“They’re not superheroes” — exploring the mental health of your favorite musicians with the creator of Punk Talks

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Equipped with a Bachelor’s of Social Work, her favorite music and a positive message of mental health awareness, Sheridan Allen created Punk Talks. Within less than a year of graduating from Northern Kentucky University, Allen has built Punk Talks into a safe haven for fans, musicians and industry workers to talk about the issues in their lives. From sponsoring a stage at Bled Fest to linking up with artists like Sorority Noise, Punk Talks is helping transform the self-love movement in a big way.

When did you get the idea for Punk Talks?
SHERIDAN ALLEN: This is a little more selfish than I care to admit. [Laughs.] I was in my last semester and [I was going through] an existential crisis that launched what is now Punk Talks. I had been yearning to be a part of the music industry. I grew up in an isolated farm town in Indiana. Now, I live in Cincinnati and there’s not much of a scene here at all. I always wanted to be a part of it. I have one skill set and that’s helping people. While that’s a pretty valuable skill set, it’s a weird one to try and utilize in the music industry. [The idea] just came to me one day as I was on the outskirts watching these young bands become bigger and bigger; like Modern Baseball. Their rise in popularity just happened so quickly and they [were] college students. I dealt with the stressors of being a full-time college student and that was tough enough for me and I wasn’t a full-time touring musician. It dawned on me one day that this would be useful in our community and I was lucky enough that other people agreed with me.

What kind of services does Punk Talks provide?
The basis was to provide counseling, general education and awareness of mental health. My focus right now is getting the word out, doing as much advocacy and raising awareness that I can. The music community finds comfort in knowing [Punk Talks] exists. I have shifted my focus since I’ve started to make sure that I’m as accessible as I can be. I try to go to as many shows as I can in northern Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. I [try] to make myself as available as I can to bands, fans and industry workers to be someone they can vent to; to talk them through whatever it is they’re going through. I connect people with different resources and educate them on different types of mental health [issues], self care and to make sure they’re doing okay. It’s okay to feel like you’re losing it sometimes, but you’re not alone. There are services and places to  help you get through it.

A lot of fans out there treat musicians as these glorified puppets. You go to shows and see people yelling about playing old songs, maybe songs they don’t know are really mentally difficult for them to perform nowadays.
That was something that I was really interested in [finding out more] about. I’m not the first person to connect punk music and the scene to the idea of self-improvement and catering to mental health. To Write Love On Her Arms has been around since I was young and that was a huge cornerstone in the early-2000s pop-punk scene. With the uprising of Paramore and Fall Out Boy, that was a huge ordeal. The difference to me [is] that when I’m watching these young bands I think about how incredibly stressful it must be to be a full-time college student or touring for weeks at a time. [They’re] barely making ends meet and if they are, they’re not living comfortably. When I was looking at it, I was like, “How are they holding it together so well?” It was important to me to provide that environment for artists and industry professionals. You’re allowed to be a person, you’re allowed to be a human. You’re not responsible for saving a teenager’s life. I think that something our community needs to reflect on is that: Yes, these songs are relatable and that’s great, but the reason [why] these songs are relatable is that the artist is feeling the same emotions that you’re feeling. It’s cathartic to them; they’re not [writing these songs] to appease you. I think we need to do a better job at looking at musicians as people and not robots that exist only to come to our cities and play the songs that we like. Every band that [has] ever inspired some kids to start their own band. Think about if you started a garage band, you’re writing songs that you like, that are cool [to] you. [Musicians] don’t just exist for your entertainment only; they’re people. That’s something that is really important to me: to help alleviate the pressure that comes along with a rise in popularity and people encouraging you to immerse yourself in bad decision-making so you can write songs that they like.

Even going on social media, you see people posting on pages like, “This band sucks now, they’re old,” or “Maybe if he wasn’t sober, they’d be good.” Your favorite bands see these comments and posts all the time. These are some of the real problems with having such direct access to bands. Do you think this affects bands more now than ever in terms of mental health?
I grew up in the same vein of Say Anything, Motion City Soundtrack and Fall Out Boy. I’m 24 now, but the heyday of music for me was when I was 14 and 15. There was no access to underground music and I didn’t go to shows at all, so all the bands I found out about I had to have a friend show it to me or find it on MySpace. Even on MySpace, you [couldn’t] access bands the way you can now. The current popular bands grew up with social media and technology, so they’re used to obsessively checking it. I think they see those negative things—and it might get to them—but I would say more than anything, the way we consume music [affects their mental health the most]. We don’t buy CD’s anymore—I mean, we buy vinyl—but everything is online. Everything is free online or on Spotify, so you have to constantly be touring to be successful. If you want to make any money at all, you have to be touring. That wears on people physically and emotionally. It’s insane being crammed in a van with five other people, never sleeping and eating only fast food. I’ve gone on little weekender tours and it’s too much for me. [Laughs.] I’m always exhausted and they do that full-time; that really is what keeps their mental health in a bad place.

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Punk Talks at Bled Fest

Maybe the mentality of feeling alone in a crowded room, like it’s always a show even after the show.
Yeah, absolutely. I see people that are in relationships that can’t take 10 minutes to call their partner because they’re always in a crowded space or it’s loud. I think that makes them feel more isolated than anything else. Being around the same people constantly can really force you to feel very lonely. It’s not something you’d think about. [As a musician] you crave alone time so much, but what you’re really craving is the comfort of familiarity and that’s not something you’re going to get on tour.

What does Punk Talks provide during festivals?
The only festival I’ve been to [so far] is Bled Fest, but I try to go to as many shows in the area as I can. That’s kind of a new thing that I realized was a need or a good thing that Punk Talks can provide. I pass out flyers, I talk to as many people as I can, I usually have T-shirts and a donation bucket. I talk to people about what I do, mental health and I answer any questions they might have. I try to meet as many people in the music industry as I can just to notify them if they need it. I give them an opportunity if they need to vent or talk. A lot of times I’ll spend a lot of time talking to fans about mental health. They think it’s really cool that something like this exists because it humanizes their favorite artist to them. It’s an equal balance of advocacy and fundraising. All the money that I raise being at shows and my Gofundme pages goes toward the next thing that I do.

Are there any bands out there that you think are doing their part to help the movement?
I get asked this question a lot and this is my favorite question to answer: Sorority Noise, 1,000 percent. Sorority Noise forever. They are like the archetype of doing it right. I work the closest with Sorority Noise as far as a partnership goes. I am really close with all those guys. I think [vocalist/guitarist] Cam [Boucher] does a really great job of showing the light at the end of the tunnel. Mental health is a serious thing and it’s not a joke, but sometimes teenage angst is just that. It’s really hard when you’re in the throes of it to see that, even accounting for serious mental illness alongside the pains of being a teenager; it does get better. You’re going to have some bad days, but one day you’re going to wake up and go, “Okay, here I am. What am I going to do with this?” Cam does an excellent job of preaching that and showing it through his actions and lyrics. He’s doing a great job of showing you’re not going to live this way forever. It’s going to happen, but it’s not the end of the world. If I can get through it, so can you.

What is something you’d like to tell fans out there about musicians?
I guess the first thing would be that every musician is a giant nerd. I’m a huge Modern Baseball fan, so even now that I work with them pretty closely and am sort of friends with them, I still feel weird being around them. I feel like a fangirl all the time. [Laughs.] The first time I talked to one of them I was fumbling over my words and he said, “Listen, I’m a person.” And it’s true and now that I know them, I know they’re all nerds. They all like video games and The Simpsons, so don’t be intimidated by them. Just remember they’re human beings who are very similar to you. Keep that in mind when you’re thinking about their music and talking to them, so you don’t put too much pressure on them to do something that you like or to save your life. They’re good people, but they’re not superheroes. They’re also a lot more accessible than you think.

What is something you’d like to tell the musicians out there reading this?
Don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’ll see bands, musicians or industry workers tweet something along the lines of, “I have a lot of anxiety,” or “I hate everything.” I will never hesitate to reach out and say, “Hey, if you ever want to talk, just hit me up.” Sometimes, just venting to someone who’s a neutral third party who’s not going to judge you [is] a very therapeutic thing. It can be the most helpful, honestly. That’s my job as a social worker and as the girl behind Punk Talks. My job is to provide a safe space for you to feel like you can be yourself. I’m not going to judge you if you want to whine about your merch manager snoring at night [laughs]. I don’t care about that; I’m here to help you feel supported. I think we need to destroy this idea that you have to be miserable to be creative. Obviously, intense emotion can drive creatively, but I see kids all the time who say, “give me sad songs [to listen to] so I can write. I need to be sad so I can write a new song.” That’s crazy, don’t do that. You don’t have to make yourself miserable because you think you’re going to make a better product. You’re going to be more productive if you’re taking care of yourself and being healthy.

Need to get something off your chest? Head over to the Punk Talks website. You can visit the Punk Talks booth at Wrecking Ball fest in Atlanta on August 8-9, 2015.

Punk Talks