‘If I pound this bike hard enough, I’ll have a nice sinewy Madonna body by the time I’m 50’, I think to myself, as my wobbly hypermobile joints work their way through the pain. I’ve gone through a total transformation this past year, and feel a bit like I’ve stepped out of a fat suit. And yet, I still feel like someone was having a laugh when they put my body together. I often joke that walking on my legs is like trying to walk on two bits of cooked spaghetti... Ah well... at least I have legs I guess.
If I exercise myself into the ground till I’m exhausted and my brain floods with endorphins, maybe this lingering feeling of worthlessness that’s been growing in me lately will go away. After managing to emerge from a ten year fog of depression that was preceded by being fed medication that damn near melted my brain, I watch helplessly as I start to spiral into anxiety again. I feel helpless and sad. I’ve been doing so well.
Things that hardly matter at all seem to suddenly matter greatly. You would think that by now I should’ve learned how to put things in perspective. My older brother died in the middle of the night in 1994. My dad died slowly in front of my eyes in 2001. Weirdly that seemed to destroy my ability to put things in perspective. Now if someone so much as looks at me with any hint of anger or disappointment in their eyes, I just crumple. Even when it’s nothing to do with me.
But I have this bike, and goddamn it, I will pedal till I fall off...
And I have my wife, who is an endlessly patient and kind angel. And I have a beautiful dog who is closer to being a surrogate child than I’d like to admit. My family and friends are wonderful in fact, and at my core I am a happy person. I am desperate to be happy. So when I feel that happiness slipping, it pains me.
I have music. I write songs, I make records. When I feel happy, I go and play shows. I’ve had something you could describe as success multiple times. I had my fifteen minutes of fame at the age of 18 in Hong Kong. I sang to bigger audiences than ever before supporting Joe Jackson. I've written and recorded with some of my musical heroes. I am tremendously lucky. But when I'm something less than happy, I withdraw. I disappear.
That's when well-meaning friends tell me to 'go and play shows!'... or 'go on The Voice so you can be discovered and become successful!’. I don’t even know what success means anymore if I’m honest. I’m fairly sure I don’t want to be Beyoncé (who is the most fabulous popstar on the planet, IMHO). I don’t have the legs anyway.
Now, at the ripe old age of 40, making a decent buck from making music would feel like success to me. I’m not sure that that’ll happen though - I can’t imagine a ‘Susie’ brand, or flogging perfume.
But I would like to be a musician and get a modest amount of recognition for it. That’s about it really. I have done it in the past, and I always get up, dust myself off and do it again. People ask me ‘where have you been? Your last record came out 6 years ago!’ Well here’s your answer - I get anxious, I get depressed. Sometimes life feels a bit like wading through glue.
And yet here I am again with new music. Doing my best to fight through my anxiety this time and give it my best shot. I'm trying to heed my own lyric - 'life is too short to be afraid' - I am painfully aware of this fact. I will probably try, try and try again until the day I die.
Why am I sharing this anyway? Because as society is beginning to talk more openly about mental illness, I wanted to add my voice to the discussion. I hope this post helps someone. I hope that it shows that these problems can be part of the fabric of a life that is still meaningful and 'successful' - whatever success is.
If you, or someone you know is affected by mental health issues, contact MIND for help & advice. They are amazing.
I think KD Lang knew I was gay before I did. Or perhaps it’s just that her music spoke to a part of my brain that knew who I truly was long before I really properly figured it out. I became obsessed with the beautiful, introspective Ingenue in 1993. There was a very particular type of yearning and sadness expressed that struck a chord with me and lodged itself in my musical mind - it has coloured my songwriting ever since.
Musically - the whole record blew (and still blows) my mind. Warm and sort of soupy sounding, with such intricately thought-out orchestration, instrumentation, melody and counter-melody, with KD’s effortlessly silky vocals floating over the top - it was almost too beautiful. I remember vividly a friend (who shall remain nameless), drunkenly exclaiming: ‘turn it off! it’s too sexy!!’ - seeming genuinely disturbed that if she listened to the whole record, she’d be a bona fide lady lover by the end of it. KD was a confuser in those days.
From Save Me to Outside Myself - the album aches with slow-burning desire. Then in an instant, the tension dissipates with the perfectly placed tempo of Constant Craving; melancholy expressed in the most joyful way possible - and so outrageously catchy. I’m quite envious really, of how she expresses the joy and pain of loving another woman so artfully - and still manages to wrap it all up into a little over four minutes of pop perfection.
KD created a blueprint for female singer/songwriters like myself who came after her. Realising it’s okay to express sadness and longing and desire without pandering to the male gaze was (and is) liberating. KD did it all with such style - and she wore the best suits and looked like Elvis. Constant Craving is, and will always be, my favourite pop song of all time. It’s faultless.
It was 1999 and I was madly in love with a woman who was madly in love with someone else. Classic Susie. Still, how else would I find inspiration for my songs about doomed love and endless longing? She was a head f**k, and she didn’t even know it.
To add fuel to the flame, she turned to me one afternoon and asked ‘have you heard Jeff Buckley?’ - and was horrified to discover that I hadn’t. It seemed almost cruel, looking like that, to then play me ‘Everybody Here Wants You’ - when everybody did want her, including me.
I know everybody here wants you
I know everybody here thinks he needs you
I'll be waiting right here just to show you
How our love will blow it all away
Jeff Buckley’s voice was a revelation. Smooth, rough, falsetto, baritone, beautiful and ugly; it is one of the most expressive instruments I have ever heard in my life. Moving between registers so effortlessly and expressing such painful longing - well I hadn’t heard a voice like that since KD.
The song floored me with its space and simplicity - its longing expressed with the constant, practically unchanging bass & kick drum. Like a heartbeat. Allowing Jeff’s voice to float languidly over the top - saying so much, by saying so little. It is a compelling, spine-tingling expression of human desire. And the woman I was in love with played it to me. Yep, thanks a lot.
But actually, I am thankful. Because I was introduced to an artist who in his short life, managed to record Grace - one of the greatest albums of all time. The music he left us is beautiful, life enriching and always brilliant. He inspired me to be a better singer, writer and to always remember to sing from the heart - even when it’s ugly and hard to listen to.
His music saw me through some of my darkest moments - following the loss of my dad and the ensuing depression that seemed to last forever. I would lie on my living room floor and listen to Grace from beginning to end and then all over again. It inspired me and coloured my writing. I wrote and recorded my ‘Bliss’ EP during that time. Some people have said since then that the EP is just ‘too sad’ to listen to - but I’m immensely proud of it. In that moment, Jeff Buckley was my inspiration and I made music that was personal, honest and close to the bone.
I eventually came out the other side of the dark time that seemed to stretch on forever - and my music is possibly a little happier these days. But I still devour every limited edition Jeff Buckley re-release that comes my way and listen in awe to every incredible sound that his peculiarly talented vocal cords seemed capable of producing. Not to mention his freakish ability as a guitarist. Damn him! I MUST TRY HARDER.
And what happened to the woman who was never meant to be, who played me Jeff Buckley for the first time in 1999? Well I married her, of course. ‘Everybody Here Wants You’ may’ve taken 12 years to work its magic, but in the end, it was a song that truly changed my life.
Sometime towards the end of 1994 I was living life in a daze. My older brother died suddenly aged 23, two weeks after my 17th birthday. I was destroyed. I’m still destroyed to this day - but that’s another story.
My all-consuming school work suddenly lost its meaning and I coasted through classes as worried teachers looked on, unable to help me. In that instant, my focus shifted - I lived life recklessly, and with urgency. I don’t think I’ve ever lived so honestly since.
By this point, I was a minor celebrity in my hometown of Hong Kong, packing out clubs in Lan Kwai Fong - the epicentre of 90s nightlife and live music. Underage drinking and singing the blues became my lifeline. The only thing that kept my head ever so slightly above water was opening my mouth and blowing people away with pipes I hadn’t quite learned to control yet. I had volume and soul, and overnight it was infused with deep sorrow that people couldn’t quite fathom from a 17 year-old.
After a gig, as I was on both a massive post-show high and quite possibly drunk on red wine as usual, a man approached me and said ‘hi, I’m Todd’ (I think it was Todd..?).. And to my surprise, he had made me a mixtape (it was the 90s, people!) after having been to several of my gigs. I was pretty overwhelmed that someone would do something so thoughtful for me and be compelled to do so after hearing me sing.
The next morning, with a cloudy head, I put the tape on. I can’t really remember much else about it other than the moment the pure, unaffected voice of Aimee Mann pierced the stale, sad air in my room with the words:
Today's the fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town
I just think what a waste of gunpowder and sky
Those LYRICS. Good god. How did she write like that? How did she express so much, with so much simplicity? In that second, I learned that to be a great artist, you don’t need the biggest voice, you just need to be honest. In that moment, I decided I wanted to become a great songwriter. To learn how to observe life around me and to craft words that twist around a melody without it ever sounding laboured. To write a song that could touch people without me singing it as loud as humanly possible.
22 years later, I am a little less drunk, and a little less reckless. But I am still learning from Aimee Mann. I go faithfully to her gigs in London and her gigs in tiny venues in the middle of nowhere. I am in fact, a total fanboy, going to hear her sing 4th of July over and over again in the hope that one day, a little bit of her genius will rub off on me.
To Todd - wherever you are. Sorry I never called you to thank you for the tape. Sorry if your name isn’t even Todd. It took me the longest time to claw my way out of my despair, but throughout that despair, music was always by my side. And the music you shared with me changed my life - for that, I am so very grateful.
I'm so excited! The spangly video for 'She Got Me Good' gets its premiere today at http://www.newnownext.com/susie-wilkins-gets-raw-on-new-ep/10/2017/ - with an amazing write up from the legend that is Trish Bendix. I'm so chuffed.
It's happening folks! The 'She Got Me Good' EP is being released on October 20th - and hitting radio in the States August 21st. Pre-order here: