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Singing The Blues: The Vocalist and Depression

Are dramatic mood swings and despair a necessary part of a creative and productive singing career? In an exclusive interview with VoiceCouncil magazine, Eric Maisel shares how singers can stop meaning from leaking out of their lives.

When Meaning Leaks Out

Your book The Van Gogh Blues has become hugely popular. Why write about such a depressing subject?
I couldn’t avoid it. I’ve been working with creative people and performing artists for several decades, trying to understand the most important issues in their lives and depression was a recurring issue. The more I looked at it, the more I realized that artists were suffering from a certain kind of depression.

Let’s step back for a minute: what is depression?
Well, the prevailing theory calls depression an illness with biological, psychological, and/or social roots. There’s a hodgepodge of ideas around depression rather than one coherent theory. Creative people suffer no more or no less than anyone else in the areas of biology, psychology or sociology. However, artists do suffer from a form of depression which is often ignored by counselors and clinicians: existential depression.

Those are pretty big words, yet you’ve become renown for making them understandable.
Creative people have trouble keeping meaning afloat. Making a meaningful life is a constant issue and challenge for the creative person in a way that it isn’t for other people.

Why can life be so difficult for a creative person?
Creative people are unlikely to buy into their cultural forms of what is meaningful. They always feel that they have to make meaning for themselves—and meaning often leaks out of their enterprises.

So are you suggesting that one doesn’t need to be depressed?
I am saying that existential depression is more in our control than was previously thought…you may still suffer from those other three forms of depression. I am not saying there is a quick remedy for all forms of depression. Life is difficult, after all—but creative people can accomplish much to stop meaning from leaking out of their lives.

So you aren’t against pop-therapies for depression: getting some sun, extreme sports—even retail therapy?
No. I am not against these and I’m also not against anti-depressants. We actually know very little about depression in general; if you present the same case to a psychologist and to a psychiatrist you will likely have two completely different diagnoses! One has to find their way through this maze—and there are ways to be found. What all artists must do is to stop meaning from leaking out of their lives.

The Dirty Little Secret

How does meaning “leak out” of a creative person?
You start with what you think is a wonderful idea for a song or a novel. You’re excited and enthusiastic. Then the work begins; for three or four days out of the week you don’t like it. Nothing surprising or unusual happens. Our dirty little secret is that we don’t like our own work. We begin saying to ourselves: ‘Why am I investing all this time into a project that stinks?’ This is the beginning of a loss of meaning.

Isn’t this negative self-talk just something one has to live with?
No, it has to be counteracted. This self-defeating inner dialogue is too out of control for many artists. We chastise ourselves: ‘Why don’t I do something more useful?’, ‘I’m just self indulgent’, ‘Nothing I do has any real value’. This is a self-conversation about meaning and in many artists the meaning leaks out even before creating has begun.

Is this why you feature Van Gogh?
I use Van Gogh as a poster boy for the book—he is especially interesting because he tried to make meaning as a preacher first but he was thrown out of the church for demanding too much from his flock. He reached bottom and contemplated suicide. Then it popped into his head that he liked painting—so a new venture commenced and he hoped that meaning would float.

Then after three or four years of painting he achieved great success—yet meaning was not holding. Sometimes artists think that if they are happy with the work they create, that will be enough to avoid existential depression. But that is a mistake. We need more than artistic satisfaction, we need love, warmth, relationships—there are many components to keeping meaning in our lives. It’s important to see that even when artists achieve success, many still suffer from depression—and many commit suicide. So, success alone is not an answer.

This is a pretty bleak picture, Eric. What is the way forward?
I can put it in simple terms, but it takes a lot of work: you have to become a meaning expert in your life. In other words, you have to identify the things that help you make meaning and then you have to do them—every single day. I call these actions “meaning investments”.

Investing in Meaning

Let’s walk though the steps now. Take us into one of your private sessions with an artist. What are you likely to suggest about plugging holes?
There are 4 themes that keep recurring in my sessions:

1. The first piece is always cognitive. I tell the artist to tell herself—repeatedly—that she and her work matter. Every single day this message needs to be on the table. This is probably the most important hole that needs to be plugged for artists. You have to announce to yourself that your work matters. If you don’t do this, you are setting yourself up for depression.

2. You then need to engage in a regular practice with your creativity to prevent meaning-lapses from occurring. You institute a daily creativity routine. It may be five days a week or seven days a week. The point is that you get to it each day—first thing each day. You recognize that if you miss some days you may be creating a meaning crisis. Regularity at first sounds boring to my clients. That’s because it is! A crisis is less boring! But this is about preventing meaning-crises and producing art.

3. We do need some successes. It isn’t that success inoculates us against all existential depression; conversely, a lifetime of failure doesn’t help. So, I work with clients at being an exceptional in their art. I don’t always mean the quality of their work, but doing things that others aren’t doing so that you can find success on the market. If you are a singer and you are told to make 5 phone calls a day, I tell you to make 30. It’s a competitive world. Bach was asked, “Why are you greater than your peers?” His answer: “If they worked as hard as I did, they would have my successes”.

4. Creating is one meaning container and relating is another. I often find that artists do not sufficiently close or open the door to their families in their homes. They remain available to anyone who wanders in at anytime while they are doing their work. At the same time, they don’t connect with their family in meaningful ways. So, I ask clients to announce to their family that they are not available for that hour or two—this is the time they are making meaning with their art. Then, when they are not creating, they can find ways to more deeply engage in their relationships.

What if a singer/songwriter does as you say and sits down to do their creative work and nothing happens?
A lot of artists despair of ever finding the ideas that they need to move their lives ahead creatively. Yet, I believe that the ideas are already there; they just need to get quiet in order to hear them. I am just helping clients to get quiet through stopping negative/useless self and other talk. Then, they can find their way forward.

What you are saying seems to fly in the face of pop-wisdom for artists which always stresses doing more creating.
Yes, I think that is too narrow a view. Certainly, creating is a part of what needs to happen. But what we are doing in the recording/writing studio does not amount to the whole of life. What am I going to do the next hour? It may be that you need to reconnect with your brother, or visit a park with your child—it can’t all be taken up with creating. We have to constantly make meaning or we experience our time as wasted and ultimately as a meaning drain. We have this amazing job to fill every hour with meaning.

That sounds like a lot of work…
Well, we don’t have to fill every hour with meaning. We can take “meaning-breaks”— watch some mindless TV, whatever—but the point is that every single day we need to acquire “meaning capital”. This capital has to be in the two realms of creating and relating.

So, creating is not enough in itself and relating is not enough in itself?
The artist is likely to despair by doing only one or the other. In fact, many artists binge on creating, find that not sufficiently meaningful and then rush into relationships only to find a lack of meaning there too. It’s no mere coincidence that Van Gogh’s only happy year was when he was relating to a woman and painting at the same time.

Handling The Horrendous Day

OK Eric, what you are saying is rich—we’re just going to let you talk! But here is what we want you to talk about: you wake up and, before anything happens, you feel horrible. For reasons you can’t explain, you seem to have an extra dose of depression—you are under a cloud and you feel it will follow you all day long. What do you do? Is it possible to live in the light rather than spend all day in the darkness?
Well we’ve got to start with the evening before. I recommend that people go to bed differently. Often we go to sleep with a huge dose of anxiety. We think about what happened poorly during the day and what might happen tomorrow. This leads to a horrible sleep, or worse, to insomnia—which is widespread amongst artists.

Instead of this routine, I recommend that people go to sleep with a question about their creativity on their mind. For instance: ‘What might be a good theme for my next song?’, ‘What might be a good feel for the bridge of this song?’ ‘What places might I visit to get my next idea for moving myself forward?’ These questions give the unconscious mind something positive and creative to work on during sleep. Artists who go to bed this way find that they look forward to waking up to see what their mind has produced.

The next thing you have to do on a particularly blue day is to force yourself to get to your creative work—I mean to physically move your body to the space where you are going to face your work. I spend time reminding clients you are not creating when you wish to create—there is always this gap between where you are and what you would like to be doing. If they can make the trek from their bed to their studio, things will be better.

I give lots of suggestions on how to make that trek and break through their resistance to working. I have all sorts of gimmicks in my bag.

Of course, when you sit down and work you will have all of these negative global thoughts like ‘everything sucks’, but the point is to silence those thoughts and just get working. All you have to do is get out of bed and down the hall to work.

Any other advice?
That’s a lot. That’s enough. Most artists don’t have the habit of going to sleep with a positive and creative question, most don’t approach their work regularly and most don’t practice talking to themselves in an encouraging way. So, taking on all three of these efforts is a huge task.

Big Appetites

Some of our readers hang out in environments renowned for distractions and addictions that block healthy, creative work.
There’s no doubt that there are extra risk factors for rock musicians, for example. There are all the traditional difficulties that come from being in a drinking and drug-taking environment and these make it difficult for performing musicians to reach their creative potential. I deal with all of this in my book, Creative Recovery.

Can you single out one factor that these vocalists especially need to be aware of?
Yes, what goes unnoticed in traditional therapy is that many musicians, especially rock and heavy metal artists, simply have bigger appetites. This is both an opportunity and a challenge. It’s good because this is a source of creative juice, but it is a challenge because someone with a bigger appetite can get addicted more easily. All of this means that a good amount of support is needed so that the performer can plug the meaning-leaks in their life, just as all artists must do.

In your book you mention Tina Turner and Elton John bickering – is this an example of depression working its way into our working relationships?
This is more of an example of the way we have to manage narcissists in our lives. We are all mixed narcissists—by that I mean that each of us has a lot of healthy and unhealthy narcissism woven together in us. The average person thinks that narcissism is unhealthy. In developmental psychology it can be good: stand up for yourself and be clear about what you will and will not tolerate. However, as we get successful as musicians or singers we can be inclined towards unhealthy narcissism—this is where the ego gets inflated and tyrants are born. An unhealthy narcissist has no way of dealing with people other than putting them up on a pedestal or washing their hands of them. Unhealthy narcissists will act arrogantly most of the time and experience perpetual relationship difficulties.

It seems that in the music industry one might run across many unhealthy narcissists.
What one must do is to maintain fierce boundaries—unhealthy narcissists are great at getting under your skin—you need to know exactly what you are willing and unwilling to do.

But when you have to relate to people who are clearly intoxicated by their own power, how do you handle your feelings?
You need to have a tactic for venting emotion when it arises. In my book Toxic Criticism I talk about getting out of the vicinity of the toxic person, getting home and having means to vent feelings safely—don’t do anything on the spot. When you are churning in the face of an unhealthy narcissist, you remind yourself that you have ways to deal with your emotions at home.

This brings us full-circle: you’ve stressed that to have a full creative life we must create and relate.
Yes. Running into people who can’t relate well to us can remind us of the importance we must put on reducing interpersonal drama in our lives and attempting to reach out with care, respect and love to those around us. Like our creative work, this must be a part of our daily plan.

Useful Links

Eric Maisel’s Site

The Van Gogh Blues

Toxic Criticism

Creative Recovery

Related Videos

What it takes to be an artist – Eric Maisel interviewed

  • garymckinney

    I've never had a problem with depression and I think it's because I examine and perform every activity in my life with my creative interests always prevalent in my mind. Go to sleep with a creative idea mulling around in my head? — the norm for me. The nicest thing about creative obsession in your everyday life — you never get bored, even when you're doing the dishes.

  • jonathanvelthuysen

    thank you.
    i agree with all my heart and i have certainly noticed all of these things.
    especially the last paragraph, controlling how you regard and relate to others really helps gain mastery over you internal discipline.also, it is a good energy investment.

  • Greg

    Dr. Maisel will lead a weeklong workshop March 2011 at the Kripalu Yoga Center (in the Berkshires). The workshop at Kripalu runs from March 20 – 25 and is called Fearless Creating: The Creativity Coaching Experience. This is an excellent workshop for artists in every discipline (singers/songwriters very much included) and for coaches and therapists who want to see creativity coaching in action.
    For a program description:
    Toll-free number for Kripalu Registration: 1-866-200-5203.

  • Sabrina Golmassian

    WOW! Holy crap! This man is a messenger. Thanks you changed my life!