Atwood Magazine is delighted to present our newest column, Harmony, in which our writers explore and debate mental health through music. Music allows us to be truly present, to reconnect with ourselves, offering us precious moments of introspection, vulnerability and peace of mind. Harmony hopes to encourage our readers to become more aware, embrace and celebrate the impact music can have on the way you feel, whether it be cheering you up when you’re feeling low or inviting you to face your demons. In our introductory piece, Ditta Demeter proposes a sunny soundtrack and discusses the importance of finding inner harmony.
I didn’t see the sun for 23 whole days in January.
One thing people never – ever – mention about Paris is that, not unlike its gigantic British counterpart, it’s grey, cold, and frankly just miserable in peak wintertime. All romanticizing narratives aside, we must face the (quite literally) cold hard facts. The average number of sunshine hours in the first month of the year is 62.5: It doesn’t take a math pro to realize that this leaves us sad Parisians with just over two hours of daily sunshine, in the best of cases. Add to this the fact that all throughout this miserable month, the sun rises at around 8:35 AM and sets just after 5 PM, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for disaster in the form of dreadfully plummeting mental health.
I’m not, of course, trying to trivialize a complex and important issue here. Lack of sunshine on its own is unlikely to cause depression or other issues of similar gravity, in the same way that its presence won’t magically solve all your problems. But the predilection we all have towards tropical climates as opposed to rain, grey skies, and air so cold it almost cuts into your skin needs no explanation, either. Seasonal Affective Disorder (arguably the condition with the most apt acronym in the history of acronyms) is estimated to affect 10 million Americans, causing symptoms typically associated with depression and bipolar disorder – so the issue is, in fact, pretty damn serious.
And although days are finally getting longer across the pond and the sun shines a little more every day over the City of Light, I’m apprehensive of getting too confident too soon: Having lived in England for two years, I’ve learned that it’s best not to have high expectations regarding the weather, and to instead find a backup plan for getting your daily dose of vitamin D, warmth, and brightness. Here are my favorite tracks to combat grey skies and make it through the last few weeks of winter!
First in line is long-time Atwood favorite Hippo Campus’ debut album. Mellow but moving, Landmark is the record that inspired this selection in the first place: its gorgeous melodies and feel-good tones warmed my heart on many cold winter nights. Though some tracks are admittedly more upbeat than others (“Simple Season”, “Vines” and “Boyish” being prime examples of strolling-down-the-street, smiling-at-strangers indie tunes), there’s a sense of intimacy and quiet optimism that ties the album together in a comprehensively “sunny” unit. Even decidedly dark, sorrowful “Monsoon”, which deals with the death of a family member, remains somehow uplifting as it continues to radiate with the same soft, ethereal tenderness as the rest of the album.
Next up, a song that has never, ever failed to make me smile, no matter how down I was – or how many degrees below zero the temperature fell. “Lollipop,” my personal favorite from Mika’s hugely successful 2007 album Life in Cartoon Motion, is essentially a retro pop hit at this point, but the energy of its joyful vocals and dynamic drums didn’t fade with time. On the contrary, “Lollipop” is a true throwback track: With every listen I embark on a three-minute journey to my carefree childhood and forget about the much less uncomplicated present. Much like the candy it takes its title from, this song is a bit of a guilty pleasure: an unsophisticated, unashamedly saccharine piece of glam pop that the more selective (or snobby) music lovers amongst us might look down upon. But me? I’d never say no to all this sugary goodness.
Scotland is hardly known for its beaches and blaring sunshine, but Glasgow trio The Fratellis have brightened up the indie rock scene many a time. The first track off their fifth studio album In Your Own Sweet Time is the latest of such cheerful occasions. In “Stand Up Tragedy,” the band’s signature, endearing self-irony (“pardon me sugar, I’m the man underneath your thumb”) is paired with bold guitar beats – the result is pure, unfiltered anthemic bliss. With its un-soppy, anti-love lyrics, this track works particularly well as an antidote to post-heartbreak blues:
I don’t need your
red-wine covered sympathy
Just another punchline
in your stand up tragedy
Similar in style and energy, but with a touch of ’60s pop glam, The Crookes’ music is the perfect companion for both grey and sun-soaked days. Their 2010 EP Dreams of Another Day is a glorious collection of daydreaming tracks and fireside hymns that instantly sends you forward, straight into summer. In some songs, the gentle brightness of the sound is curbed by the melodramatic undertones of some of the lyrics (the band were often likened to The Smiths, in their early days), resulting in a more down-to-earth, real-life kind of sonic sunshine. Other tracks – “Yes, Yes, We Are Magicians” or “Backstreet Lovers” – embrace the feel-good vibe and just make you want to smile and dance.
This list would not be complete without at the very least one track from John Mayer, who excels at conveying emotion in a simple but remarkably authentic and honest fashion. His latest studio album The Search for Everything is bursting with tremendous optimism and positivity, owing perhaps to the fact that Mayer has been sober for several years. Accordingly, his music exudes joyful serenity even when the subject matter is more on the mournful side. The stunning ballad “Love on the Weekend” captures the bittersweet moment of saying goodbye to the one you love the most in this world, already beginning to count down the hours before you get to see them again – or in Mayer’s words, “Dreaming of the next time we can go into another serotonin overflow.” It’s a simply sublime track whose heartfelt sincerity is sure to fill your day with light.
Much as I’d like to end on an upbeat, light-hearted note, I feel there’s a vital conclusion to be drawn from this seemingly trivial issue. We’re all guilty of letting exterior factors determine our self-worth, our sense of wellbeing, our mood; this dependence on warmth and sunshine is a simple but revelatory example of this often quite toxic pattern of behavior. We tend to define happiness on a kind of contrastive basis: “If X happens, I won’t be happy;” “I will suffer until I have Y in my life.” We want so hard for life to function as a logical process, where things add up and produce a result and everything works out if we get the components right.
Worst of all, this idea is completely normalized by the countless narratives we see around us and that we tell each other: Stories of success, wealth, happiness all won by triumphing over something, by overcoming an obstacle. It took me a long time – and the wisdom of a fantastic therapist – to begin realizing that that just isn’t how things really are. Life isn’t a Hollywood romcom, and happiness isn’t the gorgeously perfect scene at the end of it. It’s not a constant state that you reach by virtue of having achieved things and completed challenges beforehand which magically open up some door leading to perfection. What happiness really is, then, is hardly a question an obsessive 21-year-old could answer in a music-themed article, so I’ll just leave you with a thought from a lady who brought lots of sunshine into my life.
Instead of chasing big, huge wide-screen ideas of happiness, start small.
Do something during the day that makes you feel happy – talk to a friend, dance in the rain, make a darn good cup of coffee, immerse yourself in music from your favorite artists. Try your best so that at night, you can go to bed feeling like you had a great day, and let those great days will turn to great weeks, great months, great years – you’ll have that happy Hollywood life before you know it.
— — — —