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My Giant Steps: A Journey Featuring Mental Illness And Recovery (With Music And Words)

Reflections From A Recovering Mental Patient

I proudly present to you this playlist: a musical collage, personal but relevant to many, accompanied by commentary and clickable links. I hope it will help you and maybe inspire you – as well as promoting great music, of course!

(Note: I'm not a fan of trigger warnings but feel free to skip parts of this if you find some of the music or commentary challenging.)

No title sums up many of the problems of the modern era quite like that of the playlist’s opener, ‘Virtual Insanity’, especially given the emergence of stranger-than-fiction videos like this. Meanwhile, despite being written in the Eighties and enjoying a single release in 2003, ‘Bad Day’ by R.E.M. remains relevant. Lines like “Please don’t take a picture” and “Save my own ass, screw these guys” are reminiscent of unstable, illiberal and self-centred politics in post-Brexit Britain and contemporary America, both of which hark back to another era despite an uncertain future. Sadly, I was certainly not the only one suffering from a low mood and anxiety this year.

While the songs referred to above may be, despite their social and political commentary, personal works of art that are personally affecting to audiences, it could be argued that the following two pieces of music go even deeper. Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’ speaks on not just anxiety but hopelessness to amazing effect. The title of ‘Voices’ by Alice In Chains could simply be about negative self-talk, something common if not universal. However, the track might speak about stranger phenomena, such as  some of my symptoms which are apparently psychotic and, in the past, meant I stayed in hospital several times. Regardless of the words exact meaning(s), they, alongside those of Linkin Park’s ‘By Myself’, reflect well some of my own thoughts as well as those of many other people, surely.

The beautiful Lou Reed composition ‘Candy Says’, performed by his band The Velvet Underground, speaks on “endless revisions” and dislike, or even hatred, for one’s “body and all that it requires”, speaking in these ways to a shallow and perfectionist age full of both narcissism and self-hatred, achieving such relevance despite being written in the Sixties. Next on the playlist  are ‘Given Up’ and ‘Breaking the Habit’ by Linkin Park, as well as ‘Slip Out the Back’ from the album The Rising Tied by Fort Minor (a side-project of Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda). Those songs are – like, one might argue, ‘Candy Says’ – the epitome of despairing lyricism. My own suicidal feelings of the past, which were unjustifiable but somehow convincing at the time, are seemingly reflected in the songs mentioned in this paragraph, although thankfully I feel much better now.

The 2017 song ‘One More Light’ by Linkin Park was performed, hauntingly, shortly after Chris Cornell’s death and not long before that of Linkin Park’s own Chester Bennington, to whom tributes were paid at a music-packed ceremony in September. The title track from the band’s most recent album speaks on the devastating effect of a death on those who knew the deceased and is, despite its sadness, life-affirming as well as being death-conscious.

Helplessness Blues’ by Fleet Foxes seems to be about existential crises or the like and the struggle to define one’s identity in the world. The song’s questions and uncertainty, with those of John Lennon’s ‘How?’ speak to the trouble many mentally ill people, including myself, have after a period of illness or a breakdown, and the consequent scepticism and anxiety. That latter track by Lennon also helps, alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Soul to Squeeze’, to demonstrate how difficult recovery can be for the mentally ill.

One of the more optimistic songs on this list, R.E.M.’s ‘Uberlin’ splits the day into different steps to complete. This is similar to the way in which one might split a journey on the Berlin U-Bahn transport system, which is referenced in the song, into stops at different stations. Breaking days or challenges down in order to tackle them piece by piece is a good method for the mentally ill (or anyone) to use, and so could be telling oneself, “I will make it through the night” as Michael Stipe sings here.

Time Won’t Wait’ by Jamiroquai is also encouraging, although it is worth noting that, despite the helpfulness of being reminded that “you just can’t stop the clock”, Jamiroquai’s call to action should probably be tempered with sometimes following the example set by the singer of ‘Soul To Squeeze’: sometimes you “gotta take it slow” in order to find “peace of mind”. Likewise, I would not always apply R.E.M.’s lyric “Enjoy yourself with no regrets” to every situation, but the general message in ‘Supernatural Superserious’ (a title which could have sometimes been my nickname in the past) is welcome. It reminds the listener that “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget or disguise”, but that we should enjoy ourselves anyway, especially since it is often true that “fantasies are wrapped up in travesties”.

Moving on, John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’, the only instrumental in this playlist, arguably represents my recovery process, since it takes a great deal of skill to accomplish amid high tempos that resemble the chaos of life, as well as requiring assistance from others: even Coltrane could not play every instrument simultaneously. Audioslave’s ‘Nothing Left to Say But Goodbye’ and Linkin Park’s ‘What I’ve Done’ are also about giant steps, ones striding away from old habits, with a highlight being Bennington’s line, “As I clean this slate with the hands of uncertainty”, indicating that recovery or redemption is often a rocky road. That said, the sound of Chris Cornell of Audioslave shouting repeatedly on ‘What You Are’ the words, “Now I’m free…”, though probably in the context of ending a relationship with a person, can still be seen as very encouraging for those struggling to leave certain harmful symptoms or habits behind, even when one considers the “uncertainty” mentioned earlier.

Another great source of inspiration for me is ‘Walk’ by Foo Fighters, which is metaphorically about “learning to walk again” and “talk again”, things I have had to do in a way because of struggles with something that might be selective mutism or perhaps a condition similar to it. R.E.M’s ‘Every Day Is Yours to Win’ is another excellent, optimistic song which comes with the realistic qualifier, “It’s not all cherry pie”. ‘Iridescent’ by Linkin Park concludes the playlist, offering even more advice for those for whom “failure’s all… [they’ve] known”. The band’s wisdom is, “Remember all the sadness and frustration and let it go”. I guess that a benefit to making playlists or commentary like I have here is that completing such a project allows you to do just that.

If you have been affected by any of the themes spoken about in this article, it might help to speak to the charity Samaritans, either by a UK- or Ireland-based phone or by contacting them from anywhere via email. They have often helped me by listening.


Michael Jablonka Goes 'Peacefully'

  • Published in News

Michael Jablonka is a musician so prolific that you may think he devotes every waking hour to his art and, if the fantastical nature of many of his songs are anything to go by, several hours of his dreams as well. In addition to performing as Michael Kiwanuka’s chosen guitarist – a role that has found him touring arenas and festivals worldwide this summer – Jablonka has been fine-tuning his own powerful 21st-century take on bluesy alt-funk and soulful indie-rock. Proof that there’s still nothing to tingle the spine like soul-soused mastery of raw electric six-string, Jablonka’s gifted, intricate guitar skills belie the no-frills anthemic intent of his rootsy songcraft – sonic elevation designed to liberate the listener from the confines of their reality.

Born and bred in the capital, 27-year-old Jablonka has been gigging since the tender age of 14 as an in-demand guitarist for hire. Those to have enjoyed his dextrous services include Charlie Brown, Stooshe, Shakka and Delta Maid before fellow North Londoner and Brit-soul sensation Michael Kiwanuka came calling. Around the same time, Jablonka decided it was time to blaze his own trail as a bandleader and songwriter, collating a set of crack musicians and intense yet universal alt-rock’n’soul tunes that scream for wider appreciation. ‘Peacefully’ is the first of a dynamite double-A to be released by Lost In The Manor Records and is sure to bring on the kind of praise and popularity now enjoyed by Michael’s namesake and regular bandmate. 

True to its rousing sense of urgency, ‘Peacefully’ erupts with a crunching overdriven riff coming on like Jack White here, Matt Bellamy there and the ghost of Jimi Hendrix himself throughout. Michael Jablonka melds his enthralling guitar runs to a whip-crack rhythm and deep layers of double-tracked melody, while projecting his magisterial vocal across a stone-walled anthem of a chorus. Three minutes later, this steamy electric-soul belter is spent, leaving the listener to wonder just exactly what hit them as they reach for the repeat button.

“‘Peacefully’ is about separating yourself from a rough situation,” says Jablonka of the track produced by Ben ‘BJ’ Jackson at NXNE Studios in London. “Everyone is constantly in need of escapism.” Lucky then, that you’d be hard pressed to find a more immediate means of escape than this incendiary single.


See Michael Jablonka live

Thursday 12 October: Brixton Electric, London SW2 (with The Strypes)

Saturday 25 November: Map Cafe, London NW5





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