Cameron Boucher was in seventh grade the first time he thought about killing himself. The guitarist, vocalist and principal songwriter of Sorority Noise was a regular kid in New Hampshire who started going to a new school when he began to feel an inescapable dread.
“I had a fear of failure that I couldn’t describe,” Boucher says. “I just felt stuck. I started inhibiting these feelings of emotional distress and loss, and that’s when I first realized I felt something inexplicable.” At such a young age, he didn’t know that he was suffering from depression; all he knew was the uphill battle he faced. As it worsened with the harsh realities of teenage life, Boucher only realized the full depth of the issue after someone dear to him died.
“When I was in eighth grade, one of my best friends passed away,” Boucher says. “My inability to deal and cope with that loss was what really brought a lot of the things I was feeling to light for the first time. But I didn’t go see a therapist; I just tried to deal with them on my own.”
His first visit with a therapist came his freshman year at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. Within a few sessions, it was clear: The jazz-saxophonist-in-training was prone to manic depression. Knowing he had to deal with the tendencies, the diagnosis first brought on a summer of introspective bed laying before an exploration in drugs.
“I never got to an extreme point where they were ruining my life, but drugs were a coping mechanism that was very negative,” Boucher says. “A lot of my friends at the time were deep into drugs and in a dark place. I wasn’t doing anything immediately life threatening, but I was using anti-depressants as a way of numbing myself, of not having to deal with shit.”
Those turbulent adventures are referenced throughout Sorority Noise’s new album, Joy, Departed, out on Topshelf Records. He consistently sings about those struggles; on “When I See You (Timberwolf),” layered guitars echo behind a message that’s equally warm and cold, half sweet and half bitter: “If hell is real, I hope you’re enjoying your stay.” “Using,” a Weezer-esque sing-along, opens with a list of painful memories and a refrain of “I started using again” before moving on to a chorus of “I stopped wishing I was dead.” It was only when Boucher gained regular access to drugs that he similarly moved on and cut himself off.
“I was offered a prescription to Xanax,” he mutters, “and I knew at that point it was a terrible idea. I have an addictive personality; I didn’t want to become dependent on drugs and end up with a chemical dependency. I knew if I took the prescription, I would always live my life under that lens, and I didn’t want to get to that point. I was always afraid of drugs, but that really gave me a moment of clarity.
“‘Using’ is about more than just those coping years,” he continues. “It harkens back to the different stages over a six-year period of my life, trying to find a solution and the full realization and understanding of what was going on.”
With those years behind him, the musician is able to explore realms beyond the “emo” tag’s normal scope; even on an album titled Joy, Departed, his music goes further than twinkled strings and lyrics about depression itself. The final chorus of “Using” explodes after an a capella burst, changing keys one final time a la the Offspring’s “Americana” or the Who’s “My Generation. “Art School Wannabe” fits like a warm glove as it injects jazz guitars and quiet drum rolls, and Boucher’s strained voice takes aim at certain people who try to simplify and (more woefully) idolize depression. “That song’s about a bunch of kids I knew that went into a façade,” he says. “They put depression on a pedestal, in a way.”
“There were a lot of people I knew who seemed like they wanted to be in art school, but just weren’t or aren’t. They’d [say], ‘Oh, I’m in the wrong generation’ or ‘Oh, my life is just too hard’ or something like that. And that just seems like a wannabe to me; they didn’t have the balls to go pursue their dreams, so now they’re playing it safe and making a fetish of their sadness.
“That’s not to discount real depression,” he catches himself. “It’s just not a choice you get to make like that, and it’s not something to revel in.”
It may seem like things are easier now for Boucher as the frontman of two successful emo acts—he also plays in Old Gray—but it’s not as simple as living a good life. “Back then, I was high school president and head of the cheering section. I played sports; people never took me as depressed. Just because someone has reasons to be happy doesn’t mean they couldn’t be depressed, and it doesn’t invalidate any feelings.” He thinks the key is to enable a positive attitude and acknowledge that the struggle is real. “A big key for me is working on it and realizing I have to keep working on it. I have to come to terms with my reality and try to make the best of what I have.”
Nine years after those first suicidal thoughts, Boucher has grown in many ways but remains largely the same person. (“The main difference between then and now is in seventh grade, I had no idea what was going on.”) With a Bachelor’s degree in hand, he’s moved to Philadelphia, engineered an EP for former Sorority Noise bassist Kevin O’Donnell and drummer Jason Rule’s new band Queen Moo, is in a happy (and healthy) relationship and knows what he wants to do with his life. “I want to use big words because my interviews never use big words,” he says with a jovial laugh. “More than that, I want to fight the shame and stigmatization of depression.”
“The generation above mine stays hush-hush about it, and even when it comes up, most people have this approach of ‘get over it.’ Those are possibly the worst three words you can say to someone. Everyone can feel depressed sometimes, but we—as people, as society, as individuals—have to be more open and accepting of it.”
He may sing that he’s “not as dark as [he] thinks” on “Art School Wannabe,” but in real life, he knows who he is. It may not have come easy, but Boucher believes from here out, it’ll come honestly.
“I’ll always have depressive tendencies, but I don’t have to be ashamed of who I am. No one does.”
A version of this piece was published in Substream #47.