Mental illness used to be a topic that was deemed taboo, even in music. Recently, the discussion of it has shifted, allowing musicians to openly discuss their disorders. Heartbreak and general despair are nothing new to indie rock and punk music, from Japandroids to The Smiths. However, a new generation of artists and bands like Jeff Rosenstock, Modern Baseball, Speedy Ortiz, Sorority Noise, Camp Cope, and Los Campesinos! offer up something different — themselves. Their music allows fans who are grappling with mental disorders to feel like they’re not alone in their struggles. Being surrounded by people who share similar experiences with those disorders creates a community that acts as a support group, allowing the lines to be blurred between “musician” and “fan.”
Two years ago, I introduced my 17-year-old brother to many of these bands — others he found on his own via Tumblr. At the time, I didn’t know how much of an impact they would have on him. He suffers from both anxiety and depression, which I also have. Throughout my teen years, I didn’t have many bands to choose from that could help me cope with such disorders. Through him, I’ve learned how important it is to have bands and artists help you feel like you’re not alone in those struggles.
The first time I saw Jeff Rosenstock was at a show in Baltimore’s Ottobar in October 2015. It was the first night of his tour with Modern Baseball, PUP, and Tiny Moving Parts. At that point, I hadn’t listened to his music. All I knew was that, to some of my college classmates who have been following his numerous bands for years and his solo work, he was their hero.
Rosenstock’s music also attracted a new fan in my brother. Jeff Rosenstock’s music about his own suffering from both disorders offered that needed support to him. While Modern Baseball had gained plenty of recognition during their short time as a band with festival appearances and headline tours, Rosenstock seemed more accessible.
My brother’s dream of meeting Rosenstock came true a year after that show at the Ottobar, in July 2016, when Philadelphia’s The Superweaks were headlining the now-defunct Brooklyn DIY all-ages venue Aviv.
He’s typically shy; he has social anxiety, so it’s not easy for him to approach strangers. Yet, something clicked when he saw Rosenstock standing in the back of the room as The Superweaks performed. He quickly approached him and, before long, Rosenstock had invited us to drop by his show the next night at Sunnyvale, another Brooklyn venue. That night at the show, Rosenstock was standing by the merch table with his wife Christine. My brother quickly approached him and started talking to him as he would with a friend, chatting about bands they liked.
He described meeting Rosenstock as “the opposite of ‘never meet your heroes.’” Rather than seeing him as some unreachable megastar, he admired how Rosenstock spoke to him as if he were talking to a friend. “It’s remarkable that, for someone who has such a dedicated fanbase, he’s still a humble guy,” my brother said. “When talking to him, he was actually legitimately interested in our lives.”
That night, my brother waited after the show for Rosenstock to leave the backstage area, hoping to talk to him again. But when he asked for a picture, Rosenstock apologized and said he didn’t feel comfortable because of his own anxiety. My brother understood.
In January, I met up with Rosenstock in his Brooklyn neighborhood for beers and Mexican food at his favorite place, Calexico. We talked about that moment and he said that he always worries someone will think he’s an “a**hole” for saying no to photos, but that people usually honor his request.
“It then turns into a lot of people taking pictures of me,” he said. However, he does appreciate the fans’ motives. “I was probably the most annoying 16-year-old kid to any band that I ever got to meet,” he confessed. “I’d ask for pictures, autographs… I’d try to talk to them for a while.” He recalls as a teenager spotting members of Down By Law, a punk band that was at its prime in the late ’90s, at a service station in the New Jersey turnpike and asking for a picture with them.
His openness, however, comes with sense of responsibility to his fans.
“The questions people ask about depression are f*cking strange sometimes because it’s like, ‘So how do you deal with this?’” he said. “It’s like, ‘I don’t know. Sometimes I f*cking don’t deal with it.’ Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes I don’t talk to anyone for a while. Sometimes I just lay down with a pillow over my head just like ‘Ughhhh.’ Sometimes I’m just f*cking frustrated. I think most of it it’s just being frustrated and not knowing what to do.”
Before becoming a solo artist, Rosenstock was the frontman of Bomb The Music Industry!, where he focused on making his music as accessible as possible, from releasing it in his donation-based label Quote Unquote records to playing all-ages venues. He even invited fans to bring their own instruments to their shows and play with the band onstage, which further lowered the wall between band and fan.
That connection was palpable — as seen in a Bomb The Music Industry! documentary, Never Get Tired, in which a fan on the verge of tears hugs Rosenstock. In the documentary, AJJ (fka Andrew Jackson Jihad) frontman Sean Bonnette later refers to Rosenstock fans as “Rosenstalkers.”
BTMI capped off in 2014 with two sold-out shows in Brooklyn venue Warsaw, which has a capacity of 1,000. “I remember being at a bar up the street crying in between the two shows that we did,” he said. “I was just like ‘F*ck. A thousand people saw us play yesterday. Why couldn’t we make this just f*cking work? What the f*ck is wrong with us?”
After the breakup of BTMI, Rosenstock was not taking care of himself. He was smoking weed constantly and drinking at night to be able to sleep. When his part-time graphic design gig offered him a full-time job, Rosenstock had to choose between a regular paycheck and the unpredictable life of making music.
Music won out. (Last year, Uproxx’s rock critic Steven Hyden described his latest solo release Worry as a “sneakily ambitious opus.”)
In August 2015, Modern Baseball cancelled their Australian tour, with Lukens needing to take time to address his own mental health. Instead of complaining, fans offered their support. Many even shared their own stories of their struggles.
Although songs from MoBo’s second studio album You’re Gonna Miss It All hinted at such mental health struggles, the extent of Lukens’ situation were not apparent until the band released an EP in October 2015 titled MoBo Presents: The Perfect Cast EP Featuring Modern Baseball. It was recorded in the beginning of 2015, but was not shared until after Lukens announced the tour cancellation, with songs discussing Lukens’ struggles with alcoholism and cutting. The album opened with Lukens urging himself to stop: “Hey you, that’s no way out / You can’t find help in a bottle or a cut.”
Two years later, he feels hesitant to play these songs onstage. During our conversation, he referred to them as “really intense” and said that many of the things he expressed in the EP were resolved in many ways on the band’s third studio album, Holy Ghost. Leading up to the release of Holy Ghost, the band also produced a short documentary, Tripping In The Dark, in which Lukens spoke about dealing with a bipolar disorder, as well as anxiety and depression.
“We thought that might make it easier to discuss it,” Lukens said to me. “It’s less weight than coming out there and having all the focus on me. Basically, when we started recording Holy Ghost, we realized that this was a record about coping and mental health. We were going to be pretty adamantly pushing for that.”
In August of that year, Lukens went up to the roof of his home with the intention of committing suicide. He received a text from co-frontman Jake Ewald that changed that fate. Lukens stepped down from the roof and told his friend Cameron Boucher, frontman of fellow Philadelphia-based band Sorority Noise. Boucher told Ewald, who then called Lukens’ mom. After admitting himself to a mental health facility in his home state, Maryland, Lukens was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder.
He recalls having “crazy outbursts” growing up, but him and his family never looked into it until now. “It’s like the older I get, the harder that becomes to manage,” he said. “When you’re a kid, you don’t realize it, which was my case.”
He also has PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), caused after surviving sexual assault a few years ago. It’s a topic that was not addressed in the documentary nor in his music; it is something that is still difficult for Lukens to discuss openly, he told me.
Many bands, especially those that MoBo are associated with, have used their music as platforms to discuss depression and anxiety, yet there are not many whose members have openly talked about struggling with PTSD within their genre. (For what it’s worth, last year pop star Lady Gaga addressed her own PTSD for the first time.)
Modern Baseball began 2017 with a few Australian dates. After that nearly two-week stint, they’d then go on an European/UK tour starting in late January that would last a month. However, the day before the tour, co-frontman Brendan Lukens announced that he would not be joining the band on tour due to mental health reasons.
A month after Lukens decided to not join the band on tour, we spoke over the phone as he sat in his office in Philadelphia, surrounded by memorabilia and art created by fans who have supported MoBo over the years. It was a tough but necessary decision, he said.
He spent the time off from tour at appointments with his doctors. Before this break, Lukens barely had time to make the necessary visits.
This time he felt supported by his bandmates. “Another big thing I think is important is my band had my back with me doing this,” he said. “I think it’s important for bands to know, and artists to know, whether your band has your back or not.”
Shortly after the European tour ended, Ewald shared another announcement on Facebook saying that Modern Baseball’s 2017 North American spring tour had been cancelled so that other members of the band could focus on their own mental health.
Lukens said that although he has been the most open about his own mental health, all of the band members also share some of the same struggles. Touring can be difficult, especially for musicians who are on the road up to two hundred days a year.
Many fans shared encouraging comments and tweets sharing their support, yet contemplated whether this meant it would be the end of a band that was more than a band to them.
Among Modern Baseball’s most devoted fans is James Cassar, the managing editor of Modern Vinyl and a former Property Of Zack contributor. Cassar was commissioned by Property Of Zack to write a series of articles about growing up with cerebral palsy and finding a place to belong within that music scene. He named it “Re-Done,” after the track Modern Baseball’s Sports.
However, as Cassar’s professional life took off, a relationship ended with a troublesome breakup and he attempted suicide.
In an essay penned after MoBo’s announcement of taking a break, Cassar detailed how the band played a large role in saving his life. The night he attempted suicide, he was listening to Sports in his dorm room. He wrote:
“I must’ve heard that song countless times before, with its tinny pinch harmonies and irregular drum pattern. I know nothing of its music, only of its message — or at least, how it transferred to me, arm falling asleep, throat caked with numb. And then I made myself choke the orange back up — I watched myself do it to verify it happened — and then slept for the first time in days. ‘Re-Done’ precedes this painful memory just long enough for me to convince myself it didn’t happen, or at least, understand why I prevented it from getting worse.”
At the time, Cassar wasn’t fully aware of the struggles the band members were going through, but he considered the lyrics to be a motivation to get better.
In 2015, Lame-O Records released a six-band compilation, Strength In Weakness, with proceeds benefitting Philadelphia’s chapter of United Cerebral Palsy. Cassar was the inspiration for the compilation, featuring Modern Baseball, Marietta, Beach Slang, among others. That year, at a Valentine’s Day show in a basement in Philadelphia, Modern Baseball dedicated “Re-Done” to Cassar.
Cameron Boucher, frontman of Sorority Noise, counts Lukens as one of his best friends. Boucher is also bipolar and suffers from severe anxiety. The band released their debut album, Forgettable, in 2014, on which Boucher sang of his own struggle with depression in such lyrics as, “Nobody likes me / That’s what I tell myself / I live alone in my own hell” in “Mediocre At Best.”
Boucher’s music is remarkably personal. While both Sorority Noise and Modern Baseball reveal their struggles in a way that feels like a glimpse into their inner thoughts, Boucher’s songwriting does it in a way that feels like reading a journal. He considers his writing to be therapeutic. “When I’m writing a song,” he said, “It’s strictly for me and it’s strictly a way for me to talk out to myself the things that I’m dealing with that I can’t put on paper and I can’t say out loud.”
One song, “Mononokay” off Joy, Departed, resonated powerfully for my brother, who told his therapist that it explains how anxiety and depression feels for him. The song, he told me, makes him think that his feelings are not something that’s just in his head.
In interviews, Boucher often credits the track “Using” as the first song he wrote about depression and substance abuse that ends with a positive tone. It starts by him admitting that he started using again, yet ends with him proudly shouting that he “stopped wishing [he] was dead.”
On Sorority Noise’s latest album, You’re Not As _______ As You Think, the subject matter is similarly heavy. However, Boucher looks outward more, with lyrics paying homage to his friends, Corey and Sean, the former of whom died from an overdose and the latter of whom committed suicide.
“My friends that passed are very important to me, but I try and live my life as best as I can,” he said. “And sometimes I get stressed because maybe I’m not doing that. Maybe I could live my life better every day, and maybe I can give more back to people every day, because I know my friends would want the best life at the end of the day.”
Boucher tries to be as open as possible about mental health struggles and wants to help his fans be able to feel comfortable knowing they’re not alone, so it’s no surprise that many of them see him as someone who plays the role of mentor and can advise them on how to cope.
“I feel like because I talk about it on stage and because I talk about it in my music, it makes it seem like I know what to do, you know?” he said. “But I don’t. I have no idea, I’m just trying to talk about the things I’m going through and how I’m dealing with them.”
Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz discusses depression and anxiety in her music in a way that is both witty and self-deprecating. “She’s someone who I think manages to make depression funny,” my brother said. “It helps people cope because you can relate, but it’s not whiny or mopey.”
Unlike Modern Baseball, Sorority Noise, and Jeff Rosenstock’s straightforward approach at writing about their disorders, Dupuis’ lyrics are dense and laden with metaphoric imagery.
“Being open about those kinds of feelings has always been a part of my creative and academic life, so it didn’t feel like I was saying anything groundbreaking,” she said when we spoke at a cafe in the Lower East Side. “On the other hand, it’s always nice when people reach out to you like ‘I, too, have been coping with these feelings and your songs have been helping me.’” Dupuis, who started out studying Math and Music at MIT, dropped out after two years and enrolled in Barnard College with a concentration in poetry. She later received an MA in poetry at UMass, where she also spent time teaching poetry.
Depression runs in both sides of Dupuis’ family. During her childhood, her anxiety manifested in the form compulsive tendencies, including counting things obsessively.
At 13, she attended a boarding school in Connecticut. “I would have compulsive suicidal thoughts and I couldn’t understand why that would happen,” she said. Around that time, she began to make her own music: “I would write these melodramatic teen songs about how sad I was.” Music was cathartic.
The way that Dupuis discusses her disorders both in her music and in real life is not melancholic, instead, it’s assuring and funny, she sounds confident that her struggles are nothing she’s ashamed of. Besides using humor in her music, she has also made empowerment a focal point. Her solo project, Sad13, features “Devil In U,” a song about overcoming an emotionally abusive relationship, and “Get A Yes,” a sex-positive song about the importance of consent.
Songs like “Devil In U” are instrumental in helping people who suffer from PTSD caused by abusive relationships feel like they are not alone. It isn’t written in explicit personal detail, but describes what it’s like to be in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power.
“It took me a few years after [the relationship ended] to even write about it or talk about it,” she shared. “It seemed more useful for me and to whoever might be listening to write from a perspective of growth and strength rather than just the horrible feeling of being stuck in something like that.”
Dupuis, who currently lives in Philadelphia, counts her touring musician friends as a great form of support during difficult times. “This job comes with its own unique subset of anxieties and coping mechanisms,” she said. “I can say I’m struggling with post-tour depression and, with just that expression, my friends here know that I probably won’t be leaving the house for a week.”
Australian trio Camp Cope’s frontwoman Georgia “Maq” McDonald, was diagnosed with depression at the age of 11. Growing up with a dad who is a musician, Hugh McDonald from Redgum, she always had access to music as a form of release. She sings about her “crippling anxiety” as she tells a story of feeling lonesome and reminiscing about having someone in her life who actually understood her.
Camp Cope quickly grew a fanbase after the release of their self-titled debut album in spring of 2016. They sang about loneliness, anxiety, depression, and grief. In a phone call from Australia, Maq told me that she finds comfort in knowing that her music has resonated with so many people. “A girl got a tattoo of one of our songs’ name and I cried. She said, ‘You make me feel strong’ and that was just so important, because I want girls and people that are different to feel strong and to know their power.”
Their music has attracted the attention from artists and bands, including Modern Baseball and Jeff Rosenstock who played with them on their respective Australian tours.
Maq described being part of this community of bands as a “really beautiful feeling.” She mentioned the importance of male musicians within this group breaking the stigma against expressing their feelings and change the way society views gender roles. Yet, she also notes that the importance of sharing those emotions isn’t limited to men, but rather to all genders. “I think there’s so much power in being vulnerable.”
During our conversation, we talked about the double standards that come discussing mental health, particularly that, from my point of view, many male artists are praised for being open about their struggles, while female and non-binary artists often have their work described as “confessional” and brushed off.
Maq agreed, adding, “Women are just kind of expected to just shut up and deal with it. It’s really strange because women are seen as really weird and emotional. But actually we’re tough as nails.”
One of Camp Cope’s most emotionally intense songs is “Song For Charlie,” a song Maq wrote after her mom’s partner, John, committed suicide after suffering from severe depression. It was written for his son Charlie, the most emotionally scarred by the incident. Maq told me she feels like she’s “re-living the pain” whenever she performs the song. “I couldn’t play it without crying for so long and now I still choke up a bit,” she said. “Especially if one of my family members is in the room.”
Still, she believes doing so will also help those who are dealing with a similar loss. “If people look up to me and they see me being vulnerable and in pain in front of hundreds of people, then I think that kind of removes the stigma a bit.”
Gareth Paisey, the frontman of Los Campesinos! feels a particular bond, and with it a responsibility to the band’s fans.
Los Campesinos! recently released their first album in nearly four years, Sick Scenes. Paisey, whose album-making routine involves penning the lyrics once they’re in the studio rather than prior to planning it out, used this new album as an opportunity to share feelings he had pent up within those years. During the process of writing it, he was in a “bad place.” The band recorded the album in Portugal for 30 days last June and the environment affected his depression because there was very little for them to do there besides focus on the album. He spent much of his time there alone.
“I hate saying this, but I think my depression, my mental health, has benefitted my writing,” he said via Skype. “It helps allow me to write about how I’m feeling.” He does not consider himself to be a musician or artist, but uses his music as a platform to release his thoughts and feelings. “Mental health as a muse is a weird one.”
Paisey’s lyrics often switch from melodramatic to humorous — sometimes both at the same time. From cherishing with fondness the day before he met a former love interest, to thinking about soccer while kissing someone. The most recurring theme is heartbreak, which is repeatedly intertwined with his depression.
“I feel like probably most of the worst depressive bouts that I’ve had coincided with a breakup, some with the breakup happening as a result of the depression,” he said. “It’s easy to dismiss depression in a lot of situations, and one of them is when somebody is heartbroken. It’s easy for people who don’t understand depression to just be like ‘Well, you know, you’ll get over them, and then it’ll all be fine.’”
Paisey has made sure to be accessible to fans, from managing the band’s Facebook page where he personally replies to fans’ comments, to listing his personal email in their social media sites. He has even given some his phone number in case they want to chat further via text. Paisey mostly has fans contacting him via email, sharing their own experiences with depression and the role the band has played in their lives.
Paisey says that, much like Rosenstock, he wanted to “deconstruct the perceived hierarchy between bands and their fans.” He said noticing how starstruck some fans were upon seeing him at shows, which he appreciates but finds humor in it. Working behind the merch table, he often sees fans question whether it’s really him and then approach him after seeing others chat with him. “It’s that initial standoff,” he said. “I’m never going to be like, ‘Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. Here I am,’ because that would just be ludicrous. It’s always funny, and like I say, I like it, but it’s weird to talk about it as well.”
Some fans are too shy to approach him, yet many tell him stories about how the band has helped them with their mental health, or get through tough times in general. Paisey noticed that on Facebook, many fans would share on their page that they wanted to attend their show but didn’t want to go alone. He would often reply saying that the other fans were friendly and would welcome them into their group. These days, however, if someone posts something like that, his other fans are the ones taking the initiative, inviting them to join.
“This is cheesy as hell,” he said, “But I very seldom make it to the end of the gig without crying because the response we get from our audience is so intense, and there really is a feeling of unity. It never feels like anybody at our shows is an outsider.”
“I’m Not Just Another Face”
My brother is just one of the many fans whose lives have changed with the presence of these bands that allow a larger discussion of mental disorders. Every show these bands and artists play provides a sense of community; a safe space where fans and bands can be themselves and bond over their struggles and feel like they are being heard, with songs that serve as an eternal reminder that they are not alone.
If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health issues, you’re not alone. The National Alliance of Mental Illness offers countless resources, including 24/7 support. Get more info here.