One of the most beautiful things about music and art is that it can transform pain and heartbreak into something beautiful. Maybe that's why, throughout time, the tortured artist has become a constant figure in society. For me, the term brings to mind the tall beehive hairdo and sad, darkly lined eyes of Amy Winehouse. Others might flash back to Kurt Cobain's untimely death. But there are many other artists whose stories aren't as tragic, who have overcome darkness to bring light into our lives. If you didn't know about these people, I hope that their stories and their music will inspire you to push forward, even when you're losing hope.
Tash Sultana has been making music since she was a toddler. As she grew she learned instrument after instrument, and now she can play more than 10. But when she was 17, she experienced a dark period where the music stopped. She fell into a drug induced psychosis after eating magic mushrooms. For 9 months, her brain could not differentiate between reality and her hallucinations. She couldn't be unsupervised, she couldn't eat, she couldn't go to school. Sometimes, she didn't know if she was alive or dead. "You wouldn't have even understood the type of person I was if you had seen me in that state. And it was hell, and I put myself in that position," said Sultana. And then one day she picked up an instrument again. "I literally played and played and played the pain away until I could think clearly again." She began busking on the streets of Melbourne, until YouTube videos of her performances went viral and she finally signed a record deal. Now sells out shows across the globe.
In 2015, Jennifer Lee, who produces beats under the alias TOKiMONSTA, was diagnosed with Moyamoya, an incredibly rare, life threatening disease that eventually stops blood flow to your brain. She was immediately rushed into the hospital where she underwent two reconstructive brain surgeries. As dangerous as they were, the real trial came afterword. She forgot how to speak, to comprehend language or even move properly. Worst of all for the musician, every song that she heard sounded like a garbled mess. She stopped listening to music entirely. But gradually, as her language returned, word by word, so did her ability to comprehend music, until one day it was beautiful again. So she down in front of her computer, opened Ableton, and tried to make music again. "it was just garbage," she remembers. "The part of my brain that knew how to put sounds together was broken. I didn't understand why it didn't make sense anymore."
Even though her speech was almost back to 100%, she couldn't make music. Finally, she wrote the song "Wish I Could," which is featured on her newest album. And three months after her surgery, she was able to play Coachella. She was back. But her experience changed how she saw herself as a musician. "I really gained new insight on who I wanted to be as an artist, and that's an artist who just created for herself, and not for other people."
On August 31st, producer and DJ Illenium (real name Nick Miller) released a statement over social media. After years of being inspired by his fans' stories of how they had overcome hardships and how music had changed their lives, he had decided to tell his own story. He revealed that six years ago, after a long battle with opioid addiction, he overdosed on heroin. "It was such a dark time for me and my family," he said, "because when it gets bad enough, hope begins to dim and there's no escaping reality."
With music full of dreamy, sentimental melodies, Illenium hid the darkness and pain in his life very well, so his statement came as a shock to many. But he created music, he said, to "help people overcome their struggles and also enjoy the moment." As for himself, he hasn't touched drugs since his overdose, in large part because he allowed his love of music to save him.
His newest song, "Take You Down," which was released today, August 3rd, is about how his addiction tore apart his family, and about how his mom never gave up on him. "I didn't mean to hurt you," the song goes, "when I hurt myself / It's just an empty lie screaming out for help."
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