Creative Conversations: Turning Up To 11 With Music and Mental Wellness

There are many people to thank for my following blog post. First, to Sarah Souder-Johnson, for asking me to write about my experience as a therapist who works with performing artists. She is co-founder and Chair of the Board of Directors of Dissonance, a Minnesota non-profit organization that helps support artists through education and resources. And a huge thanks to the two musicians who shared thoughts on their personal journeys throughout the music scene and how mental wellness plays into their lives.

Like many musicians, I live and breathe music. Every morning I wake up with a song in my head. I’m in two different bands myself and I listen to music in my car, in my office, with my clients, and when I DJ weddings (I also own a wedding business on the side). And as the day closes, I’ll usually drift off to sleep with the theme song from Bob Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” gradually fading out inside my mildly ringing eardrums. For me, that’s a very relaxing way to end the day.

As a therapist, I am very curious and often joke that I get paid to ask really dumb or obvious questions. I am curious about how other artists take care of themselves when the world at times seems to be imploding on us. I am curious about how performing artists create when they are “blocked” or are living with crippling self-doubt in their talents and abilities. And I am extremely curious about WHY musicians write and perform music. What is the motivation or drive? Is it external motivation such as fame or money? Is it recognition among peers and family? Or is it an internal drive to create something new to the world - something that would not otherwise exist if not for them putting pen to paper, pick to guitar, lips to mouthpiece?

I am also curious about how musicians and other artists maintain healthy balance within the creative scene and how they are supported by friends, families and collaborators.

The creative life comes with some unique stresses. And there's truth to the stereotypical “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle, which poses obvious challenges to wellness. Indeed, substance use problems are relatively common within the artist community. Co-occurring mental health issues are prevalent as well. Hence my curiosity about how artists can and do stay well.

I’ve learned a lot from resources like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a superb book recommended my own former therapist. I’ve also learned from and been inspired by the stories of people like Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, who, in a recent Rolling Stone article, discussed his struggles with substance use and how he finally was able to reach out for help. Thankfully, more artists are opening up about their efforts to be well.

I recently checked in with two Minnesota musicians – Holly Hansen and Justin Bell – to discuss their perspectives on creativity and wellness. Big thanks to them for their time, energy, honesty and vulnerability.

HOLLY HANSEN

Holly is the former lead singer/songwriter for Zoo Animal and is currently writing and recording as a solo artist. Although Holly and I have never met and I’ve never seen her perform, we struck up a conversation after she posted this question on her Facebook page: “How does an artist not feel guilty?” Her comment stood out to me, and I needed to learn more. You can also listen to her inspiring interview with Andrea Swenson, host of the “OK Show” on 89.3 FM The Current, and watch a documentary about Holly’s history and development as an artist on Pioneer Public Television.

Q: When did you first realize you were a musician?

A: Hmmmmm, I'm not sure. I feel like it all just kind of happened. And yet, I'm still not sure I am one.

Q: What are some healthy ways that you maintain a "work/life" balance?

A: I used to be horrible at this. Now I am super picky about what I agree to do. I also make sure i have at least one whole day every couple of weeks that has nothing scheduled. I need time where I can just float, I've learned that.

Q: How important is it for your music or songs to be "perfect?" I know there is pressure from record labels, fans & band mates to make the music "just right." When do you know when a song or album is complete?

A: I actually struggle to care about perfection. I am a big idea person, so the details can be exhausting to me. I do care about them though, although I often find the best details are things that happened without effort. I like to work in a loose structure and let the details fall where they may.

Q: How do you practice self-care, and is there anything you would change about your routines?

A: I make sure to get enough sleep, eat greens whenever I can, and try to scoop out some meditative time in each day.

Q: What are some of your musical inspirations?

A: Everything always. Music is the way I process everything I experience. Are there certain artists that get you excited about being a musician? Always changing, but at the moment... Aphex Twin, Jenn Wasner, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Curtis Mayfield, Lijadu Sisters, PJ Harvey, Kanye West, William Basinski, Tsegue Mariam Gebru, Angel Olsen, Bill Callahan, 2 Chainz, Nina Simone.

Q: Do you have another job or career? If so, is your employer understanding of your music career and schedule?

A: Yes and very much so.

Q: How important was your formal school education to your current career as a musician?

A: I have a sound art degree, from MCTC (Minneapolis Community and Technical College). It has been very, very helpful. Love that place, it's a great school.

Q: Does your family and/or spouse/partner support you as an artist? If so, what are some of the best ways your loved ones support you?

A: Yes, she is very supportive. Helps me stay calm about money. Doesn't make me feel guilty when I spend money on gear that I find inspiring. Doesn't make me feel guilty when I hide away for hours making weird noises.

Q: Do you ever struggle with songwriting or ever experience "writer's block?" If so, what gets you through to be able to create or write music?

A: Yes. So far in my life, my lyric writing comes in three-month purges; then there is a two- to three-year waiting period. Luckily I feel like there's always enough material to always be making something if I feel like it. What helps? Listening to other music, reading books, experiencing something new, listening to lectures.

Q: Why are you a musician? I hear it's a pretty rough gig!

A: It is. That's why I work a day job.

JUSTIN BELL

Justin is a singer/songwriter and the frontman of j.bell & the Lazy Susan Band. He is currently in the process of releasing a new album, “Underneath A Minnesota Moon.” Full disclosure here … I am in two different bands with Justin, and we share more than 20 years of personal and professional history. It was great to sit down with him and have a lengthy conversation about music and mental wellness.

Q: When did you first realize you were a musician?

A: I started playing violin when I was 4. Not sure if you could call that being a musician … but I knew then that I wanted to make noise on instruments. I played a bunch of instruments as a kid, but everything changed when I got a guitar. My uncle Rick was a guitarist in a band, and the way he talked about playing music was always captivating to me. I love talking to other musicians about music and about instruments and gear.

Q: What are some healthy ways that you maintain a "work/life" balance?

A: I am an anxious person by nature. I always have to have as many irons in the fire as possible. I get very antsy if I sit around too long without doing something. So I’m probably the wrong person to ask this of. Because for me, it’s a matter of having enough things going on to keep me interested moment by moment.

Q: How important is it for your music or songs to be "perfect?" I know there is pressure from record labels, fans & band mates to make the music "just right." When do you know when a song or album is complete?

A: I don’t think they’re ever perfect, and sometimes songs have to age. I have songs that I’ve been playing for 10 years that I am just now figuring out how to play. You can continue to tweak forever if you want to. I like to try and capture the essence of a song, get it out there into the universe and let it become what it’s going to become. That can be frustrating when listening back to older records and thinking, “I wish we would have recorded that the way we perform it now.” Some of that comes from being an independent band with day jobs too. You can’t spend all the time you want to rehearsing/recording/perfecting. You have a finite amount of time, and you have to make it count.

Q: How do you practice self-care, and is there anything you would change about your routines?

A: I suffered most of my life from pretty severe insomnia, and I think that caused a good deal of the other problems I had as a teenager and young adult. I would frequently stay awake for days at a time or sleep only a couple of hours a night. I tried embracing that by working extra overnight jobs or being productive during that time, but it was just a bad scene. Nowadays, I sleep pretty normally and get six or seven hours a night. Because of that, I feel better now than perhaps I ever have. Exercise is the key to that for me. When I exercise regularly, I sleep better, I eat better, I focus better - everything is just better.

Q: What are some of your musical inspirations? Are there certain artists that get you excited about being a musician?

A: I’ve always had a hard time fitting into a genre or style, or describing my music to other people in a meaningful way. So I’m drawn to other artists that have the same kind of deal. My favorite band is Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers. They became my favorite band when I read on one of their album covers, “This ain’t country like Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett ain’t country.” That really spoke to me because I feel like I like that style, but you can’t tell most people that you like country music because you get bombarded with what is called country music now (Modern Country or “Bro Country”), and I really don’t like or relate to that. I also have a lot of Minnesota roots, so Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, the Replacements (and Paul Westerberg’s solo work) and Golden Smog are a big part of where I come from and what I consume. I recently got to meet one of my musical heroes, and he listened to our “$80 Whiskey” album. He said, “There’s a lot of Jayhawks in there. Even the harder rock stuff has Jayhawks flavor.” I said, “I grew up here. I can’t help it.” I’ve also been obsessed with a few bands lately that make me want to keep writing and playing: Shovels & Rope, Dawes, the Old 97s.

Q: Do you have another job or career? If so, is your employer understanding of your music career and schedule?

A: Yes, a few! They don’t really affect each other, but all of that is time management. I’m a firm believer that if you want to do something, you can find a way to do it. I hate when people use phrases like “free time,” or say “I don’t have time for that,” because in my experience, people do what they want to do and are willing to work for. The rest is mostly excuses. Too often, I think people expect things to be placed in front of them in a perfect little package, when most of the time it’s going to take some work, and it’s a matter of priorities and OWNING your priorities. “Oh, I can’t practice 2 hours a day.” Well, you CAN, but you prefer to prioritize other things, and that’s different, and perfectly valid. But don’t talk about it like it’s out of your control.

Q: How important was your formal school education to your current career as a musician?

A: It helps in a few ways. My knowledge and comfort with music theory helps things move faster and makes it easier to communicate with other players and producers. I don’t have the ear that some of the other guys in the band do, so if I had to figure everything out by trial and error, it would take a long time. I know what harmony parts are supposed to be without having to try them out for 20 minutes first. I also can’t stress enough how much my improvisation training and experience helps. There’s a certain amount of “just go with the flow” that the guys in our band have that other bands don’t. We rehearse, but not as much as other bands do, and I credit our jazz & improv background there. Like Tom (Adams – Lazy Susan Band bassist) has said, this band can get to 80 percent of new songs in about two dry runs. Many other bands rehearse over and over and over again to get there. I actually credit my improvisation background with some of my success in other areas of my life too. I am frequently credited with my ability to think on my feet or “wing it” in any situation. I think that comes from studying jazz. You get a lead sheet, a basic structure of a song, and then you just go for it, and what happens … happens. I’m always surprised at how many people aren’t comfortable with that. I do a good amount of public speaking, and often someone will ask, “Did you write out and practice a speech? Do you have your speech memorized?” And I’ll say, “Nah, I’m just going to talk for a while.” That really surprises some people. I don’t need to see everything and have everything worked out to do something or feel comfortable. If I see the basic structure (real life lead sheet), I’m fine jumping in.

Q: What are some of the best ways your loved ones support you?

A: Having a supportive partner is such a crucial thing for someone like me or any artist/musician really. Someone who understands that it is a part of who you are, and a GOOD part of who you are. But logistically too. Someone who gets that this is not a regular hobby or pasttime. It means being gone for stretches of time. It means being distracted for stretches of time. When you are preparing a new album or getting ready for a big show, you need to spend maybe several nights a week focusing on that, especially if you have another job and other responsibilities. I am very lucky in that department, and I have a wife that does support that part of my/our life. I think she understands (and always has) that this is a huge part of the person I am, and without it, I wouldn’t be the person she loves. Also, it’s part of what makes me a good husband and father. That’s certainly not to say it isn’t hard at times, because it is. I’m at an age where people I know are starting to get divorced and, personally, I see some pretty clear patterns. One of those patterns is simply creating a perfect environment for resentment. For example, people who don’t do anything outside of their job and family because they honestly feel like they should prioritize that with ALL of their time and focus - they seem to miss allowing for an outlet or room to grow into a better and more fulfilled person FOR your family. I’ll never be able to say that my loved ones and partner didn’t support me and music. I’ll never be able to say that I didn’t do something that I wanted to do because of my wife. Because she’s always understood that about me. I assume that is probably pretty rare and that most musicians and artists don’t have that. I try not to take it for granted, but I’m sure I do from time to time.

Q: I know you had some "writer's block." What got you through and got you "unstuck" to be able to create your new album?

A: That was brutal for me. I went almost seven years without writing something I liked. It was a dark time, and I didn’t feel like me. I tried forcing it, and the result was some of the worst musical ideas anyone has ever heard. There are probably several factors that contributed to the end of the dry spell, but I really think about two primary things that snapped me out of it:

1) I started playing with $2 Bill Turner (organ & piano player in the Lazy Susan Band). He and I started playing duo shows, and he was sort of new to playing in bands. He was excited about everything and wasn’t jaded like the rest of us about everything related to performing. Playing with him got me excited about gigging again and really made me want to write new material. Plus, the Hammond B3 organ is my favorite instrument and having someone who wants to be in your band that can play it was a good motivator to do something. 2) Simple, but powerful jealousy. During my dry spell, I had worked on becoming a better producer and engineer, and built a home studio. My good friend and songwriter Sarah VanValkenburg let me produce her first album when neither of us knew what we were doing. By the time I had talked her into letting me produce her second album, I had become a significantly better producer, and she had become a significantly better writer and performer. We started getting really great sounds, and her record was sounding fantastic. Although I was at the time, and am still now, very proud of that record (Guitar Picks & Bottle Caps), I was insanely jealous. If we could make her songs sound this good, why can’t I be making MY songs sound this good? I was thinking about Sarah growing as a writer and player, getting better and better. And I couldn’t help but think that, at best, I was fading, and at worst, I was just finished. I think that was really the turning point. Shortly after that, I had one song (Ricky & Randy) just sort of fall out of me in about 10 minutes one day, and the juices started flowing again and haven’t really stopped since.

Q: Why are you a musician? I hear it's a pretty rough gig!

A: It’s not really a choice. It’s something I have to do. It’s a big part of who I am, and I’m not sure who I’d be without it … but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like that guy.

Brian Zirngible is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist as well as an actively working musician and performer. His passion and specialty is helping other musicians and creative artists live a more peaceful and balanced life. Clients find it helpful that he understands and is currently living with some of the challenges in the entertainment industry.