Maintaining mental health and handling “a lot of pressure” are real challenges for road warriors like Billy Strings, who plays New Year’s Eve in Grand Rapids. Local Spins probes the issues facing many bands.
EDITOR’S NOTE: After a whirlwind year, Michigan-bred Billy Strings plays a sold-out New Year’s Eve homecoming show at The Intersection in Grand Rapids this week. Part II of our interview with the bluegrass star reveals the strains that come with touring and success, something Traverse City indie-folk band The Accidentals – and many others – also have experienced. Scroll down for a new Billy Strings live video and the latest single from The Accidentals.
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As national bluegrass star and Michigan native Billy Strings puts it, things are not always what they seem for an award-winning artist with a No. 1 album who’s sold out every show on his national tour.
“I’ve got everything going for me and it’s unreal. This is literally my biggest dream coming true. This is what I’ve always wanted, but it’s amazing what touring 200 days a year does to a person mentally,” said the guitarist who grew up in Ionia as William Apostol.
“There’s a lot of pressure.”
So much pressure and such a hectic schedule that Apostol – whose band plays a big, tour-ending homecoming show on New Year’s Eve at The Intersection in Grand Rapids – said he was having panic attacks and has sought counseling with a therapist.
“People think I must be the happiest kid ever, but in real life, I’m having panic attacks. I’m the busiest guy ever. It’s just a lot to take in,” said Apostol, noting there’s been “a huge awakening” about mental health and depression in the music industry following the deaths of several well-known artists, including guitarist Neal Casal who died by suicide in August.
“Everybody that’s in the limelight has to deal with that. We’re always objectified. (But) I’m a person, I’m a complex person with thoughts and feelings and points of view.”
Savannah Buist of Traverse City’s The Accidentals – another fast-rising Michigan band that plays 200 shows a year – echoed Apostol’s sentiments.
“It might seem like we have it all together, but we all struggle with mental health,” she said.
“The road is a grueling pace and the hardest part is transitioning back to a stationary life long enough to settle in before hitting the road again. Relationships are hard to maintain and nothing is consistent except constant movement.”
LEARNING TO ‘TAKE MY FOOT OFF THE GAS PEDAL’
Relentless touring, the pressure to be “always on” and the tensions of band life create burdens and conditions that affect the mental health of many musicians.
Brady Stablein, of Grand Rapids’ Brother Elsey, recently revealed having a panic attack during the mammoth South by Southwest music festival in Austin earlier this year, and he’s since turned to therapy, yoga, meditation and support from friends and family.
“It was really hard to get a grasp on reality almost. I felt very disconnected,” he told Local Spins. “The biggest thing for me was time and talking about it with my friends, and realizing that so many people go through this thing, or through depression, or struggle with mental health.”
The Accidentals and Apostol also say they’ve taken steps to ease the pressure, relax away from the chaos and strike a balance in their lives.
“The whole year, I’ve had to learn how to settle down a little bit and take my foot off the gas pedal,” said Apostol, noting he started feeling overwhelmed and experiencing “some real anxiety” in January.
“I just have to remember to take a step back and breathe. I’ve devoted every ounce of my life and my being to this musical project that I’ve almost forgotten about living my life and being a person.”
Katie Larson of The Accidentals said while they don’t have “all the answers,” they’re constantly working on it.
“This year especially I’ve been trying to achieve a healthier balance between family, personal health, travel, music and working on the business. We joke about being workaholics, but it’s important to us to be present and keep everything in perspective,” she said.
“On the road, we are intentional about eating healthy and exercising. The last tour was across the entire country, two 30-hour drives, two flights, seven shows, 15 workshops, four festivals, and we backed up Keller Williams, Martin Sexton and May Erlewine on strings. We had a couple of vehicular catastrophes and got stuck in one of the wildfires in Arizona.
“To counter all the crazy, we have learned to talk it out as a band family. We do check-ins to see where everyone’s anxiety level is and we have a ‘no judgment’ rule. We communicate when we are having a bad day so everyone gives a little grace on those days.”
FINDING BALANCE AND LEANING ON SUPPORT FROM FANS, FRIENDS, MANAGERS
In the case of Billy Strings – playing three sold-out Michigan shows to close out the year, including the New Year’s Eve concert at The Intersection – the first part of January will be spent around relatives and friends after nearly non-stop touring in 2019. He goes back on tour Jan. 17.
“I miss them and that’s tough. It’s tough being away from them,” he said of his family. “I’m trying to get back to earth – get out of the stratosphere and get my feet back on the ground. It’s a balance. … I’m looking forward to taking some of that time off and spending it with family.”
Larson, Buist and Apostol also credited the diehard support of fans and their management teams for relieving some of the pressure and keeping them happy when things get tough.
“The support we have received from our core base gives us the confidence to power through the hardest times,” Buist said.
“We know it will pass and they have our backs. Sometimes we just need a laugh and someone sends us fan art or … a surprise dinner or gas cards, or they just let us know they sent friends to a show.
“Having that kind of support is critical. They remind us that we are OK. Sometimes they send us pics of their kids dancing or singing one of our songs and it makes the whole tour worth it.”
Apostol said it’s also important to stay true to yourself.
“I’m just taking the mask off. I don’t care being somebody I’m not. I’m just trying to be myself and make music. I’m just a guy that plays a guitar,” he said.
“I don’t have to dress up like a doll to go on stage. This is what I do, I play music and if you like it, fine, but I’m just being myself and that’s the healthiest thing for me to do.”
Read Part I of the Local Spins interview with Billy Strings: Billy Strings misses Michigan, ‘manifests own destiny’ with meteoric rise as bluegrass star
VIDEO: Billy Strings Live at Brooklyn Bowl (Set 1, Nov. 15, 2019)
LISTEN: The Accidentals, Lily & Madeleine, “Across the Universe” (Single, Dec. 25)
Copyright 2019, Spins on Music LLC