VC Pines: Seeing Music As Colours

In this podcast, VC Pines (AKA Jack Mercer) who has chromesthesia (numbers, letters, sounds, and chords are associated with specific colours), talks about overcoming anxiety and panic attacks before going on stage, and how talking about it made him feel less alone.

“I get really nervous before every gig. I was having panic attacks a lot before I really knew what they were,” Mercer tells Headliner. “I thought I was really really ill because the world kept shaking. I would lose the strength in my legs and I couldn’t breathe. I think the fact that people are talking about different states of mental health is a really positive thing.”

Mental health is one of the most important issues the music industry is facing right now. It is a complex matter, often co-existing alongside other factors related to welfare, relationships, physical health, employment and financial strain. It’s one of the many challenges that those working in the industry can face in managing their careers.

A recent study revealed that those working in music may be up to three times more likely to experience depression when compared to the general public. A musician’s career often involves dizzying highs and crushing lows, and learning how to navigate them is an art in itself. And it wasn’t just those in the limelight that were struggling – the responses were collected from musicians, audio production professionals, live crew, music management and DJs.

Chromesthesia (or sound-to-colour synesthesia) is a type of synesthesia in which heard sounds automatically and involuntarily evoke an experience of colour, which Mercer is diagnosed with, and manages to use to his benefit:

“Numbers, letter, sounds and different people all have a different colour,” he explains. “Or if I hear certain chords and sequences, they will be laid out in my head as different chords. Associating colours with each of my songs really helps for writing music and letting things out in real life as well. I think I can be quite disorganised – it drives my mum round the bend, but in my own colourful way!”

Chromesthesia doesn’t just help Mercer in the studio, discovering it to be an asset when performing live too:

“It's mainly when I’m writing, but if we go from one song to another in the live set, in my head we just payed a blue song, and now we're playing a purple song, or a light green song,” he explains. “Most shows are a complete blur, but sometimes if I close my eyes I visualise the song and how I saw it when I was writing it at the time. It helps to remember where the song is going!”

Diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy aged 17, Mercer tries to be as open about his condition as possible. “I try to be as vocal about epilepsy as I can without being like: ‘Hi, my name is Jack and I have epilepsy’ [laughs]. It's also raising awareness about how these conditions all differ – there are so many different types of epilepsy. Stress and tiredness induce seisures, and there are so many different types of seizures.”

On metal health issues being prevalent in the music industry, Mercer acknowledges the pressure that artists feel:

“Oh there is definitely a pressure,” he nods. ‘The more successful you are as an artist, the more pressure there is. You are constantly putting yourself out there: every song you wrote or sing, you are telling people about yourself, and you don’t have anywhere to hide, so you lose a safe space. The rise of social media has benefitted the world, but it’s a hindrance because you are constantly comparing yourself to others and looking at others: ‘How can I be like them? How can I be like that, how can my post get as many likes as that?’ It becomes this ridiculous thing where you’re constantly comparing yourself to others, and that’s not a healthy way to live.”

“Mental health and wellness are things we really need to be taught in school...

Men often suffer in silence regarding mental health issues, with a view that sharing feelings is not masculine. Mercer is seeing a subtle shift in options on this, too:

“I was watching Kanye West on David Letterman. He was diagnosed with bipolar and said he went to hospital, where they took him away from the people he came to the hospital with. He said he was cuffed to the bed, I think. The taboo was there and everyone was saying he was behaving erratically. The analogy he used was that his brain was sprained like a sprained ankle, and if someone sprains their ankle, you’re not going to put pressure on it. When someone has any kind of mental breakdown or episode, people put a load of pressure on it and it makes the whole thing a lot worse. I think the way we handle certain flare-ups in mental health needs to change.”

After experiencing panic attacks before shows in the past, Mercer says he gets through each gig on pure adrenaline.

“I used to be not all there before a show, the adrenaline kept me going throughout it, and afterwards I would go straight back to the hotel to sleep. I try and listen to some music beforehand and have a few beers now; I’m sure there is something else I could be doing that’s better!

Unaware of what help is available for people working in the music industry, Mercer found that the Headspace app helped him take the time to work on his mental health.

“Doing mindfulness everyday really helped me,” he confirms. “Taking that time every day to work on taking yourself out of wherever you are at, so if you are in a stressful environment or are feeling anxious, you can step out, focus on your breathing, feel your feet on the floor, your hands on your legs – I feel it totally levels you. I think [mental health and wellness] are things we need to be taught in school, but we're not.”

On the help available for people in the music industry, Mercer can see more of a positive focus being directed towards mental health, with companies like Sony Music UK reportedly giving its employees an extra two days’ holiday in order to look after their mental health.

“At Independent Venue Week there were posters all around the venue for people struggling with nerves before they go on stage,” Mercer remembers. “People have started to engage with this. There needs to be more help for artists and people working at the labels. So many are scared of burn out with performances, plus a load of interviews before and after – labels need to take this into account.”