Bressie: ‘I’d say, “Don’t cry,” but then I’d go upstairs and be upset’
Bressie has written a book for children with the message that it’s okay to feel sad
Bressie: “I navigate anxiety in a very healthy and very manageable way every day, and I think there is a perception that it’s not part of my life any more.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Bressie is looking at where the neon sign for his recording studio used to be. “It was my favourite thing about it,” he says. It was recently destroyed by a wayward truck and now all the bands and Irish Times journalists seeking Bressie’s Camden Studios end up getting lost.
Bressie, aka Niall Breslin, seems calm enough about this. He is, as well as being a singer, television personality and mental-health activist, a mindfulness practitioner in the final stretch of a masters on the subject at the Psychology Department in UCD.
He recently returned from a five-day silent retreat after which he was so disoriented by the shapes and sounds of the world he was shocked by the noise of tractor horns (“Like a foghorn!”) and nearly put petrol into his diesel car. When he got his phone back, he says, he could feel acid slide from his throat into his chest.
My dad was in the Army, and he’d be gone for a year and there was no Skype. There was a letter you wrote twice every month by airmail
He seems pretty zen today, a handsome giant in a black sweatshirt with a lion printed on it. His mother says the lion looks angry. He looks down at the imprint and laughs. “I think it looks cute.”
Bressie is now also the co-author, with illustrator Sheena Dempsey, of a book called The Magic Moment, in which a young boy learns to manage fear using mindfulness techniques taught by a kindly grandmother modelled on Bressie’s own.
My copy of the book is the first he’s seen. “Patrick got one before me,” he jokes to the receptionist at the studio. “I was sickened.”
“I remember my childhood very, very vividly,” he says, “probably too vividly, to be honest with you. I remember years ago [my grandmother] would come up to my bed every night when I was going to sleep and I would ask her questions and she used answer them and I always remember how comforting it felt . . . She’d pray by my bed before I went asleep and she’d say, ‘Is there anything you want me to put in my prayers?’ And I said ‘I want to be able to fly’ and she’d say ‘I’ll try’ . . . I used always tell her I’d be a priest. She was very religious. When we’d be passing Maynooth, I’d say, ‘I’m going to study there’.”
When did he lose his vocation? He laughs. “As soon as she was on the aeroplane back to Scotland. ”
Memories of childhood
The book came into existence, he says, when these memories of childhood mixed with all the reading he’s been doing on mindfulness practice and the illustrations of Dempsey. He had a happy childhood but he also recalls feeling that certain emotions weren’t to be addressed and talked about.
“I remember my dad going away,” he says. “That was a big thing. He was in the Army and was overseas a lot . . . My dad would be going away and he’d be gone for a year and there was no Skype . . . There was a letter you wrote twice every month by airmail. That makes me sound I’m from the ’40s. I remember he’d leave at night and the Army would come and pick him up at night and I’d force myself not to cry because it would upset him. And I knew he was upset because he was leaving his children and I remember going ‘I cannot cry. I cannot cry. I cannot cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry’, to protect myself and protect him but then I’d go upstairs and be upset . . . That was very confusing . . . So I wrote a book about those experiences and said these are okay. It’s okay to feel this way. These are normal.”
He believes many people have the same issues around difficult emotions. “I have a really close friend whose dad died and I remember being at the funeral and he was shaking people’s hands and being very staunch. And I remember going up to him and saying, ‘Are you alright, man?’ and he said, ‘I can’t be upset and cry in front of people’. He’s the same guy who bawled when Rob Kearney scored a try against France in the World Cup, you know what I mean?”
Music was always important to him. When his grandmother was sick in Scotland, he would send her recordings of him playing a toy piano. When she died, she sent his family her piano. He recalls a musical epiphany aged 14 when his teenage band played at a talent show outside Navan. “We were first on and I had this terrible guitar solo that I was shit at playing but I felt like Slash in the November Rain video – it was the greatest feeling I ever had.”
What music did he like? He laughs. “It was the grunge era but I had this unbelievable love of ABBA and I couldn’t say it,” he says. “We’d all sitting around talking about Stone Temple Pilots and I was sneaking home listening to ABBA records. I remember one day getting the balls to play The Name of the Game baseline! And they were like ‘I’m going to punch the face off you if you don’t turn that off’.” He laughs. “I was like ‘But lads!’”
‘A nervous child’
When did his issues with anxiety start? “My mum says I was a nervous child, which is a nice way of saying that I used to weld myself to her leg,” he says, but his most vivid early memory of anxiety came when his father was posted to Israel and the family lived there for a few months.
“A war started the day we landed, between Hizbullah and the IDF. I was 13. I remember a woman coming with a loudspeaker to tell us to get into our bomb shelters and the grounds were vibrating and there were shells dropping up the road. It was the first time I ever felt unsafe – I think that was the start of understanding ‘we aren’t invulnerable and we aren’t invincible’.”
While dealing with this growing anxiety disorder, he became known as a talented rugby player. The way he tells it, his rugby career happened purely because he was big and eager to please. At first, it was a useful way of getting a slightly asocial young boy out of the house, but the world of sport was not good for his mental health.
I started to notice the huge, huge gap between mental and physical health. Mental fitness was utterly ignored even though it’s by far the most important part of elite sport
“It’s funny because if you look at the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness, everything you’re encouraged to be goes against what athletes are – non-striving, non-judgemental,” he says. “Everything [in sport] is performance-based.” He sighs. “I started to notice the huge, huge gap between mental and physical health. Mental fitness was utterly ignored even though it’s by far the most important part of elite sport.”
He got a sports scholarship to UCD and went on to play for Leinster, but he was miserable. Every week at the weekly medical check-up, he wanted to tell the doctor there was something wrong but he never did. He didn’t have the language, he says. “I thought I had asthma because I wasn’t able to breathe . . . Nobody in the ’90s was talking about this.”
In his teens, in desperation and despair, he broke his own arm. Later, as a rugby player, he says, he was masochistically reckless. “I was actively trying to injure myself – I was getting massive cuts and putting my head where you wouldn’t put your boot.”
Towards the end, he knew he was more interested in music than rugby. “I remember a Celtic League match down in Cork on a Friday night and we had a gig in the Stables in Mullingar on the Saturday . . . Ten minutes into the game, I get an unmerciful punch in the face. My nose was black, my eyes were black, my face was swollen and all I could think was, ‘At least my fingers are okay’.”
His band The Blizzards got off to a good start. His old rugby agent shared an office with Oasis’s manager, who was very encouraging. It gave them a confidence-boost and before long they’d released two albums. Becoming a musician wasn’t the worst move in the world, but the way Bressie tells these stories now, he was constantly trying to run from one thing to the next to avoid dealing with his mental-health difficulties.
He did so again, he says, when the Blizzards went on hiatus and he found himself living in London, trying to make it as a songwriter and producer. He didn’t like living there. “I’m that weird bogger who says hello to everyone and gets dirty looks. I also don’t fit on the underground. I literally can’t stand up.”
‘The Voice of Ireland’
He released two solo records at around this time, though he doesn’t really feel they accurately represent him as an artist. When he was offered the job on The Voice of Ireland, judging the skills of aspiring pop singers, one reason he agreed was that they would fly him home every weekend. He enjoyed doing The Voice but he is the first to admit he didn’t quite grasp that they were in the reality TV business initially. “I remember someone saying, ‘Bressie, this is entertainment, not music television’,” he says and laughs. “By the third year, I’d copped on a little bit to it.”
It changed his life in a few ways. Suddenly, he was recognised on the street. “Before that, I wasn’t really well-known at all. Overnight it changes . . . There’s an element of ownership over you . . . I didn’t change but the perception of me did. You’re on TV, you must be this, this and this. I’m none of those things. I just do a TV show on a Sunday night and sit talking to singers about what I think I know.”
It was a challenge, he says. “I need space, which is hard when you’re 6ft6in. And sometimes, even going for a walk or to the shops, that wasn’t on the agenda. It was never negative. It was never lads throwing bottles of Yop at me.” He laughs. “But it was strange to get used to the idea that people actually cared about getting a photo. ‘You want a photo? Really? Will that make you happy?’ I’ve created boundaries for myself now. I know how to say ‘no’.”
The artificiality of doing television was also a wake-up call, he says, and it ultimately led to him seeking help for his anxiety. “I’d be at home watching it on playback and I’d know that that day it was filmed I had had a really difficult day and I’d be watching myself smiling and thinking, ‘What are you doing? That’s not you?’. And one night I had a panic attack before a show and that was the night I said, ‘Okay, whatever I need to do to get some control back here’ – it was a catalyst.”
These traumas and these memories, they don’t disappear. You can’t repress them. You can’t out-drink them. You can’t out-drug them
He began to open up publicly about his mental health. Soon, people began contacting him with their stories and, feeling a little overwhelmed, he co-founded A Lust for Life as an advocacy and media organisation that had the oversight of mental-health professionals.
He now has a sort of dual public persona as a studio-running musician reunited with the Blizzards, and a mental-health advocate pursuing his masters in mindfulness-based interventions at UCD, where years before he had been struggling. On his first day back, he found himself on the cusp of a panic attack for the first time in years.
“But this is where it gets really interesting,” he says. “With mindfulness, part of your journey is to go back to these things and think about them . . . These traumas and these memories, they don’t disappear. You can’t repress them. You can’t out-drink them. You can’t out-drug them. It hit me. I have to learn to be with these things . . . These memories started to come back but I was able to have the awareness to say, ‘This is okay, Niall, of course you’re a bit overwhelmed. Anyone one would be. It’s fine.’ And I was able to settle myself.”
Bressie is, I think, the real thing. Any time he talks about his own difficulties, he’s eager to follow up with more general observations that might help people who might be reading this and are struggling. He practises mindfulness for an hour every day, but stresses he knows it isn’t for everyone. He has a tattoo on his arm of a Joe Caslin artwork depicting a man being held up by two others (it’s also a mural in Waterford, created with the support of Lust for Life and Pieta House). He has another of Tom Waits’ Closing Time album, because at the height of his anxiety, despite overusing sleeping pills, it was the only thing that helped him to sleep.
He is currently single (until last year he was in a relationship with the model Roz Purcell), partly, he says, because it’s difficult to meet people when they might have a “preset notion of who you are”.
“I’ve very close friends and very good flatmates but I’m 38 now and I have to get my shit together.” He laughs. He says he actually hates the notion that people have to be married by a certain age and that people necessarily need to have kids. “But I know my mum would like to see me settle down a little bit.”
Close to his mum
He is very close to his mum and his family is very important to him. His six-year-old nephew was a big influence on The Magic Moment. “He changed everything in my life,” he says. “He came along and it was a mind-blowing time for me – I talk to my nephew like he’s an adult and he talks to me like he’s a kid and it’s lovely. When I’m around him, I have an unbelievable level of contentment and peace. Imagine if I had my own kids? F**king hell.” He laughs. “It’s not like I go, ‘I have to make a kid now’. But I’d love to be a father. I love being an uncle.”
What’s the biggest misconception about him? He’s not sure. He texts me the next day to say that if there is any misconception, it’s the idea that he has everything sorted out. “I still deal and navigate anxiety in a very healthy and very manageable way every day and I think there is a perception that it’s not part of my life anymore.”
He doesn’t believe he has all the answers, he says, but he hopes we’re on the cusp of creating a kinder society. Movements like #MeToo and Take Back the City energise him. Activists like Lynn Ruane, Joe Caslin, Peter McVerry and Sinéad Burke inspire him. “They’re the people I need to be around,” he says.
He’s going to another silent retreat in the new year. He’s planning, as part of his masters, to run an eight-week course in mindfulness for songwriters at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute. He aspires to build a production/publishing hub at the studio that treats artists well and helps to protect them. And, on top of it all, he has just finished working on a new Blizzards record. It’s called The Last Great Algorithm. “The last great algorithm is you,” he says. “We can figure out anything now, except our heads.”
The Magic Moment by Niall Breslin, with illustrations by Sheena Dempsey, is published by Gill Books, €14.99