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Music & Songwriting Psychology.

The dangers of creative thought, The tragedies of Grunge & Canaries of Society.

‘Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.’

- Pablo Picasso.

I am an artist. An artist who uses words and song as my canvas and musical instruments as my paints. I create stories in song and now add motion photography to my pallet in order to better shade the stories of everyday heroes which I hope tells you the story of you. I am fascinated by the mind of the creative and the effect of art on the minds and souls of its listeners and viewers. I wish to keep creating, keep learning and keep sharing what I create and what I learn so that I can inspire and help anyone to embark on an artistic journey of their own.

I am now fully focused on how I aim make this all happen. Firstly, I must further legitimise my own artistic credentials by creating a portfolio of artistic works of my own. Meanwhile I must gain the academic understanding of the mind through study and stitch the art and the academia together with all of the things I happen to be good at into a huge comforting blanket. Then, I want to wrap that blanket around anyone in need so that they may go forth in life not as a mere survivor of someone else’s story, but as a creator their own.

In what I hope will become a series of blogs, I want to try and make you to see this blanket and how it is being weaved. There are personal things in these writings, but honesty is one of the main threads in the stitching. Honesty is the gateway to understanding, without it, everything that you want to know about yourself will remain unknown.

Brain Terrain

Before I began my official academic study of Psychology I had written a blog called ‘The Magic Mind of an Artist,’ Here I spoke about the fascinating neurology of the artists brain. It was simple snap shot of the inner workings of an artists mind but it was enough to establish that creative people are ‘wired’ slightly differently. It makes sense, if you are an artist worth any salt, it is imperative that you see the world differently and therefore have divergent thinking capapbilities, otherwise you are just replicating. It is unclear wether the physiological differences in the brain of an artist are developed through a lifetime of alternative thought or wether they have the desired ‘brain terrain’ to be more creative in the first instance? It’s the age old ‘Nature v Nurture debate which is constantly referred back to in psychological research. My take is that we have a nature, and this nature is nurtured positively, negatively or not nurtured at all. I would go even further and say that I believe there are three distinct ‘meta nature types’ which is the premise for my ‘Triple A theory’ where I argue that humans are either Artistic, Athletic, or Academic in their over arching nature. I will elaborate more on that at some point in a future blog, but for now I want to focus on the Artist.

Artists live in a world where the imagination is oxygen and the ideas are food and drink. Without imagination, the artist suffocates, without the ideas the artists starves. It is because of this that the artist can be so troubled mentally. I read somewhere that ‘artists are either being creative or they are being miserable.’ Which I know to be true for myself and its not difficult to see why this is this case. Consider the depth of thought that is required to come up with an original piece of meaningful art, then consider the imagination and skill one must have to bring that to life. Now consider that the mind is not split, it thinks the way it thinks with everything. That is to say that depth of thought and heightened imagination are used when dealing with ALL thoughts and not just artistic ones. This includes thoughts on relationships, experiences, emotions and behaviours. In short, there is Anxiety, then there is Artist’s Anxiety, there is depression and then there is Artists Depression. Because of the depth and vigour that the artist puts in to every thought within their heads, they are more susceptible to not only over thinking scenarios but also over imagining the likely outcomes. Used positively the artist can funnel all of this into their work by coming up with new innovative ways of expressing new and innovative ideas. They may also visualise the likely outcome of being successful by vividly imagining what that success may look like and using that visualisation to drive forward their ambitions and goals. On the other hand when the angle tilts toward the negative the outcomes can be catastrophic. When an artist who has had trauma in their lives; abuse, abandonment, neglect, parental separations, loss of loved ones, failed relationships and so on, you can start to see why processes the average mind goes through to deal with this pain are exacerbated by that same over active imagination and proclivity to deeply internalise thoughts.

My own particular area of interest is the songwriter. The artist who uses music to transport himself into his subconscious, find the treasured ideas and express emotions that lie repressed within. Using music and writing to express repressed emotions is called catharsis and this is an area which fascinates me. As a youngster I grew up loving music and wanting to create music, as a young man I started to do just that in my first band and as an adult I have continued to do so. I have written hundreds of songs over my years of creating and in doing so have made the round trip in and out of my sub conscious enough times to know that the terrain is fraught with dangers as much as it is lined with gold. The best songs extracted are coated in emotions both good and bad, often they are contaminated with memories, both good and bad, and can make a listener feel good about feeling bad. At least that is the aim. There is load to bare in being a songwriter that not many songwriters them selves understand well enough. If the mind that houses that subconscious is tortured then the journey in to that well of emotion will be treacherous every time, unless they are prepared. Unfortunately not enough of songwriters are.

One step to winning the battle with repressed emotion and memory is writing in the knowledge that your creation is intentionally cathartic. That is to say that you know exactly why you are writing the song, which emotions and memories have been engaged and what each one means to you. The memory and the emotion are no longer repressed. You can take them out, look under them, around them, inside them objectively. Not only have they been exposed, but they have been used by you, for you and turned in to a piece of art (a song) which empowers you and has the potential to empower many other people. This is far safer, and far more powerful than allowing the issues to sit and fester in the dark corners of the sub conscious while the emotions they secrete attache themselves to you every time you unwittingly play that song. Not knowingly tackling your issues with your songs means you are exposing yourself to the emotion without conscious discharge.

The joy of writing a new songs and playing it often overshadows the pain that was experienced in searching for the lyrics, the melody and the feeling behind it. It makes the creator want to go back again and again to that same source and keep tapping the well. This is good, this is what you should do, but the consequences of drinking from a well contaminated with pain is that the individual becomes poisoned soon after. There are so many examples of this exact thing.

In the music industry, it is a staggering fact that ALL of the money is made by 0.1% of the population of songwriters or musicians in the world. Deciding to become a songwriter for a living is a high risk, high reward strategy in that it is an extremely rare individual who is able to monetise their passion in most fields and songwriting and music is one of most unforgiving. Consider the tiny amount of people who are famous for their music then notice how many of them per head are symptomatic of mental health issues like depression and subsequent addictions of many kinds. It is a very concentrated group of the population that can write songs and even more concentrated number that can find fame and fortune in it so why is adverse mental health so common in that group of minds?

Grunge Gods

It is the curious case of the ‘Grunge God’ that first alerted me to this phenomena. Grunge music was a genre of Rock music which spawned out of Seattle in the late eighties and conquered the world in the early nineties. The subculture propelled several Seattle based bands to the dizzying heights of fame and fortune and inspired youngsters in every corner of the globe to pick up the guitar. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice N’ Chains and Pearl Jam lead the charge and arguably became the most successful of the scene earning ‘Rock God’ status in doing so. Their frontmen wrote some of the most powerful songs of a generation connecting with a disenfranchised youth, determined to rebel against their parents, their schools and the growing MTV culture which had begun to surround them. Each man possessed unrivalled vocal ability. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, Layne Stayley of Alice in Chains and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam had some of the most distinctive voices in the business singing with equal parts anguish, anger and vulnerability. With the exception of Eddie Vedder, all of these Grunge Gods hailed from Washington State and within a hundred miles of Seattle but there is a darker element which connects Cobain, Cornell and Staley.

On April 8th 1994 an unsuspecting electrcian found the body of Kurt Cobain laying on his kitchen floor with a shotgun and a suicide note next to him. Three days prior, Kurt had taken his own life after a lifelong struggle with drug addiction and depression. He was 27.

Exactly 8 years later to the day, on April 5th 2002, Layne Stayley fatally overdosed on a ‘speedball’ of Cocaine and Heroin. His body was found at his home two weeks later in a semi decomposed state. This ended a life long battle with depression and drug addiction which included a two year period of self imposed isolation from all of those he knew. He was 34.

Then on May 18th 2017, Chris Cornell was found on the floor of his hotel bathroom with an exercise band around his throat and blood in his mouth. He was pronounced dead at the scene with the cause of death, suicide by hanging. Cornell publicly spoke of his battles with depression and suicidal thoughts throughout his life and also battled drug and alcohol addiction for many years. He was 52.

When you survey the wreckage of Grunge you immediately notice its affiliation with addictions to alcohol, heroin and other drugs. The resulting premature deaths scar the legend of this particular set of musicians. The list of other grunge artists who never made it, is uncomfortable reading. Andrew Wood, lead singer of ‘Mother Love Bone’ and ‘Malfunkshun’ lost his life to a drug overdose in 1990 aged just 24. Stefanie Sergeant of Seattle band ‘7 Year Bitch’ choked on her own vomit after an alcohol and heroin binge in 1992 at the age of 24. In 1993, Doug Hopkins, 28 year old Seattle native and guitarist with the ‘Gin Blossoms’ took his own life after a lifetime of alcohol addiction. Kristen Pfaf, bassist with ‘Hole’ died of a drug overdose aged 27 in 1994. Shannon Hoon, vocalist with ‘Blind Melon’ died of a Cocaine overdose in 1995 aged 28. Layne Staley’s Alice in Chains bandmate, bassist, Mike Starr died of a Heroin overdose in 2011 aged 44. Scott Weiland, vocalist of LA based ‘Stone Temple Pilots' lost a life long battle with heroin addiction and depression when he overdosed in 2015.

Of the ‘survivors’ of that scene, most of them openly speak of their past issues with addictions and many still battle those addictions to this day. These souls mentioned above are only the musicians within the permitter of the Grunge scene of the early nineties, when you survey the death and addiction toll of the over arching genre of Rock n’ Roll, the numbers are staggering. In a morbid collection of wikipedia pages entitled ‘Rock n’Roll Deaths’, suicide or death by drug overdose attributes to 199 cases of the 2000 plus deaths recorded, nearly 10%. This does not include the many deaths which are un-noted or those which could be indirectly attributed to drug or alcohol abuse (liver disease or road traffic accidents through drink driving for example). This number is simply from cause of death details which explicitly state, ‘suicide’ or ‘drug overdose’. If diseases and afflictions related to addiction are to be counted the number would be significantly higher.

The reason I focus on these two causes death in particular is because they are emphatically linked to poor mental health. What interests me is the correlation between cathartic musical expression through songwriting and catastrophic outcomes of poor mental health. Why is this genre so affected? Why was this city, Seattle, so effected by drugs and drink? Does the internal pain need to exist for this great art form to exist? Can the art survive without the experience of pain? IS the pain which connected them to millions of people still there? So many questions are to be answered in this area. As I mentioned earlier, many rock stars and musicians have addictions which have had detrimental affects on their lives but have not been fatal, however the addictions and the symptoms of depression still endure.

Sign of the Times?

In coal mining, Canaries were used as an early warning system. They were loud and made a unique sound and song when content then a more uncomfortable sound when distressed. They were brightly coloured which made them more visible in the dull light of a mine, at least until the soot covered them. Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide or asphyxiant gases such as methane in the mine would affect the bird before affecting the miners and so signs of distress from the bird indicated to the miners that conditions were unsafe. The birds were far more sensitive to toxic conditions in the atmosphere than the average miner.

During some of my early research into this subject I have noticed an uncomfortable crossover in cause of deaths in Rock n’ Roll. In the last decade, suicide deaths have overtaken drug deaths for 'rockstars' and those drug deaths have been increasingly due to prescribed drugs rather the traditional ‘recreational’ drugs of heroin or cocaine. The prescription drugs are usually opioids or barbiturates given by doctors to treat depression, anxiety or as pain relief. This ten year trend is extremely alarming and is a huge red flag that suggests the way society is functioning is having a detrimental affect on those most sensitive souls. This is across society in all walks of life but it is the artist who spends most time in the deepest darkest pits of the psyche. Deep they go into themselves and society, mining the emotions of the world, looking for meaning, looking for connection and often finding neither. Perhaps the change in their song is a warning to everyone that things are becoming toxic.

Music and Songwriting Psychology?

My aim is to study the canaries of societies mines. The songwriters and musicians who are deeply attached to the pulse of society and in tune with its atmosphere. I want to answer the many questions around this subject using my intuitive understanding of the artists mind and comprehensive study and research of psychology.

Part of that research is to begin connecting with songwriters and musicians to understand their minds, motives and weaknesses. I want to start working with them in a variety of ways;

  1. To strengthen their mental resilience.

  2. To improve their creative output.

  3. To allow for safe access to the darker realms of the psyche where innovation coexists with pain.

  4. To maximise the potential of the artist.

  5. To improve inter band member relations through team ethics.

  6. And improve focus on goals and targets.

  7. I am also excited to carve out a fascinating niche which looks at the psychoanalysis of song lyrics, looking at reoccurring symbolism within lyrics and psychological sign posts within the lyrics which can help the writer address any underlying issue.

All of these seemingly ‘far out’ ideas are tied together in what I will call Music and Songwriting Psychology which is akin the Sports and Exercise Psychology used for athletes, another specialised type of human being.

So if this interests you the reader, or if you know someone who can benefit from this kind of service. Please do get in touch through and I will happily open up the dialogue that gets you the help and me the experience.

We all have a part to play in making this place better than when we arrived. This is mine, I want to help you find yours.


Sean x

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