Adele and other artists who tackle mental health topics in their songs and in their lives.
I’ve been a music lover longer than I have been a professional counselor. But I’ve come to the realization that both can inform and enrich each other. I regularly incorporate listening to or playing music as an outlet for life enhancement, both in my personal life and in my professional work. I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to music and finding hidden gems.”
That’s why I started my newest podcast, “Change Your Tune”. It is a podcast dedicated to conversations about change, conversations about music, and those rare but wonderful occasions where the two intersect. I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to music and finding hidden gems. And I’m also on the lookout for artists and music that tackle psychological themes in their art.
In the past couple of weeks, two musicians were in the news for psychology related headlines. Sufjan Stevens released and promoted his latest album, Carrie & Lowell. The album covers his complicated relationship with his mother, who suffered from depression, schizophrenia, and addiction. Carrie passed away in 2012. The album’s lyrics centered around grief, loss, pain, and hope. You can read my glowing review of the album here: Carrie & Lowell Album Review
The other headline concerned Panic at the Disco’s drummer Spencer Smith. He announced that he was ending his run with the band that he co-founded ten years ago. Smith first took time away from the band in 2013 to address his growing addiction. He’s since been sober from prescription medication for two years and alcohol for one year but decided it was time for him to move on from the group.
If you appreciate music that tackles the big topics of psychological and mental health, here are 15 modern artists that consistently create psychologically rich music.
- Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan is one of the most ambitious, creative, and sensitive singer-songwriters of this era or any other period. No singer approaches emotions, faith, confusion, and loss with more creativity and delicateness. He’s addressed his relationship with his mother (Romulus) and tackled the complexity of death, loss, and faith (Casimir Pulaski Day) in past songs, but nothing as sophisticated and expansive as Carrie & Lowell.
- Elvis Perkins. You can find traces of loss, pain, and sadness in the music of Elvis Perkins that come from real-life tragedy. He is the son of the late actor Anthony Perkins, who famously portrayed Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Anthony Perkins died of AIDS when Elvis was 16 years old. Partway through recording his debut album, Ash Wednesday, Elvis’ mother, photographer Berry Berenson, died as a passenger aboard one of the two airplanes that crashed into the Twin Towers on 911. His music is often ruminations around grief, loss, spirituality, and the afterlife.
- Bjork. It has been rumored for years that Bjork suffers from various mental health problems. Speculation has included Bipolar, Aspergers, and anger management problems. Regardless of her own mental and emotional situation, Bjork’s most recent album, Vulnicura, tackles the raw and naked desperation immediately following the break-up with her longtime partner, artist Matthew Barney.
- Sia. This Australian artist has been opening up about her struggles with fame and how she turned to drugs and alcohol after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She claims her struggles with addiction and thoughts of ending her life enabled her to write Chandelier. By all accounts, Sia has been successful in turning her life around, staying sober and committed to her recovery.
- Demi Lovato. This former Disney channel sensation has been upfront about her struggles with mental illness for years, and now she’s furthering her advocacy by partnering with Regular Hero to raise money for her Lovato Treatment Scholarship Program.
- Lady Gaga. This eccentric performer admitted she became very depressed at the end of 2013. Lady Gaga has since revealed she takes medication every day for mental illness and depression and doesn’t feel bad about it. She shared her personal story with a fan while on stage performing; she then went on to serenade this fan with her hit Born This Way. During her “Born This Way” Ball tour, the entertainer provided free mental health counseling to concertgoers. Although she has been criticized (unfairly in my opinion) for glamorizing suicide with her song “Princess Die”, Lady Gaga has raised the conversation about mental health and art.
- Adele. The Someone Like You singer has repeatedly declined performing at large festivals like Glastonbury over the years due to anxiety and panic attacks. But it is her songs about loneliness, despair, and grief that resonates most with her fans.
- Fall Out Boy. 2015 marks the tenth anniversary of Fall Out Boy’s iconic release From Under The Cork Tree. This album largely has mental health as its subject, documenting bassist and songwriter Pete Wentz’s own struggles with anxiety, depression, and bi-polar disorder. Although they’ve continued to infuse their songs with psychological themes, they were never as direct (or personal) than with their second album.
- The National. Matt Berninger’s lyrics consistently address struggle and regret. Individual songs explore depression (Sorrow), paranoia, fear, and anxiety (Afraid of Everyone), and the numbing effect that adulthood can have on people (Mistaken For Strangers). In 2013 the band performed the song Sorrow repeatedly for 6 straight hours. They recently announced they will be releasing that performance as a limited edition 9 LP box set. It’s out June 22nd and all profits will be donated to Partners in Health http://alotofsorrow.com.
- You+Me. This is a recent collaboration between Dallas Green (City and Color) and Alecia Moore. You probably know her as P!nk. This simple album offers reflections on love and relationships, tackling complicated issues with simple and uncluttered arrangements. Moore has spoken about writing the song ‘Break the Cycle’ for her mom. The artist mostly known as P!nk has described her relationship with her mother as being strained, beautiful, painful, and empty. She sees the song as a summation of her attempts to repair the relationship with her and provide a different path for her own daughter, Willow.
- Allison Moorer. There was no way Allison Moorer could become anything but a country singer. Her personal life is seeped in drama and tragedy. She was 14 years old when her parents were involved in a murder-suicide. Her most recent album, Down to Believing, addresses her recent separation (divorce looming) to Steve Earle and her struggles with John Henry, her soon-to-be 5 year-old son who was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. Her songs are powerful, raw, and always honest.
- Wilco & Tweedy. Jeff Tweedy has tackled addiction, anxiety, infidelity, recovery, spirituality, and family throughout Wilco’s twenty years as a band. He and the band have weathered Tweedy’s own addiction to pain pills and panic attacks, his stint in rehab, and the firing of a key bandmember (Jay Bennett) who later died of an overdose. This past year, Jeff collaborated with his 18 year-old son, Spencer, as under the group Tweedy. During the writing of that album, Jeff’s wife and Spencer’s mother, Sue, was diagnosed with cancer. The album started to take a different tone and became a celebration of life, hope, and perseverance. The album’s title, Sukierae, came from Sue’s childhood nickname.
- Cloud Cult. Just as Cloud Cult was starting to earn acclaim from college raid and record stores, Craig and Connie Minowa endured the inexplicable tragedy of their 2 year-old son Kaidin dying mysteriously in his sleep. Although both were in the band, the couple brielfy split up. Craig became obsessed with life and death and poured all of it into his music. Eventually, Craig and Connie reunited, and together they had another son. It’s actually a one-of-a-kind experience to listen to Cloud Cult’s ultimate hope and optimism blend (and sometimes fight) with the despair and grief of the loss that Craig, Connie, and the band have endured.
- William Fitzsimmons. Born to two blind parents, Will completed a Master’s Degree in Counseling and worked as a mental health therapist for several years before his music career was launched. His observational skills and attention to quiet detail is what separates him from the cornucopia of singer-songwriting peers
- Rufus and Martha Wainwright. These talented siblings also have a tumultuous rivalry with one another. Their lives have been full of high drama, tragedy and family feuds. Rufus faced a near fatal addiction to crystal meth that left him temporarily blind. He was also raped at age 14. Their famous mother, Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, recently died, bringing family feuds back to the forefront. Both parents struggled to accept Rufus’ homosexuality. The Wainwright siblings write songs that are seeped in aggression, bitterness, drama, and love.