worth (45 minutes per side, times two, equals 180 minutes) of music I had written, and probably even more in a band I was in with my friend Michael at the time. For a 17 year old, that’s a lot of expressing. As a 17-24 year old I wrote three albums worth of music (120 minutes or so), as well as a BA degree’s worth of classical composition, drawing on a lot of unprocessed feelings from the years before. I guess from 25 until now, the rate at which I write music has slowed, as I find myself writing more music for other people professionally. However, I am not writing to tell you how much music I have written in my life - but why I did, and why it helped.
“Brian was an artist; he wanted to explore his madness, that it might free him from it.”
This is one of my favourite quotes ever. It is from Van Dyke Parks, who co-wrote briefly with the Beach Boys in the mid-1960’s, and in it he describes not just Brian Wilson’s mental struggle during that period, but also the need to use his inherent musical creativity to learn about himself. Or, even, the faith that using his creativity will allow him to work through his mental struggle; to exercise those areas of the brain and join some neural dots that might not have done otherwise.
Without having done any level of professional psychological research (!), this is exactly why I think that writing music, or words, or helping someone else musically, or just singing or playing an instrument, can help me in ways that other things can’t (not to say it is better, just different). If I feel sadness, anxiety, panic or stress, the instinct in my brain is to sit at a piano, or pick up a guitar, or to sing. This allows me a real, tangible opportunity to explore those feelings with the type of sensory input that I associate most strongly with emotions: sound. I don’t necessarily think I was born with an innate ability to associate sound with emotions; but through various experiences over the progression of years, those associations must have just started to join in my brain, and it became a very important tool for me. For other people, it might be meditation, or dance, or marathon running, or repairing antique furniture - and when I meet people with their talents and unique language of self-understanding and self-work, I feel there is a distinct yet unspoken affinity between us: we ourselves have an answer unique to us that no one else does.
The idea of different ways of expressing yourself is an important one here. About 18 months ago I started psychodynamic therapy, as I had been growing more fascinated and eager to try and learn why X might equal Y in my thought and behavioural patterns. The honest truth is that I had been thinking of starting for a very long time, but there was a particular (and extremely unfounded) nagging thought that made me stop: would seeing a mental health professional take away the magical secret emotional sauce of writing music? Would talking to someone about my emotional struggle take away the musical instinct of working through it? To say something like that now seems, unfortunately, absurd. If anything, therapy has only exponentially opened more doors for self-exploration and given even more (for want of a much better word) material to use as a creative springboard.
So, to come back to T’s question from earlier: Do I, Peter, the 32 year old musician from London, UK, seek out emotional pain to fuel writing music? While writing these words, I feel I’ve learnt that it is not as simple or well defined as that. The shape of the relationship between mental health and creativity, to me, seems less of an A equals B which results in C type formula, but more like a circle with no real beginning or end, and no absolute cause and absolute effect. To me, it is a lot more chaotic, random and unknowing. But even that is a comforting thought: bringing more peace to our minds through the chaos of the creative process.
For the record, I believe there is a strong correlation between art and mental health.
I'm lucky to know some incredibly talented and creative people: musicians, artists, illustrators, animators, directors, writers, producers and actors and a common thread I've observed throughout us all is that we feel deeply. Not necessarily deeper than anyone else, but perhaps we give ourselves over to our emotions in a way which fuels our creativity; emotions and mental states ranging from the most painful dark corners of the mind to the heights of joy and pleasure can be a conduit for creativity.
It never made sense to me when people said things like ‘music saved my life’ or ‘music is my life’ but now, looking back, I can relate. I was a very worried and compulsive child, which, in my adolescence developed into anxiety and depression. Music became a form of escapism and also a language to decipher what was happening in my head and why I felt the way I did. It had a soothing effect on me and slowed down the constant whir and repetitive cycle of destructive thoughts; which in turn gave me a better quality of life and more importantly, gave it meaning when I was at my lowest ebb. Music is something that I found through necessity as opposed to having been born of wanting or craving fame or success, and the desire to make it my career came at a much later stage.
I want to be careful not to romanticize the ‘tortured artist’ narrative. It is a careless cliche and not something that I feel an affinity with. I don't deal with my emotions in the same way that I used to. I’ve slowly learned to acknowledge, understand and to manage my mental health. I talk to people, I’ve sought therapy and I also have a partner who is very open and understanding. I'm not the same teenager who thought they only had music as a means to cope.
In recent years I’ve discovered that both music and meditation have a similar, soothing effect on me. You have to work hard at each of them to be able to achieve the desired result, which for me is space and stillness in my mind, because, when I'm at my worst my head feels like a prison.
I feel trapped, panicked and helpless in my own thoughts. I have the cortisol stings of fight or flight churn in my stomach but there is nowhere to go... and that's where music comes in.
Music is a place to go when I feel like I can't escape.
About Peter & Kerry
Following on from their softly released comeback single Cold Hugs last September, which was Record of the Day and hailed as “a beautiful track that warms the soul and lights a fire in our hearts” by indie music bible Earmilk, Peter and Kerry are back again in February 2019 with second new single They Know God (But I Know You), a gentle, piano-led ballad about the strength both given and received in close relationships.
The duo have previously toured with Lianne La Havas, Lucy Rose and Laura Mvula, having radio play on BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 2, BBC 6Music and XFM; TV coverage on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch & Freshly Squeezed; amassing 12 million organic Spotify listeners; winning the hearts of taste-makers such as Clash, the Guardian, The Line of Best Fit, the Quietus and others; modelling partnerships with Adidas and Burberry; and releasing their debut album with Believe.