Healing Through Music

Thank you to the Phoenix Spirit for publishing my most recent article below: “Healing Through Music”.

Bob Ross, the infinitely relaxed host of The Joy of Painting famously said, “We don’t make mistakes, we have happy little accidents.”

And I believe Bob.

If you are a musician or performing artist and you live with crushing panic, anxietydepression, and are paralyzed with fear and self-doubt, I hope you believe Bob too.

Although I am not a full-time musician, I recently released a solo EP and am currently writing and rehearsing for a new album with another band that I play in. I understand the grind, the hustle, and the exhaustion of the music business. There seems to be a never-ending cycle of writing, practicing, recording, releasing albums and performing. And if you are a full-time musician, there is touring, media/press obligations, and financial stress.

Being in a band can be unbelievably rewarding and quite exhausting at the same time. As artists, we can often think too much and allow fear and doubt to sneak into our dreams.

I try hard to practice what I preach about taking care of ourselves as musicians. We need to feel refreshed and energized in order to thrive.

Mark Mallman is a musician from Minneapolis whose mother died in 2013. He then wrote an album called “The End is Not the End”with hopes of healing his grief and panic attacks. He also is the author of the soon-to-be-released memoir called The Happiness Playlist: The True Story of Healing My Heart With Feel-Good Music.”

Mallman writes, “Music is my only escape. My heart rate slows a bit. Breathing comes easier. The Happiness Playlist is created.”

Music heals.

Musician Adam Levy (Honeydogs, Sunshine Committee, Bunny Clogs), has been publicly sharing his personal journey of grief and healing. Levy’s son, Daniel, died by suicide in 2013. Levy wrote his album, Naubinway, in honor of Daniel, and as a way to heal through his excruciating pain of loss and confusion.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” Levy writes in the title track, “We’ll bid you adieu if we must. A backwards baptism in Lake Michigan. I cradled my baby on his deathbed. Sleep my beautiful son in the shallows of Naubinway.”

Music heals again.

Last March, I accepted a position to be on the board for Dissonance, a Minnesota non-profit organization that helps musicians, artists and their loved ones to find resources and support for mental health, wellness and substance use. The Minnesota Music Coalition is another local organization, among others, who helps support our music community to help them feel that they are not alone in the struggles and hardships of the creative life.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with drummer Eric Fawcett (N.E.R.D., Spymob). He wrote an article for Drummer Magazinewhere he said, “the more you get out there, the more you’ll find there’s rarely a challenge you’re not up for. It is when we push ourselves to create outside of our comfort zone that we learn most.”

Pushing ourselves creatively is one of the many pathways to healing. When we try something new and different, such as writing a different style of song, we strengthen our creative muscles. And just like any other muscle in our body, our creative muscles need to workout.

Starting a new music or art project can seem daunting. So when I listen to Composer’s Datebook on Minnesota Public Radio, I always love hearing John Zech’s friendly reminder that “all music was once new.” This statement alone can help liberate us from the fear of criticism and from starting a new project.

Of course, there is a chance for failure or disappointment. And there is also a chance for joy because within those difficult moments of self-doubt lies the magical formula for growth and creating something absolutely unique to you. And that’s part of what art is, isn’t it?

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, wisely states in his book, Creative Quest, that “creative people take in more than the average person — or, rather, they are less able to shut out parts of their environment. In the modern world, that’s an even more intense problem, because so much information, so many signals, flow across our brains.”

I could not agree with him more and know that it is important for Highly Sensitive Persons to be aware of the negative energy we can potentially absorb. Consistent self-care practices and strong, healthy boundaries can help us maintain our energy for creativity.

Speaking of energy, our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, emphatically exclaimed, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” With technology and social media readily available in our pockets, we habitually destroy our self-worth and drain our creative energy by comparing ourselves to everyone else.

Taking a social media break is one simple antidote to the poison of comparisons.

Musician Maya Elena recently remarked, “I love JOMO (the joy of missing out) because it helps me focus on my music and songwriting. It blocks out negativity and what everyone else is doing.”
In the music world, comparing ourselves to someone else is one of the most harmful and destructive things we can do. It serves no purpose and steers us off course. We need to block out all distractions, especially self-criticism, so we can continue to create music.

If you are a musician or artist, your own self-care must be priority. Self-care is not selfish. Without practice, you will burn out quickly and possibly lose your passion for music.

Even the Federal Aviation Administration recommends you put on your oxygen mask first, before attempting to help anyone else.

I hope you continue to make music or have other creative endeavors and that you thrive, grow, and inspire the next magical generation.

Brian Zirngible is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with a solo private practice in Burnsville. He specializes in helping performing artists, highly sensitive men, couples and older teenage males find hope and passion within themselves and through creativity. Learn more about Brian at www.brianzirngible.com.

Healing Through Music

Musician and Artist Self Care: Holiday Edition featuring the Dissonance "Unhappy Holidays" event and exclusive interviews with two talented Minnesota musicians

Happy Holidays to you and yours! It is so hard to believe it is already the middle of December, when it seems like just weeks ago, we were hiking through the trails in 50 degree weather. Ahhh, Minnesota! To be quite honest, I am feeling pretty exhausted and wiped out just thinking about all of the family expectations and musical obligations that are coming up. I don't know about you, but there is such a huge part of me that just wants to snuggle up with my Shih Tzu and a cozy blanket, light some S'mores scented candles and turn up my new David Bowie vinyl album ("Heroes") on my record player and sleep until April. My body feels like it is in hibernation mode as the cold, frosty snow chills me down to the bones. Cardiovascular exercise and moderate free-weight lifting is a must for me in the winter months because it keeps me strong, warm and mentally fit.

On an exciting programming note: I am so honored and thrilled to have been asked to set up a table with information about my specialty therapy services (musicians/artists) at the Dissonance: Music and Mental Health "Unhappy Holidays" event on Thursday, December 15th. Dissonance is a non-profit organization that helps support Minnesota musicians and artists through education and mental health resources. The event has sold out and there will be a limited amount of tickets at the door.

Guest speakers/performers: Davina Sowers, Nora McInerny, Katy Vernon

Guest speakers/performers: Davina Sowers, Nora McInerny, Katy Vernon

Here is an event description:

"There's an image presented to us all of a happy, warm holiday season full of dinners with family and festive parties and gatherings around an open fire.

But for many of us, the Norman Rockwell, Hallmark image is a myth, and the season is a long, dark one that can be difficult to navigate. Whether we struggle to stay sober at the marathon of parties, are without loved ones to spend time with, or are dealing with pain that the constant carols and romantic comedies just make more pronounced, the holidays can be anything but bright.

Join us for a lively and engaged conversation and performance on navigating these challenging times, and hear from creative community members as we gather to say 'Hey, we're all in this together.'"

- Nora McInerny Purmort- author of "It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too)" and host of "Terrible, Thanks for Asking"
- Katy Vernon - Musician, Singer of Sad Songs on A Happy Instrument
- Davina Sowers - Musician, Davina and The Vagabonds
Hosts: David Campbell (Hazelden) and Sarah Souder-Johnson (Sentier Psychotherapy/Dissonance)
6:00pm Doors – Refreshments, non-alcoholic beverages, light appetizers provided
6:30 - 7:30pm Program – Panel discussion, readings and performances
7:30 - 8:00 Q&A
This program is hosted by Dissonance and Milkweed Editions in partnership with Open Book.

Once again, it has been an absolute honor to be able to interview two more of Minnesota's very own musicians who live and work in this frigid tundra we call 'home'. This is a very special Holiday edition of my series of musician interviews and as I did, I hope you find their answers as poignant, straight-forward and brutally honest.

Without further adieu, I now present to you the brave and amazingly talented Minnesota musicians who took time out of their busy recording, teaching, booking and gigging schedules to answer my 10 Questions about their journey as a musician and their personal stories of self care and survival.

Hannah von der Hoff is currently recording a new Soul/Roots/Rock album, is the booking agent and server extraordinaire at the Aster Cafe and has also done some fashion modeling in her career. She answers the questions with her complete mind, body and soul. Like a true artist expanding on a riff with crescendo that leaves you wanting more. After reading her answers, I was inspired to read John Legend's "4 Steps To Maximize Your Creativity" article where he describes placing boundaries around his schedule so he can work and create without distractions.

Hannah has a show tonight, Thursday, December 15th, at St. Paul's very own Vieux Carre, with Ashley Groves, so if you can't get tickets to the Dissonance "Unhappy Holidays" event, I encourage you to get your booties down to downtown St. Paul so you can 'get down'!

Hannah von der Hoff

Hannah von der Hoff


Q: When did you first realize you were a musician?
Lincoln Elementary music class. We played beat patterns with red sticks. Castanets. The recorder. Autoharp. Choir. I loved every second. I signed up for band and got the saxophone... either because all the other instruments were chosen or I had Lisa Simpson on the brain. In middle school I took a keyboard class and wrote my first song.  Coming from a rather musical family, tunes were always blaring in the house, and I had a dad and brothers who played guitar, and a mom and sister who loved to sing and dance. The youngest of them all, I had a natural inclination for music. By the first year of high school, I was teaching myself guitar using tablature from the web and playing in the bathroom before class to take advantage of the natural reverb. I signed up for talent shows, and would get special permission to turn in music projects to fulfill an assignment. The first year out of high school I knew I wanted to pursue music as a career option... but wasn’t exactly sure how or what it would look like.

Q: What are some healthy ways that you maintain a "work/life" balance? You're currently recording a new album. Can you tell us a little about how you are taking care of yourself while under the pressures of recording?
Honestly, in this balls-to-the-wall mode, I can’t feel in control and sane unless I’m exercising and giving my body organic nutrition every day. It helps keep my morale up. I’ve also adopted a reflex of gratitude. It takes conscious effort at first - building those neurological pathways, training your brain to think appreciative thoughts by an intentional offering of thanks as often as I can remember. Whenever something good happens... meeting a new acquaintance, learning something, a productive rehearsal or songwriting session... or on a Meta level, merely being alive, breathing, being in a position of opportunity... I say thank you in my heart and mind constantly. This is especially helpful when I’m feeling defeated or undervalued. To be gracious you must be humble - and that's a good square one to return to. Checking in. Being grateful for the moment in the first place. Reward follows the ethic. Just keep it up. Keep knocking. Keep trying. Do. Be.

Truth of the matter is I don’t feel very balanced at all right now. I’m burning both ends of the stick pretty hard between my job and my music - but, my personality type is such that that's just how it goes. I get immersed, but in a pretty unorganized way... I kind of feel like a pinball bouncing around between tasks - but I get it done somehow. I need the deadline, and then I barrel through and there isn’t much down time. But taking at least an hour on most days, to let my mind quiet by focusing on physical exertion or breath provides some necessary relief.

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?
This is exactly why I’ve waited to get in the studio. I’ve been writing songs for almost two decades - I could have recorded a couple times over by now but waiting is the best thing I could have done, giving myself time to mature in my songwriting and performance skill. If I had captured anything up until recently, I would have been trying to make up for a mediocre first impression. As I’ve performed over the years, developing a modest fan base, the pressure has been the opposite, ‘Just put it out there!’. If I had followed that advice, I feel like I’d be providing a caveat anytime I sent someone to listen to my music… I already do this with the mere scratch songs that I have available online, most of which are years old.

If I’m putting myself on the map with a debut record, a ‘coming out’ so to speak, it's going to be a professional album that I’m super confident about. This is who I am as an artist. The first impression has to be on point and moving as hell. Enough time has passed that I finally feel like I’m ready to throw down. My guitar and singing chops are up to speed. I’ve developed a sensibility for dynamics, knowing when to utilize restraint, or when to go for the full blown belly moans. My songwriting has grown too - soul music and classic roots and rock have influenced my writing so that the songs are more accessible and universal. I’m excited by what I hear. It feels like all the pieces are there. Knowing a song or body of work is ready is such a visceral determination, and finally I’ve reached a place artistically that I’m confident this record will turn heads.

Q: How do you practice self-care, and is there anything you would change about your routines?
I keep fairly disciplined about my physical activity and about what I eat. Again, it makes me feel like I’m in control, and I know a healthy body is reflective of a healthy spirit and mind. It helps me beat depression and is a good way to practice mind over matter.

Sleep is a tough department. I have insomnia many nights - I just can’t get my internal dialogue to shut off. I have to jot down my thoughts to provide relief. Or I’ll be on some creative kick and stay up til sunrise, or down a metaphysical research rabbit hole. If only I could develop better sleeping habits. I also want to develop a regular schedule for when I go to my practice space - pick certain days/times and get into a rehearsal routine so I can become the bad-ass guitar player I see in myself being.

Q: What are some of your musical inspirations?
I’m so into Old School Country and Roots right now... but I’ve always loved the Blues and that's the foundation for all modern music as we know it. Last year was the Classic Soul and R&B hits. Growing up, it was Classic Rock, Folk and Jazz. All of these influences will be heard on this upcoming record.

The music I live for are those songs that cast a lip-biting, loin shaking hoodoo over you. It gets you in your gut and makes you feel dark and dirty in the best way. This summer I saw Grace Potter open for Willie Nelson and she was full on dripping sexual energy onto the stage. It seriously felt like she wanted to fuck everyone in the audience. Last time I felt that kind of tension and rawness was Allison Mosshart during a Dead Weather performance at First Avenue a couple years ago. Seeing people perform this way is so bad-ass. So unbridled. And the most inspiring thing ever. It's exactly how I see myself making music. But until recently, I haven’t really let my guard down. This summer I started experimenting with ‘going there’ during rehearsal - seeing what comes out of me. Sometimes it's crazy. Sometimes is moving as hell. But not caring is the key. And now my favorite way to play shows is by just letting go. Its undeniably powerful and feels good and therapeutic. I’m excited to explore this territory more.

Q: Do you have another job or career? If so, is your employer understanding of your music career and schedule?
Rock & Roll lifestyles and 7am Board meetings do not mix for me. Years ago I had administrative jobs that were soulless, and I was looking to get out, especially after joining my first bands and really falling in love with music. The service industry appeared to be much more conducive to my creative pursuits with its flexible schedule, so I sought it out... and one day I got a push from the Universe when I was hired for the serving position I’d interviewed for in the same day I was fired from the corporate gig. Thankfully, 6 years later I’m still serving at this intimate venue called the Aster Cafe, and have been entrusted with the live music programming. Not only does this booking role directly inform the business aspect of my career path, and provide valuable networking opportunities, but the owner is a musician himself and has understanding and respect for my pursuits. My goal is to flourish with gigging/touring and music booking alone within two years time, and phase out the serving. I need to save my hands and wrists for playing guitar, not carrying trays. But I’m lucky as hell to have the job that I do. I don’t think I could have one more well suited for my goals right now.

Q: If you have formal school education, how important or influential is it to your current career as a musician?
I went to school for one semester, studying Agricultural Education at the U of M. When it came time to take out loans to continue, I came face to face with the prospect of student debt and decided it would hurt my pursuits more than help them. I didn’t want to be financially tied down in any way. Freedom felt like the most valuable thing. So instead, I got started on real world experience and now I’m in a position where I’m free to take time off and not have to worry about how to meet a never ending monthly payment.

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?
I’m very blessed with family and friends who are curious about and supportive of my career - they ask questions about what’s next, regularly come to shows, and offer me ideas from things they see other people doing that I might be able to apply.

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?
I used to wait for inspiration to hit, and then would get down on myself for not being a more prolific writer. I’d write two songs a year with that ‘writers block’ mentality... then I finally understood the intrinsic problem. I began to apply the notion that songwriting is a muscle you either work out, or let atrophy. That’s not to say every song will be great, but the exercise itself is what seems to be key. Within the last 6 months, I’ve written more songs than ever before and its product of work ethic. Jam on a riff. Take the snippet that sounds good. Scat a melody. Choose a theme, or an opening line, and dedicate a session to fleshing it out a while, consistently coming back to it until a solid skeleton is formed.

Q: Why are you a musician? I hear it's a pretty rough gig!
I feel like a conduit. It comes out of me. Rhythm. Lyrics. Melody. I feel responsible to it - a sense of duty to this natural gift. I’m very grateful for it and I believe it is the most universal spiritual medium we have. To me it is Medicine and my calling.

Ben Johnston is a musician and drummer of the Minneapolis "math rock" trio, Self-Evident. He also is the drummer in a band called Lovely Dark, a psychedelic folk influenced indie rock band. I met Ben through his wife Jessica Ellison, who is also a therapist and owner of J. Ellison & Associates in the Twin Cities who specializes in helping teens! I was really excited to interview Ben, knowing that his wife is also a therapist, and he did not disappoint! Check it out and make sure to catch Ben's CD Release Party with Self-Evident this Saturday, December 17th at the 331 Club!

Ben Johnston

Ben Johnston

Q: When did you first know you were a musician?
A: I grew up with music (specifically drums) being an ever-present backdrop to my life. My dad is a drummer and has been playing in rock bands since the late 60's. He started me young and I’ve just always played and been surrounded by other musicians (my parent’s friends). It wasn’t really a question I ever had to ask myself or a choice I really remember making. Drumming has always been something I’ve done as part of my life and has over time, just shifted into a career.

Q: What are some healthy ways that you maintain a "work/life" balance? Can you tell us a little about how you take care of yourself while under the pressures of recording/touring?
A: I struggle, like most of us, to maintain a balance. In my case, it’s a bit tricky because my work and life are so intertwined. I’m currently teaching drums, am writing a column for a drum magazine, promoting my drum books, rehearsing, promoting and booking my band Self-Evident and in some of my free time I need to practice. Good thing I love what I do right? I try to do my best to check out of “musician mode” when spending time with my family. Vacations are a must because it’s the only way I can escape my drums (and even then, I’ll end up looking for a music store or open mic to check out). Tour is tough because I’m away from family, so I get a bit home sick. I do love it though. It can be a challenge to stay healthy because of all the late nights, the couch surfing and the van riding. It takes a few shows to get into “tour mode.” I always end up having a blast but am completely exhausted when I return. Recording is all together a different animal. I really don’t feel pressure in the studio any more. I’ve recorded enough that I know I’m going to be well rehearsed and ready so, I can just sit back and enjoy the process.

Q: You are in 2 different bands [Self Evident and Lovely Dark]. How do you prioritize both groups and keep it all together?
A: Since joining Self-Evident in 2006 it has stayed as my main focus. Any other projects I do fall under the category of “side projects,” at least in my mind. I think Lovely Dark is that way for the majority of its members. We’re all busy with other stuff and don’t really get together that often (even though we have a new record in the can). I’ve never been one to join a ton of groups all at the same time. I like to have a main gig and then if something interests me I can safely make time to contribute.

Q: How important is it for your music or songs to be "perfect?" There can be pressure from record labels, fans & band mates to make the music "just right." How do YOU know when a song or album is complete?
A: We rehearse or asses off until we can play all of our material confidently in the studio and live. If we’re not absolutely sure we can kill a song, then we don’t play it out and we defiantly won’t record it. If it’s not happening in one or two takes in the studio, then something is wrong and we need to step away. Honestly, we pride ourselves on our ability to perform. Most of what you hear on our recordings (other than overdubs) is a single take and we rarely “fix” anything in post-production unless it’s really insignificant.

Q: Who are some of your past & present musical inspirations?
A: My dad was my first inspiration. He was my first teacher. Later I really enjoyed going to music school and gained a ton of inspiration from the wonderful staff at McNally Smith. My students inspire me too. I wouldn’t be the drummer I am today had I not decided to teach. There is so much to learn on the instrument and I really didn’t grasp the complexities until I needed to explain them in simple terms. Learning and teaching are the same for me. It’s all part of one process.

Q: If you have formal school education, how important or influential is it to your current career as a musician?
A: I studied percussion performance at McNally Smith and Recording and Production at IPR. I got a lot out of school and had a really positive experience especially in the drum program at McNally. The teachers over there are top notch and I still keep in touch with some of them. As for helping my career, I suppose having an education or even name dropping some of my instructors has gotten my foot into a few doors, but what was really valuable was how working with such a great staff really influenced the way that I approach my own teaching practice. Having so many diverse instructors and a wide variety of course material made it easier to jump into teaching private lessons with confidence.

Q: What are some of the best ways your loved ones support you?
A: My parents have supported my pursuit of being a professional drummer since the beginning. Even at time when I wasn’t sure I had what it took they were there to tell me to keep on going. My wife is always giving me positive reinforcement and helping me through the tough times. I couldn’t do it without her. She keeps me in check and saves me from myself on a daily basis.

Q: Do you ever struggle with songwriting or experience "writer's block?" If so, what pushes you through to be able to create or write music?
A: Sometimes, but I’m always playing, teaching and learning so I almost always have fresh material to draw from. I think “writer’s block” is more likely to happen if you’re not constantly moving forward. If you have no “new” experiences, then it’s hard to be inspired to create something that sounds fresh.

Q: How important is self-confidence and self-esteem in your musical career? What are some ways you protect yourself from feeling too down or low?
A: Confidence is huge. The hardest moments of being a musician have been experienced in my moments where I was feeling the least confidant. Whether it be while performing, teaching, writing or recording, if you are not feeling confident then it’s really hard to perform well. You get stuck in your own head and self-doubt just creates a downward spiral. My cure for improving my self-esteem is to practice, practice, practice. If you know the material and are well rehearsed you can focus your attention outward. You can escape your own head.

Q: Why are you a musician? I hear it's a pretty rough gig?
A: No choice. If I didn’t play I’d be an awful person. Music saves my life every day.

Thanks so much again to Hannah and Ben for their time, talent and vulnerability in sharing their musician self care journeys with us. Make sure to check them out at an upcoming show and that you are thinking of all the wonderful ways that you can care for yourself over the Holidays!

If you or someone you know who is a musician and is struggling with self care this Holiday season, please call me at 952-892-8433 for a free 15 minute phone consultation to see if we may be a good fit. I am in network with most major insurances except for Health Partners and UCare.


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 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 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.