Insomnia, anxiety, break-ups … musicians on the dark side of touring
Long hours in vans and solitary hotel rooms. Screaming fans when you’re on stage, then back home to feed the cat. Musicians talk about the psychological dangers of life on tour.
Luke Morgan Britton
from The Guardian
While many may envisage the life of a touring musician to be that of a glorified jetsetter, the reality is far from idyllic. A recent study by charity Help Musicians UK found that over 60% of musicians have suffered from depression or other psychological issues, with touring an issue for 71% of respondents.
Singer Alanna McArdle recently announced her departure from Cardiff punk band Joanna Gruesome for mental health reasons, her statement hinting that the strain of touring may have been a factor in her decision to quit.And when Zayn Malik broke the hearts of millions by pulling out of One Direction’s tour of Asia – leaving the boy band shortly after – a source close to the band told the tabloid press:
“Zayn went because he’d had enough. Have you ever been on the road for four years?”
“The classic image of a touring musician would seem counterintuitive to all we know about well-being,” says Isabella Goldie of the Mental Health Foundation.
“Drinking in moderation, avoiding drugs, getting sufficient amounts of sleep, and having a support base of close friends and family nearby. These are the bonds that help keep you grounded … It’s no surprise that some musicians struggle.”
“Ninety-nine per cent of touring is the airports, the hotels, sitting in a metal tube for up to 16 hours at a time,” says Grammy-nominated producer Mat Zo (real name Matan Zohar). “It’s easy to let your mind and body slip into decay, even for a person with a healthy emotional state. For those with anxiety, hotel rooms are like prison cells.”
Meredith Graves, of Syracuse punk outfit Perfect Pussy, agrees: “We’re the luckiest people in the world to be able to do this; but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. It’s psychologically taxing,” she says. “Being confined to the van for a 10-hour drive … You can’t sleep, you can’t move, you can’t do anything. It’s like a recipe for a breakdown for me.”
For many, the contrast between the highs of a successful show and the anti-climactic low that often follows can be hard to adjust to, a phenomenon that has been termed “post-performance depression”, or PPD. Mental health professional John C Buckner writes:
“When the body experiences major shifts in mood, it is flooded with several different neurotransmitters, resulting in a biochemical release that leads to a feeling of ecstasy. After these moments the nervous system needs time to recalibrate itself to prepare for another release. After an exciting performance the body starts to balance out the level of neurotransmitters, and therefore it is not releasing the same level that caused the exciting feelings, resulting in the lingering sadness. In normal day-to-day life, biochemicals are released and rest/recovery follow, causing the typical ups and downs of life. In the case of PPD, the process is more extreme with higher highs and lower lows.”
Goldie agrees: “Musicianship remains one of the most exalted job roles and each live performance can provide a real high which can be hard to adjust to – especially when the elevated status that musicians receive is suddenly lost.”
“Touring can be destructive on a musician, it was destructive on me, that’s for sure,” former XL Recordings artist Willis Earl Beal tells meover the phone from his home in Washington State. “I’d come home from tour, and I’m back to feeding the cat. My wife at the time – I don’t have a wife now – worked 12-hour shifts, so I was cooking the dinner all that sort of shit. There was a lot of tension, because I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t deserve this, I’m a big star’ and that was one of the contributing factors in ending my marriage. This fucking career, the striving towards something that never existed and doesn’t exist.”
A breakdown of personal relationships is common, with many musicians feeling alienated from loved ones back home. Kate Nash, who rose to fame while still in her teens, says that the contrast between her life and that of her friends was hard to get her head around.
“I was still living in a tiny bedroom at my parent’s house. Your friends are studying and you’re doing something very different. Even though that’s exciting, you can feel lost. You’re young and you’re not taking a normal path.”
Zohar agrees: “Relationships are compromised, partly because it becomes difficult to relate to people with a more stable lifestyle. Your problems and cares become radically different to the other people in your life.”
For some, however stressful and chaotic touring can be, it is preferable to daily life at home. “Touring institutionalises you and it can make normal life feel mundane,” says Vaccines singer Justin Young, recently returned from a handful of dates in the US. “You end up with a lot of expectations from life that aren’t always fulfilled in everyday tasks like going down the shops for a pint of milk or even going for dinner with friends. It’s hard to replace all that adrenaline.”
These sentiments are echoed by Nash:
“When you’re on tour, you know exactly what you’re doing and what’s required of you. There’s a routine. It’s tangible what you stand for because it’s right in front of you. You come off tour and you’re like, ‘Fucking hell what is the point? What am I doing with my life?’”
But is treating touring as escapism healthy in the long-term? Isabella Goldiesays:
“Life on the road can be exhilarating but it is vital that the musician has a place to call home, a place where he or she belongs.”