Story / Monica Wolfe
Photos / Deborah Sheedy
“Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people…are both.” – Nancy C. Andreasen
As I begin to write this, it’s been only hours since yet another of my artistic heroes lost his battle with depression. Ren Hang, a bold and unconventional photographer and poet known throughout the world and open about his depression, took his own life. He was 29 years old. I write this article with hope, but now, after the passing of another great artist, this hope hangs slightly heavier. And this heaviness sets a renewed urgency on treating diseases of the mind with equal importance and care as diseases of the body. I find myself retracing that line, darkened from having been drawn over and over again, between artists and mental illness—that line of artists who suffer in silence and who sometimes leave us too soon. Irish singer-songwriter Rosie Carney reminds us, though, that that connection doesn’t have to remain a negative one: we can start a conversation before it’s too late.
Twenty years old, Carney is young, but not naïve. Her recently released single, “Awake Me,” rings out with a voice of Bon Iver-esque tenderness, Laura Marling-like strength, and the haunting awareness of both. Its bare-boned guitar and vocals match the fragility conveyed in the lyrics as Carney confesses pain, healing, and a repeating plea: “Awake me / Don’t break me.” This song sounds anything but dark, though; it’s the soundtrack to a hypothetical walk through the woods at sunrise or steam rising from a cup of hot tea on the dry side of a windowpane.
Carney’s foray into advocacy for the destigmatization of mental illness began with a crushingly honest blog post, in which she tells of heartbreaking events from childhood to adolescence leading to a mental breakdown that landed her in the hospital a couple of years ago. Her story recounts being bullied as a child, developing an eating disorder, and surviving sexual assault. It discusses depression and mental illness, and the societal pressure to hide and be ashamed of mental health issues. The responses she received from fans across the world who identified with her experiences encouraged her to continue speaking up for all those whose stories like her own go unheard, and to encourage positive conversation on mental illness.
She is currently working on an EP that she hopes to release this summer. Once you listen to her single “Awake Me,” I guarantee you’ll be awaiting more releases as anxiously as she is.
Read an excerpt from my conversation with Carney below for her thoughts on vulnerability, surviving depression and sexual assault, and the challenges and responsibilities of being a woman in the 21st century.
MW: Your music has a deeply personal feel. How do you feel about playing in front of people? Also, which is more important to you: the performance and sharing of your music, or the private creative process?
RC: I love performing, although I get extremely nervous before I go up. I get so nervous. It’s off-putting. I nearly cry every time before I go onstage. But I think it’s so worth it, because I’m being so emotionally open, which at the same time is very difficult, but it’s just very rewarding then to have someone come up to me and tell me how they can relate to the music. But obviously creating music as well enables me to be able to perform it, so I think that aspect as well is very cathartic and very therapeutic and helps me as well. I love the process of writing a song, even though it can be very difficult sometimes to write a song.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
I’m inspired by lots of different kinds of music, but I’d have to say my main influences would be Bon Iver, and James Taylor, who I listened to at such a young age, Robert Plant, Joni Mitchell, of course, Brian Eno. But yeah, I love Joni Mitchell.
Yeah, I can definitely see some of her in you. Do any of your influences perhaps share similar problems to those you’ve been through? There are so many artists that deal with depression, and oftentimes I feel like it’s not brought up until after we lose somebody, and then we start the conversation.
I mean, it’s so difficult to know who really does suffer from mental illness, because we’re taught to be so quiet about it. But some people I do know have suffered from mental illness who have really inspired me would be Sylvia Plath, and Ian Curtis from Joy Division, Nick Drake, and Lou Reed, and I know Joni Mitchell as well has had her fair share of suffering. But it’s just such a dark area that we completely sweep under the carpet, so it’s really difficult to know who’s suffering, and then everyone really suffers. Everyone has their own personal battles.
I love that you bring up Sylvia Plath.
Yeah, she was so talented. It’s heartbreaking, because when you read her stuff, then it’s so obvious how much she was suffering. It’s the same as Vincent Van Gogh as well. It was so obvious that he was suffering.
Do you think that issues like depression and suicide would be less common if these people—these cultural influences—would speak openly about mental illness during their lifetime?
Yes. One hundred percent yes. I know that when I was going through the worst of my own personal struggles, and when I do, I think to have read somebody’s story, seeing somebody being so open would have helped me a great deal, but I didn’t seek that kind of help back then, but just thinking back, it would’ve done, you know—we’re all trying to find some kind of truth within ourselves, and in things that inspire us, and there’s so much comfort in knowing that suffering isn’t something that only one person endures. So, I think—especially in school—taking it away from people we idolize, but in school, we’re taught all about physical education, but there’s no real talk on mental [health] education. It’s just something that we don’t talk about, and it plays such a significant role in our lives. And it’s just forgotten about.
What made you decide to be so open about these things? Because it is something that has this stigma of shame. Was there a moment that you decided to open up, or has it been a slower process?
It’s been very slow. Well, it’s taken me nine years of enduring such darkness to understand that I’m not alone and that I deserve to be happy and to love myself. I guess I shared my story in order to show people that it’s okay to be honest. It was a very, very long process of me coming to realize that it was okay to want help, and it was okay to want to love myself and to want to be happy, and, you know, just small moments of happiness, and of life-impacting moments that I held onto that I realized that there’s so much more to life than just being okay and just accepting such hard times and such struggles. I think that just slowly I built up the courage to share my story with people.
And I’m so glad you are sharing it. We really do need more people to do that.
Completely. I remember when I shared my story, I received—it literally felt like hundreds of messages from people opening up to me and telling me their stories. There were so many. I couldn’t believe it. I can’t even explain how it made me feel. I felt heartbroken, and relieved they were sharing it, and I felt an admiration as well. I couldn’t get over how many people have suffered in similar ways, you know? Especially men as well! Men. Guys, especially, that really never open up, you know. It’s crazy. It’s just heartbreaking.
And it’s seen as such a gender-specific topic, too. I like that you mentioned that men will open up about it.
Yeah, because people just naturally think that females are more emotional than males, which is actually untrue. We’re both the same in that sense. It’s in our nature to be emotionally vulnerable. It’s difficult for men. They’re supposed to wear this macho mask.
For you, does writing music directly alleviate your personal mental struggles? Can playing and writing make you feel better in a dark moment, or is it more of a long-term process that helps you work through problems slowly?
I guess the whole purpose—the reason I started playing music was that it was a healthy way of me venting my emotions. You know, it’s very cathartic and very therapeutic. It brings me back to the current moment and helps me come to terms with things and release.
Prior to your hospital stay in 2015, what was your perception of mental illness? And do you think that you may have ever unintentionally perpetuated the stigma before you had this personal experience with it?
The reason I had my breakdown was I had just started opening up to those close around me, and I just felt like it was the first time in my life I had actually confronted these things I’d experienced, so I was just coming to terms with things, and it was the first time I wanted to help myself. I’d always swept things under the carpet in my mind. And it was very obvious to my family I was struggling. I just wasn’t completely honest about why I was struggling. So, yeah, I guess in a way I did add to that stigma because I wasn’t honest. I wasn’t honest about what was happening and who I really was and how I was struggling.
Right, because there is that overwhelming shame. How do you feel now about that stigma? Do you still sometimes find that any of that stigma remains in you now, perhaps subconsciously, because of how society teaches us to react to mental illness?
There are days when I wake up and I can’t get out of bed, and I feel ashamed and I feel ugly and like a burden, and I don’t want to talk, but instead of letting it kill me and remaining silent, I seek help. Last week, for instance, I was in London, and I was supposed to go into the studio to record with a really amazing producer, but I had to cancel my session. I was almost numb with depression, and I threw up and cried for most of the day. But I called my doctor and told her what was going on, and I called my boyfriend and spoke to him for over an hour, and I cried to my dad, and I went to sleep. But I didn’t isolate myself, nor did I give in to old habits. I sought help just as I would’ve done if I woke up with a broken arm. I grieved over the pain, then sought professional help and more support. I still feel lots of shame at times, but I would try to never deny myself help again.
As a female artist, how often do you encounter gender-based power struggles? Do you often encounter gender discrimination?
I mean, yeah, there were a couple of occasions working with producers who disrespected me. There was this one guy who made really inappropriate sexual remarks to me and me feel really uncomfortable, and just really made me feel so disgusting about myself. And there was another time when I was trying to write a song with this guy, and he was making fun of me about the way I dressed, and being so rude, and it just made me feel like, “Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m female?” It was really degrading and horrible. And it’s just crazy to me that it still exists, and very much so, and it still exists in the workplace. And from such a young age, you know, I was 17, and had these grown men disrespect me so badly and so disgustingly.
It’s so unfortunate that that’s still a problem.
Completely. It’s degrading and dehumanizing and disgusting. It’s horrible.
We all encounter it, and I think that being a strong female artist and starting to become a public figure, you can really combat that and be taken seriously, like you deserve, so I think you’re doing what you can.
I think it’s gonna take a lot of hardening, a lot of tough skin. I need to grow some tough skin. It’s a man’s world, isn’t it?
It seems to be, sadly. Not for long, though. So, from reading your personal story on your website, it seems like sexual assault played a huge role in your depression. In recovering emotionally from these experiences, do you find yourself still dwelling in that darkness, or do you now feel more empowered for having survived? Or is it a combination of both?
I mean, I think it’s an overwhelming sense of both. Sometimes I’m haunted by the things that happened to me. I literally feel cold and delve into this really vicious cycle of asking myself, “Why me? Why did they do this to me?” It’s hard enough being subjected to such disgusting actions just once in your life, but to have it happen to me twice, it’s just—I’m surprised I survived, you know? Sometimes I look back, and it sends a really cold shiver down my spine. It’s a horrible thing to have to live with, and I’ll never understand the thinking of those people that did it to me. But then I remember that I’m here, and I’m alive, and I’m breathing, and loved, and I’m in love, and I create, and I’m not alone. I remember that I spoke up, and I will continue to speak out, and I remember that I can help through my own personal experiences.
Now, do you find it difficult to express emotional vulnerability like you do in your music after experiencing something so isolating as sexual assault?
RC: I guess I find it very difficult at times to be vulnerable, as we all do, but I have also come to learn how important it is to be vulnerable. I mean, like, from children, we naturally show so much openness and being vulnerable, but sometimes it’s very difficult. But it’s good to embrace every aspect of our true human nature, one being very emotionally vulnerable, whether we admit it and embrace it or not, so I guess I have no choice but to be vulnerable.