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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

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01/03/2017 11:21:27

Music Therapy

Need for a critical perspective

Music TherapyI recently came across this excellent article in the Lancet (co-authored by Professor Desmond O’Neill, who I also plan to interview soon). It calls for a need for a reflective and critical perspective on the role of the humanities in healthcare.

This very point has been on my mind of late. As someone with a strong interest in music in particular and the arts more widely, I realise that I am not without bias in exploring the potential applications of music and arts therapies in clinical settings. These interventions are mostly viewed by the public and doctors as benign and harmless at worst, and as potentially wondrous and life-changing by some. Yet, like all interventions in healthcare settings, they need to be subject to scrutiny for effectiveness, cost analysis and, importantly, potential unwanted outcomes. What works for some may not work for others and pressurising anyone into a potential form of therapy raises ethical questions.

Music TherapyI have touched on some evidence base in the blog before, but mostly the blog has been speculative on this front. With this in mind, I did some further digging on the benefits of music therapy in mental health settings. I was mostly interested in high-quality evidence, from systematic review and metanalysis. I recall having read a 2008 Cochrane review, which suggested that while music therapy may have some benefits, the number of quality studies was very small and caution was required.

I was pleasantly surprised then to find that more recent work in this area, at the level of RCT or systematic review, has suggested benefits not only in depression, but also in other mental disorders including psychosis, dementia, autism, acquired brain injury. As a forensic psychiatrist, I was encouraged to read of work in correctional settings, where high rates of mental disorder are common. Further, music therapy appears to be well tolerated by almost all patients, and no specific adverse effects have been reported on, though it is not always clear if these have been considered.

So the current state of the field looks more promising, thanks to what seems like an increase in better quality research in this area over the last decade or so. Gaps remain however in our knowledge about precisely how these interventions work, what components may be especially useful, and which patients will respond less well. These areas warrant further exploration.

A music therapist’s perspective

A music therapist’s perspectiveI thought readers might also be interested in what music therapy specifically entails. The British Association of Music Therapists website gives an overview, including an historic perspective. Mind’s website provides some useful information also, stating ‘you do not need to have any artistic skill or previous experience of dance, drama, music or visual art to find arts therapies helpful. The aim isn't to produce a great work of art, but to use what you create to understand yourself better.’ This echoes Carl Jung’s view of art therapy, which he quite clearly delineated from actual works of art.

To further our understanding, I spoke with music therapist, Hannah Smith, who has experience across a range of mental health settings.

How did you develop an interest in music therapy? Are you a musician yourself? What qualifications did you pursue?

My personal background stems from having a musical family of sisters playing music, and growing up wanting to be part of the groups they played in having seen them perform and the friendships they made through their music. I learnt violin and bassoon through my school years, and was always motivated by playing with others.

As I got older, I wanted to maintain my music and had a keen interest in psychology and counselling/therapy - someone then uttered the term 'Music Therapist' at a careers evening in my GCSE years, and I looked in to the profession. I started by meeting a Music Therapist in a local hospice, volunteered there and in numerous other relevant settings, and studied Psychology and Music for my Undergraduate Degree, before applying to the Masters in Music Therapy at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I still play in an orchestra for my own enjoyment and musicianship.

To be a Music Therapist, it is also imperative that you play at least one instrument to a high level (usually diploma or above is required), the psychology and therapy theory and techniques are what are taught and developed during training.

Can you tell us a little about your current work in this area?

I currently work two days a week in secure and forensic services for the NHS, and previously worked in an acute mental health hospital, also for the NHS. In both settings, I have provided a mixture of group and individual sessions, both on and off ward. Sessions are tailored to client need, with thoughts around timing, context, duration, and therapeutic aims. In forensic services, there is also consideration of a client's index offence – both in terms of work to be done in therapy, and aspects of safety and risk.

Some group sessions are open to all patients on a given ward – I run drumming groups to promote engagement in accessible group music, active participation, group cohesion and the widely evidenced benefits that drumming is known to have upon mental and physical health. Others are closed, by referral only, and involve a more ‘classic’ approach of engaging clients in improvised music making, for self-expression, rehabilitation, emotional regulation, building insight and developing relationships with others. I also work in children’s services for another NHS Trust, three days per week.

What are the main challenges you face as a music therapist?

The most common questions asked of Music Therapists, are ‘What is Music Therapy?’ and ‘Does it work?’. I used to find this very frustrating in the early days, feeling like I was constantly having to justify my chosen career, until a colleague made the valid point that as a relatively small profession, for most people we meet in life, we will be the first Music Therapist they have ever met. Realising the weight of this, changed my view, to consider the importance of these questions, and the importance of being open to them in order to nurture individual and societal understanding of the work we do, how, why, and the developments our clients make.

What aspects do you find most interesting and rewarding?

I find group music making with adults can be incredibly rewarding. To facilitate a group of individuals, who may initially be unsure about attending and reticent of making music together, and to support them grow and come together, engaging in improvisation, to share the moment that they may discover or rediscover their own creative capacity, take risks to express themselves authentically, can be very special.

To offer an alternative means of interacting, to gain insight into parts of a person which may not be accessed or observed by other professionals, is a privilege. When these groups ‘let go’ and are able to ‘be’ in the music, in that moment, the significance in the room is palpable. This may take many weeks to achieve, or occur within a single session. At times I can go a step further and break from my own music making, when I am no-longer essential to holding the group sound, and the group has the strength and confidence to maintain its own music. I love to sit out and listen, observe and re-join the music once my clients have hopefully realised what they have achieved together.

Any particular success stories you would like to share?

I would say that the moments of success are what matter to me – the group coming together, the individual managing to stay in the room for the full session time without their anxieties overwhelming them, the individual holding a CD that we have recorded together of songs they may have written or covered which having meaning to them, or even the client that initially couldn’t bear to identify an instrument to play but who manages to be at ease within the room and explore items with a sense of curiosity and trust for the therapeutic space.


20/12/2016 11:42:12

So Long, Mr Cohen

Leonard Cohen


Songs of
Love and Hope



Due to the insightful nature of his work, and its thematic content, I have considered featuring Leonard Cohen for some time in the blog. His recent passing prompted me to complete this piece. Several modern musical greats have died this year, and to many, he is one of the greatest.

Alongside Bob Dylan, Cohen was instrumental in evolution of the poetic tradition in popular song, from the 1960s onwards. His style differed from Dylan’s, being leaner and arguably more finely crafted, reflecting his background as an established poet and novelist prior to his songwriting career. Leonard Cohen

Cohen’s fascinating life story has been well covered in several biographies and some excellent profiles, including a recent and prescient New Yorker piece, and ‘Bird on a Wire’, an intriguing documentary from an early 1970s tour. Cohen however hated clichés and I think he would also dislike much of what was written before and since his death, which has repeated hackneyed stories about his life and music. Hence, I will spare him, and our readers, any (further) mention here of Janis Joplin, American Idol covers, or trite interpretations of his songs as 'suicide’ music. 

Instead, I thought the best approach would be to create a themed playlist (available for Spotify users here) from his formidable body of work, which is relevant to mental health, and broader contemporary concerns. I have selected mostly lesser-known songs which I hope might provide another perspective on his skills as a writer and observer of human nature. He was a master of economy in his writing, and thus I have also tried to keep it brief! As ever, I welcome feedback and commentary, and I am particularly interested to know of readers’ favourite songs, especially those which may be less widely known, and of personal experience with his music.

This is my last blog post for 2016. Next year, I hope to feature a range of subjects, from choir singers and music therapy to female rock performers and the role of music in later life. I am open to suggestions and perspectives from any source, and on any genre. 

The Weight of Depression

I always found criticisms of Cohen’s music as ‘depressing’ to be very superficial. He interjected his work with distinctive black humour, and enriched it with philosophical reflection and references to religious and historical texts. Many of his songs reflect great hope and belief in the better nature of individuals. Personally, I find most of his music to be soulful, meditative and soothing.

However, his output over many years did suggest that he struggled with mental turmoil beyond average experience, starting with the haunting ‘Teachers’ on his eponymous debut album. In an interview in 2012, he described his experience of depression as "the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse.” Eventually, he reported, “by imperceptible degrees and by the grace of good teachers and good luck, that depression slowly dissolved and has never returned with the same ferocity that prevailed for most of my life.” 

I have chosen four songs that perhaps reflect these struggles the most. ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’ are both from ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ (1971), perhaps Cohen’s bleakest album. Amongst other things, both powerfully capture the hopelessness and self-loathing that can result from a depressive illness. ‘By the Rivers Dark’ and ‘Almost like the Blues’ are more recent works, rich with allusion to religion and his spiritual life, but which may also be interpreted as commentaries on his experiences of depression.

Social consciousness in a tumultuous era

Something of an elder statesman, or at least older brother, by the time he arrived on the music scene in the 1960s, Cohen witnessed massive social and political upheaval in his lifetime. Here, as ever, he did not follow a prescribed path, expressing for example a fascination with war and being close to war zones in the early 70s. His political views, when articulated, appeared more complex and subtle than the mores of his 60s contemporaries or simplistic left-right definitions would allow. Nonetheless, it is clear that social issues, particularly about violence and moral decay, concerned him throughout his life. This is reflected in the songs selected below. At the end of this year of political turmoil, they offer the perspective of a compassionate and sensitive individual, aghast at cruelty and inequality, but alternately hopeful about humanity.

Leonard Cohen

The Future

Everybody Knows

The Land of Plenty

Heart with no Companion

Conflict between the spiritual and material world

Cohen’s fascination with spirituality is widely known. Proud of his Jewish heritage, he frequently referred to the bible in his songs. He also pursued other religious traditions, including Hinduism and most famously, a 6-year retreat to a Buddhist monastery in California in the 1990s, where he led a spartan existence. On the other hand, he was also a bon vivant, who relished smoking, fine wine, expensive suits, and romantic encounters with beautiful and glamorous women, many of which have been well documented. He was conscious of this apparent contradiction and the conflict that it created in his life, and he spoke about it insightfully and with great humour in many interviews throughout his career. There was also a tension between his unerring commitment to his craft and his reluctance to commit to conventional roles as a partner and a father. The songs listed here explore these dilemmas, with his characteristic intelligence, compassion and of course, poetic flair. ‘It Seemed the Better Way’ is from his final album, released weeks before his death. 

Leonard Cohen

Waiting for the Miracle 

A Thousand Kisses Deep 

Did I Ever Love You

It Seemed the Better Way





14/10/2016 09:44:13

Jazz Icons on Film

Jazz Icons on Film

Two recent film releases have prompted this piece, though several of the artists featured here have been on my list for a while. They all share a history of drug problems, complex lives and artistic brilliance.

The films in question are ‘Born to be Blue’, and ‘Miles Ahead’, loosely based on the lives and times of Chet Baker and Miles Davis, respectively. There are striking similarities between the films. Both concern gifted trumpet players with a history of heroin use. Both focus on periods leading up to comebacks in the musicians’ respective careers. Interestingly, both also take what may kindly be dubbed an ‘improvisational’ approach to their subject, perhaps in keeping with the music in question. Large segments of each film may be viewed as extrapolations based on real events- or outright fiction, depending on one’s persuasion. I should confess that I am not usually a fan of this style of bio-pic (The King’s Speech being a particular bugbear of mine), but in the spirit of appreciating a good jazz solo, I decided to go with the flow in both instances. Two great soundtracks helped, of course.


For my money, ‘Miles Ahead’ is the more rewarding effort. Don Cheadle plays Miles Davis to great effect, complete with intimidating swagger and trademark rasp. Although the fictional sub-plot (complete with gun-toting villains and car chase) is distracting, Ewan McGregor’s character, a believably amoral music journalist, provides an interesting foil for Cheadle’s portrayal. This is of a burned out Davis, stubbornly avoiding the world, while on one level desperately seeking a way to reengage with his talent and career. Though factual accuracy is not high on the agenda, there is verisimilitude in the film’s capturing a spirit of initial hopelessness and subsequent revival in keeping with Davis’ actual biography in the mid to late 1970s.


Disappointingly, ‘Born to be Blue’ is less successful. Chet Baker has been on my list of potential subjects for some time, due to his enormously colourful personal life, as well as his splendid music. Renowned for having great ‘natural’ ability, Baker was widely respected as one of the most talented trumpeters of his generation and combined his musical skill, fervent ambition and exceptional good looks to create a brilliant early career. Yet Baker was also a recalcitrant individual, whose extreme behaviour and drug use led to continuous conflict with authorities, including an 18-month prison term in Italy in the early 1960s. He left behind a string of broken marriages, tarnished by his domestic abuse, and appears to have woefully neglected his children. He could be manipulative and deceitful, often in his quest to maintain his drug habit. ‘Born to be Blue’ reflects some of this, but while the portrayal by Ethan Hawke is skilful in reflecting Baker’s mannerisms and approach to music, it is ultimately overly sympathetic. Due to the sheer volume of potential material to be covered in a feature-length film, ‘Born to be Blue’ may perhaps be forgiven for fusing together characters and incidents from Baker’s life into simplified versions, but few of Baker’s less appealing characteristics are captured, and the lingering feeling is one of an incomplete portrait.

Chet Baker - Let's get lost


Bird and Round Midnight


For a more satisfying take on the real thing, readers should seek out Bruce Weber's Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary ‘Let’s Get Lost’. Though sometimes meandering, the film is unflinching, moving and sometimes unsettling, revealing deeper truths about Baker’s life, including the trail of emotional destruction he left in his wake. While Weber greatly admired Baker, and was clearly sympathetic to his struggles with addiction, he also gives voice to many intimate contacts who were betrayed or ill-treated by his subject. The result in a much more nuanced and realistic account of a brilliant and troubled individual. To my mind, he would probably have met criteria for antisocial personality disorder, to my ears, his music retains its allure.

Two further films from the 1980s merit a mention here. Firstly, ‘Round Midnight’ (1986), directed by the French director Bertrand Tavernier. The film stars legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner, a fictional American jazz musician in the 1950s. Turner is thought to represent a spiritual likeness of real-life contemporaries of Gordon, namely Lester Young and, particularly, Bud Powell (whose tragic biography is synopsized here). The film is understated and slow-moving, but enlivened by the performance of Gordon, who received an Oscar nomination for his outstanding portrayal. Again, the soundtrack is hugely enjoyable, and the Paris jazz-club scenes are captivating. Secondly, Clint Eastwood’s ‘Bird’ (1988), about the life of Charlie Parker, is a must-watch for anyone interested in jazz or the lives of its icons. Not without its critics, again largely for playing loose with the facts, it is nonetheless a fascinating work. Highly influential in the development of bepop jazz, Parker was probably the first jazz icon to be widely known as a heroin addict, and tragically died as the result of his drug use at the age of just 34. Forrest Whitaker’s startling portrayal alone is worth the watch- all 155 minutes.


I welcome feedback on these films from readers, and suggestions on other jazz films of note. We also have an active Twitter account for the blog, where I am always happy to take suggestions for other pieces and interviews.


(Note- I will feature ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ in a future piece on Billie Holiday.)


Other suggested reading:


Richard Brody’s hard-hitting takedown of the widely-lauded ‘Whiplash’.


Joe Queenan’s Guardian review of ‘Born to be Blue’ and ‘Miles Ahead’



Musical recommendations:


Miles Davis ‘The Pan Piper’ from ‘Sketches of Spain’, one of his most celebrated albums.


Chet Baker sings and plays ‘Almost Blue’, written by Elvis Costello, inspired in turn by Baker.


Dexter Gordon in ‘Round Midnight’.


Charlie Parker (as played by Forrest Whitaker) in ‘Bird’.


14/07/2016 10:53:29

Members Interview: Professor Harry Kennedy

Professor Harry KennedyProfessor Harry Kennedy is consultant forensic psychiatrist and executive clinical director at the National Forensic Mental Health Service, Central Mental Hospital, Dundrum, Ireland. He is also Clinical Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin. He studied medicine at University College Dublin before training in psychiatry and forensic psychiatry in the UK at Hammersmith Hospital and Maudsley /Institute of Psychiatry, London. He established early prison in-reach services in Pentonville, Holloway, Cloverhill and Mountjoy prisons. His research includes work on the epidemiology of suicide, homicide and violence; prison psychiatric morbidity; international human rights law and mental disabilities. He provides expert evidence in human rights cases including Whitemoor escapers (special secure units), Napier (slopping out), Z & G v Revenue (same sex marriage).

Professor Kennedy is also a musician. Some years back, I was somewhat startled to read in an interview with him in a medical news journal that in another life he would have liked to have been a full-time musician “in a very loud band”. In this lifetime, he has been content to play (loud) music on the side, and he speaks enthusiastically about the beneficial effects of listening to and of playing music, particularly in collaboration with others. For the blog, he spoke to me about these issues and other matters relating to music and mental health.

Who is your favourite musical artist or group and why?

I am listening to a lot of Snarky Puppy lately. I haven’t seen them live but they are great on YouTube. I like their ability to improvise around well rehearsed and scored music, and the way they bring in guests and young musicians. I always enjoy listening to Emma Kirby, Iarla O'Lionaird, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Trevor Pinnock, Peter McCarthy. And The Doors, The Gloaming, Massive Attack...

What was your greatest musical experience?

Hearing Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble playing in St Alban’s Cathedral – they walked around the aisles and nave ‘playing’ the building itself. Hearing Brian Wilson live in The Point came close. 

You play the bass guitar. What made you choose this? How did you learn?

A guitar teacher suggested it. Possibly because of the way I was trying to play, possibly because there are only four strings. My great good luck was to find friends who also wanted to play – a drummer, a guitarist, a keyboard player. Ensemble playing is a pleasure in itself. 

How do you make time to play music alongside your work as a psychiatrist? What benefits and challenges does this pose?

At home I am teased about my evening work pattern – ten minutes work, fifteen minutes on the bass, ten minutes work...

Does music have a role in mental health treatment? If so, are there any particular challenges in forensic settings?

WHO definitions of health can seem a bit perfectionist until you think about how much hospitalised patients enjoy any opportunity to be creative. If painting is self-actualisation, then playing music with other people is self-transcendence. The bands in Dundrum at the moment have a life of their own and are hugely popular, along with gardening, bee keeping and other activities that require group creativity.

What do you think is the mechanism by which listening to or playing music can help with mental health issues? We would be particularly interested with regard to your expertise on violence and aggression.

Music can as easily stir up violent feelings as friendly or calm feelings. Think about Wagner in Apocalypse Now, or the bronze age wind instruments used by armies going into battle. That’s the use of music for Dutch courage before acts of instrumental violence. The film Apocalypse Now also uses Hendrix and the Doors for expressive violence and self-harm respectively. Then there is the deliberate misuse of Beethoven in Clockwork Orange. These are examples of the use of music either to communicate something (the martial use for instance) or as an individual cue or prompt, a sort of aid to intoxication – think of the first scene in Apocalypse Now.

But music also works as a way into positive frames of mind – the countless examples are too obvious to be cited. Music is an emotive force but how it is used, personally or collectively, positively or negatively is a matter of choice.

Some of the interviews I have conducted here have raised the issue of the differences between performance, composition and improvisation. I know this is something that interests you also. Can you outline your views on this?

This is where the use of music in hospitals might be located. Performing is anxiety provoking. Overcoming that can generalise in all sorts of ways. Performing something written down is always an act of interpretation and even thinking about that is the beginnings of learning to think about thinking. This is something that often occupies the early phases of hospital treatment for people who are not psychologically minded to start with. Improvisation then becomes a real pleasure, a form of mastery over the fear of performance. But improvisation has the added element that it is generally done in a band setting with other musicians, exchanging ideas, taking turns, supporting the structure. That has benefits of its own.

You have also spoken about lecturing as performance and entertainment. Do psychiatrists, and academics in particular, have something to learn in this way from watching live music? What are the main challenges in balancing content with an appealing delivery? Any landmines to steer clear of?!

Anyone who prepares a talk for an audience should know that you can’t just read out a text, make no eye contact with the audience and then leave without further interaction. Planning how to draw an audience in, keeping an eye on them as you go along, engaging the audience in an improvisation at the end once the theme has been set up – obviously that’s a performance. I can remember hell and brimstone preachers occasionally from the early 1960s – are there modern equivalents?

There are bombastic hymns, there are lecturers who sometimes want to make fun of an audience or a rival point of view – politics is always a bad intrusion into academic communication. Of course we should be political, we should write journalism too (like this piece) but that’s not the same thing at all as speaking academically. Academic lecturing always includes evidence.

Most scientific communication is a work of collective creativity and would be impossible unless it was inclusive. The recent attempt to tighten the rules on authorship seem to me to be mistaken. But I occasionally hear other researchers citing something I have written in ways that surprise me – a bit like hearing someone covering a song you have written in a style you never anticipated.

We would be interested to know a little more about your own music. What style is it?

It’s very loud. And it’s a collective production, only partly ‘my own’. And a lot better for that.

Can you recommend a song or piece of music for our mental well-being?

Regularly playing any music at all with other people would be my recommendation. Next would be going out to live music.

18/04/2016 15:55:05

A Life On Tour: Niall Connolly

Niall Connolly













Niall Connolly. Photo: Anthony Mulcahy

Niall Connolly is a modern troubadour. Over the last 15 years, he has toured extensively throughout Europe and the USA, playing hundreds of concerts in a wide variety of venues. He has played house concerts in Holland, folk festivals in Germany and cafes in rural Belgium. He has also taken the stage at prestigious events and venues such as CMJ in New York, the Olympia theatre in Dublin and Glastonbury. He has played support to some of Ireland’s most successful modern music acts, including Mick Flannery, John Spillane and Declan O’Rourke. His admirers include Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner (“I cannot remember when I heard such a moving collection of songs”) and Glen Hansard of The Frames/Swell Season fame, who recently tweeted his support. He has performed for movie stars (Gabriel Byrne and Daniel Day Lewis at The New York Irish Arts Centre Gala) and heads of state (including recently as a ‘warm up’ act for Bill Clinton). His recent tour blog offers a witty insight into some of these adventures.

After beginning his career in his hometown of Cork, Niall moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 2006. There he formed the Big City Folk Collective, providing a forum for a community of songwriters and musicians to perform and to hone their craft. During his time in New York, he has been instrumental in maintaining a live folk music scene throughout the city’s boroughs. The respect his fellow musicians and songwriters have for him is evident in their recording of a tribute album of his songs released in 2012.

Niall’s impassioned, vibrant and humour-laden performances have received wide critical acclaim, including from the Chicago Tribune and ‘No Depression’ magazine. He is also a respected recording artist. In 2001, his impressive debut album received warm praise from Hot Press magazine. Over time, his musical style evolved from the folk-infused lyrical songwriting of his 2003 album ‘As Tomorrow Creeps from the East’ to incorporate a fuller indie-rock sound, demonstrated on recordings such as 2010’s ‘Brother the Fight is Fixed’ and 2013’s ‘Sound’. A great admirer of Leonard Cohen, Niall’s songs exhibit a similar poetic fluency and emotional honesty. They also demonstrate a political awareness which calls to mind Billy Bragg and Steve Earle, a short story writer’s gift for condensed narrative, and a taste for spikey social commentary in the vein of Loudon Wainwright. While his songs are skilfully written and intelligent, they, like his live performances, are also warm and inclusive. His latest release, ‘All We Have Become’ (2015) is perhaps his most well-rounded album to date, incorporating songs from across his range of styles.

Niall is also a good friend of mine. I know him to be a robust and resourceful person who has carved out a career in a very competitive environment. I was interested in what he would have to tell us about the strains that life as a touring musician place on his mental health, and his experience in coping with the demands of such a lifestyle. Following his recent tour of the UK and Ireland, Niall took some time out to speak to me about his life on the road, and in music.


Niall on stage in Coughlan's, Cork
















Niall on stage in Coughlan’s, Cork, April 2016. Photo: Anthony Mulcahy.


JT: You have toured widely in many countries over 15 years. One of your early songs was called ‘Kindness of a Stranger’, about one of the encounters you had. How important has it been to you that strangers or relative strangers have lent a helping hand on your many journeys? Aside from practical help, how does this make a difference for you?

NC: I’d forgotten about that song! Touring for me is something of a tightrope walk. The safety net appears when I get on the rope. People are generally very open and kind to musicians. I wonder if it stems from people's respect for the gamble of a life less ordinary. It is such an unlikely way to live and in my experience of touring, people often connect with that and want to help.

People often tell me I am lucky or I am brave. I think it isn’t solely either of those things. Though the kindness of strangers certainly makes me braver and I know I am lucky. Still, it does take a lot of work to stay lucky.

Touring and consistently finding the kindness of strangers does give me a great lust for life. I so frequently get to see people at their best. In these dark times, I keep my eyes open to the everyday, random acts of kindness that people offer each other.
You have also spoken to me about the many stresses and strains of touring. A recent Guardian article made reference to this (though I felt somewhat conflated mental health problems with career dissatisfaction/existential angst!). What in your experience are the main problems that arise from being on the road? What are the best ways to deal with them? And the not so good ones?

The problems of touring are similar to those present in everyday life for everyone. But they are exacerbated by the nomadic aspects of life on tour. Poor diet, lack of exercise and sleep, too much drinking, loneliness, and financial stress can easily join forces and cause issues on tour. And the adrenaline of performance and the comedown that comes with it are additional factors.  Any combination of these can cause mental discomfort, if not mental health problems.

I try to be aware of all of these aspects. I try to be as prepared and as well researched as I can for tours, though of course there are aspects of tour, as with life, that are out of my control. A key issue is that I need to be ‘on’ when I am on stage. So much effort has gone into getting myself to the gig on time in any given city, that I do try to make sure that my mind is sharp while on stage. I plan my tours in as much detail as possible before I leave. I try to drink less than I want to. I walk as much as I can. I spend money on accommodation- sleep is not a luxury! I also pack (and sometimes use) a pair of running shoes- running serves the double purpose of providing exercise and also an opportunity for some time alone to reflect during the tour.

Does it get harder or easier over time?

I’ve gotten better at recognising where problems arise for me. For example, hangovers and travel are a horrible mix. I try to make reasonably healthy choices along the way. So physically, touring has actually become easier as I have gotten older, as I have become a bit more organized and developed a small bit more "sense".  A small bit! The hardest aspect of touring for me is being away from my wife. I hate being away for prolonged spells.

You have met many accomplished musicians from many different backgrounds. Have you noticed any common personality traits? What do you think are the characteristics that make it more likely a musician, particularly a touring musician, will endure or succeed?

Nearly all of the very successful people I have met are genuinely very nice people. They are shielded by confidence and belief in their work. This is not to be confused with arrogance- the belief is more in creating music rather than in themselves. Many of them seem very aware, and wary, of the more tenuous aspects of success.  They tend to be very interested and invested in their creativity. Most also chose their battles wisely. They are not afraid to say no to inappropriate gigs. Learning to know when to say ‘no’ is an ongoing lesson for me. 

Niall Connolly NYC















Niall oversees his kingdom of New York. Photo: Art-Heffron


What about the life of a full-time musician in Brooklyn/New York? What are the main changes that have happened in the last 10 years do you think? Have any of them been for the better? We would be interested in the role you feel the internet has played.

Venues are closing and changing hands with alarming frequency. Despite its reputation as a centre for creativity- or perhaps alongside this- the city seems to also have an endless appetite for banks, coffee chains and chemists. For example, Greenwich Village in Manhattan is now littered with chain stores.

The internet has certainly made booking and promoting gigs easier, but it has made the gigs themselves harder. We live in the age of distraction. In Brooklyn, like in any big city, people have so many options to choose from in every aspect of their lives. Even when people do choose to go out, and come to a gig, so many appear chained to their devices. In my experience, this is markedly worse in the US than in Ireland or Germany, for example. While video never quite killed the radio star, the smartphone seems intent on killing or at least maiming live performance.

The internet has also made it easier for people to record and distribute music, but it has also devalued it immensely. At one point, I had stern words with a friend for giving away CDs on tour. I used the argument that if it is not with $10 or $15 to you, the artist, why would anyone listen to it? We, the musicians, have to put a value on our work.

The internet has changed all industries. The music industry has changed and continues to change, so I need to be industrious, and become my own industry.

Many of our readers are interested in the link between mental health and inspiration/creativity. The cliché of the perpetually tortured artist doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny when examined closely: Will Oldham, who I featured some time back, made some interesting points on this, and Van Morrison has said he rarely feels inspired to create unless he has peace of mind. I know you are a big admirer of Tom Waits, who made arguably his best work when his personal life was most stable. Can you give us your perspective on this topic? What are the ideal conditions in which to write or compose, or is it different for each song?

I think it is certainly true that our experience of the world is different when we are at our wit's end, even exhausted, and it is certainly possible to create something different in that frame of mind. However, I don't ever seek that out, for it is equally true that I will experience the world differently when I am fully rested! Or after reading a great book, seeing a great film, or having a great conversation with an old friend.

As for writing- I gather ideas constantly. I eavesdrop. I keep my eyes open. I take notes. I write a lot on trains. The songwriting itself, the music part, well for that I need privacy or the illusion of privacy. Even my best songs are awful till they are good. My wife and I rent a railroad apartment in Brooklyn- it is long and narrow, so I can go to one end of it and pretend she can't really hear me strangling a song into shape.

I know you listen to an impressively broad range of music. How did your own tastes develop?

I started deliberately seeking out and listening to music at about 13. I liked REM, Nirvana, James, the Frank and Walters, the Sultans of Ping, indie pop, grunge and some of the more melodic punk stuff. My sister had some Dylan, Cohen, Waits, and I started delving into that too. Later, I worked in the music library in Cork for a spell. I broadened my listening somewhat there but I was, and still am, essentially drawn in by melody and words.

Can you select a few songs, ideally from different genres, which have been inspirational to you over the years?

Ahhhh... where to start?  This is an almost impossible task. So I won't overthink it and will just type what comes to mind.

Gillian Welch- Everything is Free Now
King Creosote and Jon Hopkins- Bubble
PJ Harvey - Sheela Na Gig
The Frank And Walters - Landslide
Ger Wolfe - the Curra Road/ She Scattered Crumbs/ One Star Left in the Window
Avro Pärt - Spiegel im Spiegel
We/Or/Me - The Dusty Roads
Will Oldham - I see a Darkness
Leonard Cohen - Famous Blue Rain Coat/ Alexandra Leaving
Roesy - Take It With Me (Tom Waits Cover)
The Straight Story - Soundtrack
The Pixies - Where is My Mind?
Hawksley Workman - Safe and Sound
John Spillane- Who Will Burn Brightly?
E.W. Harris - Only Wind Up Dead

What do you listen to most on the road?

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. Those are great for solo travel. As I can switch off and still learn something. I actually listened to my first Audiobook in its entirely on the last tour. "Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine". That was good for perspective!


23/02/2016 17:56:41

Electronic music - Dr Paul Whelan

Pablo Del MonteDr Paul Whelan is an honorary consultant psychiatrist at the National Psychosis Unit, South London and Maudsley Foundation Trust.  He qualified in Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and undertook his psychiatric training in general adult and old age psychiatry in London.

Paul is also a DJ and producer, working in electronic music. His interest in dance music started in medical school, and early in his medical career he DJ’d under his own name, forming the band ‘Electro Convulsive Therapy’ (the name being a reference to both the style of music he was making at the time and his chosen medical speciality). His records have enjoyed commercial success - he has performed live on BBC Radio One and he was featured in a BMJ article on doctors in music in 2006. Paul is largely self-taught, although he has studied electronic music composition. Now based in London and using the name Pablo del Monte, he recently set up East Recordings, a specialist house music label.

I interviewed Paul for the blog and he provided some insight into this perhaps lesser-known musical genre.

For this blog, I have come across several doctors who are also musicians. You have had quite a unique experience, in that you have enjoyed commercial success from your music, as well as successfully pursuing your medical career. Has this made your decisions about which career path to follow easier or more difficult over the years?

First off, thanks for asking me to do this interview.  Yes, it has made it very hard in that I had to make a decision to leave music just at a point when we were on the point of considerable success so that I could focus on my membership exams.  I know a number of doctors work part time, and I do currently, but I didn’t feel at that point in my training I could do both.  Medicine can be quite all-consuming as a career and it can be very hard to find the correct work-life balance.

What drew you to electronic music? Have you completely immersed yourself in this or have you an interest in other genres?

I was drawn to electronic music the very first time I heard it.  I don’t know why but I prefer the sound of synthesisers to guitars, for example. I had four piano lessons as a kid (and gave up) but aside from that I’m not trained musically.  There are distinct advantages to me with regard to electronic music in the sense that I can write music using a sequencer in a computer without having to play it on a keyboard.  In fact, I rarely touch a keyboard. I do listen to other genres though. 

As well as DJ-ing, your involvement at Brick Lane Studios must have provided you with an insight into the world of business and marketing. You mentioned to me that healthcare services, in particular the NHS, may have something to learn from independent, start-up type businesses- can you tell us how?

As mentioned, I left music previously to finish my post-graduate medical training and I only started making music again three years ago.  In the interim two things happened in music: the internet boomed and cheap music-making software became available.  There is no price barrier to making professional music now and, as such, the number of people doing so has exploded exponentially.  At the same time music is being consumed in a very different way (i.e. streaming).  The net result is more people making music but less revenue available. 

As such, it is only those people who can successfully market themselves who can make a living from making music nowadays.  An artist has to be very social media savvy.  Businesses too.  Obviously the primary role of the NHS is to provide healthcare, but I think we are missing a trick, especially so in relation to public health medicine, by being less effective at social media than other sectors.  That said, the trust I work for (South London and Maudsley) is better at it than most, and I’ve noticed a trend in academia for increased use of social media.

I still don’t have the empirical evidence, but I do believe a disproportionate amount of psychiatrists are interested in music and the creative arts. Is there any link between making music and the choice of psychiatry as a medical specialty do you think?

I tend to agree.  Psychiatry is as much an art as it is a science.  Psychiatry is the medicine of thoughts and emotion.  Therefore it doesn’t surprise me that people who are more drawn to the creative arts choose it as a specialty.  But I wish I had a more concrete answer too as I always get asked this question at job interviews!

You mentioned your interest in the neuroscience of music and a recent piece here dealt with this to some degree. Have you come across any particularly interesting material in this area? How do you think research in this area might help move things forward in a practical way?

There have been huge strides in the field of cognitive neuroscience, i.e. the study of emotions, in the last decade.  We listen to music for a number reasons but primarily because it makes us feel (be that happy, or the cathartic effect of a sad song) and to feel connected to the world the people in it through cerebration or dance.  Music therapy has been around for years and Oliver Sacks book ‘Musicophilia’ covers this.  Music, at a very fundamental level, is sound vibrations and there is an interesting article on the American Psychological Association website about music being used to heal a range of health conditions through this mechanism.

I have a number of loose theories about music, but if I try and answer your question specifically and scientifically then I suppose research would need to clearly map the physical, cognitive, emotional and sociological process involved in experiencing music, drill down into which of these are therapeutic and then design trials to test these hypotheses in order to derive evidence-based music-based treatments- EBMBT, anyone?

Can you select some pieces of electronic music that may have healing properties? Or just some favourites to share with our readers.

I’ve selected four pieces that all have in common the elements that comprise good electronic music: they speak emotion with no words, simple repeated musical phases and textures.

The world’s first-ever ambient album, “Music for Airports”’ by Brian Eno.

Techno may not be your bag but I challenge you not to be moved by Maceo Plex’s “Conjure Dreams”.

The beautiful afro house of Henrik Schwarz’s “L’abeille”.

My friend from Dublin, Glen Brady’s “Once was Glamour” on my own label, East Recordings is a fine example of chill-out.

I can’t speak to their therapeutic properties, but “Music for Airports” certainly works for me whenever I get a bout of insomnia!

Paul will be performing at an electronic music event in East London on March 12th.


08/01/2016 10:23:42

The Ballad of Shirley Collins

Shirley Collins
Shirley Collins MBE is an English folksinger who was a significant contributor to the English Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s.  


In 1954, at a party hosted by Ewan MacColl, Shirley met Alan Lomax, the famous American folk collector. Together, they made a folk song collecting trip in the Southern states that lasted from July to November 1959, and resulted in many hours of recordings. Many of these were issued by Atlantic Records under the title "Sounds of the South", and some were later re-enacted in the Coen brothers’ film ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou’. 



Shirley Collins

Shirley then went on to have a successful performing and recording career in the 1960s and 1970s. She was influential in the folk music world, collaborating with key figures including Davy Graham and Ashely Hutchings of Steeleye Span and releasing several highly regarded albums, including Anthems in Eden, thought by many to be her finest work.


The loss of her singing voice, which appears to have been a form of psychogenic dysphonia, meant that Shirley could not perform or record from 1982 onwards. During this time, she raised her children and worked in several other jobs outside of the music industry. Further biographical information is available through excellent resources here and in an article in The Guardian from last year, which details the traumatic break-up of her marriage to Huthchings and the subsequent loss of her singing voice.


In recent years, a new generation of artists, including musicians Graham Coxon, Jeff Tweedy and Will Oldham, and the comedian Stewart Lee, helped to generate a revival of interest in her music. This has in turn led to the production of an upcoming documentary about her life, The Ballad of Shirley Collins. Last year, I was approached by the film’s director, Rob Curry, to interview Shirley as part of the film. As well as this, Shirley kindly agreed to a written interview, which I am including below.


In our interviews, I found that Shirley, now 80, has maintained her sharp intellect and fiery character. She continues to hold and express strong opinions about a range of subjects, including her distaste for a lot of contemporary music, particularly pale imitations of the folk tradition, and even jazz! In a happy ending to her remarkable story, Shirley has now regained use of her singing voice and has begun to perform and record again.

Shirley Collins

I believe Shirley’s story once again demonstrates how music is often closely entwined in our mental and emotional lives. I hope this piece will contribute to the ongoing revival of interest in her work. I think it can also shed some light on the serious impact and complexity of disorders of physical function that do not have an organic basis.

Many of Shirley’s songs are available to listen to here 

Can you tell us a little about your famous trip around the USA with Alan Lomax? What lessons did it teach, about music and about life?

It was in the autumn of 1959, and we recorded from both black and white singers and musicians in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and the Georgia Sea islands. They were field recordings of ordinary people – not professional singers, of course. I already knew that the white mountain singers sang mostly songs and ballads from the British Isles that had gone to America with the early settlers; what delighted me was how intact they were, as far as the words went, but with a difference in the melodies that were totally American.  The voices too, were different from British voices, a bit harsher, more strident, but I loved them.  I’d heard blues in England, mostly on recordings, but I wasn’t prepared for the age of some of the songs the black singers had – some that went back to before the American Civil War, and some that sounded incredibly African still.  Most of the people we met were friendly and welcoming, especially to a girl who’d come from so far away as England. This was at a time when tourism to the States hadn’t begun.  And it confirmed my belief in the quality of the music that ‘ordinary’ people can make.


Lessons about life?  How people (and their music and songs) endure under harsh conditions. How kind most people are and how talented many of them.


Readers would be interested to know about the loss of your singing voice- can you describe what happened? What do you think was the cause of losing your voice?

My then husband left me for another woman, an actress he’d met while we were both working at in ‘Lark Rise’ at the National Theatre. He chose to do it the day after a wedding anniversary – a day we’d spent together, and walked back down the lane to our cottage hand in hand. The next evening he came home and said he was leaving in the morning ‘consumed with love’.  The shock – and my grief – were considerable. Also the problem was that he and I were working in the band at the same show, and I was the singer. It was a promenade show, the audience standing, and night after night the actress came and stood in front of me as I was singing, often wearing my husband’s sweaters. It was unnecessarily cruel and provocative. I was having to sing through grief and anger, and sometimes tears, and I had no control over my voice. Some nights I could sing, sometimes my voice broke, and worst of all, sometimes when I opened my mouth, nothing would come out. It was a double humiliation both private and public. This situation went on for far too long, but I was reluctant to leave the show, as a) I thought I deserved to be there, and 2) I needed the money, I had two children to support.   I completely lost confidence in my ability to sing, and as a woman to be loved.


Has your perspective changed on this over the years?

As I look back, I wish I had responded with anger rather than grief.


You have mentioned your regret at the loss of years of your career. Has the experience of losing your voice brought anything valuable?

At least I learned that I was resilient, and won through in the end. And I found that many people had valued what I did. And I wrote a book, several shows and lectures, all helping to restore my self-confidence.


Did listening to music help you through harder times? Any artists or songs in particular?

On the whole I found listening to music painful.  I played a couple of Linda and Richard Thompson songs over and over, and I listened to Italian Renaissance and English Baroque music. It’s full of beauty and vitality.

Things seem to have turned a corner now and you are back singing and making music. What do you think has made the difference?

Partly the passage of time – partly realising that I had been good at what I did – and that I was an original voice. Also I was still championing English folk music and still believe I understand it better than most, and if it doesn’t sound too vain, that it needed me as much as I need it.


Can you select 2 or 3 lesser known songs from the folk tradition that you think all our readers should hear? Perhaps from both England and elsewhere.

I’d choose ‘Master Kilby’ by Nic Jones, ‘Gilderoy’ from me and my sister Dolly, and ‘Rainbow mid life’s Willows from Almeda Riddle of Arkansas. Three great songs.


Finally- why do you hate jazz so much?!

I find it too fidgety, tuneless and jazz musicians tend to wear silly hats!!!





27/11/2015 10:27:43

The Neuroscience of Music

Professor Lawrence ParsonsLawrence Parsons is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield. He trained in cognitive and neural sciences at University of California San Diego and MIT, and was associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Centre. From 2001 -2003, he was responsible for establishing a cognitive neuroscience program at the National Science Foundation in Virginia, USA. Lawrence was a trustee of the International Foundation for Music Research, on the Editorial Board of the Social Neuroscience, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has published papers in Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), Journal of Neuroscience, Proceedings of the Royal Society (UK), Scientific American, and Trends in Cognitive Science.
Professor Lawrence Parsons


Lawrence’s recent research interest has focused on reasoning, language, emotion and the improvisation of music and dancing. He organized the first public forum on music and brain (at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London) and the first on the cognitive neuroscience of dance (at the Wellcome Institute, London). He also spoke as part of the excellent conference on creativity and mental health organised by the Royal Society of Medicine last year. He kindly took time out of his hectic schedule to answer some questions for this blog. His answers have provided a healthy dose of empirical evidence to the scope of this blog! 


Your work as a cognitive neuroscientist is an obvious starting point for your interest on the effect of music on the brain. What led to the development of this interest into a major part of your career?

I have been an active, wide-ranging music listener throughout my life; as a youth I played keyboard, stopping when I started university.  Later, when I was a professor, one of my colleagues asked if I would like to restart a research project that had stalled for various reasons.  This was early days, and the project was a neuroimaging study of piano performance: I jumped in with keen interest, realising upon its completion that a neuroscience of music performance could bring a variety of insights of general scientific, educational, and clinical interest.


Some of our readers may have read Daniel Levitin’s ‘This is Your Brain on Music’ or attended events such as the RSM conference on music and the brain last year or ‘’Shaping the Brain’ at Wellcome Trust this September. For the rest of us, could you select some key findings from research literature in this area that have relevance to mental health practitioners?  

Here is a selection of newly emerging, promising findings that could be of relevance to health practitioners:

- Learning to play a musical instrument appears to develop and maintain executive, multi-tasking, and attentional functions. Nadine Gaab and colleagues at Harvard Medical School published an excellent study on this issue.

- Listening to music may speed the recovery of health in patients in hospital and may elevate the threshold for pain. Robin Dunbar at Oxford and colleagues’ published a paper on this in Evolutionary Psychology (2012) (MacDonald, I., & East, V. P. (2012). Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: implications for the evolutionary function of music.) On Recovery, Teppo Sarkamo and colleagues University of Helsinki have papers on this in the journals Brain (2008) and Cognitive Neuroscience (2009).

- Learning and practicing dance, especially partnered dance, may enhance and maintain coordination, gait, balance, social relations, and quality of life, especially in middle aged and older adults, and those with movement disorders. Hackney (Emory University, Atlanta) and Earhart (Washington University, St Louis) have several studies on this.

- Learning to play a music instrument or to sing appears to improve the ability to detect prosodic emotion and other auditory speech information. Nina Kraus and colleagues at Northwestern University have a series of publications, as do Cesar Lima at UCL and Sao Luis Castro at University of Porto in the journal Emotion.

- Listening to, and performing, music may assist in the management of stress and arousal, and may enhance immune system function.  There’s a very helpful review on these issues by Mona Lisa Chanda and Dan Levitan in Trends in Cognitive Science 2013.

- Group drumming and group singing may enhance social affiliation and quality of life- Gunter Kreutz et al., in Behavioural Medicine (2004); Jonas Vaag, Arts and Health, 2013.

- Music can serve as a secure psychological space for autistic individuals, assisting with their social connectedness. Pam Heaton at Goldsmiths College Psychology Department has done very useful work on this issue.

Recent studies have emphasized the details how of music listening influences important parameters such as emotion regulation and reward.   These details will be helpful in elucidating possible applications in clinical settings. Valerie Salimpoor, Robert Zatorre and colleagues, have published very good studies on this, for example, in Nature Neuroscience 2011.


In your view, how can future research best further our understanding of mental health issues?

From increased emphasis on standardization, replication, and rigorous hypothesis-testing for clarifying the underlying mechanisms and potential effectiveness.  For example, delineating the role of music and dance experiences in treatment contexts of mental health.


What is your next project? What question(s) would you most like to answer in the remainder of your research career?

Two recent concerns of mine are (i) close investigations of the brain activity in each of a pair of co-performing musicians (singing together, or performing rhythmic percussion), and (ii) the close restrictive control of emotion in order to optimise available cognitive resources during concert/recital performances by musicians.  These issues are rich and unexplored, with various general implications for a variety of scientific and clinical issues.


How would you describe your own connection with music- fan, aficionado, obsessive, or other?! Can you select some pieces of music that have had a major impact on your own life and/or career?

As I mentioned, I am an avid listener to a wide range of music, always looking for new sounds.  I am not sure that any single musical piece has had a major impact on my life, but I can name (in random order) a few pieces, artists, or genre that I feel particularly close to. Here are a few:

Claude Debussy Sonata for Violin and Piano; Sonata for Flute, Viola, and HarpOliver Messiaen The Quartet for the End of Time






29/06/2015 17:17:35

Summer Update - Documentary Recommendations

Amy, 3 July 2015

It is an exciting time for fans of music documentaries. I recently featured ‘Be Here to Love Me’, ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ and ‘Heaven Adores You’. While not directly related to mental health matters, 2012's ‘Searching for Sugarman’ and ‘Beware of Mr Baker’ are also interesting works about unusual characters. Ginger Baker, now 75 and only recently recovered from a serious physical illness, performed at The Jazz Café in Camden last week to a fervent reaction from an awestruck crowd, proving that 'difficult' personalities can sometimes make for astonishing creative output.





Kapadia's "Amy" premieres 3 July 2015.


Kurt Cobain - Montage of HeckEarlier this year, Brett Morgan's 'Montage of Heck', about the troubled life of musician Kurt Cobain, was met with a mixture of critical acclaim and criticism. On July 3rd, Asif Kapadia's film about Amy Winehouse, 'Amy', will be released to a legion of fans of the London singer, who tragically died of an overdose in 2011. Both performers were 27 at the time of their death, and have sadly been added to the '27 club', a list of musicians who have died at that age. After a college conference event on music and mental health in 2013, I spoke with a colleague intrigued by this phenomenon. He suggested to me that this age, associated with the onset of adult responsibilities and the end of late adolescence, perhaps resulted in the chaotic life of a musician being less easily managed, and represented a high risk period for vulnerable creative people. I recommend both films for those interested in these issues and look forward to feedback and discussion on this forum and our twitter account.


Beware of Mr Baker

For those of you who may bemoan the lack of female musicians featured in this blog to date, I am aware of this shortcoming! I will seek to make amends with my next interview piece, where I will speak to the director and producer of another upcoming documentary about the life of British folksinger, Shirley Collins. From the era of Billie Holliday to that of Amy Winehouse, there have been many brilliant female musicians who have struggled with mental health problems. I very much welcome suggestions for other female artists to feature.

I would like to wish all our readers an enjoyable summer break and thank you for your continued interest.




2012 Documentary "Beware of Mr Baker"
tells the story of Drummer and Hellraiser
Ginger Baker, who continues to play at a
professional level aged 75.


29/04/2015 10:13:32

The Songs of Elliott Smith

An interview with Nickolas Rossi, director of new documentary ‘Heaven Adores You’

Elliot Smith





Elliott Smith (1969-2003) was an American songwriter and musician. Having played in rock band Heatmiser for several years, Smith switched to a solo career. His first albums were ‘lo-fi’ works, which gained a cult following and critical acclaim. In 1997, several of his songs were featured on the soundtrack to 'Good Will Hunting', culminating in his performance at the Oscars ceremony in 1998. This led to him being exposed to a much wider audience and the pressures of fame, with which he greatly struggled.




“He gave us the words that we couldn’t find when we were sad.”

- Autumn de Wilde

Smith suffered from depression and substance misuse and he dealt with these subjects in his lyrics, often quite explicitly. In 2003, aged 34, he died in Los Angeles from two stab wounds to the chest. Many believe he committed suicide, although the autopsy evidence was inconclusive. At the time of his death, Smith was working on his sixth studio album, From a Basement on the Hill, which was posthumously released in 2004. (Read a Guardian Interview from not long before Smith’s death in 2003).


Smith was a gifted musician and composer and there is considerable variation in the style of his songs, from melancholic and intense to whimsical and playful. His detractors sometimes pointed to an overly-confessional approach to song writing, but the frankness of his lyrics resonated with listeners worldwide and his fan base has continued to grow in the years since his death. His life has been the subject of several biographies, including ‘Tormented Saint’, ‘Keep The Things You Forgot’ and ‘Can’t Make A Sound’ and the documentary 'Searching for Elliott Smith' (2009).


This year sees the release of a further documentary, ‘Heaven Adores You’ (2014), with UK screenings from next month. In anticipation of its release, I spoke to the film’s director, Nickolas Rossi. Nickolas is an experienced cinematographer who has worked on a variety of projects. His website is here. ‘Heaven Adores You’ is his directorial debut.

Heaven Adores You


JT: Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to know Elliott Smith, or about him?


NR: I didn't know Elliott personally. I met him once outside of a venue in London back in 1998 while he was on tour with his record, XO. I told him that I too had lived in Portland and that I admired his music. But that was the extent of it. We both lived in Portland at the same time, and probably had beers at the same bar, went to the same shows. I'd see him around Los Angeles before he died, as well. When it came time to explore this project, I relied on the people who actually knew him the best to help tell his story and his experience.


You have stated that his music has been very important to you- can you explain why? What about his songs are so distinctive or moving do you think?



I think a lot of people who discover Elliott’s music do so at a time that sort of makes the most sense for them. It’s likely that you come across his music when you need to have someone express some of those feelings for you, through lyrics and melody. As Autumn de Wilde says in the film, “He gave us the words that we couldn’t find when we were sad.”


I definitely had my Portland experience with the music of Elliott Smith. And when I left Portland, I carried that experience with me, but seldom really felt like it was a shared experience with anyone else. He has a way to make songs very personal for those who listen to them. I think he’s important because regardless whether or not you ever knew him or ever met him, he feels like an old friend.


You are primarily a cinematographer. What drew you to this project? Was it just the music or did it tie in in some way with your interest in visual art?


I enjoy the relationship I've had with music and with cinematography. Sometimes, it's just great to put some music on and put on headphones and go for a walk through the city, or get on a train and watch the scenery pass by while you listen to the poetry of the songs. So, I think it's both. I always felt that Elliott's music was cinematic and that there were images and situations to explore through his songs. As a cinematographer, I wanted to explore that in the places where he made that music. There's a feeling to putting those songs to images. The three cities he recorded his records in are all very different in their aesthetics. It was a really fun process to delve into those places with his music as the soundtrack and see what came out in the process of editing the film.


Some people feel that his work is overly confessional or personal. My view is that while his material dealing with darker mental states is undoubtedly powerful, some of his best output was more playful and musically inventive songs, such as ‘Junk Bond Trader’, ‘Lost and Found’ and songs like ‘Bled White’ and ‘Baby Britain’, which deal with serious subjects, but in perhaps a more hopeful way. This suggests to me that if he was able to overcome his difficulties with depression and drug use, his output in the long run may have been somewhat broader in scope, as well as him creating more of it. Others may counter of course, with arguments about suffering being required for great music. What are your thoughts on this?


One of the things that kept on coming up in interviews with his friends was how a lot of people thought his songs were autobiographical, and how that wasn't the case all the time. Elliott was a great storyteller and was very adept in observing situations and then writing about them and being able to tie them into universal themes. It's probably why his music is so relatable for a lot of people. I'm sure there's probably a lot of personal stuff in there, too, but I wouldn't be able to confirm that. 


When I first started listening to Elliott's music, I found a lot of it really heavy and dramatic, but I have had a few years to really absorb a lot of it, and I think you're right--there's a lot of hopeful and optimistic poetry in his music. I guess it really has to do with what time in your life you discover his music. It's all very honest and raw, but also very witty and well constructed. I hope that the film can start to sort of shift that "sad sack musician" mythology that people quickly tag on songwriters like Elliott Smith.

Nickolas Rossi


Can you tell us a little about the making of the film? What themes have you chosen to focus on most and why?


We wanted to tell the story of Elliott Smith, from the stories of his friends and from his own interviews. It was really an organic process, with a focus being primarily on what we thought mattered most- which was the music.


Nickolas Rossi


Have you been surprised at the scale of reaction?


I'm glad the film is being well received with the fans. It means a lot to us that they have been so supportive of the film, and I can only hope that it stays available for the newer generation of fans of Elliott's music that will crop up in the years to come.


Can you pick a few personal favourites from Elliott’s catalogue?


There's so many! I think at the end of the film we counted approximately 47 tracks of music. I think there's a lot there to start with as favourites. Sometimes, it's a different song depending on the day, the weather, or the kind of day you've had. I think that's what’s great about Elliott's music. There's something there for everyone and every occasion. But a few personal favourites by Elliott would be: Waltz #1, Everything Means Nothing To Me, No Confidence Man, Satellite.

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Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.