Music and Mental Health - a special feature: An Interview with Nick Lewis from Nicolas and the Saints

You’re a human being you need simple things, you need companionship, you need good nutrition, you need to exercise every day, and that’s about all there is to it.

This is a write up of an interview Christopher Spring had with Nick Lewis from Nicolas and the Saints from a special show Chris and Alice did about mental health in music. As part of Suicide Awareness month I will be writing up and publishing each of the interviews from the show. We talk very openly about suicide and mental health struggles of our own, so please be aware before reading on.

Christopher Spring: Lovely to see you! Back from Vienna, how does it feel to be back in Brighton?

Nick Lewis: It’s nice! The weather was a bit hotter than expected for a while but it’s gone back to being nice and dreary now, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

CS: This show is all about mental health and thank you very much for coming in to talk about it. The lyrics in the live session [Afraid of Silence] is all about being alone, did you write the song in the moment or something that came later?

NL: To be honest, I don’t actually remember physically writing that song but it was around 3 years or so ago I was living alone in a little flat in Brunswick Square and had just split up with my girlfriend of 7 years and I basically spent about a year, year and a half being alone in my basement and being heartbroken. I got depressed, started anti-depressants and I was dealing with a lot of nihilistic thoughts. I had always been philosophically nihilistic but I suddenly found it was infecting how I felt about stuff.

Philosophically I still don’t believe in meaning, but I used to be OK with that, and suddenly I wasn’t. And as an atheist I found that science tried to replace it with all of that Brian Cox-ian wonder of the universe and this stuff almost became a secular religion providing this secular wonder that almost tries to replace religion in giving you purpose and meaning and I suddenly found that very false. That’s kind of what that song is about.

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CS: It’s interesting that you say that because there was a brilliant quote that I heard from my brother of all people who said that “if there is no meaning to the universe then doesn’t it give this life more meaning?” perhaps that’s a whole different philosophical debate though…

NL: I used to agree with that, then I became depressed and disagreed with that, and now I tend to agree with that again now.

CS: In terms of writing the music then did it help to kind of express it and get it out, did you feel better?

NL: I don’t know that it did if I’m honest. I know I’m meant to come in here and just go like “yeah making music is so good for your mental health” but I don’t know that it is. It certainly can be therapeutic depending on the kind of thing you’re writing about because it externalises it. You take this thing inside of you and you make it concrete, you make it into a thing even if it’s a bunch of notes because then I think it makes it easier to think about it and you can start thinking more logically and rationally about it. Whether that make you feel better or not… I don’t know. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the kind of thing you’re trying to write.

I think it also depends on the kind of thing you’re trying to write. If it’s very matter of fact like “this happened to me, this made me sad” then it really helps to externalise it. If it’s something deeper and something broader then it maybe helps you understand it a bit more… it can chip away at understanding it rather than just getting something off your chest that a sort of pure confessional would sort of do.

It certainly can be therapeutic depending on the kind of thing you’re writing about because it externalises it. You take this thing inside of you and you make it concrete, you make it into a thing even if it’s a bunch of notes...

CS: I think that’s quite an interesting point actually, I used to think of mental health as a sort of healthy/not healthy dichotomy, in the same way that we treat physical health but actually the more I’ve thought about it’s almost the every day, the menial stuff which become way more important it’s the little things and little achievements that I take meaning from.

How do you feel when it’s gone out on record? Do you think about the affect it’s going to have on other people?

NL: No. (Laughs). To be honest the whole process of making a record and releasing it is so long that by the time is out you don’t want anything to do with it anymore. Making the record was a huge deal for me, such a huge huge thing, and then releasing it was a huge thing and made me terrified because it’s so personal putting yourself out there. It’s like putting yourself out there, I think that’d be true if it was personal or not, but this one happens to be hugely personal. So it’s almost like when they’re judging the record they are judging me… So again, I don’t know if doing music is good for your mental health! (Laughing)

It’s a lot of stress and struggle that goes along with it but once it’s out… It’s almost like the day it went out on Spotify and all that I didn’t really care anymore as it was done. But maybe that is part of the therapy process too. The good thing about doing something like that is that it almost bookends experiences in your life and kind of encapsulates it. That [record] to me, is almost like the last year and a half of my life before I went back to Vienna, and it’s out there and it’s done, it doesn’t hang over me like it might do if I hadn’t released the album.

CS: That’s an interesting point as well almost the cathartic release of bookending parts of your life. Part of what I got out of watching Amy [the documentary about Amy Winehouse’s life] is that I thought maybe having to relive one of the most painful periods of her life repeatedly for almost 2/3 years. That would have been horrendous.

In terms of new material, is that going to be a continuation of themes from that album or moving away?

NL: It’s going to be completely different, I’ve got an EP of Love Songs being mixed at the moment mainly because I want to get that out the way as well! I went to Vienna, fell in love and then thought “this won’t do…” and thought just get it all out the way at once, so I wrote them and then I’ve got another EP which I wrote in Vienna which deals with broader themes.

CS: That does seem like a healing process then now that it’s all done. As a final point do you have any tips or advice for anyone who is struggling?

NL: The thing that I really learnt during the whole period when I was “clinically sad” as Alan Partridge would put it, is that we’re just physical beings. That’s what it comes down too and I found it fascinating seeing how the same thoughts would make me feel very different because my brain chemistry had changed and it was as simple as that.

My visions on life, the universe and everything kind of hadn’t changed, whereas before I would find them liberating in exactly how you mean i.e. “if life doesn’t mean anything then I can do what I want” – I suddenly found them crushing and oppressive and when I went on anti-depressants I suddenly wasn’t finding them crushing or oppressive as my brain chemistry had changed again. That really taught me that that’s the important thing is to not get ideas above your station as a human being. You’re a human being you need simple things, you need companionship, you need good nutrition, you need to exercise every day, and that’s about all there is to it.

I think in one way that art is not good for your mental health is that it tends to get ideas that border on the metaphysical. You start thinking that there is such a thing that exists outside of time as some sort of masterpiece. Like placing almost religious meaning on Joyce’s Ulysses which I still have a habit of doing.

CS: That’s very specific…

NL: It’s the greatest novel ever written. But then also as a creator, you almost don’t mean too but you are creating something out of nothing and there is something almost God-like about that and it’s too easy to almost fall into the idea that if you create something like Ulysses which is this great thing that will mean something, then your life will mean something! No, not at all. That’s not it. You’ll end up just putting pressure on yourself and you’ll forget that you are just an animal that needs companionship, and nutrition, and exercise, and that’s all it is.

CS: Don’t get sucked in to the BS basically… Thank you so much for coming in Nick.

...as a creator, you almost don’t mean too but you are creating something out of nothing and there is something almost God-like about that and it’s too easy to almost fall into the idea that if you create something like Ulysses which is this great thing that will mean something, then your life will mean something! No, not at all. That’s not it. You’ll end up just putting pressure on yourself and you’ll forget that you are just an animal that needs companionship, and nutrition, and exercise, and that’s all it is.