Anxiety, Depression & Trivial Pursuit
Updated: Jun 5
For anyone who's seen a Tsarzi show, it's probably apparent that I'm a relentless show off. Onstage I appear chatty, confident, composed, in control. (This at least is what people tell me when I confess I was bricking it the whole time).
Offstage it's a similar story. I'm told I come across as sociable and articulate, possibly a little forthright if you catch me on the third glass of wine (I'm definitely too intense at house parties). I exude confidence. I'm funny.
Behind the scenes, however, it's more complicated. I often have quite severe anxiety and have been coping with depression since I was about 15. This doesn't mean that every time I've made a joke in public I'm secretly crying on the inside, although conventional wisdom about clowns and people who like to use humour as a form of social bonding would say otherwise. (RELINQUISH YOUR PAPERTHIN JOKE DISGUISE AND CONFESS YOUR SECRET MISERY FOOLS).
It does mean that I have a conflicted relationship with a lot of stuff that comes with being a performing musician though - and not just the being onstage part.
Stage fright is one thing, everyone gets a bit of stage fright. You'd have to be a psychopath, or Ed Sheeran, not to worry that you might be about to bomb. (I used to get it so bad my hands would be physically shaking sideways as I was playing, which made for some interesting pitching). With practice I'm over the worst of it, though I still start nervously eyeing up the exits before I'm about to go onstage. I've thought about smashing the fire alarm more than once.
But stage fright is not anxiety. Anxiety is the thing that sidles up to you before you enter a crowded room and drops the idea that maybe, you know just trying to be helpful here, everyone in it hates you. Anxiety already ran a simulation to see what reviewers would think of your album if you sent it over, and guess what? They think it's saccharine dross so don't bother. Also you're a tool and they made an A2 poster of your face and sent it round the Reviewers' Network (Anxiety tells me this is a thing) so they have something to laugh at when the 3pm slump sets in.
Things get worse when Anxiety hooks up with its old pal Depression. Depression's specialist Mastermind subject is YOU and he's got the ring binders to prove it. Depression remembers things way back that you thought you'd forgotten, and now he's got the intel from Anxiety about the latest catastrophes he can start cross-referencing the archives to get a more comprehensive picture of how you're definitely going to fail and here's all the reasons why.
A night in with the two of them is like the world's worst game of Trivial Pursuit (even worse than standard Trivial Pursuit), with your psyche as the only topic on offer. On the 8th March 2013, what did Sharp say that will still go down in history as the stupidest thing ever uttered? To date, what are all of Sharp's failures? Bonus marks if you can rank them in order of humiliation.
Anxiety and Depression's hearts are in the right place, but they're defective defence mechanisms that stopped serving their purpose a long time ago. They just don't want you to get up there and make a fool of yourself; but if you want to make anything worthwhile, you have to be willing to take that risk.
Trying to make a successful career out of music is about so much more than just writing the songs and getting up onstage. It's about pitching for gigs, reviews, interviews, networking at gigs, seeing as much live music as possible, being active on social media, always being peppy, on call, switched on. By choice I'm an independent artist, meaning I have many roles in one head - not only writer and performer, but also booking agent, manager, press agent, stylist, video director, promoter, social media manager.
Each of these roles demand nothing less than fantastic, 24/7. Nobody wants to read about 'Girl Releases Album: Not Quite Sure Of Self'. You need to know what you're about and you need to have your best smile on, constantly: at gigs, at other people's gigs; online.
There is no space in this modern cacophony for quietude. This is a complaint many of us have but for musicians just starting out it seems particularly unavoidable. BBC Introducing, festival applications, radio shows: they expect you to have social media accounts, and they expect you to be active on them. Not having them is a statement of resistance, perhaps more trouble than just having them and trying to muddle through.
But then you have the conundrum of numbers, the constant pressure to get more likes, to be proven valid, to be visible. So you start posting as much as possible, trying to be sociable, engaging, switched on, constant. Sometimes it feels like the gig never ends.
I moved up from London 4 years ago without a plan and with very little confidence. I put down roots in Sheffield because the atmosphere seemed like something special, it felt like a place where things could happen. I pushed myself to work through the stage fright and the self doubt because I felt like there was something inside me that had to be got out somehow, that I had never given a chance to grow before because of the fear of failure.
It's the best decision I ever made and I will keep on making it. I will keep making albums and finding new collaborations and getting up on stage even though it scares the bejeezus out of me. I will keep doing it in spite of the 3am panic that kicks me awake even after a successful gig.
The stage is a peculiar space that can make a person seem invincible. On it, I often do feel invincible. But it cannot miraculously make Anxiety and Depression disappear.
That pair, with their fact files and flashcards and exhaustive database of all my insecurities and past embarrassments (alphabetised), will, to some extent always be there. In many ways they are what make my music what it is: the oddity, the awkwardness, the sideways humour, this is evidence, I think, of myriad nights spent in with Trivial Pursuit (Sharp edition).
I won't lie, I would often prefer it another way. I do envy my friends who seem to be able to go forward with just the stage fright and nothing else. I do look at successful artists I admire and doubt I'll ever get there, because my self-belief is so volatile, because I cannot be as sociable and outgoing as I feel I need to constantly be. Especially in this age of social media, the world seems to reward those who are most vocal and most visible.
But we are made the way we are made. I don't think there's anything wrong with the way I am, but I think it's important to recognise that sometimes that's in conflict with how the music industry values success. I believe in cultivating resilience as well as compassion, but I don't want to transform into a stout-hearted social butterfly impervious to self-doubt and devoid of any introspection that isn't followed up by a tweet. I would be a completely different person. I would make entirely different music (possibly not very good).
All in all, I believe honesty is the key. I don't believe there's a right or wrong way to be; but I think by being more open about what goes on behind the scenes - for everybody, not just those who get up onstage - we can take some pressure off ourselves. The pressure to be happy all the time, to be successful, to be in control, to be switched on, constantly.
There may be fewer cards for Anxiety and Depression to play with in Trivial Pursuit on a Saturday night, but I really don't think that's a bad thing.