‘Dodging the disease, one line, one note, one beat at a time’

It took Kevin Nolan years of 5am starts to make his debut album, much of it written during treatment for schizoaffective disorder. "It’s helped me find my way through my mental illness," he writes.

I sum up my life with this paragraph: composition, writing, prose, poetry, girlfriend, collaborator, illness (schizo-affective disorder), my father-relationship, truth, love, death, life-nourishing work, inevitable suicide, answer to suicide = work, the work, a work, a process. A process of relieving the pain, of dodging the disease, one line, one note, one beat at a time.

I began work on my debut album, Fredrick and the Golden Dawn, in the summer of 2006 and released it eight years later. Every morning I would wake at 5am, go to my studio and sit at my desk.

There I fashioned melodies in strange time-signatures, like 13/8 for my song Last Days Of Harry Carey. Work on lyrics could take months or even years to complete, accompanied by research into the stories for my songs. With these songs I was creating an entire world, with its own history, its own logic, its own morality, a world far away from the chaotic deluge I found myself in on a daily basis. The music in my head provided an anchored focus in the midst of my mental illness.

The song Ballade to St Dymphna is an example of how intricate I made my songs, in an attempt to free myself from my illness. This song took a huge amount of experimentation, probably more than any other song on the album.

It’s not precisely typical of how I work, but there is no “typical” for me, really. For the lyrics, I researched old poetic forms. I came across the 13th-century French eight-line stanza ballade. The poem had a specific form, eight lines to a stanza, eight feet in a line, and a particularly intriguing rhyming scheme. In fact, it was believed, back then, that this poetic form had some type of magic to it associated with the number eight. I took the form and wrote my own lyrics in that style. I wanted to write about mental anguish and found St Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illness (who was Irish). So the song is addressing her.

For me this whole exercise is medicinal: sometimes it feels like the more intricate my songs get, the further I get away from my illness. In my early 20s I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. This is the unhappy marriage of Bipolar depression and schizophrenia and has become a part of every process of my life ever since. While working on my album I sometimes would have to take long breaks as my illness worsened and I was hospitalised. I could be hospitalised for anything up to four months. I’ve been admitted to St Patrick’s University Hospital more than a dozen times over the last 12 years in a depressed and psychotic state and in all have spent over three years there.

Action and reaction
My songs are quite dark. For some reason I felt that only dark songs could contain the message I wanted to express. The album is in a way a bad reaction to something I ate, I mean emotionally. It's a refusal to accept the place in which I found myself, a kind of revolt. This album is for those who want to reach outside somehow.

I remember on my first stay in Special Care, the high security ward (about which I've written and recorded a 10-minute blues song called The Coming of Complete Night), I couldn't do anything: sleep, socialise, watch TV, read, think or even speak. But working on my album helped me immensely: it provided a routine, a focus, gave me some confidence. I don't think anyone ever makes this kind of album from a decision. You find yourself up against a wall and need the work to extract yourself from the state you're in; it's a psychic need or longing.

Bipolar depression is an illness of extremities and you experience extreme lows and extreme highs. So there would be times when I was very productive, getting lots of the album done, but equally there would be long periods of time when I couldn’t do anything. In those times just to get out of bed or have a shower or eat would be a successful day for me.

Medication and therapy are very necessary supports but it is the amazing people I have met and befriended who have been my greatest surprise and joy. From old friends and lovers who stood by me to the many brave people I met in St Pat’s, both fellow patients and staff, to the gifted musicians who have worked with me to perform my music.

A while ago I showed my EP to singer/composer Julie Feeney. Julie has been an amazing presence in my musical life ever since, most recently singing with me on a duet called Aubade, which I wrote on a piano in the music therapy room in St Patrick's.

Julie is such a calming influence and gave me the confidence to believe in myself and my music, knowing the heights I had conquered to regain control of my sanity. Now I manage my illness well and have regained an even life where I can work on my music and perform. Music has definitely been the reason I made it through.

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