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Elliott Smith

As youth, we often define ourselves by our musical tastes. Music is deeply tied to various subcultures so that a love of punk, hip-hop, or pop seems to reveal deep truths about our souls. It didn’t used to be this way—back before there were so many genres, entire generations could be defined by bands like the Beatles or artists like Michael Jackson. Now that there’s a type of music for everyone, no artist will ever achieve that universal level of popularity. When we ask our friends who their favourite bands or artists are, their responses don’t always clarify things. The upside of this is that there appears to be a defining artist for every person. And this is where I reveal who that artist is for me. For the past four years, I have slid on ice, sat by the canal, studied, boarded the metro, and sipped tea to the lulling and lyrical tunes of Elliott Smith.

As a mental health advocate, this can be problematic. Elliott Smith, aside from being one of the most respected artists of the nineties (which was the heyday of alternative rock!), the songwriter most often compared to the Beatles, and a musician known for being generous, funny and open to collaboration suffered from a number of mental health issues. As a child, he was abused by his stepfather. Diagnosed with ADHD and depression, he self-medicated with various substances and was known to be an alcoholic and a heroin addict. Finally, in 2003 at the age of 34, he died of a self-inflicted stab wound. So the question most rational people ask me is “Why is this man your role model?” and, more importantly, “How can you encourage people to listen to his music if you’re a mental health advocate?”

The answers to these questions are complicated. It’s easy to say that he is an example of what happens when mental illness is not addressed and dealt with, but that’s untrue. Though he had a traumatic past, he was an honours student in High School. He was supported by a vast network of friends and collaborators, was in and out of some of the best rehab centers for most of his adult life and he died at a time when he was clean, sober and in the midst of recording a new album. Upon his death, his blood still contained traces of the anti-depressants and ADHD medications that he used to cope with his conditions. He was very forthright about his mental health problems. He addressed them both in his songs and his interviews, and he had many fans who loved him very much. Advocacy and treatment did not save him.

So we’re back at square one. I firmly believe that listening to Elliott Smith music has a therapeutic effect on mental illness, but the man who devoted his life to writing these songs eventually killed himself. The songs didn’t work on him. The most I can say is that I hope I’m honouring his profound talent by understanding him based not on how he died or even how he lived but the remarkably insightful and honest songs he left behind.

Universally, one of the biggest problems that those of us with mental illness face is our inability to talk about our problems. Many of us are afraid that we will be judged negatively if we admit that we are struggling. This is known as stigma. To add to that, though, I believe that there are other reasons for our silence. Having been through cognitive behavioural therapy, I can tell you how I was told to treat my problems. I was told to keep a log. I had to write down every time a bad, grotesque thought entered my mind. I had to specify in writing exactly what the thought was and how I addressed it. The problem becomes how to define a thought. To me, a “thought” was something concrete such as “Oh, I had better take out my money if I want to pay for this coffee” or “I wonder how Jeff is doing.” What I was experiencing were not thoughts, they were torments, inclinations, urges, images, and layers of hellish judgement and condemnation. Neither words nor chicken-scratch images would have done these emotions justice.

This is why music can be such a wonderful tool for people suffering from mental health problems. The chords and notes are primitive languages that extend beyond words. They have an amazing power to express the inexpressible. Combined with an honest and forthright lyric, a simple chord has the power to knock me flat. There are, therefore, two aspects to my enjoyment of Elliott Smith. In one sense, I can profoundly relate to lyrics such as “At a party he was waiting/Looking kind of spooky and withdrawn/Like he could be underwater/The mighty mother with her hundred arms.”I have spent about half of my social life at parties where I can’t even begin to belong. It starts to feel like drowning. But remove the frank lyrics and we are still left with something relatable. Elliott Smith was fond of layering, particularly in his later career. He would record himself singing the same thing twice and juxtapose the two recordings so that the voice in the song assumed an eerie, whispery, haunting quality. The next layer would be him playing the various instrumentals. Hearing human emotions expressed in such a complex way can lead to intimate understanding that simple conversation will never provide. This is part of the reason why people respond well to things such as touch, medication, meditation, crying, music, and art. Talk therapy is excellent, but it’s not always enough.

To me, listening to Elliott Smith is like listening to someone who knows my brain very well. Because of this, even though many people find his music depressing and emotionally draining, I find that it can relax me like nothing else. His songs are a warm blanket. Some friends of mine have worried that his music has prevented me from moving on. What they don’t understand is that it would have been impossible to move on without him. I’m not a neurologist, but I’d be very interested in seeing a scan of my brain while listening to Elliott Smith. I’m certain the brain waves would be doing all kinds of groovy things.

If you’re at all interested, I’d suggest giving Elliott Smith a try. My introduction to him was 1998’s “XO” album, his first major studio work. Most fans agree that “XO” is a good place to start because it contains some of his best songs. If Elliott isn’t your thing, that’s OK, but what I hope you take away from this is how beneficial music can be for those suffering from mental health problems. I think everyone needs an artist who knows the inner landscape of their brains.

Written by Iris, 21, Quebec