Music is restorative - just ask journalist Andrew Stafford whose remarkable deep dive into its healing power is based on real-life and near death experience.
Andrew Stafford's four-star Guardian review of Neil Finn's Out of Silence album is thoughtful and thought provoking and ends quite beautifully: "Out of Silence," Stafford writes, "sees [Finn] at his most contemplative and tender, at the most troubled of times. If you missed out on watching this album being born, rest assured the songs will be there waiting for you, whenever you're ready to listen."
Stafford intends that to be the final thing he ever writes. You might call it his last will and testament, were his actual will not sitting next to a suicide note on a table at his home in Brisbane.
Ultimately, Stafford chooses not to take his life. Instead, as he explains in his unflinching memoir, Something to Believe In, Stafford listens to Out of Silence again and again, particularly the track Chameleon Days. He becomes fixated, playing the song more than a dozen times in a row. By the end of his listening the urge to die has passed. Andrew Stafford's life has been saved by rock'n'roll.
"Well, pop music in this case," says Stafford, who's on the phone from Brisbane, where he's taken a day off to go bird-watching (another fixation). He's doing better now.
"There's been a lot of water under the bridge and a lot of therapy," he says. "I can tell you I'm in much better shape than I was at the time I wrote the book."
Neil Finn, touring the world with Fleetwood Mac, describes Stafford's account as amazing and says he's very pleased that one of his songs had such a positive influence.
Something to Believe In (Queensland University Press) is Stafford's first book since 2004's Pig City, his definitive survey of Brisbane's music scene, and deftly interweaves stories from his life with essays about the songs, albums and artists that sustain him. As a result, the book isn't just about music. It's also, I suggest, about taxi driving and Aussie rules football and bird-watching and Stafford's relationships and his dad and his mum. Stafford disagrees.
"Those things just provided convenient scaffolding for me to talk about music and the role it plays in all our lives," he says. "I have a song for every occasion, so on one hand it's a very serious book and on the other it is entirely whimsical, and the music is a way of lightening the tone and reminding us that art is here to lift us up and get us through."
Stafford is talking metaphorically but according to the science, there's something to what he says.
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"It's generally felt that songs that are high tempo and have uplifting lyrics will have the effect the songwriter intended, which is to raise your mood and make you feel euphoric," says Peter Dickens, general manager of MusicHelps, which develops and supports charities that use music to help people in need.
Neil Finn's Chameleon Days is neither up-tempo nor euphoric. It's midtempo, wistful, even mournful. Dickens explains that what's downbeat to one person can be uplifting to another.
"There are no absolutes and the experience of music is individual," he says, pointing to a Durham University study that showed playing sad songs to people can make them feel better.
"The researchers theorised that the effect sad music was having was that of the empathetic friend; the person who understands exactly what you're going through and is sitting alongside you going through the same emotional experience. So paradoxically, a sad song might be just the right thing to experience in a particular moment. However, generally speaking, sad songs are likely to make you feel sadder. It's appallingly complex."
For Stafford, Chameleon Days seems to have been the right song at the right time, both intricate enough to have captured his ear until the desire to take his own life passed and loaded with a message he needed to hear.
"The song is about acceptance of change, and acceptance of things you cannot change, and being able to move on accordingly. Life is always shifting and will always throw curve balls at you and it's really about how you respond," says Stafford, whose life, as his book shows, was going through upheaval at the time. "Historically, I haven't coped particularly well with some of those curve balls, I had to learn to be better – that's been one of the big lessons for me.
"And musically it's a very complicated song in terms of there being a lot going on, but Neil Finn has a wonderful way of making complex arrangements sound lighter than air and as natural as breathing."
he arrangements are not by Finn but by composer Victoria Kelly.
"Chameleon Days has such a beautiful, inevitable feeling and I just heard vibraphones at the beginning," Kelly remembers. "I think I opened it with a repeating vibraphone pattern and sustained strings over the top because to me that song felt like a landscape. Landscapes have both an undulating quality and a really static quality; I was trying to express that aspect of the song."
Chameleon Days isn't necessarily the sort of song you'd expect to beguile Andrew Stafford. While he happily admits a penchant for pop, and reasons there's no such thing as a guilty pleasure (he makes a good case for the appalling Savage Garden and Cold Chisel), Something to Believe In – the name is taken from the title of a Ramones song – makes it clear that Stafford favours a wailing guitar, a snarling lead singer, and a songwriter who perches closer to the edge of the precipice than Neil Finn.
Perhaps significantly, a lot of the musicians Stafford mentions in his book have more than a passing acquaintance with mental illness. Is that something Stafford is particularly drawn to in his artists?
"I probably am attracted to these types of performers and their stories," he says. "I think it's partly just a natural affinity for the underdog and maybe also a feeling of connection to their vulnerabilities. It's a strong theme in the book that I'm drawn to outsiders and to some extent cultivated my own identity as one, even as a journalist."
There are plenty of afflicted musicians upon which to model oneself. Peter Dickens says the link between creativity and mental health and wellbeing problems is supported by the literature.
"The experience a highly creative person has is not the same as someone who is not highly creative and there are a number of ways in which they experience the world that leaves them open to that. One of the factors that's talked about is skinlessness. That is placing yourself completely open to all experiences, then taking those and synthesising them into something new or appealing. That's where originality and fantastic music come from, but in order to do that you have to be an extremely open person."
In Something to Believe In, Stafford shows his own willingness to be open, practising what he calls radical transparency in anything relating to himself – and he really does lay it all out there. However, he can be less forthcoming when dealing with others, choosing not to name his ex-wife, for example.
"I was trying to be as open as I possibly could about myself and my own foibles but I didn't want to hurt anybody else. I asked my ex-wife if she was comfortable with being named and she wasn't, but she's a songwriter as well and she gave me her blessing for the book. She'll probably write some songs about me, and all's fair in songs and writing, I guess."
For the most part, Stafford writes with affection for the people in his life, and there is candid devastation when he discusses a close family member's serious illness. It's beautifully written, but I tell Stafford that my favourite line in the book is: "One of the things I love most about music is that the best stuff waits patiently for you."
It echoes the closing sentence of his Neil Finn review, but this time Stafford's talking about coming to Bruce Springsteen later in life. Over the phone, Stafford proves his point by relating a tale about his father.
A fine singer who recorded his first album aged 77, Stafford Sr is described as an "old-fashioned crooner," who loves Nat King Cole and Matt Monro but who has never come to terms with rock.
"I saw the rock'n'roll penny drop for my father, who was 80 years old and never liked anything with a backbeat in his life," Stafford recalls. "We were driving and Tom Petty had just died, and I was playing Full Moon Fever. I was trying to play it at a volume that was satisfying to me but wasn't going to disturb my dad. It got to Runnin' Down a Dream and I could see him perk up. He was like, 'That's got a great beat; it really makes you feel alive.' I said, 'Yeah, Dad, that's rock'n'roll; it sounds like freedom."
* Something to Believe In by Andrew Stafford (Queensland University Press, $38) is out now.
Three musicians on the music that has always guaranteed to make them feel better
is an award-winning musician, composer and (life-saving) arranger, with acclaimed soundtracks under her belt for movies such as Under the Mountain, Out of the Blue and Black Sheep. "The song that immediately comes to mind for me is Ooh Child by The Five Stairsteps. I heard it for the first time on the radio, as I was rushing to North Shore Hospital, having heard the news that my father was about to be transferred to intensive care. He died a few days later. I am a devout atheist but as I drove along Northcote Rd, sensing the worst, the arrival of that song in my ears made me feel as though everything was connected on a larger plane, which was – and remains – a deep comfort to me. It is a kind, comforting, uplifting song."
, the NZSO's principal harpist, can always rely on JS Bach. "Brandenburg Concerto No.3 has lifted me from thinking or feeling that things are just long and boring and sad and broken to feeling my spirit start to bloom again." She's reluctant to explain what it is about that work that makes it so special, though. "I always think that if you could put the feelings of music into words then you wouldn't need the music, so I don't really try," she reasons. "But I would say that Bach is a genius at construction. The inner strength and qualities and perfection of what he wrote are amazing but it's not clinical or scientific, it's done in a way that brings everything together in a complete way. The other thing about music is that it's never still; it's always a journey, it's taking you somewhere. With this piece it feels like the journey builds and builds into this joyous explosion near the end. It just works for me."
Leading taonga pūoro practitioner Horomona Horo (Nga Puhi, Taranaki, Ngāti Pōrou) doesn't have one go-to song but he does use music to pick himself up. "I was at a family event and my mother collapsed. When we got the ambulance and things were taken care of, I found that all I wanted to do was listen to country music. It took me back to the times I was connected to her, particularly Patsy Cline's Lipstick on Your Collar. That was one of the songs that used to play when we had family over and that my mother always listened to. More recently, when I've been really down, I'll go to things like Hot Chocolate and listen to Every 1's a Winner: 'Everyone's a winner baby, that's the truth'. I love playing music, I love doing what I'm doing, but there are going to be some down times. When there are down times I need to let myself know that we make mistakes but it's about getting back up and grabbing that pen to write the next line of a new song or piece of music."
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• The Word
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.