Why Sad Songs Can Be The Most Healing – A Discussion on Mental Health and Music
In his memoir Rock Bottom at the Renaissance, Emmy-winning producer and journalist Mike Henneberger details his experiences as “just another lost soul in New York City, stumbling down a path paved by mental illness” that’s mitigated by drugs, alcohol, sex and music.
Cleverly, he incorporates many tracks – including a few never before released – by artists such as Alkaline Trio, Death Cab for Cutie, Jimmy Eat World, Bayside, Lisa Loeb and Bright Eyes to add catharsis and context to his journey. They’re often directly linked to his experiences, and they always pack an emotional punch by allowing Henneberger’s troubles and triumphs to resonate as deeply as possible with readers.
In support of Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked Loudwire contributor Jordan Blum to speak with Henneberger – and actor/musician Tyler Posey, who narrates the entire audiobook version of Rock Bottom in-between each chapter’s brief musical bookends – about the project, the realities of struggling with mental health, and the healing power of sad songs.
Mike, what was the process for getting all of these artists to let you use their lyrics and music for free (especially as the bookends to virtually every segment of the audiobook)?
Mike Henneberger: I’ve always loved the idea of picking the right song to go over a scene in a TV show or movie, and this was a way to do that. I just asked people I knew who knew bands, as well as emailed certain artists’ management. I knew that some songs would be easier to get than others, so I went for the smaller bands first so I could get all of them on board to then go to, say, Jimmy Eat World and say, “Do you guys honestly want to be the only ones who aren’t doing this?” [laughs].
Like reverse psychology.
MH: Right. Luckily, it didn’t come to that because they were so supportive and cool. It was very important for me to reach out to these groups and let them know that this is a story about dealing with mental health through music, among other things. It’s a tribute to how these bands kept me alive during those tough times. Because of that – and because 50 percent of the royalties go to mental health charities and industry relief funds – they were generous enough to be involved. Having Tyler on board gave the project some clout, of course.
How you correlate chapters and moments with certain songs is quite powerful, too. Tyler, what made you sign on to do the audiobook? From what I understand, you two have a shared history with mental health issues, substance abuse and particular music tastes.
Tyler Posey: We were both represented by Big Picture Media, and they usually bring me really credible and exciting ideas. I got an email about Mike’s book and was instantly interested. The first page had this handwritten note from Mike that basically hit on everything I needed to hear. I was in a remarkably vulnerable place then, including getting sober, and I never truly felt connected to anybody or anything throughout my life. I was lost and wandering, and whatever happy moments I had would be overshadowed by some super sad and challenging moments. I started to realize how my childhood trauma made me the way that I am.
TP: Yeah, man, and his letter outlined what I was going through in a weird yet spiritual way. I was hooked immediately; he even mentioned that we’re both half-Mexican, and he also loved punk and emo music, which added to the connection. I’ve been an advocate for mental health awareness because of my own battles. Everything about his book was amazing, and it lined up perfectly with my interests. Plus, I knew that it’d be therapeutic to relive specific experiences through his stories.
I had a rough upbringing, too, and I saw myself in Mike’s struggles with self-doubt and self-medication.
TP: Totally. Sobriety and healing are all about sharing stories and not feeling alone in what we’re dealing with.
Some people don’t understand that depression, anxiety, and even imposter syndrome are not necessarily related to what someone achieves or how happy they “should” be. Just look at Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell. We really need to normalize discussing our cognitive distortions and barriers.
Do you think that men, in particular, are still stigmatized for being open about it?
TP: The topic is being talked about more, but society doesn’t see it as “normal” yet. We’re still jarred by people admitting that they’re depressed or anxious. With men, it’s like they’re still not supposed to show emotion.
MH: To a degree, it’s seen as okay to discuss, but not to the point of true authenticity, especially concerning suicidal thoughts. In the emo and pop-punk communities it’s been talked about a decent amount, but not in the wider scope of popular music, and never rarely in enough depth. If it was easily explainable, it’d be easily solvable. That’s why I wanted to be as truthful and detailed as possible in the book. There’s no shame in being open about it, and we need to help each other.
Have either of you found that – somewhat paradoxically – sad songs seem to help mental health more than happy songs? For me, they’re cathartic and universal and honest, whereas happy songs (especially love songs) often represent a kind of utopic and simplified existence that’s not attainable.
TP: Fuck yeah, dude. That’s it, and that’s what’s so great about the book, too. It’s heartbreaking and tangible. A lot of happy songs (plus TV shows and movies) set unrealistic benchmarks for who we should be and what we should want and achieve. Having stuff like this, that doesn’t bullshit with the truth, binds us and makes us feel less shitty about ourselves.
MH: These songs are in the book because I want it to do the same thing for others that those songs did for me. I had this debilitating depression that almost killed me multiple times, but I managed to turn that into this story. The Bayside material, in particular, is dark because Anthony Raneri [vocals, rhythm guitar] turned his feelings into those songs rather than kill himself. Transforming those thoughts into something creative is really empowering and freeing. Then, your audience will see that you went through the same thing, and hopefully they’ll feel better about their own hardships. These mindsets don’t have to destroy us.