At some point in 2015, I got to know the core members of Jawbreaker Reunion, a band I’ve adored since first coming across their debut shortly after its release, as people. Bella Mazzetti contributed a piece to the 2015 edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories earlier this month and now Lily Mastrodimos is following suit. While Mastrodimos’ contributions to Jawbreaker Reunion have left me reeling, in 2015 the songwriter’s focus expanded to include Long Neck, a hushed solo project. Heights, the project’s first full-length, was one of 2015’s great unexpected highlights. Trading in Jawbreaker Reunion’s confrontational celebrations into something much more quietly introspective is something Mastrodimos expands on in the included piece. Mastrodimos’ contribution here is an unfettered look at the machinations of artistic process; how people learn to cope with the most difficult of impulses. Read it below and remember that even feeling invaluable can be a valuable experience when it’s approached from the right angle.
I Swear It’s Enough: Learning Self Care Through Long Neck
I should preface this piece by saying that, in writing and sharing all of this, I am terrified. I am sitting at my desk and my heart is pounding. This is a lot for me to say and even more to admit. But I have spent years invalidating myself, and for the sake of my health it needs to stop.
2015 was the year I really started paying attention to my mental health. For so long, I had situated myself into a comfortable routine of repressing, repressing, repressing. I couldn’t bring myself to reach out to my friends, to call and ask for help, to really be honest about how I was doing and the thoughts that were racing through my head at breakneck speeds. 2015 was the year I started to work on breaking that cycle. It’s been slow progress, and with 2016 already creeping along I’ve found that I have more to work on. But throughout the previous year, one of the major things that allowed me to explore my mental health and find some calm was music, specifically, with Long Neck.
Long Neck began in my senior year at Bard, with small GarageBand recordings of songs I had written in the months or years before the semester started. I had started recognizing my depression towards the end of my sophomore year, recognizing it as something real and with teeth. My whole body would ache, like it was cringing. My stomach and chest would constantly feel like a squirming ball python. I hated my body, I hated every word that came out of my mouth, I felt lonelier than I could put into words. I believed I was unlovable.
I was scared shitless to open my mouth and tell anyone anything; I had convinced myself that if I did so no one would want to be my friend because I was too much of a “bummer”. So instead of talking, instead of reaching out, instead of calling, I wrote songs about it.
The songs I wrote as Long Neck held two purposes. The first was to have an outlet for everything I was feeling. The second was to let my friends know that something was up. I am lucky to have some of the most supportive and loving friends I could ever ask for, they have been there for me at my worst and I am so grateful for them. When writing these songs I wasn’t doing so because they didn’t care; I was finding it physically difficult to tell my friends I was in a bad place, and in writing these songs I realized I was far more at ease and comfortable to open up about my depression in verse.
At the start of 2015, I set a goal for myself. I acquired some recording tools and software, and I set out to record all the songs I had been playing in secret for months (though I had played my first Long Neck show in December ’14). I had no idea what I was going to do with any of the finished products, but I was excited to work them into new forms. My dorm room was my studio. My second-floor window overlooked an open field and the forests beyond, and rising high above those trees were the Catskills that stood across the Hudson.
I could hear songbirds when they came back in spring, I heard coyotes crying at the moon, I heard spring peepers and the nasal “meeps” of American Woodcocks and trains rolling by late at night. I felt so much peace there, and when I started recording everything I found that I wasn’t afraid of holding back. On days when I’d get snowed in I would spend the whole day recording, snuggled in my favorite sweaters, watching the snow phase out the mountains and the forests until it settled in one uninterrupted sea of white, my Christmas lights reflecting off of the surface.
This environment, with its serenity and warmth, was the perfect place for me to sit and explore and sift through everything that had been filling my body with the weight that made it so difficult for me to move. I could dig into myself and how I was feeling and why and examine everything I pulled from that. When I put my findings to words, I could feel myself breathing again.
Where before I had been content with ignoring my depression, now I was staying active—I was glaring at it in the face, I was playing keys and guitar and bass and banjo and singing and tracking it all. The music was on my terms, I had control over everything I was recording through mixing and retracking and doubling and what-have-you. Nothing was whispering to me “you’re not worth it” or “why do you even think this matters?” or “you should probably just stop trying.” Something was nudging me and saying “look what you’re creating.”
Long Neck became a form a self-care. I realized, halfway through recording the album that would become Heights, that I was becoming more comfortable being alone and keeping myself company than I had ever been. Before, I had dreaded returning to an empty room, or looking at a blank phone screen. Suddenly, I was able to relish the quiet nights that were all mine. They belonged to me, and I claimed ownership of myself.
This isn’t to say that my depression was completely cured. Not at all. I still had my rough days and weeks, still had to force myself to talk to people, still got panic attacks at parties and still felt a blazing pit in my stomach when I thought about how lonely I was. But something was different. It didn’t consume me anymore.
It didn’t feel like I was stagnating, because I could write about it. I could go back to my dorm and sing the lyrics over and over and put it to music and think about ways to make it better, and in doing so, could feel like I was helping myself feel better. I could feel like healing was possible. I was teaching myself how to be the maker of my own salvation; therapy helped too, but in between sessions I had to be the motor for my own growth.
Being more honest through Long Neck allowed me to become more honest with myself. When I started playing shows, I realized that people are willing to listen, people can connect, people want to hear you. Even when it’s not a song. Long Neck let me be heard when I thought my voice meant absolutely nothing, when I couldn’t express myself truthfully to the people I loved the most. I learned to be bolder. I started being more open with my friends, and was overjoyed when I realized that no one would let me go because I was depressed—I wasn’t a “bummer”, I was someone struggling with something real and valid.
When I released Heights in June, a few weeks after graduating from the place I called home for four years and leaving my beloved dorm room, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. There was everything I had been working through for almost three years, there was something I created all on my own, out in the open. I felt proud, prouder than I’d been in so long, and happy. I felt taller, I felt solid, I felt OK.
I’m still learning. I’m still growing. I’m still taking steps forward and steps back and forward again. Long Neck has been one of the most positive musical experiences I’ve ever had, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next. I’ve started playing with a full band of some of my oldest and best friends, and our practices and last performance have left me feeling so much love and pure joy. I’ve come to better understand my downs and how to endure, knowing that there are better things ahead.
Depression is a wild animal. It bends to no one, and can be so difficult to lasso that it burns your palms against the rope. But you can ease its temper, even if its just for a little bit. You can be lonely but you are never alone. You can feel unlovable but know that there are scores of people to whom you are the world. You are stronger than you know or believe, and the feelings that prick your brain are just as valid for you to have as the peace and love you so rightly deserve. I promise you.