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Mun is a Baybeats Budding Writer who was mentored by Eddino Abdul Hadi, music correspondent for The Straits Times.
World Suicide Prevention Day falls on 10 September every year, but mental health awareness is a topic that should be on people’s minds every day. I am writing this article in the hope that it can destigmatise the issue of mental health that so many cower from, and that more people would be educated on this weighty topic.
With that said, I approached Singapore bands and artists who have written songs regarding mental health: the erudite indie pop band M1LDL1FE which wrote Can't Seem To Get Anything; singer-songwriter with the mellifluous voice Marian Carmel, who was behind the melancholic Might Never Get Better; and Knightingale, an avant-garde rock band influenced by pop guitar music from the ’60s, which put out songs such as Demons and The God Damn Youth. I interviewed Ashwin Rao, Knightingale’s frontman known for jamming out in that iconic bridal dress back in Baybeats 2018.
I was ecstatic to learn that my interviewees were open to discussing this topic which definitely made me, someone who has personally experienced those struggles and is also a listener of their songs, feel heard.
Moving forward with writing this article and interviewing the above mentioned, I asked everyone the same questions since I wanted to hear multiple viewpoints on how their songs came about.
I embarked on the interviews and landed on a common ground with the question “how has mental health affected you or a loved one?”. Marian, who was diagnosed with panic disorder and secondary depression back in 2016, confides that she “tried everything, from medication to therapy”. But they felt unsatisfied because they experienced panic attacks after having made progress and it felt like taking a few steps back. Nonetheless, they didn’t shy away from the understanding that growth isn't linear.
Ashwin, who moved to Singapore back in 2007, shares that living alone has created a different set of challenges for him. “I've had many occasions where my mental stability was rocky,” he says. He notes that he’s been more cautious of his mental health since moving here at the age of 16, and that the decisions he made were undoubtedly affected by it.
M1LDL1FE singer Paddy Ong, who has dealt with anxiety and depressive symptoms, says: “I feel like not many people know how to deal with a loved one struggling since the pain is not visible to the eye.” He remarks that though it’s like a double bind, he believes that having a loved one be both present and supportive in times of struggle plays a huge role in healing. Bandmate David Siow adds that he had a small but good support system when life seemed blurry. “I was spending my time in the studio for days, just disappearing into a deep abyss.” Despite the tremendous courage to trudge your way through the mud, it’s also all about timing, acceptance and support, he adds.
I asked Marian if music was a safe place, since they released Might Never Get Better at a time when they were going through dark moments and sang lyrics that inclined towards hopelessness. They shared that the song came about when they were at a recording session for another song, but experienced a panic attack in the midst of it. Marian could not sleep that night and ended up writing this song instead. “I believe it's easier to understand yourself better when you can pin down those emotions. I’ve accepted the fact that those ‘struggles’ are a part of my life and I can continue trying to work through them.” Marian contentedly mentions how their mental health has improved over time and that therapy played a requisite role in helping them grow too.
As someone who relied heavily on music as a coping mechanism and is invested in psychology, I was bound to bring up the topic of how music holds a positive psychological impact. In music therapy, there is the clinical use of music to accomplish individualised goals such as reducing stress and improving mood, and innumerable amounts of research has been done on the topic.
Neuroscientists Dr Valorie Salimpoor and Dr Robert Zatorre, for example, conducted research using PET scans (positron emission tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to both detect the release of dopamine in the brain when subjects listen to their favorite songs, and view the pleasure center of the brain to map out its connection with other areas associated with emotion, learning, memory and decision making. They concluded that music can be used as a mood enhancer or elevator.
I couldn't help but be curious about how music played a part in my interviewees’ lives during those stormy and hazy days. Ashwin shares how playing live music, writing and working on their records has incredibly boosted Knightingale members’ morale and mental health. “Making music, the only thing we feel immense joy in, has provided us an identity.” He adds that it has saved them from spiraling further with their mental health issues.
Marian remarks that though the lines are blurry since music has always been in their life, songwriting played a journaling role and was an easier way to digest their emotions. “There’s this good grounding technique I try to incorporate in my songwriting, engaging with your five senses,” Marian says.
On the contrary, Tan Peng Sing, guitarist of M1LDL1FE explains that he doesn’t listen to music when he’s going through tough times. He says: “You would think you listen to music for emotional regulation but that doesn’t seem like the case for me.” Paddy adds that you seek peace and silence, since there’s already so much going on in your head. He also expresses that it also probably has to do with the fact that the last thing you want to do is “associate something you deeply love with that difficult situation”.
When I first did my research on Knightingale, the album God Damn Youth came up, so I listened to it on Bandcamp. To my surprise, the whole album was dedicated to talking about the everyday struggles of young adults trying to fit in. That personally did hit home for me since I was always trying to find a voice in times of my struggles while I was growing up. I took the opportunity to ask Ashwin if it was a personal experience, or something shared amongst the band. He replies that their debut album was more a “coming of age” work that he and the band pulled off in the quest to be heard within the scene. It was a rough time in their lives where most of them were jobless and clueless about what they wanted to do. But while the sentiments were profound within the album, they didn't want to come across as “helpless” or “vulnerable” and still wanted to enjoy the art of making music. It was a time where they were unable to truly take care of themselves due to financial and relationship issues, as well as having to deal with a society that wanted them to quit music altogether. They were all trying to get back on track and blend in.
I asked my interviewees: “Having personally understood the complexities of mental health, how important is it that it gets destigmatised and understood better? Do you think musicians releasing songs related to mental health will help hold a positive impact?”
David believes that as a musician himself, it's useful to write songs about mental health. “I believe that you can take all that negative energy, put it in a song and throw it away as a form of emotional release.” He believes that since it was useful for him, there’s a chance it’ll work for other musicians too. His bandmates agreed that music can do more than just raise awareness. “There's still more beyond music that needs to be done so more people can understand this complex situation and help those who are struggling,” Paddy says.
Marian says that while it is “wonderful to write songs and offer that sense of solace and comfort”, you can also contribute in other ways. These include sharing relevant posts online, and calling out insensitive jokes and stereotypes by engaging in conversations that educate people on why it's harmful so they can unlearn such behaviour. Ashwin shares that musicians should feel free to spread awareness if they or their loved ones have experienced mental health issues.
He adds that not only will the results be positive, but it can also possibly be life-changing, since the music can play an important role in helping a listener stay alive.
Approaching M1LDL1FE was a little comical to me since I was already an active listener of their music and the song that I brought up during my interview with them was, embarrassingly enough, the same one I shed tears and head bobbed to. As I did more research about music in recent years, I started to learn how every aspect of a song plays an indispensable role in making the song reflect the emotions you want to express.
I was curious if the lyrics to Can't Seem To Get Anything inspired a different direction in terms of sound, since the song, with its heavy bass-lines and guitar licks, was different compared to their other tracks. Paddy and Peng Sing agreed that the song had more angry sounding guitar licks as well as sluggish drum beats that represented the dragging of your feet. Paddy adds on that while the lyrics came hand-in-hand, the sound was always driving the songwriting process. He explains that though it's personally easier to express emotions from the music first since it's more fluid, words hold direct meanings which come off as “stronger”.
With all of that said, I dug deep into the internet for more information on suicides here in Singapore. As reported by Samaritans Of Singapore (SOS), we lost 452 lives to suicide alone in 2020, the country’s highest count since 2012. SOS also reports that they received 39,492 suicide and crisis-related calls last year. The pandemic has been a challenging time for so many of us, but it has definitely affected the ones struggling inordinately. Victims of suicidal ideations have expressed difficulty coping with loneliness due to isolation, psychological distress, strained relationships between loved ones and the lack of social interaction. With suicide and mental health issues comes the stigma that’s still very much prevalent here in this country. It was only in 2019 that suicide was decriminalised, and the amendments to the Penal Code, comprising the repeal of it, commenced on 1 January 2020.
Suicide is a complex struggle that has no definitive cause and most often it is difficult to describe what struggling with it on a daily basis feels like. I believe that the repeal of the penal code helps destigmatise mental health issues to a certain extent. Those affected might not feel alienated and abnormal for struggling with something that is so daunting but which many lack the understanding of.
To balance off this article, I ask two of my friends who are heavily invested in music and have had their fair share of experiences with mental health issues for their take on this topic. They are Nisa, my gig buddy and Day, a friend who introduced me to the local scene and is the vocalist and keytarist for Singapore band Saints Amongst Sinners.
Nisa feels that musicians writing songs on mental health issues is a nice way for both musicians and listeners to resonate with each other. She says: “It’s a good feeling knowing that the same musicians I look up to are understanding of the struggles we go through and are reaching out to us through music.” The songs captured her loneliness and at the same time made her feel heard.
She believes that the music industry plays an immeasurable influence in society, and that music definitely helps in normalising conversations about mental health. She adds: “Seeking help for any emotional pain is normal.'' Day says that social media has ironically helped her view mental health as a wound that should be treated like any physical ones too. She thinks artists can play their part by advocating for this “so their followers are exposed to all the beneficial information that can instill a better image on health in general”.
I couldn't have ended my interviews with musicians without another question that needs to be asked: “What would you tell your listeners who are also struggling mentally?”
Marian says candidly: “There will always be people who are willing to listen and validate your experiences even if you feel like you’re alone in times of your struggles.” They empathetically explain that it’s easy to take it out on yourself when you’re not where you want to be but “that’s just growth, nobody knows where they’re heading either.” They add that there are reliable resources out there “so please do not feel afraid to seek help with any medical professionals”.
Ashwin says: “I’d say hang in there. Take a deep breath, and press through stuff for the time being.” The musician, who once felt like the train had stopped for him while loneliness consumed him whole, saw that the heavy thunderstorms eventually clear up. He comfortingly remarks there will be light at the end of the tunnel and the rewards will not only be encouraging but can even lead you to more extraordinary things in life.
In Paddy’s view, you don't have to feel abnormal for your struggles or act to downplay your problems. “It’s not a competition, everyone’s struggles are valid,” he says, adding that everyone deserves to get through that healing process. “Don’t wait it out, try to seek help when you can.” David says that therapy is like investing in yourself, a form of self-care. “Everyone has their own set of struggles and even though it’s hard to take the first step, I would say every struggle is an opportunity for growth too,” he ends optimistically.
To be able to look back on my journey and write about this topic with perspectives from the musicians I listen to, is definitely something I would never have foreseen. It’s an amazing feeling I’ll probably never be able to move on from. So I'm closing this with the hope that someone out there who’s struggling and reading this feels heard without the feeling of loneliness consuming them.
Mun is a Budding Writer for Baybeats 2021, which, considering you're reading this, is as clear as day. Being musically inclined at an early age and breaking her bank to do the things she loves like going to concerts, Mun has also jumped into the fashion scene since then. She strives to find a home for two things she loves most and expresses her fashion ideas through the music industry.
Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) 1-767
IMH Helpline 6389 2222
Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH) 1800 283 7019
Samaritans of Singapore - Suicide facts & figures
Spike in calls to suicide prevention agency SOS in 2020 as more in distress amid Covid-19, Natalie Tan, Eliz Wang and Deepa Sundar
Criminal Law Reform Bill: A look at key changes in the Penal Code, Neo Rong Wei
The science behind why music makes us feel so good, Diane Koopman