Interview: Emily Rodgers Talks About Music, Depression, Sensitivity, and Suicide

Most of our interviews so far have focused on music, depression, and how they connect. They’ve been thought-provoking, helpful, and healing.

Depression is a complicated issue – a beast with many heads: The symptoms, their effects on us, their effects on others, and our struggle for survival. On top of it all sits the steady and – sometimes – suffocating weight of stigma. Everyone we have interviewed so far has discussed many different symptoms, experiences, and coping skills. They’ve all struggled – and they’ve all triumphed by sharing their stories, reaching out to others, and letting the light in

Today we delve a little deeper into the catacombs of depression and take a closer look at the aspects of sensitivity and suicide.

If you (or someone you know) is experiencing thoughts of suicide – reach out to get help and information! Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (they’re available 365/24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 or go to their website to chat online) or, in Southwestern PA call resolve Crisis Services (they’re available by phone 365/24/7 at 1-888-796-8226). If you need help, please get it now.

Today we’re proud to present this captivating…

Of Music and Mind Interview: Emily Rodgers Talks about Music, Depression, Sensitivity, and Suicide

Emily Rodgers. Photo by Trevor Richards.

Emily has a quiet power. On stage, she barely moves and she rarely opens her eyes. She doesn’t need to. In fact, maybe she can’t. It’s like electricity – her feet are planted firmly on the ground to allow the deep, raw emotion a conduit from the ground through her and out into the ether. Before and after a performance, Emily is a quiet ball of nerves. She makes herself small in the crowd, glad to not draw attention to herself. But during the performance, her tiny frame projects a strong voice full of depth, meaning, and raw emotion.

Emily is one of my dearest friends, and she’s my bandmate in (the aptly-titled) Emily Rodgers Band. We met in 2009 through Craigslist. According to Emily, acquiring me as her bass player was one of two “good deals” she’s ever made through the site (earlier that year she got a pretty good air conditioner for free). Emily also happens to be pretty funny.

Emily is a versatile performer – you may see her perform solo, (or more happily) as a duo with husband/guitarist Erik Cirelli, as a trio with violinist Megan Williams, or with the full band. Regardless of the setup, Emily brings the emotion, the voice, and some of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard. Emily’s music has been described as a blend of rock, folk, alt-country, shoegaze, and (some even say) post-rock. 

Emily has some interesting stuff coming up! On April 7, Emily is walking in an Out of the Darkness Walk at Chatham University for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She’s walking in honor of her brother, who they lost in 2006. Donations are tax-deductible and can be made here. See 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 Emily Rodgers’ shows and events, follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Emily Talks about Being a Musician

We talked about Emily’s life as a musician.

What are your current projects?

Emily Rodgers Band.

What instruments do you play?

Guitar, piano, viola.

Which instrument do you consider to be your main instrument?

I am considerably more skilled at the piano, but I write and perform music on guitar.

Tell me the story of how you got into music. 

To be 1,000% honest, I’ve always wanted to be some sort of artist. I absolutely bought into the archetype of the “tortured artist” and wanted to be that, starting at the age of about eight. The motivation was more about being an artist than creating art.

How long have you been a musician?

I began playing the piano at age nine, viola at age ten, and guitar at age seventeen. I began singing and writing music in earnest at twenty-two, but I also grew up in the Mennonite church. Mennonites sing in four-part harmony; when I was perhaps twelve I realized I could read and sing the alto part.

Emily Rodgers Band CD Release Show at Club Cafe (6/18/16). Photo by Trevor Richards.

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

A confusing mix of low self-esteem and arrogance. Perfectionism as well.

What inspires you to keep playing music and performing?

I consistently dread performing and practicing, but I always enjoy it. It is one of the most effective ways I’ve found to exorcise negative emotions and fear.

Emily Talks about Depression and Suicide

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

Do you have depression?


How long have you been experiencing depression?

On and off my whole life.

What is your experience of depression like?

“Made a stupid remark – why not kill myself? Missed the bus – better put an end to it all. Even the good got in there. I liked that movie – maybe I shouldn’t kill myself.” 

-Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted

My parents have both suffered from depression for most of my life. My dad took Prozac very early in its existence and my parents frequently talked about depression and I should have known how to detect it in myself. I thought of depression the way they and most people talk about it – as a massive dip. The surveys to screen for depression always ask one to compare one’s current self to a previous incarnation of that self. The question of whether I’ve lost interest in activities I used to enjoy has always been problematic for me. If I’ve always struggled with depression (and I’d say, more specifically, dysthymia) it’s hard to answer such questions. I don’t necessarily feel worse than I’ve ever felt, even when I’m feeling exceedingly hopeless and indulging in suicidal fantasies.

I’ve also always imagined depression as uncontrollable crying. I rarely cry. When I’m depressed, I’m often pretty numb to everything but shame and fear. Feelings of shame always destroy me, but I seldom feel sad in a conventional way. It’s a low grade grayness, not so much a profound sadness.

Many people who suffer from depression experience suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide. One thing that is even more stigmatized and misunderstood than depression – it seems – is suicide. What do you think about that? How do you cope with these feelings?

I’ve attempted [suicide] multiple times, and I’m not certain I’m an expert in coping strategies, but talking with my husband about how I’m feeling helps immensely. I tend not to share; I feel ashamed that ostensibly small prompting events cause me so much inner turmoil. When people hear my music, they often say they can’t quite reconcile how I present in daily life with the self I present in music. I often say I don’t know which is “real,” but my most authentic self is the one I present on stage and on record.

Coping skills I’ve learned via dialectical behavior therapy also help.

Emily Rodgers and Erik Cirelli. Photo by Trevor Richards.

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

I’m certain there’s a genetic component.

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

Spending time in bars and putting myself into situations in which I feel socially anxious is negative. I suppose that’s not so much about being a musician, but playing shows. I also bought into the romantic myth of the tortured artist for a long time. I actively cultivated situations in which I could behave badly because I believed that’s how I’d be a real artist – tumultuous relationships, drinking, self-harm.

You’ve mentioned the “tortured artist” archetype again. Do you – or did you – have a “tortured artist” role model?

Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, Peter Laughner (and musicians who generally follow the drug and alcohol use/early death pattern he followed), many others I’m having trouble calling up at the moment.

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

Reading, medication. I self-medicated with alcohol for a very long time.

Emily Rodgers. Photo by Trevor Richards.

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

My depression is of the “smiling” variety. People who really know me can sense when I’m feeling badly but smiling and laughing, but people who don’t describe me as sunny. In music, I can show my real self. I don’t cover up my struggle for appearance; it’s more that I don’t want to bother anyone.

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

Even if you think you’re more productive and inspired when you’re drinking or drugging, you’re probably not. Take a break and see what it’s like.

What songs from other artists best sum up the experience of depression for you?

“Almost Was Good Enough” by Magnolia Electric Company.

“The Dark Don’t Hide It” by Magnolia Electric Company. “Blue Factory Flame” by Songs: Ohia. “Flirted with You All My Life” by Vic Chesnutt.

“This is Not Like Home” by Great Lake Swimmers.

“My Curse” by The Afghan Whigs. “Time and Time Again” by Counting Crows. “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails (but it’s the Johnny Cash cover that I identify with).

“Me and My Charms” by Kristin Hersh.

“Metal Heart” by Cat Power. “Rachel’s Song” by James McMurtry.

What songs of yours best sum up the experience of depression for you?

“Hurricane.” I don’t write straight narrative/story songs, but this piece is about a specific time in my life. I’m singing very specifically about depression and suicide.

Check under the house, you’ll find the fuse / It’s in the air you’ll find the spark / I’m not afraid of the sun / I am not afraid of you.

I have visions of when we were married / I have visions of hospitals at night / I seek forgiveness for having asked too much of love.

And I’ve got a few things to say to the one who broke your heart / It’s one more for the road, cuz Tuesday’s finally gone like a hurricane.

I have fallen down the stairs / I have covered up my scars / I have been haunted by a ghost whose name I do not know.

It’s like drowning in the dark and fading into black / There are those who hold on / I am willing to be saved.

What are you curious about related to the connection between music and depression?

I’m interested in learning more about sensitivity. I am exceedingly sensitive. This makes me a better writer and singer, but it also makes it really hard to live in the world.

[OK, let’s talk about that now!]

Emily Talks about Sensitivity

We talked about Emily’s experience with sensitivity and the role that music plays.

Emily Rodgers. Photo by Trevor Richards.

What is your experience of sensitivity like? Can you explain?

I am easily hurt – extremely easily hurt. I’m generally unable to accept even constructive criticism. I’m still working on how to handle feedback in a healthy way, but I’m not there yet.

Erik and Kramer [renowned producer and Emily’s good pal] once made me vow not to Google record reviews for the new album; they said they would forward any and all relevant articles and screen out any that would not be helpful.

Erik and I went to see a noise artist perform at the Andy Warhol Museum a few weeks back. Noises came from the stage, but also from behind – at least seven speakers, all playing a different sound. I told Erik later that this is what my anxiety sounds like. This is what my anxiety feels like. A cacophony of sounds – from spoons tapping on teacups, to the sound of the D train exiting the station, to a singing bowl she plays from the stage. It came from every angle, assaulting the listener, and I couldn’t decide where to look. I found it oddly calming to hear my anxiety in a concrete form.

How do you think that being sensitive affects your depression? How does it make you a better writer and singer?

In terms of depression, because I take in so much stimuli, there’s generally more to deal with/process. I’m hyper aware at all times – of others, especially of what they think of me. (Lately, I’m trying to be more mindful that it’s not so much what others think of me but what I think they think of me, knowing I can’t read the thoughts of others.)

[What a good point.]

Living in a state of turmoil at most times makes life more difficult. Going to work, buying groceries – anything involving leaving the house is difficult, if not impossible. Sensitivity does, however, make me a better singer and songwriter. I have a great deal to tap into when I sing and write; even if the prompting event for an emotion is trivial, the emotion is not. When I perform, I’m considerably more serene than I am at, for example, the grocery store. Before and after the performance – the socializing, the inability to go home – puts me at about a 10/10 in terms of anxiety; when I’m actually on stage performing, the anxiety is at more like a 3/10.

I find that sensitive people generally create better art, but that same sensitivity makes it difficult to promote one’s own work. I feel the same way in terms of introversion – I think introverts generally make more affecting art, but we hear the work of songwriters who are willing to enthusiastically promote their own work.

Megan Williams, me, and Emily playing with Emily Rodgers Band at Get Hip Recordings (3/24/18). Photo by Trevor Richards.

Do you consider yourself a Highly Sensitive Person?

[Are you a Highly Sensitive Person? Take the self-test here.]

Yes. I’m easily overwhelmed and I startle very easily. I also have difficulty in crowds and places in which too many things are happening at once. When I read The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron, I recognized a great deal of myself in the descriptions. At the time, I didn’t feel that the sensitivity to the environment portion of the book fit me but, now that I don’t drink, it does. I think I was numbing out to the environment without realizing that was part of the allure of alcohol for me.

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

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

The point of these interviews – aside from being interesting – is to open up the conversation. We hope that they provide you with information, validation, a reminder that you are not alone, and a look into where the music comes from. Remember, if you (or someone you know) is experiencing thoughts of suicide – reach out to get help and information! Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (they’re available 365/24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 or go to their website to chat online) or, in Southwestern PA call resolve Crisis Services (they’re available by phone 365/24/7 at 1-888-796-8226).

If you haven’t already, check out Erik Cirelli’s interview on music and depression. See how the experiences of these lovely husband-wife-bandmates connect!

Coming up: Emily sparked my curiosity about some things. We’ll be looking into the connection between sensitivity and creativity, how personality affects our marketing (and success), and we’ll give you some more solid tools to use for helping yourself and others who struggle with suicidal thoughts. Be well!