My boyfriend is a bit of a music snob. Sorry Jonathan 😉 but it’s true! He makes fun of some of my favourite artists, the meanie. Even so, I decided that this would be a good topic for a blog post. It is so common for people with mental health problems to feel as if they are nothing but their illness, and I found that listening to my favourite bands during recovery was a great way of reminding myself that there was still a Katie underneath it all somewhere.
When I was tiny my parents mostly played music by Queen, John Denver, Supertramp and Dire Straits. A lot of my childhood and adolescent memories involve songs by one or the other of these. John Denver was the first singer I ever saw live at the age of eight, my first ever foreign holiday (France, age 13) involved his album being played by my parents most evenings and I sang Annie’s Song as a solo in a concert I took part in at 15. I picked The Logical Song by Supertramp for a piece of English GCSE coursework in which our class were supposed to choose a song which we thought represented the adolescent experience (and I quote: “in a bizarre paradox, teenagers’ attempts to rebel against societal norms more often result in conformity to the norms of their peer group than in true individuality”. Yes, I was a fairly obnoxious fifteen year old. My English teacher loved me though!). And then there was Queen – my upper school concert band played Bohemian Rhapsody, with much head banging from the brass section; my iPod made me crack up when it randomly shuffled onto I’m Going Slightly Mad just as I walked into the grounds of the local psychiatric hospital for an appointment with my ED therapist; I was suppose to be going to see Queen in London the day after the July bombings on the tube; and helping mum make dinner usually entailed belting out the lyrics to The Show Must Go On when we got very bored of peeling potatoes. In other random dinner-related music, my mum always used to play the same tape whenever she made lasagne, and even today The Montagues and Capulets by Prokofiev is still known in our family as “lasagne music” (listen to the track until at least 1:40 on the video and you’ll recognise it 😉 ).
When I was about nine I became aware that, as a pre-pubescent girl, I was supposed to be in love with one or more of the members of Take That. I was not. My slightly older cousin was, but I couldn’t see the appeal personally. I similarly failed to understand the hype over Boyzone when they appeared a little later on, and the Spice Girls also left me cold. I pretended to love boy bands because otherwise my cousin would have thought that I was weird (which I was), but the whole business baffled me. Then, at the age of thirteen, I discovered Catatonia. They were a welsh indie-rock band fronted by a rather wild female vocalist. They wrote all their own songs (which is obviously not all that rare, but in the sea of manufactured pop music I found myself in before my teens it was a revelation to me), and I could spend hours trying to figure out just what the hell their lyrics meant. They sang about sex and drugs and rock and roll, which was a far cry from Boyzone, who mostly sang innocent ballads about pretty girls. I still adore Catatonia because publicly becoming one of their fans was the first time I allowed myself to be myself. I didn’t know anyone else who liked them and I didn’t care. I took their album on a school trip to Wales and mouthed the Welsh lyrics to International Velvet while our coach crossed the Severn Bridge. I decided that Don’t Need the Sunshine was pretty much the song of my life. I giggled over Mulder and Scully because I had also recently discovered The X-Files and developed a huge crush on Gillian Anderson. Catatonia were my band, my first real independent foray into music.
I probably enjoyed classical music more than many other teenagers because I played the recorder from a young age, and many prolific classical composers created a lot of recorder music. My personal nemesis is a piece by Bach which I have never managed to stick at long enough to get to the point at which I can play it perfectly. I won all my recorder classes at a local music festival when I was sixteen with a suite by Vivaldi, one piece of which I played on the descant, one on the treble and one on the tenor. But I didn’t really start to enjoy listening to classical music as well as playing it until I was fifteen. I was left at home while the rest of my family went on holiday to France, because I had mock GCSE exams. I had never been home alone for more than a couple of hours before (belonging to a family of seven, our house was always crowded), so the prospect of a whole week was very exciting. A much-older cousin dropped in on me around dinner time every day to make sure I was eating and not destroying the place, but other than that I had the place to myself. And, strange child that I was, rather than inviting all my friends over and having a wild party, what I actually did every afternoon was dig out one of my mum’s classical CDs, put it on the stereo downstairs, and lie on the sofa with all the windows open. It was on listening to this CD that I first heard Samuel Barber‘s Adagio for strings, which became my instant favourite.
A few months later I was idly watching Top of the Pops when a band I had never seen before appeared and by the end of their first song, my sister and I were sitting with our noses virtually stuck to the TV screen. The band was Muse and the song Unintended, (weirdest video ever! But stick with it until 1:20 and you’ll understand the attraction) and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. It was epic and melodramatic and the lyrics were perhaps not exactly Shakespeare, but I was fifteen, so the instant adoration was forgivable. Their album Origin of Symmetry was one of my favourites for a long time. It was that which I put on when I got home after being raped, and curled up in a ball in the corner of my room with the volume turned up as far as it would go on my stereo. Later on, when I was manic in hospital I would pace up and down the corridor for hours every day, listening to the loudest, fastest and angriest songs of theirs on my iPod. And I still think that their cover of Feeling Good is beautiful.
After playing Origin of Symmetry when I got home from that night eight years ago I didn’t (couldn’t) listen to it for a long time. There were other songs and albums which I played during the nights when my PTSD was at it’s worst and I couldn’t sleep without the light and TV or stereo on. The friend I texted while I was sitting in my room with Muse blasting through the floorboards took me to her house and put Norah Jones and Pink on, and for more than a year afterwards I put one or the other of those albums on repeat every night when I was too scared to close my eyes. Eventually by Pink became the song that I listened to most. I also, as messed up teenage girls often do, discovered Fiona Apple, who was herself a rape survivor with anorexia. I was another Sullen Girl.
And there’s too much going on
But it’s calmer under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion
A year later I started dating the guy who became my first serious boyfriend, and he introduced me to the world of open mic nights. The first one I went to was hilarious – I seem to remember some very bad and very loud electronica presented by a skinny bloke wearing a wolf mask. As you do. My boyfriend was in a band himself, and they did a very good cover of the Divine Comedy‘s Bad Ambassador. Their guitarist once dedicated a cover of Creep by Radiohead to me, which sent chills up my spine and almost made me cry. But most of their songs were their own, and I would be very hard pressed to put them into a genre. Kind of…bipolar hippy indie rock, with occasional appearances of the influence of Pink Floyd? It was interesting anyway, which it would be given that my boyfriend and the lead singer had met in the local psychiatric hospital. It was also thankfully sung in tune because the lead singer had a lovely voice, which is more than you could have said of some of the bands. Another really good band was comprised of two of my friends from college and two of their friends, and they sounded virtually professional.
My experience of Bournemouth’s live music scene was interrupted by five months at Cardiff University, where I did not go out at night because my PTSD and accompanying agoraphobia made it impossible. I also could not sleep without the light on again. My boyfriend came up with my parents and I when I moved into halls, and when he left he left with me his copy of Ben Folds’ first solo album, Rocking the Suburbs. That became my new PTSD-beating music: I would listen to it every night and try to think of my boyfriend to stop the paranoid thoughts about being attacked from sneaking in. My favourite song from the album is Carrying Cathy, which is (as far as I can work out) about a girl who commits suicide. At the time it felt as if the lyrics could be about me.
We gave you everything
You could have done anything
But to imagine a fall
With no one at all to catch you
After leaving Cardiff it was back to the pubs and clubs of Bournemouth, then Southampton when my boyfriend moved for university and started up his own little open mic night near his halls. I became more and more frightened of going out after dark, and slowly started to withdraw from the social life I’d built up. It wasn’t until I ended up in hospital a year later that music became important to me again. As I said, I stomped around the place listening to Muse quite frequently, but when I came down I would be found lying on my bed staring at the wall with Elliot Smith or some of Ben Folds’ more low key songs playing. Elliot Smith’s Between the Bars was the only thing that could make me cry despite my drugged up haze.
Drink up baby, stay up all night
The things you could do, you won’t but you might
The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see
The promises you’ll only make
Drink up with me now and forget all about the pressure of days
Do what I say and I’ll make you okay and drive them away
The images stuck in your head
People you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore
That push and shove and won’t bend to your will
I’ll keep them still
About the same time that I started swinging from suicidal to manic one of my friends gave me a copy of the album Two Shoes by The Cat Empire. Because I was high as a kite I thought that Protons Neutrons Electrons was the funniest thing ever, and sat in the day room literally crying with laughter while I listened to it over and over. Then I decided that it was terribly profound and would play it while I sat on the beach at the bottom of the hospital grounds. It was a very odd album to become obsessed with while in hospital given how upbeat it was, but it cheered me up and showed me that there was more to being alive than obsessing about death. Not that I’m suggesting for a minute that changed my thought processes, but it gave me more hope than poor Elliot Smith.
As my weight dropped later that year my interest in anything remotely creative did too. I stopped listening to music almost entirely, as I also stopped taking photographs and drawing. The first song that I fixated on during my recovery was Viva La Vida by Coldplay (I even wrote a post about it). Buying my car in June 09 meant that I could listen to the radio again after years of living in a radio blackspot. Despite always having been a bit of an indie-folky sort of person, I really enjoying listening to random pop songs while I was driving. When I started running again my iPod came back out, along with my running playlist, which (sorry Jonathan) has Girls Aloud and Destiny’s Child on it. But come on, Survivor is such a good song to run to!
Despite listening to new music on my car radio, the first new album to appear in my collection was bought for me by Jonathan. It was For Emma, Forever Ago, by Bon Iver. Every single bloody time I left Durham after a week with J I would spend a couple of days hiding in bed, listening to Flume and crying, while simultaneously laughing at myself for being so ridiculously soppy. I’m sure my mum thought I had regressed to being a teenager again, but she probably preferred lovesick Katie to anorexic Katie, so she didn’t complain about me moping about. Flume is a beautiful song, but it doesn’t make me cry anymore, mostly because I only live 15 miles away from the boy responsible now 😉
Since leaving my car behind and moving to Gateshead I’ve had to do a lot more walking than I had been doing. On being taught how to download music (because I am that much of a technophobe that I hadn’t worked it out by myself) I revamped my iPod and filled it up with Laura Marling (1), Mumford and Sons (2), Arcade Fire (3), Klaxons (4), Foals (5) and other similarly Katie-friendly music. I am being taken to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor in December, and I have heard rumours that Ben Folds may be coming back to the UK next spring, so I’ll be booking tickets for that as soon as I can, even if I have to live on potatoes and baked beans for a month to make up for the expense!
I could judge my mental state by how much and what sort of music I’m listening to during any given week. Music is great for recovery: it’s easy to become passionate about it, which made a big change from only obsessing about numbers, and it was also a really good way of reminding myself of my personality underneath the anorexia. My taste in music is my own; it does not come from my parents, my siblings, my friends or my boyfriend. I like what I like, and I would defend my favourite bands from any number of critics. Who cares what other people think, as long as it moves you?