How I Approach the Lyrics Writing to My Mental Health Song Cycle

When I chose to write a song cycle to‘s Five Signs of Suffering, I faced a few questions.

One of them was about what point of view I was going to write from.  I took on the project because five seemed a good number and the subject matter was dear to my heart.  But the last thing I want to do was to promote suffering.  I believe that what we fight against expands, and that we can’t let go of what we hate.  I have a strong compassion for people with mental illnesses, having witnessed closely what it feels like, but I want to convey that compassion without being an agent of more suffering.

On the other hand, I also believe that my music expresses my life energy and it results in the listeners receiving that energy.  It’s possible to create music that indulges and enhances suffering but since music is born out of life energy it takes some real twisted motivation to turn that into something that sucks life out of someone.  Nevertheless, my desire is to remind sufferers of hope and strength that they may have forgotten, not inundate them with reinforcement of what suffering fees like.  I need to meet where they are by reflecting on their situation but that’s just the starting point.  From there I want us to journey upward together.

In short, I decided that my songs can only authentically convey who I am.  My empathy does help me feel what someone else is feeling but that still doesn’t give me the right to talk about it as if it’s my problem.  My experience is that of a concerned bystander who cares and shares what sufferers are going through.  So this music is not an expression of suffering, but an expression of my feelings as a witness to someone else’s suffering.

It took me a few weeks to get to that direction.  I am aware that this is pretty heavy stuff and it can easily come across heavy-handed, melodramatic, preachy, and pretentious.  I’d like to think that I have enough songwriting mastery to treat it with the gravity it deserves without being morose.  But that’s just my own assessment, and I am open to accepting what you perceive in my songs.  For now my intention is to write a song for each of the Five Signs consistently from the above point of view.  I start out by describing what I’m seeing but there will be a cathartic moment or two where I inject my own feelings, or messages, that I wish to convey to someone in pain.

Regarding the first song “Can You Love a Landmine?” it also took me off guard when a dance beat came up and took over the first half of the song.  I was not prepared for the song to sound so peppy, and for a while I questioned whether this was a right song for this project or not.  In the end I’m happy with the playfulness that came through.  The song plows through some heavy stuff with pizazz and spunk, much like U2’s Achtung Baby and Dave Matthews Band’s classic Under the Table and Dreaming.  It can be predictable and a real turn-off to talk about this stuff with a sullen, sulky face.  I believe Bono said in the early 90s that putting on the mask (of the character The Fly for the Zoo TV tour) freed him up to speak the truth.  In my songwriting lessons I often speak of music and words needing cohesion, but cohesion doesn’t mean they be the same thing.  In “Landmine” I’m prancing around, stringing twisted words as if it’s a black comedy.  This is heavy sh*t and that’s precisely why it needs the light footing.  Things go zig zag and appear to fall off the deep end with the tongue firmly in the cheek — after all, it’s about personality change — and then it roars back, this time with the forceful rock groove to deliver the real payload, the very thing I needed to say.

We may be dancing holding the devil’s hands, but the key to survival is in having fun while teetering on the edge.  I don’t know if that’s what you get out of this song, but I am sure energized by the direction this project is taking.  I’m thrilled to head down this path with you for four more songs, to enjoy the views along the way.

(Lyrics on the SoundCloud page)