Written by Rev. T.J. McGlinchey, MFA, MAE
For Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ve interviewed local songwriters and musical artists from around the country to get their perspective on how their mental health affects their songwriting/composing and/or vice-versa.
I asked them how the pandemic has affected their overall mental health and what they’ve been doing to cope or to seek treatment. They were also asked to share a song related to their struggles with mental health. As you could imagine, their answers were varied, and illustrate the many challenges of caring for one’s self mentally and emotionally.
I solicited a few of my Facebook friends and managed to showcase a fairly good cross-section of artists from the Great Northeast. This was to get the perspective of a songwriter taking care of their mental health during the pandemic.
We spoke to six artists including Margie Halloran, (composer/vocalist, Vermont College of Fine Arts), Miles Gannett (singer-songwriter, Baltimore), Annette Willimas McCann (singer-songwriter, Philadelphia), Andrew Mars (songwriter, Philadelphia), Vanessa Littrell (composer/vocalist, Vermont College of Fine Arts), Kat Hamilton (singer-songwriter, Los Angeles), and Valentina Raffaelli (songwriter/vocalist, Philadelphia).
Of course, ‘yours truly’ will provide some of my own insight as well.
The point here is to shed light on mental health care and treatment among the songwriting community, but my hope is to also reach others who may be struggling. I want you to know that it’s not uncommon. I want you to know the struggle can be shared, you don’t have to do this alone. I want you to know that there is hope and life doesn’t have to feel this way.
Most of all, I want you to hear the music that helped others to get through whatever challenging moment they needed help getting through and how they used music to guide and console them. I truly believe that music is our original native language and that it is universal.
I hope you find one word, one sentence, one sentiment, one note, one chord, one melody that rings true for you and that maybe one of these songs plucks a heartstring and stays with you long after you’ve finished reading and listening.
“How To Be Sad” started out as a collection of sporadic thoughts in a note on my iPhone, and it began to form into a lyrical collection of the hopelessness I’ve felt as my world has stood still while the world spins madly on.
Throughout the past 400+ days, I have noticed increasingly visible signs of aging in myself, which have been a devastating reminder that time is still passing while I am unable to continue my daily life (for example, my primary career as a choral composer/singer has been completely dead in the water due to choral singing being such a high-risk activity).
The process of formatting these ideas into lyrics was a process that allowed some clarity into how I’ve been feeling and why. The process of writing and producing the EP, including the song, was one of the very few musical projects I’d had the opportunity to work on during this time, so it was cathartic in that way, as well.
This project was the first musical project I’d really worked on in almost six months, and one of only three throughout the entire pandemic thus far, so it was meaningful for me to be able to write about the experience.
“Screw Loose” is a song from my new album, Meridian, which just came out in April. It’s basically a funny song about a mental breakdown facilitating a kind of mystical/psychedelic experience. I’ve never felt like I was quite all put together, which can make it difficult to deal with society, but the premise of the song is that having a few loose screws can be a blessing; creating an opening in your consciousness for love, creativity, joy, and humor.
Even though the song deals with mental and emotional struggles in a playful way, I am definitely writing about my own experiences with “falling apart inside,” and it makes me feel better when I sing it or listen to it. I hope others who can relate to feeling “not-all-together” will laugh and feel seen when they hear it.
Annette Williams McCann
One blessing that has come from my journey has been learning to let things flow better rather than force the outcome of something, or even force how I ‘think I should feel’ about something.
“Light of Mine” came to me after a particularly needed meditation. It proved, yet again, how the creative process can be so healing. I can only pray that if it’s healing for me to write and sing it, it will be healing for others to hear it. I had a conversation years ago with an old bandmate. He argued how easy it was to write a sad song and that those sad songs were always written better than uplifting songs. I disagreed. That conversation has stayed in my head every time I pick up my guitar or mandolin. It’s okay to write an uplifting song. That’s why the album I wrote during the pandemic was nicknamed, The Love – EP, until it found its title.
After my psych ward experience, I recorded an album that I’d started writing as a teenager. [My album] DREAMER fell into place, at a time when I was learning self-love and healing as a result of opening up about my inner world.
“Samsara” is a song that I wrote for my best friend and also one of the first songs I’d ever written. While I was recording the album 20 years after starting to write it, my best friend developed rapid onset schizophrenia that was like a wildfire in her mind. She endured several hospitalizations and a lot of judgment from her family. Sadly, two weeks after taking herself off her lithium, she took her own life. This coincided with the release of my album in a way that I couldn’t have predicted or planned for. The best that I can understand about her experience through science is that she may have been having frontal lobe seizures which caused her ecstatic states.
I also feel that in her deep and earnest quest for enlightenment, she had achieved an ability to see through time in a way that splintered her physical mind. I still feel her often and I am still grieving. Losing her has amplified my quest to heal myself and be of service to the world by bringing my insights through my music.
“Shackles” is a song from my collaboration with my son. Our duo, Sugar Addikt, released an EP three months before he died. The hardest part of all this is that I wrote this song as a cathartic rant. It was my way of saying – ‘hey, you’re hurting yourself and me. Can’t you just get it together?’
Famous words were spoken by a person who just doesn’t understand depression. The irony here is that my cathartic rant is now a reminder that the struggle is real, the shackles are real. And sometimes hope isn’t enough. I love this collaboration we created. But, I also wish it could have helped him survive.
My song, “Medicine Line,” comes to mind. I wrote it while I was in a relational recovery center in California and finally focusing solely on my mental health and personal trauma. When I get messages from people who have been through similar experiences, I feel a little lighter. Getting a message from someone who’s starting their sobriety journey is the most fulfilling to me. I always think about the lyric in the 2nd verse “almost normal, in our shatter. As I try to remember this is how a mosaic starts.” This lyric always reminds me that there is beauty in brokenness.
In 2019, I wrote an entire album about getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship and finding oneself again after being lost for so many years (Bring On The Fire), but today I wanted to share a little bit about “Sad Song.”
“Sad Song” was written and released during the pandemic. It is about breaking away from the repetitive unhealthy patterns that I tend to fall into, which were made more apparent by having to live as a recluse in a very small apartment (“How many times do I have to do it again…” and then later “Countless of hours spent practicing inside these four walls”). Social media contributes to a false sense of “everyone is doing so much better than me,” and creates a cycle of envy (“You make it look easy to live, to smile, to blend in”), making me feel like I’m the only one struggling to find confidence and happiness (“and I try my hardest, I keep feeling tight in my skin”).
I firmly believe it is okay to be sad and embrace our full range of emotions. So while everyone was telling me to cheer up, “I just wanted to sing a sad song.” As I write, I find that putting my problems on paper is always the first step to finding a solution and feeling better. I’m in a much better state of mind now, and I do think it’s because that song is out into the world.
Rev. TJ McGlinchey
I wrote “Call Me” in 2011 when I was living in my first place in South Philly. It was released as part of the debut album from the local folk supergroup, A Fistful of Sugar, in 2013.
I had a roommate who was my best friend and I was playing music somewhere every night whether it was an open mic or a gig. I had the chorus but not verses. I’d play the chorus over and over and think about what it really meant. When I played the chorus at a rehearsal, a bandmate (Meaghan Kyle, No Good Sister, Philadelphia) asked who was calling me and why were they calling and what was I gonna say?
Eventually, I landed on my intention for the song. I was really thinking about my little brother and his struggles with mental health. I won’t share the exact nature of those struggles here, but I wrote the verses to tell him (and really anyone I know) that it’s okay to struggle and it’s normal and that you can reach out and tell me about anything and everything, at any time, no matter what.
If you know someone in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They are available 24 hours a day in English and Spanish at 1-800-273-8255.