Happy Songs About Unhappy Things
Hot on the heels of her single “Thunderstorm” comes phase one of Nikki Lynette’s ambitious new project, Happy Songs About Unhappy Things. The three-part release will be a multi-media exploration of the artist’s own struggle with identity and depression. Part one, released this week, is called Manic Pixie Dream Girl, after the familiar archetype defined first by film critic Nathan Rabin, who described a “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life…” More broadly, she’s a character allowed no agency or nuance and, in fiction, represents a troublingly idealized male vision of femininity in the real world. Lynette talked to us about this trope, her own journey as an artist and woman, and of course her amazing music.
OurStage: This is part one of a three-part project, so it is understandably a bit shorter than a standard album release. Will you consider the entire three parts, together, a full-length album? Or will it be something else entirely? I know you’ve said this will ultimately include visual art and film, so what will parts two and three consist of?
Nikki Lynette: The reason I broke down Happy Songs About Unhappy Things into three separate musical releases is that I want to tell the story of my mental health breakdown and recovery in a way that lets me walk the listener through it. Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the “Before.” The next one, Chronicles of a “Craxy B!+¢#, is the “During,” the actual process of being driven crazy. That will be a bit longer of a project because there is a lot to that story. The last one, The Suicide Bridge, is the “After,” the point when depression has taken hold and you are walking that line between wanting to get better and wanting to die. I plan to roll out visual art with all of them because, again, it helps to tell the story. And the film will come after all three have been released. The project is extremely layered, but at this point in my music career I’m kinda known for being complicated (laughs).
OS: How did you conceive this project? I can’t think of an artist who has released a project in this way. Just in terms of format, does it have any forebears?
NL: I chose to release it this way when I realized that I have music that I recorded during all these different phases in my life. On Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the song “Outshine the Sun” is the most recent. Even though the song is an uplifting tune, you can hear my pain in it. In “The Plot Twist,” you hear my pain. Doing it this way gives context to my depression, and if people can empathize with me then they can empathize with their own friends and loved ones who battle mental health issues. On the next release, Chronicles, there are songs on it that I produced when I was living in the hospital with my mom while she was dying, songs I wrote in response to being diagnosed with PTSD, songs I did at the studio after I broke down crying during the session then wrote a song in 15 minutes and recorded it. I don’t think I have seen a project released this way before; there are a lot of moving pieces involved because right now I am literally producing and recording two albums at once. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
OS: Your work has always been kind of eclectic, but it seems like more recently your singles have leaned toward a modern R&B vibe. This new release, on the other hand, sounds much more pop, injected with a good dose of rock guitar. Will that be the direction of the whole project, or will the other parts have a different feel?
NL: Throughout my entire music career, my disregard for genres has been a gift and a curse. This time, though, I am using it to my benefit. I have been licensing my music to be used in shows for years, and I have been learning about the way music is used to shape a mood. I intentionally kept Manic Pixie Dream Girl a bright, pop oriented, sassy, upbeat project that spirals into something kind of sad. The next two don’t sound like Manic Pixie, but there is continuity and a focus on storytelling. In fact, the first single from my next project, Chronicles of a “Craxy B!+¢#, is definitely pop, but it’s pretty irreverent – it gets a little wild. The Suicide Bridge is something entirely different, though. It’s the most intimate of the three projects. I haven’t really let anybody hear the stuff I’m working on for that. Not yet.
OS: The opening and closing tracks are spoken word vignettes, addressing the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This seems to be where the artistic and the personal overlap, which you illustrate nicely in the closer “The Plot Twist” by having the voice of the Director character saying, “This is not working,” and fading into another man’s voice more intimately saying the same thing. So the trope is not merely a useful or lazy device for male writers and directors to move their male protagonists through their stories, but in fact is a damaging part of real world relationships. But do you think the trope comes from art and influences men’s expectations, or is it something innate to modern men and their expectations (and then projected in film and literature)? Do you see this trope at work in music as well?
NL: I think that society indirectly reinforces the idealization of women by overtly reinforcing the objectification of us. And being idealized is damaging because it erases very real parts of a woman’s identity, things that make her who she is. It’s really easy to lose yourself while trying to live up to being someone’s dream girl. And one could argue that a woman always has the option to reject being idealized and objectified, and that’s a fair point. But, so often, when idealization and objectification is happening, it is subtle. It’s not noticeable until it’s too late. Usually, it’s only through hindsight that a chick might realize her attempt at compromising might have actually been her allowing her boundaries to be disrespected, her attempt at “toning it down” might have been her changing just to meet her partner’s approval, and her attempt at holding onto her relationship might have actually been her enabling her own abuse. We exist in a culture where the emotional abuse of women is normalized, and I think that is what birthed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character. I think the real problem is most of us don’t even know what emotional abuse is. And that is a problem I intend to help solve.
OS: What was your writing process like for this? Did you come up with a concept first? Did you start with music or lyrics? All of the songs are clearly personal, but did you write each to explicitly address or serve the thematic concept of the project?
NL: Manic Pixie Dream Girl is interesting, because some of the songs were things I wrote back when I was legitimately happy. And others I wrote while I was faking it. I think the only one who can really tell the difference is my co-producer Matt Hennessy, probably because he saw me changing while I recorded all of it. The intro and outro to Manic Pixie were recorded last, in a super intimate studio setting at a spot in Chicago called Peerless Recording Group. My homey Clay Bail who played “The Director” and laid all the music for “The Plot Twist” travelled from Nashville to help me craft it. I have a small circle of people I work with and they’re really good to me. That day, the owner of Peerless, Jon Howard, actually moved the mic out of the vocal booth and set it up in the main room to minimize my anxiety while working on something that was so emotional for me to do. Anxiety and depressive episodes are part of having PTSD, so it’s a factor when I work. But everyone around me is really understanding.
If I’m being totally honest, for a long time, I really wasn’t sure I even wanted to do music anymore. My good friend Slavic Livins hit me up shortly after I was released from the psychiatric hospital and said he thought I should do a project detailing my experience. He thought it would be therapeutic for me. He and Ira Antelis sat me down one day and we talked it over. We started working on it, but I was still a mess at that point. I was on psychiatric meds and it affected my art and music; I didn’t feel motivated at all. When my mom died after a painful battle with cancer, my creativity totally flatlined. Spike Lee is the person who lit the fire under me again. It was so huge to have him be a fan of my work. In the first convo we ever had, I wasn’t bigging myself up as an artist or nothing. (Which is what I probably should’ve been doing!) Instead, I was talking to him about how sad I was after losing my mom, and how awful and unsupportive a lot of my family members were being. And Spike actually cared. He asked about how I was doing whenever we spoke. I have family members who never even asked. But he did. The day I got my creative spark back was when Spike called me unexpectedly and said, “I want you to do me a favor… You need to stop mourning. I know you miss your mom, but she’s not hurting anymore. The storm is over. You need to get back to your music.” Spike is the ultimate storyteller, and he is always super excited about everything he is working on. Being around him made me feel like maybe I could be passionate about music again if I just told a story that would be bigger than me, the way Spike does. When I went back to look at the songs I’d recorded with my bro Matt Hennessy at VSOP Studios, around the time I started struggling with my mental health, I realized the story was already there. We had been documenting it all along. I just needed to flesh it out. And when I decided to go this route, I knew that wasn’t nobody talking about women’s mental health. Not in depth. The only time I ever heard it discussed was in group therapy while I was in the psychiatric hospital with a bunch of other women I’d never met, women with whom I shared so many of the same experiences. That’s why I decided to tell this story in the context of a film, creating the soundtrack to a movie that nobody made.
OS: When can we expect the next parts of the project? Do you have any big promotional plans?
NL: For Manic Pixie Dream Girl, I didn’t do the PR thing like I have done for projects in the past. I just put it out. And thankfully, enough people care that I am getting decent word-of-mouth about it. I wasn’t expecting that. I am pleasantly surprised by how things are going. For the next project, Chronicles of a “Crazy B!+¢#, the first single from that project is getting a big push. Spike Lee loves it, and the single is gonna debut as a feature in his series She’s Gotta Have It that comes out on Netflix on Thanksgiving. I’m going to be releasing a lot of content around Chronicles. I’m thinking I might release it in January 2018. And as for The Suicide Bridge… all I can say is that I have something really ambitious planned. The most ambitious thing I’ve ever done, actually. To be doing stuff that genuinely excites me is kind of surreal. I feel lucky to be alive.