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Soul searching


Renowned Westport musician Maria Kelly is leading the way in helping music artists deal with their mental health

Nicole Glennon

Westport native Maria Kelly has been shining a light on mental health through her music for years, and she will once again act as a beacon when she joins a panel of Irish artists to raise awareness about mental health and music at an event next month.
A recent survey revealed more than seven out of every ten musicians had experienced depression and just under seven out of ten had experienced anxiety and panic attacks. The same study found around 60 percent of musicians reported struggling with their mental health, compared with 25 percent of the general population.
The researchers behind the study concluded that ‘music making is therapeutic, but making a career out of music is destructive’.
The research echoes Maria’s own experience. She is part of the vast majority of musicians who have struggled with her mental health. Just last month, the singer-songwriter was forced to cancel a string of tour dates due to her mental health. The Facebook comments on Maria’s post announcing the cancellation are full of praise and encouragement, “Take all the time you need,” reads one. “Mind first” says another, but the decision to cancel her Irish tour was not an easy one to make.
“No part of me wanted to tour at the time,” she confesses, but the idea of having to bow out seemed ‘embarrassing’. I felt so guilty, like I was being lazy, or just not trying hard enough.”

Start a discussion
Maria’s negative thoughts and anxieties about taking a much-needed step back are not uncommon among musicians, or likely among the general population. More than 80 percent of Irish people believe there is still a stigma attached to mental illness according to a recent survey. Maria says the aim of next month’s event is to start a discussion about mental health in the music industry and break this stigma.
The ‘Mind YourSelf’ event hosted by SelfMade has been organised by artist Joanna Bain and musician Julie Hough (who also happens to be Maria’s housemate).
The event will feature a workshop focused on how musicians can work with their inner critic. It will be led by psychotherapist Aoife Ruth, with a panel in the afternoon made up of a number of Irish artists who have used their creative work and social platforms to highlight career-related mental health and anxiety.
Co-founder Joanna Bain says Maria was a ‘great fit’ for the panel.
“The kind of honesty and frankness she’s shown normalises the conversation and paves the way for other artists to share their experiences,” said Joanna.
Fans of Maria’s work can attest to Joanna’s words. Intimate and raw, the delicacy of the Westport songstress’s music is strengthened by her ability to be totally vulnerable. Listeners are taken in by the exposing lyrics that offer a catharsis in their truth. Oftentimes, these lyrics depict the singer’s own experiences with mental illness.
In the beginning, songwriting acted as a creative outlet, a tangible release of emotions that were otherwise bottled up. It was, and can be, an incredibly therapeutic process, Maria explains, but since making music her career has become a ‘double edged sword’.
Songs once confined to four walls of a small room were soon shared busking on Shop Street, at hometown shows in Westport’s Town Hall, on national television at Other Voices. The pressure to express yourself for work, and to a deadline, has manifested into a range of anxieties and bouts of depression. These bouts of depression can arise when she is struggling to write or too caught up in her emotions to decipher what it is she wants to say.
When she is able to transcribe her thoughts, she keeps it honest and raw. Her latest work ‘Notes To Self’ explores the difficult emotions the musician dealt with as she made the move from Dublin to Berlin. On social media, the move may come across as an incredible experience she admits, but the reality was it was ‘a really difficult year’, littered with episodes of depression.
“I think those things are important to share,” she says.
Despite the average punter’s impression, music is an incredibly unforgiving industry to work in. The precarious nature of the career is coupled with anti-social working hours, long periods away from loved ones and low or often zero pay.

‘Emotional job’
“It’s a very emotional job that is full of constant comparison, long hours with little immediate reward, no guarantees and sacrifice after sacrifice. It’s an added full-time job to maintain a healthy mindset throughout it all.”
Maria says down periods between tours and releases have been particularly hard on her mental health, and she’s constantly thinking of what’s next. “I often forget to just ... live.”
Maria believes everyone has a part to play in the music industry in ensuring musicians and their mental health are protected, emphasising that an artist has to be in a healthy frame of mind to create. “It should start with the wellbeing of a musician, without that, the focus is in the wrong place.”
She also believes sharing the workload could really help the modern musician. She reams off a list of tasks she’s expected to undertake alongside creating music; branding, design, social media, marketing, press releases, website design, distribution, booking gigs, gig promotion.
“It’s important to know and understand these things, but any sharing of the workload that can be done, should be done. The most difficult periods of my career have been when I couldn’t find the time for the thing I wanted to do the most - writing songs.”
So knowing what she knows now about mental health and music, what advice does she offer to those starting out to help keep their head in this frantic game?
Focus on your writing, take breaks and don’t compare yourself to others.
“When you have a strong foundation of what it sounds like, what you’re trying to stay, why you are doing it, the rest will slot into place easily. No one tells you to switch off at five, so you need to do this yourself. Comparing yourself is a massive waste of time, it will only make you sad and paralysed. Take it from me.”

Maria will have more advice and personal anecdotes to share at SelfMade’s ‘Mind YourSelf: Mental Health and Music’ panel on May 25 at the Tara Building, Dublin. Tickets are priced at €5 and €10 and available from