Talking mental health with Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison

There's self-care in a sing-along.

May 30, 2017

I got my first record player for Christmas in 2014. Being as I was in fourth year university at the time, I was late to the vinyl party, but it didn’t hamper my excitement. This was a new and invigorating means of music fanaticism. I’d compiled a shortlist of essential ‘start-up’ records: The Black Keys’ Brothers, Springsteen’s Born To Run, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. At 21, these were canon to me, timeless pieces that were no-brainer inclusions. The crown jewel of my budding collection, however, was The Midnight Organ Fight by Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit. Sure, I loved the tunes; the gleeful, infectious shuffle of “Old, Old Fashioned,” the triumphant swell of “The Modern Leper,” the dark bounce of “The Twist.”

Scott Hutchison’s husky, desperate voice articulated what I couldn’t yet; guilt, self-loathing, the fragility of physical existence, the tragedies of intimacy. I was infatuated with his self-lacerating honesty; “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms” nursed me through so many episodes of depression that I made myself a walking advertisement for it. My anxieties around deep-rooted Catholic ideas of sexuality were given an outlet in “Keep Yourself Warm,” a song that challenged and subverted unhealthy essentializations of love and sex and intimacy. It was de-stigmatizing: bringing those feelings and states into the spotlight granted them validity, normalized those struggles, erased shame, and encouraged discussion and expression.

I loved these songs not just because they were perfect artifacts of folksy indie rock; I loved these songs because Hutchison and Frightened Rabbit gave me a tool to identify, express, and combat my mental illness, in solidarity. They let me sing what I couldn’t say. Solutions to mental health are not one-size-fits-all, but what became clear and emphatic to me with Hutchison’s lyrics is this: feeling okay is a work in progress. With these songs as armour, I’ve been able to live with anxiety and depression. So I wanted to see if he would talk to me about how music has helped him maintain his mental health. While it would be easy to presume his nature to be open and unclothed like his songs, Hutchison admits that conversations about mental health aren’t that simple.

“In a more standard, one-to-one conversation basis, they are quite uncomfortable. I think that’s what draws me to write about them, because unfortunately, for better or worse, I don’t really talk about them, and that’s what exacerbates the situation.” Hutchison is characteristically earnest in describing how he handles mental illness. It’s something he has spoken of often, both on and off the record. But it doesn’t come easy, and music has historically been the conduit for him. “Sometimes I wish I had a better mode of communication for when I’m feeling depressed, anxious, any of those things, but it tends to just work itself out into a song. That’s the way it’s always been for me.”

“Teenage angst is a very different thing from adult depression.”

Hutchison has become a prolific figure in the world of paralyzingly honest lyricists. What started as a solo acoustic project for Hutchison gradually blossomed into the full-band anthemics of Frightened Rabbit. When he moved to Glasgow for college, he found solace in songwriters like Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy, and Stewart Murdock. Along with those discoveries came a progression. “Teenage angst is a very different thing from adult depression,” he remarks dryly.

Studying at art school quickly became a joint venture in making music. He notes that he found something “much purer” in songs. His now-trademark transparency was born of the initial solitude and introspection of writing songs during this period. “When you first write songs, nobody hears them, so you can put whatever you like in them. Then all of a sudden, this album I wrote about very personal things becomes public.”

So what happens when you have to sing your deepest personal transmissions for hundreds of listeners, night after night? “I would call it an exorcism,” Hutchison offers simply. “It hammers the feeling out of the song in a way. The song is not done when it’s recorded and released. There’s an evolutions of these things.”

The universal quality of music is evident here; an immensely singular experience becomes a survival anthem for thousands. Julien Baker, 21-year old Tennessean singer-songwriter and former Frightened Rabbit tour mate, articulated that phenomenon well: “You have something that not only you’re trying to say for yourself because you need to say it, but also that you’re saying to the world,” she told The Creative Independent. Hutchison explains, “A listener puts themselves in the songs. It’s like, ‘he’s not the protagonist, I am.’ That’s the best thing about it: you can step inside, and that becomes attached to your own experience.”

But being a public figure is a complicated thing that clearly calls for more understanding. Popular conceptions of mental illness and its manifestations in the public sphere are still wildly lacking in nuance, empathy and essential understanding. Conversations in the past year have been congested by misplaced narratives around mental illness at its roots, i.e: ‘If Kanye West is so rich and famous, what does he have to be sad about?’ Equating class with happiness is problematic and grossly capitalistic at best, but suggesting one cannot be depressed if they’re wealthy betrays a basic lack of cognition of both currency and mental illness.

Hutchison recoils at the problematic derision of pop musicians (he’s immediately sympathetic: “I can’t fucking imagine,” he sighs, considering Kanye’s position). “No one’s got any sympathy, the main reason being they’re extremely rich. And that’s absolutely invalid as a reason why someone should be fine, because the brain just sits over any of that stuff.” He reiterates the alienating nature of mental illness: “There’s this disconnect from reality. You don’t even feel like you’re part of society a lot of the time, and that can make you seem rude and angry at times.”

Money is not a salve for mental illness. Chemical imbalances in the brain cannot be bought off; the contents of one’s wallet can no more stop bipolar disorder than a heart attack (although it’s certainly true that mental health services are financially inaccessible for many, and having money to cover services is a tangible privilege). “I think the feeling is that everyone’s in control of their own brains. ‘Surely you know how to make yourself feel better?'” Hutchison imitates incredulously. “I’m an evangelist now for getting help. If anything, it takes a much more aware person to go, ‘I can’t deal with this on my own.’ But the tendency is to feel shame, and to feel like you’re failing.”

Being subject to public scrutiny takes a very unique and heavy toll. Hutchison explains that the pressure of performing is acute. “Sometimes the responsibility for being the reason why someone has a good or a bad night out, that can become overwhelmingly difficult to process,” he says candidly. Fans have unprecedented proximity to their favourite musicians via social media, which means that if you don’t meet their lofty, individual prerequisites for a Good Show™, chances are you’ll be subject to a venomous tweet or foul-mouthed DM. But Hutchison’s not arguing that musicians have it worse; he’s arguing simply that they have it as bad as everyone else, and that they ought to be treated like normal people. “I think that the main perception that is untrue is that we have incredible lives,” he says. “Actually, being on this kind of social turntable where you’re constantly meeting and talking to people with whom you have no relationship can become exhausting for someone who’s not prone to that kind of communication.” That cursory blur of interaction and transience is indeed disorienting; Hutchison merely pleads for understanding. “It’s just about listening and encouraging,” he finishes.

“There’s a lot of dark moments within these songs that people sing from their heart victoriously every night back at me.”

The Midnight Organ Fight is admittedly tied up in heartbreak, something Hutchison is explicit in differentiating from depression (although the two certainly aren’t mutually exclusive). “Some situations are self-inflicted and circumstantial, and I feel like that is much easier to comprehend than an unknown anxiety that just breeds inside of you,” he articulates. “Something that admittedly I’ve only in the last year got to grips with is that a depressed person is not themselves. It’s not as easy as just pulling up your socks and getting on with life. I think people don’t really see it in that medical way as much as they do a heart condition or arthritis or anything that causes pain.”

Hutchison is warm and giving in discourse; it feels as though he likes to have these conversations. It becomes apparent, too, that expression via artistic pursuits are survival mechanisms for him. “There’s something about it that keeps me stable,” he deadpans, noting that songwriting is merely one in a slew of ways he keeps creatively active. He makes acerbic Christmas cards when the season comes, and routinely creates posters and illustrations. He even did the cover art for The Midnight Organ Fight, and while on tour, he turns drumheads into works of art to be auctioned off for charity at shows. He needs to be creating. “I feel like if I don’t do that for a little while, things start to go a little bit wrong,” he says quietly. “Any kind of creative pursuit has become a really intrinsic part of my life that is needed with a reasonable regularity.”

Hutchison’s songs reflect that vitality. They tend to exist in extremes, be it the mountain-high vigor of “Living In Colour” or the slow drown of “I Wish I Was Sober,” a cut from last year’s splendid, immersive Painting Of A Panic Attack. He’s not comfortable with muting himself in song. It’s the result of “internalizing, and then externalizing in a very grand way.” “I am as guilty as anyone of romanticizing this, because you make these foibles quite heroic-sounding when you put them to dramatic musical background.” He chuckles, punctuating with a sigh. “That’s something I wouldn’t want to romanticize as a good way of living,” he notes soberly.

Would he take existing in a more stable, benign state to dull the smart of pain? “I don’t think I’d replace those feelings with something more beige,” he replies. “I think a mediocre feeling isn’t worth your time. I tend to focus on something that means a great deal to me, whether that’s good or bad.”

What Hutchison suggests with his songs is an existence of expression and communication, an externalization and dissemination of our most challenging emotions, stigma be damned. Not everyone has an outlet like songwriting for exorcising those strangling feelings, and few mental illnesses can be assuaged with mere expression. But it is a valid tool for many, and if singing along about the tough shit helps, whether it’s an anesthetic or a dopamine boost, Scott Hutchison wants you to sing out the louder.

“There’s a lot of dark moments within these songs that people sing from their heart victoriously every night back at me. That made me realize they don’t have to be this miserable outcome. These can be a celebration.”

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