Mersey Wylie: “Why can’t we romanticise the idea of things being better?”
With the release of The Skin I Live In, Mersey Wylie chats to Shaun Ponsonby about her debut EP, the changing attitudes towards mental health.
This article was originally published in November 2018.
Mersey Wylie has been performing around Liverpool for years. We’ve seen her at some of our favourite events, from Threshold to Liverpool SoulFest.
Surprisingly, she has yet to release a full EP. That finally changes today with the release of The Skin I Live In, a deeply personal exploration of Wylie’s own struggles with mental health.
But don’t let that description put you off – despite the subject matter, the EP is full of light. It may not be joyful, but it is hopeful, and taken as a whole it presents one of the most three dimensionally human depictions of mental health we have ever heard.
This is achieved not just through lyrics, but a wide ranging musical pallet; blues, jazz, classical, rock and pop are blended together with a soulful finish. It is without a doubt one of the most rewarding releases of the year.
Ahead of the EP’s release and the launch party taking place at Studio 2 on 22nd November, we sat down with Mersey Wylie to discuss The Skin I Live In, the changing attitudes towards mental health, her love of Michael Jackson and so much more.
Planet Slop: Personally, I felt like the most interesting song on the EP lyrically is Can’t Let Go. I took it as being about living with depression and how in a strange way it’s scary to live without it when it is all you know.
Mersey Wylie: That was the last song I wrote. I hadn’t set out to make the EP about mental health, but after a couple of weeks it seemed to make sense. When I was writing Can’t Let Go I wanted to personify that part of myself. It’s so ingrained in me, but also feels like a completely separate person sometimes. And so it was really about the friend you have with it, and the enemy, and the dichotomy between the two. When she starts to rear her head and you see her coming after you’ve had a brief relief and the fear that comes with that. But then not being able to completely let go of her. She – or it, or whatever – has been such a big part of my life for so long that I don’t know who I am, or who I would be, if she never came back.
PS: How do you deal with it when she does show up?
MW: At different times I’ve dealt with it in different ways. At the moment I have a lot of routines in my day to day life that I try to be quite strict about to try to keep her at bay. When it does happen I have some coping mechanisms, and sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t and you just have to ride it out and hope for the best [Laughs]
PS: It’s the first track on the EP, and it opens with a sort of Beach Boys type harmonising, and I felt like that was representing almost a journey of those emotions.
MW: I’m so glad you spotted that! I wanted a really strong opening, and I was exploring different ways of representing all these feelings, separate from lyrics. So part of that was in the instrumentation, but I love this group called Roomful of Teeth, who are this contemporary classical vocal ensemble who have a lot of wordless stuff. I love the Beach Boys reference! I love that you get that!
PS: Well it actually reminded me of Our Prayer from the Smile sessions.
MW: Yes, exactly! I really wanted something that said it all without words, and our voices are really the purest way of conveying meaning – that’s how we communicate. And it’s the ride of emotions; the frustration, the resignation, the relief, the hopelessness.
PS: I could feel that it was a complete journey, and to follow that up with a song about how you can’t really live without that was kinda poignant. There is quite a musical journey throughout the whole EP. Although it is a uniform sound and it makes sense together, it is also quite eclectic stylistically. Only You has that bluesy guitar line mixed with a touch of jazz and a bit of soul. Is that a conscious decision for you to include all of these different colours, or do they just happen to come out in your writing?
MW: It’s a little bit of both. When I first started writing music, because my background is so varied – I studied classical music, I played in jazz bands – but I always knew I wanted to make soul music. When I started writing, I worked so hard to try and make it sound as soulful as possible, ignoring all of these other influences and try to weave them out of me. But then I realised that I wasn’t making the music that I wanted to hear. So, originally it was a conscious decision. But Only You was more organic because I was starting to explore that idea of translating something through the music rather than just the lyrics. With the rest of the record, there were some conscious decisions. I changed the way that I write. I used to write lyrics and chords and have general ideas of what I wanted the band to do and I’d take it to them and workshop it. But here I started writing specific parts for each instrument, and still workshop it with people who actually knew how to play the instruments so that it’s not just me and my midi guitar [laughs]. I was a lot more deliberate about what everyone was doing and how I was building those songs, and I think that gave me the ability to put more of those influences in. And, you know, the music that I love doesn’t all fit into one category. I wanted to play and write more of what I wanted to hear.
PS: Obviously your dad is Pete Wylie, and he has had his whole thing before you. I’m always interested in people like Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son, who started making movies as a way to rebel against his dad’s career in music and create his own identity separate from his dad. So how do you go about forging your own identity when your dad is a bit of a local legend?
MW: I’m still figuring that out! [Laughs] Part of it is quite natural, because I didn’t grow up in Liverpool. If I had, I think it would be a lot more intertwined. I’ve always had that level of…separation isn’t the right word, but there’s less intensity outside of Liverpool. I didn’t consciously reject the music that my dad was drawn to. And actually he was the first one to introduce me to the Jackson 5, and Motown, which started my love affair with soul music. Part of it was just a natural thing – I was drawn to different music and that was lucky because it gave me my own identity in a way. But I’ve also learned to just go with it. It is what it is and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. I can just relax with it or I can fight it, and it’s boring to fight!
PS: Well, maybe not boring, but definitely tiring!
MW: Absolutely, yeah! [laughs] Very tiring to fight.
PS: What was the first music that you remember forming a connection with?
MW: Michael Jackson. My dad was always playing music around, and he has a massive wall of records, and he used to play me all sorts like David Bowie, The Clash, Motown, Mott The Hoople. And I don’t know why, but as soon as I heard Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, I was gone. That was me for my whole childhood. And it wasn’t cool. It was not cool to like Michael Jackson when I was a kid. I used to get teased for it all the time.
PS: I’m guessing this is all post-1993. Because before that incident, everyone loved Michael Jackson.
MW: And the music, let’s be honest, wasn’t his best after that!
PS: The last track on the EP, Stronger – I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t a Britney Spears cover!
MW: [Laughs] Me too, if I’m totally honest!
PS: But it does feel like, after all the heavy subjects of the previous tracks, it is the moment of power at the end.
MW: Yeah, I think after all of that, it needed some release. And I did as well. I started to see slightly brighter days, or at least less muddled days, and to celebrate that. It’s not “Oh, everything’s great now, we’re done forever”. I know that this will probably come back, but for now let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
PS: It is that release, but it’s still a fight song. I wouldn’t say it is joyful, but it’s definitely hopeful.
MW: Absolutely! It’s finding that part of yourself that isn’t afraid of going down that route again. I think, especially with something like Can’t Let Go, you may feel OK for now, but there’s always that constant fear that it will all fall down again. So Stronger I was saying “I don’t know how I managed to fight through that, and I know it might happen again, but for now we’re OK”. And I really wanted the end to be like a party, but not like a rave! [Laughs]
PS: Oh imagine! Proper EDM! [Laughs]
MW: From the Britney Spears song into the EDM! [Laughs]
PS: After opening with The Beach Boys!
MW: But I wanted it to feel like people were coming to join you.
PS: You mean as support? Friends, family…?
MW: Yeah, at the end of the day, without sounding like a walking cliché, that is what will get you through. You can’t do everything alone, and as a massive control freak that’s quite a big admission! [laughs]
PS: I remember when Robin Williams died. That was the first time I noticed a change when it comes to compassion for people who lose their battle with depression and commit suicide. I saw very few people saying things about how selfish he was or…
PS: Yeah, all those old things. It was more along the lines of, “I didn’t know he was suffering so badly”.
MW: I think it was so shocking when he died too, because…
PS: …his image. He was so full of life in front of the camera.
MW: Yeah, and he had been in all of our lives for so many years.
PS: Bringing joy to so many people, it’s hard for some people to conflate those two images. But when do you feel like that shift started happening?
MW: I think definitely in the last 10-15 years we’ve been making in-roads in a lot of different areas, not just mental health.
PS: It was one of the last taboos though.
MW: Yeah, completely.
PS: I remember the ridicule when Adam Ant had that episode in the early 00s and he ended up getting arrested…
MW: But even the Amanda Bynes breakdown, if you want to go there. It’s a lot more acceptable now to say we have to look after our mental health and there’s more awareness. But, when we scratch the surface I think there’s still some way to go. Situations like Amanda Bynes or Sinead O’ Connor are still not treated with empathy, and we need to look at that. But for someone like Stormzy to come out and say that he has dealt with depression, those key figures in different communities make such a difference.
PS: On the other side though, do you think there’s been some strange, perverse romanticism around mental health too? If you think about someone like Kurt Cobain and the whole image of the tortured artist.
MW: Completely. Going back to the old jazz guys who used to be taking heroin all day and night and that would supposedly fuel these amazing sessions and it sounds so exciting. But if you actually look at that realistically, it would have been a hot mess and we lost these people so much sooner than what we could have had from them. Imagine if they could have faced their demons and pulled through, and we had that story to tell.
PS: And I guess we don’t learn, and grow from it either if we’re celebrating it.
MW: There’s still this idea that mental illness or addiction somehow birth creativity, and without them we’d have nothing to talk about. And I know I’m coming off the back of writing a whole EP about it, but I know that I couldn’t have made that if I was in the worst parts of my mental health. We’re not at our best in the worst times.
PS: It’s harder to face those things when you’re in the middle of it as well.
MW: Why can’t we romanticise the idea of things being better? Wouldn’t that be nice? Let’s romanticise the idea of going through a really shit time, and growing stronger from it, and your creativity being better, and your productivity being better. All the things that are true, by the way!
PS: Do you think its gradually edging in that direction?
MW: I think we’re on the way. We’re two steps forward, one step back a little bit, it just needs people to keep talking about it. I wrote a whole record about my mental health, but actually talking about it still scares the shit out of me.
PS: How cathartic was it, then, to do it through your music?
MW: Massively. I don’t have another way of processing that stuff. When I’m in the worst of it, I’m not sitting at my keyboard writing tunes, I’m lying in bed trying to face the day. But, on the other side of that, trying to process my relationship with my mental health, what that means, how I’m expecting to go forwards, music is the only way I know how to deal with that.
PS: That’s probably more likely to be the connection between creativity and depression; it is a meditation for people who suffer from these issues, rather than it fuelling any creativity.
MW: You do need things to write about, but you don’t have to be falling off a cliff to figure out what that is. We all go through life with ups and downs, but there will always be something to write about.
PS: That’s one thing I would say about the EP. Even though it is dealing with these issues, and for that reason it’s not a project full of joy, but it’s not a dour, Adele, Sam Smith type thing either. There’s still a lot of light in there.
MW: That was really important to me, because it’s not one colour. Well, some days it is! [Laughs] But, overall, there’s not just one mood to it, there are all these different emotions, there’s different flavours. Some days I’m functioning perfectly well and inside there’s this little voice telling me that everything is falling down. And then other days I’m not doing anything, or my anxiety plays up. There’s so many different forms that takes, so musically that’s how it made sense to me to do it, because that’s how it feels.
PS: Well, it makes it feel human and three dimensional. I think when a lot of people write songs about depression, they feel like they need to make it a depressing song.
MW: It’s not really helpful for me to do that. Not to devalue anyone who takes that route, but in the way I make music, if I get stuck I have nothing else to say, so there needs to be another side to it. It was really liberating for me to think about writing this music separate from lyrics, because I can communicate so much more.
PS: This is actually your first full EP, why has it taken so long?
MW: I did one recording a couple of years ago, but I’ve only ever wanted to do things when they were right. And that’s partially the control freak in me and partially just because I don’t like doing things half baked. Writing music up until this point I didn’t think it was quite the right fit yet, and so this is the first time where I feel this is my music.
PS: You found your voice.
MW: Completely, and I think it was a thing of all those different influences coming in because I stopped fighting them – the classical, jazz, rock, pop. In a twisted way, I was trying to make something more authentic by not allowing all those other parts of me, but actually the most authentic version is the one that has all those influences.
PS: And you’ve got the EP launch soon!
MW: I am so scared! [Laughs] Tori Cross is going to be supporting, along with Jasmine Johnson. I’ve never put a show on before, but we’re doing it at Studio 2 because I wanted somewhere that felt intimate, and giggy at the same time. There’s loads of venues that I love playing that wouldn’t have that sit down, close vibe. Studio 2 has a good balance between those things. And it was one of the first venues that I ever came into in Liverpool. We’re just working out how to make it special, because for the first time I can do whatever I want! And that’s terrifying! [Laughs]
PS: Yeah, because sometimes it better to work with limitations!
MW: That was the big thing when I started, because it’s the first time I’ve done a project like this, and when it came to going into the studio and they said “You can do literally anything you want”, I got a bit overwhelmed. I had to give myself limitations.
PS: Do you have any plans after this project?
MW: I’m already working on the next EP, but I have no idea how to make that happen yet.
PS: Will you be dealing with similar themes on that?
MW: No. I’ve said everything I want to say about these issues for now. I don’t want to start flogging a dead horse! So I’ve written three and a half songs for the next one, some of which I’m planning to play at the launch show actually.
PS: That takes a lot of guts, to play upcoming music at the launch for this EP.
MW: Yeah, it’s totally different as well.
PS: But it shows that you are looking forward.
MW: Because I’ve never done this before, you really don’t appreciate how long everything takes. We recorded this music a year ago, and to get to that point took nearly a year. Because I’m doing it all myself, everything takes a little bit longer. So there was a point in the middle of making this one where the only thing I had to do was write and that’s my favourite part of all this. Funnily enough, it’s not emailing seven million radio stations! [Laughs]
The Skin I Live In is released today.
Mersey Wylie plays Studio 2 on Thursday 22nd November 2018. Tickets are available now.