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Insomnia, anxiety, break-ups … musicians on the dark side of touring

While many may envisage the life of a touring musician to be that of a glorified jetsetter, the reality is far from idyllic. A recent study by charity Help Musicians UK found that over 60% of musicians have suffered from depression or other psychological issues, with touring an issue for 71% of respondents.

Singer Alanna McArdle recently announced her departure from Cardiff punk band Joanna Gruesome for mental health reasons, her statement hinting that the strain of touring may have been a factor in her decision to quit.And when Zayn Malik broke the hearts of millions by pulling out of One Direction’s tour of Asia – leaving the boy band shortly after – a source close to the band told the tabloid press: “Zayn went because he’d had enough. Have you ever been on the road for four years? ”

“The classic image of a touring musician would seem counterintuitive to all we know about well-being,” says Isabella Goldie of the Mental Health Foundation. “Drinking in moderation, avoiding drugs, getting sufficient amounts of sleep, and having a support base of close friends and family nearby. These are the bonds that help keep you grounded ... It’s no surprise that some musicians struggle.”

It's easy to let your mind and body slip into decay. For those with anxiety, hotel rooms are like prison cells.

“Ninety-nine per cent of touring is the airports, the hotels, sitting in a metal tube for up to 16 hours at a time,” says Grammy-nominated producer Mat Zo (real name Matan Zohar). “It’s easy to let your mind and body slip into decay, even for a person with a healthy emotional state. For those with anxiety, hotel rooms are like prison cells.”

Meredith Graves, of Syracuse punk outfit Perfect Pussy, agrees: “We’re the luckiest people in the world to be able to do this; but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. It’s psychologically taxing,” she says. “Being confined to the van for a 10-hour drive … You can’t sleep, you can’t move, you can’t do anything. It’s like a recipe for a breakdown for me.”

For many, the contrast between the highs of a successful show and the anti-climactic low that often follows can be hard to adjust to, a phenomenon that has been termed “post-performance depression’, or PPD. Mental health professional John C Buckner writes: “When the body experiences major shifts in mood, it is flooded with several different neurotransmitters, resulting in a biochemical release that leads to a feeling of ecstasy. After these moments the nervous system needs time to recalibrate itself to prepare for another release. After an exciting performance the body starts to balance out the level of neurotransmitters, and therefore it is not releasing the same level that caused the exciting feelings, resulting in the lingering sadness. In normal day-to-day life, biochemicals are released and rest/recovery follow, causing the typical ups and downs of life. In the case of PPD, the process is more extreme with higher highs and lower lows.”

Goldie agrees: “Musicianship remains one of the most exalted job roles and each live performance can provide a real high which can be hard to adjust to – especially when the elevated status that musicians receive is suddenly lost.”

‘Touring was destructive on me, that’s for sure’ … US singer Willis Earl Beal on stage at The Falls festival in Australia, 2012. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

“Touring can be destructive on a musician, it was destructive on me, that’s for sure,” former XL Recordings artist Willis Earl Beal tells meover the phone from his home in Washington State. “I’d come home from tour, and I’m back to feeding the cat. My wife at the time – I don’t have a wife now – worked 12-hour shifts , so I was cooking the dinner all that sort of shit. There was a lot of tension, because I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t deserve this, I’m a big star’ and that was one of the contributing factors in ending my marriage. This fucking career, the striving towards something that never existed and doesn’t exist.”

A breakdown of personal relationships is common, with many musicians feeling alienated from loved ones back home. Kate Nash, who rose to fame while still in her teens, says that the contrast between her life and that of her friends was hard to get her head around. “I was still living in a tiny bedroom at my parent’s house. Your friends are studying and you’re doing something very different. Even though that’s exciting, you can feel lost. You’re young and you’re not taking a normal path.”

Zohar agrees: “Relationships are compromised, partly because it becomes difficult to relate to people with a more stable lifestyle. Your problems and cares become radically different to the other people in your life.”

For some, however stressful and chaotic touring can be, it is preferable to daily life at home. “Touring institutionalises you and it can make normal life feel mundane,” says Vaccines singer Justin Young, recently returned from a handful of dates in the US. “You end up with a lot of expectations from life that aren’t always fulfilled in everyday tasks like going down the shops for a pint of milk or even going for dinner with friends. It’s hard to replace all that adrenaline.”

These sentiments are echoed by Nash: “When you’re on tour, you know exactly what you’re doing and what’s required of you. There’s a routine. It’s tangible what you stand for because it’s right in front of you. You come off tour and you’re like, ‘Fucking hell what is the point? What am I doing with my life?’”

But is treating touring as escapism healthy in the long-term? Isabella Goldie says: “Life on the road can be exhilirating."

‘You’re young and you’re not taking a normal path

Some people can't take themselves out of these situations. Then it's a manager's responsibility to say 'take a break'

Many of those surveyed by Help Musicians were reluctant to seek help. One anonymous artist said: “I feel guilty asking for help with something I should be able to deal with given the issues in question are part and parcel of the career path I’ve chosen.” But Nash says it’s important to know when to take a break. “I think I was probably overworked,” she says, reflecting on her early career. “I was doing huge tours and having two days off and then going out again. It burned me out.”

Is it viable, however, for an artist that isn’t Daft Punk to simply not tour? Beal, for one, thinks not. “If I could just stay home and record, I would, but it’s not financially feasible for a musician to do so these days.”

A cruel reality then, but is the music industry waking up to the strain it may be inflicting on its own artists? “I hope so,” says Nash. “When you’re young, people tell you that if you don’t do something it’s the end of your career. But it’s not. People are fragile. Our brains are fragile and you can only abuse them for so long. The sad thing is that some people can’t take themselves out of these situations. That’s when it is a manager’s responsibility to go ‘Hey, I think we need to take a break.’”

Nash says that the internet has had a positive effect, in giving younger musicians more control of their own careers. I suggest that social media also means today’s audiences see artists more as human beings – and are therefore more understanding when they cancel a show. Nash agrees: “I’ve seen fans be really loving if that happens, saying, ‘The most important thing is your health. We just want you to get better.’

“I would like to think that an artist’s mental health is taken into consideration more now,” says Nash. “We’ve had enough people die, quite frankly.”

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