Photos courtesy of the artists.

How collaborating virtually is helping musicians deal with self-isolation

From Sega Bodega to Eartheater, some of i-D’s favourite artists share how the current pandemic has impacted their mental health.

by Nick Fulton
21 April 2020, 7:00am

Photos courtesy of the artists.

One thing we can all agree on right now is that it’s essential to keep our minds active. Musicians have been doing this by performing in virtual clubs, on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube Live, but also by creating new work in their own socially distant studios. And since we’re all self-isolating simultaneously, many have begun collaborating virtually — sharing ideas, creating records together and organizing so that when this pandemic is over we can more aggressively fight the systems that deny people access to healthcare and financial aid.

“Now that we have a collective struggle, everything will be post-coronavirus,” London producer Sega Bodega tells i-D. “It’ll be like after 9/11, everything will be different, art will be different, it might sound the same but we’re all a part of the same club now.”

Speaking in March, before social distancing became the new norm, Dr. Alexander Sanchez, a psychiatrist working in New York City, told ABC News that he predicted “an increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms to come when the experience of social distancing and isolation becomes more routine.” Since that statement was made more than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment. Torsten Slok, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, now predicts America will see it’s highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1933. Even before social-distancing measures were enacted, artists and musicians were already in a high risk category. According to a recent survey by the Record Union, 73% of independent musicians struggle with mental illness and they are three times more likely than other groups to suffer from depression. They are also categorized as self-employed, making them ineligible for unemployment benefits.

While all of this suggests that many musicians will be suffering greatly right now, they’re also at the forefront of creative methods to keep doing what they love. We decided to check-in with some of our favourite musicians and ask how they’re keeping their minds active, who they’ve been collaborating with and what they’ve gained from being connected virtually at a time like this.

Photo by @spun_boi.

Los Angeles, CA

How has the current stay-in-place order impacted your mental health?
Some days are good and some are bad. I've been really hard on myself about making the most of my time. A lot of my friends are making music, and I have too, but some days it's hard to focus. I get side-tracked. There are so many books I want to read and I just think that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to really do so many things I've put off. But sometimes that feeds my anxiety even more and I just end up paralyzed, unable to do anything. I've had a few really good days though, especially lately as I've learned tricks to help keep my mood up. I've been trying to focus on being in the moment, which I've never really felt able to do. That helps my state of mind immensely.

What musical projects have you been working on?
I have an EP called fertile tears that's being mixed right now. It had to be postponed, but I'm excited for the world to hear it. I also have been spontaneously writing songs inspired by the quarantine. Those songs have been written very quickly with no revisions, almost like a stream of conscious-type vibe. I decided to drop “i guess the world is ending” one night on soundcloud and it has actually been charting on there. I was going to take it off the next day, but people liked it so much that I left it up.

Who have you been collaborating with?
Another song that just dropped a few days ago is “WWCBD? (wut wuld carol baskin do)”. Like many other people, I have been obsessing over Tiger King, [so] I wrote a short song and I ended up sending the demo to Alison Wonderland. Her and I have a ridiculously similar taste in music and we’d been chatting about collaborating for the last few months. I don't really know why, but one night it just popped into my head that she might fuxk with the demo. And she absolutely did, she sent me back the completed track in one day.

Do you have any advice for those who are struggling to be creative right now?
I would stop overthinking it. Sometimes a bout of creativity can come from something unexpected. I recently picked up skateboarding again -- it’s something I did when I was a kid and it feels amazing. Listening to music on a skateboard is a whole new experience and it's very stress relieving, when I sit down to make art I can focus more and feel lighter. Also going for night drives and listening to music while driving around different neighborhoods. I drove around Beverly Hills the other night and just looked at all the houses, imagining who lives inside, which houses I would want to live in one day and which ones I wouldn't. I don't know when in my life I've ever actually paid attention to what's going on around me like I do now.

Photo by James Gould.

Sega Bodega
London, UK

How has the current stay-in-place order impacted your mental health?
It wasn’t an immediate lockdown, it was just rumoured, so I was watching and seeing other countries get worse and I thought, well, this is probably what’s going to happen, so I got all my stuff from my studio and brought it back here, and I’ve been really happy. I live with six people, so I’m not really alone, and I’ve been able to just work. It’s weird, the feeling of not doing anything all day besides working on music, there’s no guilt. There’s no guilt of just staying in bed all day. I never used to be able to do that before, but now the guilt doesn’t exist. So I’m pretty good right now. I know a lot of people around me who really needed this. They were working themselves to exhaustion, but now they’re actually getting their heads together.

What musical projects have you been working on?
I’ve decided to make another album. Charli XCX is doing a collaborative quarantine record, so I sent her some stuff for that. I’m not going to say it’s going to be on it, because I don’t know, but one of them she seemed into. I've been working with Oklou on some stuff. I’ve been working with Eartheater, and I’ve been doing these a capella covers, which is really fun.

Has making music become more therapeutic for you?
Whenever I’m down on life I’ll listen to the stuff that I’ve been working on that hasn’t come out yet and I'll be like, ‘oh, this is still to come, I’m happy with this.’ It feels like money in the bank. If I have none of that then I’ll be like, ‘what am I doing, nothing is coming up.’ But now, especially with these collaborations, I’ll remember this time. This whole thing feels very conceptual, I’m in quarantine making a record, that sounds like a fucked up concept, but we’ve been forced into this concept and everything that comes out of it will be a product of this concept, it will be a product of coronavirus.

What is the thing you’re most looking forward to doing when you leave your self-quarantine bubble?
Honestly, just having sex. I feel like everyone is really horny. I can’t wait to travel; I want to go to America. I want to be able to walk around and not have to wear a mask. It’s going to be the little things. I can’t wait to go to Subway, order a foot long, and eat it in the park with my friends.

Photo by Natalie O'Moore.

Elah Hale
Brooklyn, NY

How has the current stay-in-place order impacted your mental health?
The collective feeling of longing to be outside, or doing other activities, has given me a lot of perspective about my own feelings towards productivity. Before self-isolation, whenever I was at home for too long I felt like I was failing at something, like I was letting people down by not working. Having to force myself to look at what taking a break means, and how productivity can look like a million different things, has actually been extremely helpful. On the other hand, I’m super anxious about my family and friends getting sick, especially being here in New York City.

Have you been doing anything to nurture your creative energy?
I’ve been taking way more creative risks and working in ways I haven't before. Instead of trying to flesh something out in a studio or on the guitar, I’ve been doing more writing and exploring ideas on paper and turning them into music.

What have you gained from having a virtual connection to others at a time like this?
I think I’ve really gained a sense of security in my friendships. There are so many people I can’t see right now who are making an effort to go hangout on Animal Crossing with me, or who will Facetime me for two minutes simply because they were thinking of me. Friends are so important and now people are really making an effort.

Photo by Jen Dessinger.

La Neve (Downtown Boys)
Providence, RI

How has the current stay-in-place order impacted your mental health?
I'm still healthy, I have housing and food for the time being, so I know I'm one of the lucky ones. I generally cope well with isolation. I always have music to make, writing to work on and organizing to do, so on that level I think I'm OK. But of course while so many friends get sick, while friends who work in healthcare face daily battles with death, while our broader government and economy collapse, it's very hard to keep it together. And I struggle with severe anxiety and depression even in normal times. I'm trying to channel those feelings into organizing and fighting back, but like everyone I'm having a lot of days where it's hard to do more than get out of bed in the morning.

What have you been doing to keep your brain active?
The big project has been to get musicians to organize. I helped put together this national letter which over 1,100 bands signed onto to demand unemployment benefits for musicians. Then we did a local Rhode Island letter with more specific demands that had over 250 sign-ons. We're now trying to use that action to create a more sustained collective movement to fight for what we need to survive, and to join in pushing the broader working class agenda. Whatever your job is, it's time to organize. The future is up for grabs right now and all working people need to unite.

What musical projects have you been working on?
I've done live streams with La Neve and Downtown Boys, and I’ve been trying to write as much as I can for La Neve. Some members of Downtown Boys have been performing “L'Internationale” everyday at 5:30pm on our Instagram. I've been listening to a lot of Shostakovich, who wrote his “Symphony No. 7” during the siege of Leningrad. That he could focus on creating something so powerful and beautiful during such a perilous time is deeply moving and helps to put our moment in context.

What have you gained from maintaining a connection with others at a time like this?
Maintaining connection is essential both politically and personally. If we're going to have any real political power as artists, we need to unite, and that's what we're trying to do right now. We have no real voice as isolated individuals yelling on the internet. But when we organize and join the rest of the labor movement, we do have power. In terms of working on music and other projects right now, it's one of our only lifelines to the outside world. Everyone is so scared and stressed and angry. Friends and relatives are getting sick. Most know someone who has died. We all need support. We've got to keep our community going or we have nothing.

Photo by Felipe Nogueira.

Loyal Lobos
Los Angeles, CA

How has the current stay-in-place order impacted your mental health?
It has amplified stuff, for sure. I feel crazy some days and I'm pretty much stuck with that feeling inside my room. But then I have days where I feel happy and closer to people because we share the same struggle.

Has making music become more therapeutic?
Yes, I'm listening to music without analyzing it too much, because everything is paused. I'm just at home experiencing things and I've been able to do that with music. I don't usually actively listen to music, so it's been nice to have that relationship with it during these times.

Do you have any advice for others who are struggling to be creative at this time?
There's a book that I'm reading called "The Artist’s Way," which I highly recommend. It’s been rewarding to build a routine that doesn't necessarily mean completing things to get results (practice an instrument, do a session with someone, work on a song, etc), but doing something just to feed your brain, like watching a good movie or going for a walk and seeing that as an accomplishment. I write down a to-do list that includes movies to watch or fun things to cook, and I checkmark it at the end of the day and I feel good and accomplished.

Photo by Pvssyheaven.

Queens, NY

What musical projects have you been working on?
I’ve been writing a lot of new music -- mostly big anthemic type, gushy shit and a lot of intricate finger-picking guitar things. I feel a couple of new albums knocking. Other than that, I’ve been scheming and incubating some things for the label I recently started, Chemical X, and getting all my ducks in a row for my next album coming out on PAN.

Who have you been collaborating with?
I’m pretty consistently tinkering and sharing things with my New York honeys. Color Plus just sent me a beat that destroys me, so I was cutting that up last night. And I’m gonna sink my teeth into a couple of new bits Acemo sent me recently. Ize and I are constantly scheming on stuff. With that group of friends, it’s constantly oozing. My most recent collaboration that I’m well psyched for is with Sega Bodega. We made a song together that rips my heart out. My plan for the next few days is to finish vocals on a couple more things he sent me. I think there’s a lot he and I could do together.

Have you developed any coping mechanisms to stop yourself from feeling isolated?
I’ve been lucky because for the first three weeks of this I was with my family in Pennsylvania, who I haven’t spent that much time with since I was probably 13 or 14. It’s been really lovely to rage with my brothers. It’s also been wildly satisfying cooking for two huge ravenous boys. I have to make straight vats of sustenance. We’ve been getting obsessed with finding the most beautiful moss and fungus. I’ve only been back in NYC for a week and I’ve gone to the deserted beach twice. I never used to do that shit, not at this time of year. It’s cold, but it feels heavenly at sunset. I’m grateful that this situation has made it so that the only option to leave the house is to go into nature. I feel hella inspired and in awe of how intimately I’ve been able to witness spring busting up around me. Also, I feel like I’m having way more telepathically articulate conversations with my dog. That all being said, I had crazy anxiety in the first week coming off the fast life. I just needed to let my chemicals adjust I guess. Honestly, I’ve felt way more isolated in the past during my ‘music prison’ periods where I've locked myself in my room for months to write. I don’t really mind being alone, it’s hard for me to focus with lots of distractions. I get very antisocial sometimes, regardless. Weirdly, that type of antisocial behavior was related to a kind of crippling ambition -- being a workaholic -- whereas this kind of change of pace is very different to that.

mental health
Sega Bodega
la neve
Loyal Lobos
elah hale