There’s a great year of festivals ahead in 2013, but First Fortnight holds a special place, and not just because it kicks off next week. Verse Chorus Verse, Heathers, Aaron Smyth from Vann and Róisín O tell Lauren Murphy why they’re getting involved
As we get ready for First Fortnight, The Ticket finds that it’s good to talk,
HIS WILL BE my third year of involvement with First Fortnight,” says Tony Wright aka Verse Chorus Verse. “I remember when Alan, our old manager in And So I Watch You From Afar, told me about it; I’d only been diagnosed with bipolar disorder a couple of months previously. He said: ‘There’s no pressure, but if you do want to talk about things, you can’. I thought, well, it’s one of those things that helps to talk about it, so I agreed.
“My first admission was actually on Today FM with Ray D’Arcy. Only family and bandmates knew about it before that. But once I started talking about it, it felt like it wasn’t an issue anymore. It’s when you keep it quiet and hold back, then you’ve got this completely wrongful feeling of shame, or something. There’s the whole feeling that you should just maintain the stiff upper lip and just carry on. But as soon as you address something, no matter what it is, you feel that burden lifted.
Why is there such a stigma attached to mental illness?
“Well, some people tend not to believe these things because it’s not a physical ailment. You feel that people are being a lot more judgmental, because it’s not something you can actually show. When I told the guys in the band, I felt that it winded them a little bit, too. They didn’t deal with it the best, but that’s no bad reflection on them – a lot of people don’t know how to deal with it when you lay out your stall and say ‘Look, I have these problems’.
“But the more that you talk about it – and an organisation like First Fortnight is completely designed for that sort of thing – it makes it so much easier to address it and come to terms with saying: ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. This is just who I am, and it’s something I will deal with.’
My bipolar disorder has been a long, longterm thing, long before I was diagnosed. I remember talking to a counsellor in college and they wanted me to talk to a doctor, but I resisted because I thought that would make it too real. I guess I just knew I was having thoughts that I shouldn’t have. I was in a very dark place for a lot of the time, and it was very hard to break free of those thoughts, even though I knew that I didn’t want to think them. I did find that when I addressed it and spoke about it, it helped hugely. You’re acknowledging that you don’t want to be that way. I can’t emphasise that enough: people need to know that it’s okay to talk about it and get help.
“Music was, and still is a huge source of comfort – I can get a lot done in those dark times, too. It’s a struggle to get started, but once you can start, it can help to sort things out in your head. Yeah, it’s dangerous if you feel like that’s where all your inspiration comes from, because it’s not – but I’m just like any musician or artist who’ll take inspiration from different spots, and the best will write about what they know. And that’s something that I do know about, so I will draw from that. It is a very big part of who I am, and it’s not something I’m ashamed of.
“When I was in And So I Watch You From Afar, we were on the road a lot, but I don’t think that had anything to do with feeling less stable or exacerbating things. That’s probably the thing I miss most, actually, and I aim to do that again, as soon as my new record’s ready to come out. I absolutely adore being on the road, and so many things that I learned about life and about myself came from those travels.
“It’s very kind of First Fortnight to describe me as an ‘ambassador’, but I’m just a guy who supports them in the same way I would support other charities. It’s almost like a kind of movement for the creative arts, now. It’s a great soapbox for artists and creative people, and the more interest the festival’s getting, the bigger that soapbox is and the bigger the reach is for it. I hope in the future that it won’t just be me saying ‘it’s alright to be this way’, that you can still just get on with things. That it’s okay. That you can talk about it.”
IT’S GOOD TO TALK
Generating everyday discussion on mental health issues is one of First Fortnight’s main objectives. On that note, we gathered together a group of musicians playing the festival – Ellie and Louise Macnamara (Heathers), Aaron Smyth (Vann) and Róisín O – to get their take on the festival’s subject matter and talk about their own experiences.
What was your first reaction when you were approached to take part in First Fortnight?
Louise: We were delighted. One thing we really wanted to do recently is try to spread the word about mental-health awareness – that it’s okay to talk about it. I personally had experience, because a friend committed suicide two years ago and obviously that had a huge affect on me. After that, we really wanted to try to spread the word and help to get it out there that it’s okay to talk about things, and I think a great way to do that is through art and music. First Fortnight is something that everyone enjoys – listening to music, going to plays, art exhibi-
Róisín: It’s the realisation that so many people are affected by it, too. When you see all these people talking about it and sharing their experiences at something like First Fortnight, it makes you feel more comfortable if there’s something wrong with your mental health. I was thrilled when I was asked, but I thought ‘Well, I haven’t really personally been affected by depression’. But thinking about it later, I really have been. A lot of my songs are about depression, even though I wouldn’t necessarily have written them strictly about that topic. I have one song called Hold On that was written for a friend of mine, who has suffered from depression and been hospitalised on and off for a long time. Heathers, you’ve written a song related to the topic, too – Forget Me Knots.
Ellie: That song was written for our friend. And also, when we were writing this album, myself and Louise went through a lot of stuff – so a lot of our new album is a lot to do with the mind and mental health, and trying to deal with these kind of thoughts and worries and anxieties. Why do you think there's such a stigma about speaking openly about mental health issues?
Aaron: I think it’s an inherently Irish thing – there’s this ‘oh, just get on with it, keep your
problems to yourself’ sort of thing.
Róisín: talk about Yeah, generally, definitely. It’s especially not something the older you generations kind of thing. – there’s a ‘stop being so dramatic’
Louise: people talking You go about to the going States to their and therapist, you hear and here, everyone it’s like ‘God, talks don’t about mention it very it’. openly – yet
Aaron: said he’d Springsteen suffered from recently depression came out for and 20 years come out – I and doubt say that that, a whether big Irish it’s figure a politician, would or musician, or some other big name. And when someone like Sinéad O'Connor is open about her bipolar disorder, she’s labelled as “crazy” . . .
Róisín: Exactly. When you’re in the public eye, I think you have to have this certain persona, too. It’s like you don’t want people that you don’t know personally knowing your ‘weaknesses’, or personal details of your life – there’s that worry of people looking down on you because of it. Are you worried that if you talk about mental health issues publicly, that it’ll detract from your music or change people’s perception of you?
Róisín: Not really. If anything, I think it’s good to talk about it, especially if you’re in the public eye. Someone in the public eye talking about mental health does somehow make it less of a taboo.
Aaron: I think attitudes are changing slowly. I see the way my sister is with her kids, or my friends are with their kids – it’s different to how our parents would have been with us. It’s a lot more open, in a way. I think that attitude of keeping things to yourself is certainly changing. What do you want people to take from First Fortnight?
Ellie: Just to spread the word. You hear of so many horrible things happening, especially in Ireland and with young people, it’s just terrifying. And the more we’re able to do things like this and talk about it like it’s a normal thing to talk about, the better.
Róisín: And especially not just ‘having bipolar’ or ‘being depressed’. There are lower levels of it that can turn into that. But if you talk about it more and get to young people, it helps. When you’re in school, you can get very depressed and caught up in your head around your peers – that’s where it can sometimes start, and turn into something much worse. But if you can catch it at that early stage and talk to someone about it, that’s really important. It can really help.
Clockwise from far left: Tony Wright aka VerseChorusVerse, The Man Whom, We Cut Corners, Chris Campbell, Kopek, Stefanie Preissner, writer and lone star of Solpadeine is My Boyfriend, Heathers, Róisín O. Below: Tony Wright
tions and everything else. It’s a really nice way to [raise awareness].