Exploring the Mental Health of Creatives with Josh Gonzales
Josh gave us an inside to the inner workings of emerging musicians in this deep interview connecting the art to mental health.
In promotion of his upcoming single “Life Through a Straw” under his given name as opposed to the more r&b driven pseudonym of Revilla, Josh Gonzales wanted to stress the connection between his art and the research of mental health and psychology. In this in depth interview, we see a lot of information about the strategies and benefits of being a creative and how to balance that side of our personalities with our own psyche. Josh wanted to make it clear that he is not a therapist as most of his studies surrounding psychology are based on the research of and that if you do experience any type of mental struggles, blockades, and general unhealthiness you should seek out help from a trained professional. He has also provided me with a link for those that are in need of some guidance.
I’m interested in learning about the types of writing projects you are beginning to work on. Can you tell me a bit about what is in the works for you?
Oh man, this is always a tough question to answer haha.
On the music side, I have two projects where I’m the principal songwriter: Josh Gonzales and Revilla.
The Josh Gonzales “solo project’ (I put that in quotes because really it’s a close collaboration with Thomas St. Onge, my guitarist, co-writer, and engineer extraordinaire) is the soul folk pop writing that I do that’s really driven by my intellectual side. I tend to be a little cleverer with this project, using a lot more of the techniques and tips that I’ve read and heard about songwriting. Or at least I attempt to be cleverer haha.
Revilla relies more on “the vibe”. I try to think less about the lyrics and focus more on finding the melody that feels right. Or the sexiest, which is often the same thing anyway haha. It’s very R&B.
I like to think that the two are pretty distinct in terms of tone, not just because Revilla is driven by the electronic production while Josh Gonzales is acoustic driven, but because I’m using two different sides of myself to drive what comes out. Of course, there’s overlap. It’s still me and my voice and I’m not doing any crazy manipulation to my vocals in post, but that’s the way I see them separately, in my head at least haha.
In terms of other writing, I’ve started blogging more. I actually have a blog on Psychology Today that focuses on the psychology sports and decision-making, which is a pretty big deal. They have a pretty big audience, I think they get something like 2 million unique viewers/month. It’s a great opportunity to teach people through sports about the cognitive processes behind human behaviour.
But I also want to write a lot more about psychology studies that I just find interesting and that I think other people would find interesting or useful, because so much of what goes on in academia stays in the ivory towers and never gets to the people who could make the most use out of it. I just finished up a Master’s in Experimental and Applied Psychology, so the way I think still gravitates towards big ideas, working from the top down, even when it comes to everyday life. I’ll be posting that stuff on Medium for the most part, unless I find other channels that are a good fit.
I also occasionally write a peer-reviewed journal article but most people don’t give a fuck about that hahaha.
I’m curious if your approach to different writing projects is similar to your songwriting process? Can you get into details about the different mindset that you may need to be in for these other projects?
There’s so much overlap haha. I try to do too many things always, so I’m always trying to find ways to overlap project processes so I can fit it all in my mental bandwidth. For example, if I read about a cool psychological concept, I’ll often use that as a starting point for a song.
The biggest difference is probably that, outside of songwriting, the writing has to follow a very logical sequence so people understand what’s going on. In a song, it’s okay if you don’t use complete sentences, if you bounce around with ideas, if you pull out something that doesn’t even make sense at all. That’s what makes it interesting. It’s poetry.
If I’m writing an article for Psychology Today, then I have to make sure that everything is structured. Having a firm outline is much more important. The part that I try and pull from the songwriting into the more formal writing is the sense of connection, and understanding how people are interpreting your words.
At the end of the day, it’s all about connecting with your audience. The audiences are just very different for each project, so you have to use different tools to get the message across in a way that resonates.
Can you touch on the differences between artists using (and abusing) their mental state for their art?
Oh man, so before we get into all this, I have to mention: while I have psychological training, I’m primarily a researcher. I am NOT a clinician or a therapist. If you feel you have problems, you should seek out a licensed professional. There’s no shame in getting help. I’ve gotten help, many people I know have gotten help, and to be honest there are lots of people I know who haven’t that I think probably should.
To me, seeking out psychological help is just as important as seeking out physical training. If you hurt your back, nobody would think twice about you seeing a physical therapist. Even if you’re completely healthy, if you go seek out a trainer, people applaud you for your efforts to slim down and get that squat booty and six pack abs. Why wouldn’t we want the same for our mental health? That’s the fucked thing to me, if anything.
Having said that, I think society in general has gotten a lot better at being able to talk about these issues, but for a lot of artists I feel like it’s still taboo, even though we’re putting our freaking hearts on the line every time we get on stage or release a song. Because the music industry is so competitive, most people don’t want to show any signs of weakness.
So, to me, there’s this weird mismatch. We’re asking artists to really delve into themselves and figure out how they feel and put that in a way that’s relatable to an audience. At the same time, a lot of artists feel isolated because they can’t just make music, they have to do all the industry side of things, especially at the very beginning. That means long hours writing grants, prepping social media posts (which is a whole other topic of destructive behaviour), and generally just trying to live life.
I don’t know if this is answering your question, because the use and abuse of an artist’s mental state are very much intertwined. Finding a balance is something I still struggle with, and I don’t know any independent artists who have found a good balance that’s really pushing their music. Or at least a balance that would make sense to most humans haha.
What are some red flags that might tell you when someone is in an unhealthy mindset that they might not be aware of?
Again, I’m NOT a licensed professional, so these are purely based off of my own experience and the experience of others in my circle, as well as some of the research I’ve seen.
In general, I think what’s most troubling is when you see a change in someone’s behaviour. Maybe they used to be more social and are now spending a lot of time alone. If you notice they are more anxious than usual, that’s typically a sign that something’s going on. I think signs are usually subtle if you look at them individually, but taken together, you just see someone as being “different’, which is sometimes positive and sometimes negative.
And that’s the other thing, sometimes changes are for the better and sometimes it’s for the worse. It’s almost impossible to tell externally what someone’s going through. The biggest thing you can do to help those around you is to just make them aware that you are there to help if they need it, both in the good times and the bad. And if they tell you they need more help than you are able or willing to give them, help them find a licensed professional.
Can you touch on the mental benefits (and detriments) to creating with a partner or multiple people as opposed to creating alone?
Oh my god, collaboration is everything to me. The whole reason I got into music was to connect with other people who love music and arts, and just MAKING things.
I often like to have time alone with a song, especially when I’m trying to come up with lyrics. I like to use a thesaurus and a rhyme dictionary, so I need some quiet time to work through what I feel makes the most sense for the song, both logically and just how it feels in my mouth hahaha.
But also, things just FLOW when you’re with a group. I went to a SaskMusic songwriting retreat a few years ago. We were at Cedar Lodge Hotel in Dundurn, I don’t think It’s open anymore but it was this beautiful space. They had Jason Blume come in. He’s a world-renowned songwriter, and I learned a lot from the formal sessions! But the best moments were always when we were just kicking it, getting together in little groups and just jamming finding out who we really had vibes with.
I love jams. It really is everything to me, to be able to really truly try and listen and connect with other people. That’s what music is about to me.
In my mind, there aren’t any real detriments to creating with others. You have to learn how your partnership with someone will work, where the overlap is and where you guys need time a part, so it takes time. To me, the downsides come on the industry side of things, where you might have different ideas of where to take the music for promotion and stuff like that, or just differences in how you see the music world. But artistically there’s no downside to creating with other people.
Artists typically have to be open to sharing a lot about themselves when they get around to releasing their art to the world. In what ways does this benefit as well as harm one’s psyche?
I think most of the harm comes when you’re not truly comfortable with yourself as a person and as an artist.
A person who is comfortable with themselves won’t really be negatively impacted from sharing their work. It’s when you’re trying to seek validation from others, “Is my shit good enough”, that’s when you can get into some real trouble.
Which is I guess most of us though. I mean, why the fuck else would we put out our music unless we want it to vibe with other people? haha. I’d consider myself a person who is pretty comfortable with who I am as both a person and a musician, but there’s still that tug, especially on social media, to get those likes and comments telling you “this song is *fire emoji*”. So you gotta recognize when you are being anxious over externals that you can’t control, and then change your mindset and behaviour to minimize the impact of those things. Also, change the focus from “make people like my art” to “find the people who resonate with my art”. Subtle change, big difference in terms of your likely behavioral outcomes.
At the end of the day, if you’re proud of your work and don’t take people’s criticisms as anything more than their personal viewpoint, you’ll be fine in the long term.
What advice would you give to other creatives about their mental health and how to avoid slipping into problem areas due to the amount that they share of themselves with the outside world?
I’d just recommend being really rooted in why you’re doing this shit. Careers in creative industries, or as Marv puts it, “non-linear careers” can be really difficult. There’s no “right way”, because things are constantly changing. That’s the essence of this work.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why”, but basically the premise is that when you start with why, the what works itself out.
And maybe you don’t even need to be making the specific art that you think you should be doing right now. For the past while, I’ve become more of a visual artist, doing a lot of photography and and video. It’s because at the root of what I do, I want to help good people do great things. So whether or not that’s through music or photography or writing or whatever the fuck else, if I keep that at the center, I know I’m gonna be happy with myself. As long as I’m also being creative in some capacity haha.
When I’ve been lost, it’s because I’ve completely forgotten why I was doing music in the first place. Now that I’ve honed in on what my values are, I feel rejuvenated and ready to make more music again.
A common benefit to improving your own mental health is to have goals laid out for you to strive for. So, to practice what you preach, can you tell me where you see yourself in 5 years?
Oh man! You caught me haha.
5 years…well first of all, a year from now, I’d like to have created an online class on photography. It’s so easy to get your hands on a cheap but good camera, or to just use your phone, but I don’t think people understand what they’re doing most of the time. 4 years ago, I couldn’t take a good picture to save my life, but now I’m able to take pictures I’m really proud of. I’ve started doing in-person workshops and training but I think it’s a lot easier for people if I make a web class. The only thing is, I want to make sure people are actually using the knowledge, and not just watching the videos. I know I’ve gotten into that trap and nobody wins in that scenario, because you’re not actually getting better pictures, and that means I really haven’t taught you anything haha.
Ok, so now that I’ve bought myself enough time to think haha, 5 years from now I’d actually like to be doing a PhD. Honestly, at one point during my Master’s I thought I’d never do school again, because I really like helping artists and academia doesn’t usually lend itself to that. I felt burnt out. But I’ve really started to think about a large-scale project that would help artist entrepreneurs while also studying the connection between emotion in decision-making and the arts. It’s a very high-level concept, and there aren’t really opportunities to study this outside of academia, so if I’m able to make this all work, that’s the goal. I love research, I love the arts. If I can do both in a way that helps other people, I will be living my best life haha.
But who knows, that could change, life is a fucking blur man. All I know for sure is that 5 years from now, I better be helping people make things they’ve always dreamed of, or else I might as well be dead.