Interview: Erik Cirelli Talks About Music and Depression

Lately I’ve been captivated by musicians’ experiences with depression. What’s most interesting to me is that on the surface you might see a confident, creative, successful artist; but dig a little and you might see a different (read: deeper) picture. You might see the reason for the confident facade. You might see the place from which this creativity stems. You understand why listeners connect with their music. Every musician’s story is different (whether they experience depression or not), and yet the absolute need for expression abides. To me – and I hope to you – this is inspiring.

We have had some really interesting interviews with musicians already, and we have many more coming up! Check out our other interviews here. If you’re a musician who is interested in sharing your story, contact us! Follow us on Facebook so you know when we’re seeking input about different topics through interviews, surveys, and more.

Today we’re proud to present this thought-provoking…

Of Music and Mind Interview: Erik Cirelli Talks about Music and Depression

Erik Cirelli. Photo by Trevor Richards.

I’ve heard people describe Erik as a “guitar god,” yet, Erik will be the first to tell you that he sucks. His lead guitar parts are always interesting – sometimes sparse, sometimes explosive, but always an asset to any song. I’m not sure if his self-deprecation is built more on diffidence, modesty or a sense of humor, but I expect it’s a little bit of each. Whether he really believes he sucks or not, this seeming lack of confidence disappears when he starts to play. That’s the magic of music for you.

I’ve played with Erik for about 9 years in Emily Rodgers Band, and if you’re reading this (and have ever lived in Pittsburgh), you’ve probably played with him (or shared a stage with him) at some point or another, too. If you haven’t, you’ve almost definitely seen him perform or heard him on a recording. Erik has been a staple of the Pittsburgh music scene for about 25 years, and he’s still going strong.

Erik plays in a lot of bands and projects – he’s almost always practicing or playing a show somewhere. He plays rock, alt-country, folk, and jazz – perhaps his style is best described as experimental. Erik and his wife (singer/songwriter Emily Rodgers) have the pleasure of being in a band together, and he plays and records with many other talented musicians around Pittsburgh.

Aside from “a lot of practicing and a lot of improvising,” Erik has some stuff coming up! Erik, Devin Sherman, and Manny Theiner recently started hosting Experimental Guitar Night at Howlers. Check out Night #2 on April 18th! Catch Erik playing e-bow, screwdriver, and some other odds ‘n ends (possibly) with Emily Rodgers (full band) at Howlers on May 3rd with Unwed Sailor and Early Day Miners! If you want to keep up-to-date with all of Erik’s projects, follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Erik Talks about Being a Musician

We talked about Erik’s life as a musician.

What are your current projects?

Emily Rodgers, The Chad Sipes Stereo, Lyola, Host Skull, Fatal Familial Insomnia, Trovants, and several unnamed improvisational projects.

[Lyola doesn’t have a home on the web yet. This is a new project featuring Erik Cirelli, Mark Lyons, Mike Speranza, and Jeremy Caywood. Keep an ear out for their music and upcoming shows.]

[Above: Emily Rodgers Band performing “Hurt” at Deutschtown Music Festival 7/15/17; Chad Sipes Stereo performing “Scrap” at Thunderbird Cafe 9/11/15; Host Skull performing music for a cool time lapse video by David Bernabo featuring artist Joe Mruk.]

What instruments do you play?

Guitar, bass (poorly), lap steel, mandolin, banjo, piano (very poorly), theremin (like an idiot).

Which instrument do you consider to be your main instrument?


What does music mean to you?

Everything. Listening and playing music is basically my whole life outside of working and sleeping. I met my wife through music. And most of my close friends.

Tell me the story of how you got into music. 

I just decided that I wanted to play guitar, and my parents were gracious enough (and foolish enough) to let me do it. It was very challenging. I had absolutely no talent for it. A lot of people probably still think that I have no talent for it.

Emily Rodgers Band performing at WYEP (1/9/17). Photo by Trevor Richards. 

How long have you been a musician?

35 years, but I don’t really consider myself to be a musician. I am a guitarist I guess. I think that it would be insulting for the world’s classical and jazz musicians to hear that I put myself into the same company.

What are some of the challenges you experience as a musician?

Profound arrogance mixed with crippling self doubt. Perfectionism. Performing (sometimes). Trying to not be judgmental.

Despite these challenges, what inspires you to keep playing music and performing?

My wife. All of the great musicians that I have been fortunate to know. All of the musicians that I enjoy and respect. The feeling that it is the only part of me that has not died from working a soul crushing job for 20 years.

Erik Talks about Depression

We talked about Erik’s experience with depression and the role that music plays.

Do you have – or have you had – depression? 


For how long?

27-28 years.

What is your experience of depression like?

It varies. I self-medicated for around 15 years to attempt to alleviate it. Once I stopped drinking I immediately started on anti-depressants, which never worked for me until recently. The worst time in my life started about 3.5 years ago and lasted about 2.5 years. I was unable to enjoy anything at all. I slept almost all of the time. I never touched an instrument unless it was for practice or a show. My depression at some level is always there, but it has been less as of late. I think that my anxiety is worse than my depression right now. The anxiety leads to irrational paranoia and hypochondria. I cannot take benzos due to my previous addiction to alcohol. I cannot smoke pot due to potential drug testing in the workplace. In the end, I feel badly for my wife, as she is deeply affected by my depression and anxiety. I hate to see her go through rough times because of me. That is the worst part about it.

Erik Cirelli and Emily Rodgers. Photo by Trevor Richards.

Forgot one thing. I sometimes think that I am sociopathic to a degree. The reason is that I have been so desensitized that I feel absolutely nothing when friends or family die. That is a horrible thing to admit. Is it anti-social behavior? I love my wife though, so that does not apply to her. (You may want to skip that part if and when this interview is published. I don’t want people to think that I am a monster).

[Seems like a good time to pop in with my personal and professional opinion. No, I don’t think that’s anti-social behavior, Erik (especially not in the context of all your other feelings and behaviors). Similarly, I don’t think anyone will think you’re a monster, especially if they know you at all. First of all, antisocial personality disorder is “characterized by a pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.” So – no. Behaviors on the more harmful and dangerous end of this spectrum are often referred to as sociopathic or psychopathic. So – also no. It’s much (much, much) more likely that you’re experiencing a normal symptom of depression which is a lack of feeling, or a sense of numbness. More and more, researchers are able to explain this as emotion context insensitivity. Basically, the longer and more deeply one has experienced a sense of sadness, the more it takes for one to react “normally” to sad stimuli. In the context of depression, this makes perfect sense. Don’t worry, Erik; and if you’re reading this and feeling similarly, talk with someone you trust about it – a good friend, a counselor, or a hotline. Check out our Resources page for some contacts.]

Do you have any theories or ideas about why you experience depression?

The only thing that I can think of is that I had an aunt on my father’s side that experienced the same things as I have, so maybe it is genetic to an extent.

[Yeah, definitely.]

What role – if any – has music or being a musician played in creating or strengthening your depression?

I think that early on I bought into the tortured artist stereotype, but not anymore. I think that the frustration of playing music feeds my depression significantly. The perfectionism and the self-doubt. Also the fact that I am not able to make it my full time job. I probably had a couple of chances to do that in my life and I sabotaged those chances.

How do you cope with your depression? What keeps you going despite this challenge?

My wife and pets. Friends. Music, film, literature, collecting art. Exercise (when I have the motivation).

Erik Cirelli and Weber (one of eight sweet Cirelli-Rodgers pets). Photo by Trevor Richards.

What role – if any – has music or being a musician played in fighting or alleviating your depression?

It allows me to get out of my own head and to try to not focus on it so acutely. I try to play as much as I can. It doesn’t always work. I get frustrated by it a lot. Especially when practicing on my own.

What song (or songs) from other artists/bands best sum up the experience of depression for you? Why?

Interesting question. There are probably a lot of them.

“Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails (the Johnny Cash version also). “I See a Darkness” by Bonnie Prince Billy. “Sick of Food” and “Blue and Grey Shirt” by American Music Club. “Call Me On Your Way Back Home” by Ryan Adams. “I Know It’s Over” by The Smiths (or anything by The Smiths for that matter). “Tecumseh Valley” by Townes Van Zandt. “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen. “Glenn Tipton” and “Micheline” by Sun Kil Moon. “Martha” by Tom Waits. “Romantic Stories from the War” by the Karl Hendricks Trio. “Underground” by Kevin Finn. “Paint it Black” by The [Rolling] Stones.

“Flirted with You all My Life” by Vic Chesnutt (surprised that I didn’t think of this one sooner).

“Heroin” by VU [The Velvet Underground]. “Danny” by my wife is so sad it is almost unbearable. 

Gavin Clark‘s cover of “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths.

A lot of Nick Cave and Nick Drake‘s music. 

I find Johann Johannsson‘s music to be very sad.

Nothing sums up the anger and frustration like Peter Brotzmann‘s “Fuck de Boere” record. Or Krzysztof Penderecki‘s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.”

“Destination-Out” by Last Exit for the frustration and anger aspect. 

Sure there are many more.

[Thanks to Erik for finding these videos!]

What songs from your bands best sum up the experience of depression for you? Why?

A lot of Emily‘s songs do. I used to play with Kevin Finn a little, and his “Underground” really hits me hard. Such an amazing song.

What advice do you have for other people – musicians in particular – who suffer from depression?

Talk about it. Get help. You are by no means the only person that is suffering, although it may feel like that. Make an attempt to cut back on your drinking and drugging (easier said than done). In the end they only exacerbate the depression. Exercise (easier said than done). Do good things for yourself, take care of yourself. Don’t worry about other people’s opinions.

Erik Cirelli and Mark Lyons playing with Emily Rodgers Band at Get Hip Recordings (3/24/18). Photo by Trevor Richards.

Erik Talks about More Stuff

Here’s some other interesting stuff that Erik talked about in the interview. These are interesting topics and things we may explore in Of Music and Mind.

What topics related to music and the mind are you interested in learning more about?

Anything that I can consume musically is a benefit to me in some way. As far as the mind goes, I am fascinated by serial killers, sociopathic and psychopathic behavior, suicidal ideation, other people’s experiences with depression, and studies of addiction.

[Intriguing! I’m wondering how some of these mind-related interests may connect with music.]

Erik Cirelli with Emily Rodgers Band at Hambone’s (8/11/17). Photo by Trevor Richards.

We’re thankful that Erik took the time and energy to open up and talk about these important issues! Do you relate to what Erik shared? What are your thoughts? Let us know!

Every time we post these interviews, we get feedback from other musicians and artists saying “thank you” for sharing because it helps them to feel less alone and better understood. And that’s the point. So, thank you Erik – and thanks to the other musicians we’ve interviewed so far! Take a look around the blog for more information on depression and more interviews.

Coming up! We interviewed Emily Rodgers – see how the experiences of these lovely husband-wife-bandmates connect! Be well.