Ahead of NZ-Music T-Shirt Day this Friday, Dominic Hoey talks to singer/songwriter Lydia Cole about burnout, panic attacks and the charity that turned everything around.
Over the years, I’ve come up against the same misconception about artists. That it’s an easy life, with days spent lying around waiting for the muse to strike, travelling, and occasionally making the odd bit of art.
But the reality for most of the artists I know is very different. It involves financial insecurity, having to be your own publicist, booking agent and manager, and more often than not, working a full-time job. Among all of this, you still need to find time to actually make art.
It’s not surprising that mental health issues like anxiety, depression and exhaustion are common.
Auckland musician Lydia Cole recently took to social media to share her experience of burnout, and how an organisation called MusicHelps provided her with free therapy, which led to her making some big changes in her life.
Back in 2017, it seemed like things were on track for Lydia. She’d released an album and toured New Zealand before making the move to Berlin. Any one of these events would have been a giant undertaking on their own, and Lydia soon found herself feeling overwhelmed.
“I arrived in Berlin exhausted, and had to muster the energy to begin life in what is notoriously a ‘hard city’. I didn't speak German and I'd never even been to Europe before,” she says. But instead of taking a break, Lydia did what artists commonly do, and kept pushing. It was after another successful New Zealand tour that the panic attacks started.
“A couple of months after returning to Berlin I started getting frequent chest pain and panic attacks, which soon became daily. It took about two more months before I realised it was burnout.”
Lydia Cole, photo by Becki Moss
Her doctor in Berlin told her she was physically healthy and suggested seeing a therapist. After searching and being unable to find anyone suitable in Berlin, Lydia reached out to MusicHelps. The organisation was set up in 2012 to respond to the mental health crisis affecting musicians in New Zealand. As well as offering free therapy sessions, they support initiatives that bring music into spaces like hospices, and connect at-risk and vulnerable people with music. Lydia was soon connected with a therapist back in New Zealand, who advised Lydia to make some drastic changes in her life
“I immediately canceled a string of shows and then booked a flight back to New Zealand,” Lydia says. “Since then I've been learning to listen more closely to my body, and to take it easy.”
Lydia is now preparing to return home to New Zealand where she plans to spend some time recuperating in her parents spare room, a privilege she acknowledges a lot of artists in her position don’t have. “Things have felt really desperate for me in recent months yet I know there are others out there dealing with the same shit who don't have that safety net.”
“Things have felt really desperate for me in recent months yet I know there are others out there dealing with the same shit who don't have that safety net.”
With charities like MusicHelps, along with the Labour government allocating more money to Creative New Zealand, and talking about bringing back the Pace Scheme, perhaps there’s a chance things may improve somewhat for artists in Aotearoa. But Lydia feels that our population and geography make it tricky.
“The population is small so artists can't always be touring. All of my friends in music make a living by doing some secondary work, whether it's related to music or not.” But she does feel that it’s easier to be a musician here in 2019.
“There is a pride in our music industry that wasn't there 20 years ago. You used to be able to pick out the low budget local music videos from the slick overseas ones on TV. Now we are quicker to celebrate our artists, and I'm sure that's at least partly due to initiatives such as NZ Music Month.”
Lydia Cole, photo by Becki Moss
Another important initiative for Aotearoa’s artists is NZ Music T-Shirt Day, a way to spread awareness and raise funds for MusicHelps. On November 8th, people are encouraged to make a donation and wear their favourite t-shirt by a New Zealand musician, and share photos on social media.
“There is a pride in our music industry that wasn't there 20 years ago.”
MusicHelps and JB Hifi have even produced some limited edition shirts with all the processed going to the charity. Understandably, Lydia is passionate about getting behind the fundraiser.
“The support I've received has been life-changing, and I don't want anyone to miss the memo on this.”
Lydia Cole is one of many musicians raising money for MusicHelps as part of NZ Music T-Shirt Day. Visit her campaign here.