Blue Christmas: Artists & Depression

My good pal Jason Parker recently posted a link on his Facebook page to an article about musicians and depression. It was from the blog “Behind the Music.” The post was about a list complied by of the top ten professions with the highest rate of depression. Artists ranked fifth on the list. Further, artists who have a secondary job as a source of income, such as waiting tables or mopping floors, rank second on the list. It seems that plenty of musicians, writers and artists struggle with this malady, and the article  raises interesting questions about the role depression plays in the creative process.

Depression is something that I know all too well. I have struggled with it for as long as I can remember, even since I was a little girl. Sometimes, it is the ominous beast that smolders on the horizon, patiently waiting for me. Other times, it creeps closer and I can hear it scratching just on the other side of the door. And now and then, it holds me in its grip completely, filling me with a drowning sadness and blocking out any semblance of life, reason or light. About ten or so years ago, I finally made the realization that depression never really goes away completely and that it  was something that I would have to learn to live with. I manage it like one would any other chronic illness. I find a holistic approach works best; diet, sleep, exercise, medication and supportive relationships all play an important role.  Developing the ability to hang in ambiguity is also helpful. (Meditation is good for that.) Although I would certainly choose otherwise, I have come to accept this as part of myself. I sometimes call it my Eeyore complex.

Writing about depression is tricky business and delving into depression relative to creativity is even more so. It’s a complex issue. Every artist is different. Speaking for myself, I do not need depression for creative spark. In fact, when I am completely in the mud, I find it fairly debilitating.  I can’t write a word. My usual MO is to crawl into bed, pull the covers over my head and hunker down until the gloomy storm passes. Luckily, such intense waves are very rare indeed. During lesser bouts, I can definitely create from a place of deep sadness.  Singing and writing are actually quite cathartic in these instances. There is no question in my mind that some of my best and most powerful writing and singing have come from a very dark place. The problem is that no matter how great the writing is or how authentic the delivery of the song, one can risk making people uncomfortable. Although readers and audience members want to be moved, there can be a limit as to how much raw honesty and pain they’re willing to stick with. It can become a “too much information” situation, leaving the audience members shifting in their seats (or putting the book down) and the artist wondering if he or she exposed too much of him or herself. It’s a tough balance to sort out. How does one share his/her inexplicable darkness without freaking people out?  For me, singing and writing are lifelines. They are vital to my well-being and survival. This is especially true for writing. But the question always remains: How much of the story do I tell? Are they starting to squirm?  Am I even telling too much right here, right now?

There have been studies that indicate that depressed people tend to have a more realistic perception of their importance in the world and their abilities (or inabilities as the case may be) than others who don’t suffer from depression. I am not sure how this idea could be applied to artists specifically. I also certainly don’t think that all artists suffer from depression. In fact, very many are quite light-hearted and cheerful. Still, I wonder if there is something to these studies all the same. Great artists observe the world. They crawl inside and excavate for details and meaning. They take what they find and create. If they work from an open heart and with rigorous honesty, there is bound to be great pain involved from time to time. Life hands us much grist for the mill.

As a writer and a vocalist, my fundamental values are honesty and authenticity. If I squelch any part of myself in my process, then whatever it is that I’m expressing-be it through a blog post or a ballad or a scat solo-is incomplete. I like to think that I’m an amalgamation of many moods, sensibilities and experiences. I want to believe that I write and sing from a place of joy and humor. I actually often do. But I can’t deny the darker colors that sometimes shade my view. If I could ask Santa to grant one Christmas wish, it would be the gift of enduring and unflinching optimism. But alas, I am, more than likely, squarely on the naughty list again this year and don’t figure Santa will accommodate my request. That’s OK.  I will stumble along anyway. I write. I sing. I crash and burn. I get up again. Sometimes I even shine.  I tell the story as best as I can.  And although it is a significant piece of the puzzle of me, depression is not my muse.


The “Behind the Music” post mentions Nick Drake, the English singer-songwriter who suffered from depression and died of a prescription drug overdose at the age of 26. Jason and his band are getting ready to go into the studio to record a tribute to Nick Drake. Jason has been working very hard on this project, and it is clearly something he’s deeply passionate about. If you want to learn more about the project and how you can help Jason, please go here. If you’re interested in the music that Jason and crew will be recording, there is a preview performance this coming Tuesday, December 21, at Lucid in Seattle.