An Interview with Singer-Songwriter ‘Theta’ about Awareness, Prevention and Hope
Interview by Kate Balding with Theta/Katie Hargreaves
K: So, Katie! Or should I say ‘Theta?
K: Thanks for joining us and imprint on this damp, rainy day.
T: No problem.
K: Over the last couple of weeks on imprint we’ve been shouting about issues of mental health. We’ve spoken about the importance of purpose, support, talking and most recently touch - all those things that promote human connection. You’re a singer, an artist, and you have written about the topic of mental health. I’d love to know why you chose that subject and what you want your music to say?
T: It may be quite simple but mental health has been at the heart of everything for me. It’s actually why I started making music. I’d been writing and singing my own stuff for a couple of years but never really had the impulse to make music to share.
'...five months after his depression began, my boyfriend committed suicide.'
Then my boyfriend at the time developed a very extreme case of depression, a depression which quickly escalated into a psychotic depression. At its worst we were spending four hours on the phone every day (I was in Liverpool and he was in Essex) with me desperately trying to convince him to live. It took its toll. I began to use music as my way of figuring out what was going on, how to navigate my own existential crises. I was going through drama school which was throwing up big questions of its own when, five months after his depression began, my boyfriend committed suicide.
That was two years ago now and obviously it was an incredibly hard time - losing someone. I couldn’t write when it happened but after I got through the shock I began using writing and music again. I was listening to a lot of really deep music like Daughter and other bands that seemed to understand what I was feeling when it felt like no one else ever could.
And that’s the incredible thing about music, its ability to connect people, no matter how deep the emotion. This all fed the creation of the music I have. I knew I wanted to help other people that might be in my situation, as well as those who were in his. I wanted to make them feel understood, heard and spoken about. It was also a sort of legacy to him. I released the EP in August this year and had a crazy breakdown on the day because I couldn’t believe I had done it. It was such a big thing for me.
'...the message I’m trying to send out is ‘You are not alone’.'
So I think yeah, the message I’m trying to send out is ‘You are not alone’. I know so many people have faced and got through terrible things in their lives. I have the joy of writing and if I can reach other people, to connect with them, to make them feel supported then that’s amazing. Though on a selfish level it’s also just for me to understand myself, the world, life, death, love.
K: I don’t think that’s selfish at all. I think that’s probably something that’s important for everybody. To have some sort of outlet or coping mechanism to get to grips with their feelings and the things that happen in their lives.
That being said, I am very aware that when I talk or write about mental health - and I don’t know if you feel the same with your songs - but I’m aware of this stereotype of young people being the ‘snowflake generation’. That all we do is obsess over mental health, and self-love. Do the generations in the years above us just never admit to mental health issues? Were they made of stronger stuff? Are we just fortunate to be more able to talk about these things? Or should we toughen up?
T: I think an awareness of our mental health is so important, and though it always has been, I think it’s grown through the information age. We are now definitely living more stressful, distracted and disturbed lives and it’s all being shared and put in front of us. So maybe it’s become more talked about because it’s more in need.
'75% of suicides are male and that’s no coincidence, as I think men are generally less able to talk about their emotional life in society.'
Maybe we are more practiced at talking about mental health and discussing it with others but I don’t think we are a ‘snowflake generation’, I think that’s a perpetuation of a negative caricature of times gone by - a ‘just get on with it’ approach - and that’s exactly the problem we are trying to fix. We have been so discouraged from talking about mental health. Especially men. I think it’s something like 75% of suicides are male and that’s no coincidence, as I think men are generally less able to talk about their emotional life in society. Also the most at risk population are middle aged men. If we can speak up as a younger generation and make talking openly about mental health more mainstream for all ages, we can help change the statistics. Thankfully it’s beginning to shift but still, I don’t think we are there yet.
K: I hope you don’t mind me asking but, during your conversations with your boyfriend, did you ever get the sense that he struggled with this? Were you able to talk to him about those feelings?
T: It’s really difficult as every single instance of mental health problems is so unique. With him though, I don’t know, there is some idea that it might have started with Lyme disease which he caught the year before but only realised at quite a late stage. He recovered but there is evidence it may deteriorate parts of the brain.
K: For readers could you quickly just explain what Lyme disease is and how you get it?
T: Yeah, so Lyme disease is a bacterial infection most commonly caused by tick bites. If left untreated it can cause a wide variety of negative side effects including cognitive impairment, and after [he got it] he didn’t sleep for four months. He was basically an insomniac and sleep is so important for mental function. So with him it was perhaps quite an odd case.
K: But exactly, as you said, I imagine with depression there is rarely a ‘typical’ case.
'...as with all incidences of suicide, there is rarely one reason.'
T: Exactly, as with all incidences of suicide, there is rarely one reason. Suicide is so complex. Dan was very traditional and never really wanted to talk about his feelings - he would always try and figure things out on his own, but he also developed the illness so quickly that it was very difficult to figure things out along the way. By the end he had very bad psychotic depression with delusions, quite typical ones, about police following him, or that all his friends were actually police agents. He was convinced he had hurt everyone in his life. And in this delusion I was the only one who was ‘safe’, the only one he could trust. So I felt incredibly responsible.
K: He must have just been extremely frightened.
K Would it be a good time to play one of your songs now? I’d love to listen if you have a preference?
T: Ooh, yes, let's go for Stay. That was my first single which I released a year ago on World Mental Health day.
K: Which is tomorrow right?
T: It is, yes 10th of October! The song was written before Dan died. It was me essentially asking him to stay.
Stay Official Video
K: Gosh, it’s incredibly beautiful, and sad, and I don’t know, is there an uplifting side to pleading? Did you get a sense of relief when you finished? Did you know when you were done?
T: When it was finished? Well I was working with my producer, Shai-li Paldi, she studied at the same college as me and is an amazing pianist, musician and producer from Israel and yeah we worked together. I was the song writer and the top line and chords but she’s the genius behind all the production – it’s not my forte! So yeah it was a combination of both of our decisions. I’m definitely not a perfectionist as I think perfectionism can be quite stunting - can stop you from ever finishing anything - so if I’m vaguely happy then it’s done. And the music video came out last week. Only a year after the song!
K: Amazing - I’ll make sure the link is on our article so people can take a look.
Do you feel nervous at all about putting something so personal out there for people? I know I’ve written things before that felt quite emotionally-intimate and remember feeling even more nervous for people I knew to read it than people I didn’t know. What have your experiences been?
'...it was not about me anymore, it was like how can I make an impact? How can I help other people?'
T: Definitely, I think it’s always more difficult with people that you love. You want their approval. So it was difficult to share it. I think I made people listen and then walked away, but also there was a kind of bravery that came after he died. There was a higher purpose for me - it was not about me anymore, it was like how can I make an impact? How can I help other people? And when it's serving other people it’s always easier to put yourself out there as there is less of the ego involved. Also as I was working with a producer there were two of us so I felt confident that it was not just a thing that I had made in my bedroom and then put out there in the world where you don’t know if it’s good or not! So yeah, I was quite happy that it would be received – though how well I didn’t know! But it’s a joy to put it out there and for me, if I’ve affected one person then I’ve done my job. As I said at the beginning ‘if I can affect one person that’s great, if that one person is just me, that’s also fine!’
On the topic of helping others - aside from music, the arts, and anything that allows people to connect with others, do you think there should be more done by, for example, government or state supported initiatives, to practically support the increasing numbers of men and women who struggle with mental health and are driven to things like suicide and self-harm?
T: I think there is always going to be the need for more help. The good thing is that there are loads of different charities working towards that goal of being a support system for people and nowadays it's really easy to reach out to charities like the Samaritans. You don’t even need to call them up, you can just text them. If you are a 15 year old and don’t want to talk about it then texting could remove that barrier to being vulnerable. I guess the problem is getting people to seek help. But https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/ also recently put out a useful acronym, WAIT, which is a great guide we should all be familiar with when it comes to supporting those that might be suicidal. Very often it’s the people surrounding the person in danger that are the ones that can make the most difference by intervening at an early stage.
K: Would you mind sharing what the acronym stands for?
T: Yeah, of course, I actually only found it myself a couple of weeks ago which was a coincidence because my new single that’s coming out tomorrow is also called ‘Wait’ – spooky!
But yes the W stands for ‘watch out for signs’ of distress or uncharacteristic behaviour. So that might be social withdrawal, excessive irritability, something not quite like them but also talking about death or suicide or saying things like ‘there’s no point’, starting to say good bye to people or give away prized possessions, things that put question marks in your head.
Then the A stands for ‘Ask’ – ask whether they have been having suicidal thoughts, whether they have thought about killing themselves. I read somewhere recently that you shouldn’t say things like ‘do you want to end it all?’ or ‘ you’re not going to do anything silly now are you?’ which is quite a common reaction as you don’t want to say the words ‘kill yourself’ or ‘death’ in case you make it worse - but it’s quite important to be direct.
Then the I stands for ‘It will pass’. You can assure them that with help, it will get better and suicidal feelings will pass with time. Their life instinct will come back especially with support around them.
And then T is ‘Talk to others’, seek help from health care professionals, your GP. I was actually speaking to my godfather the other day and he was saying that already throughout the pandemic the mental health cases coming in to his surgery has increased sharply. It’s hardly surprising but still shocking to hear of the impact so directly.
'I remember being on the phone with my ex and there were certain hints (...) but he never said anything direct.'
But yeah, I wish I knew all this at the beginning of my journey, I remember being on the phone with my ex and there were certain hints. Perhaps even quite obvious ones - maybe he thought he was spelling it out for me but he never said anything direct. And I didn’t feel comfortable asking because there is the fear that if you say the word, you might give them the idea which is perhaps stupid, but if anything, asking them directly can reduce the glamour of it, remove the fantasy from their heads. It may be enough to make them question it. So yeah, it’s great advice that should be shared further.
K: Thank you for sharing it with us. Mental health is still one of the things we struggle to address and everyone would benefit from being better equipped to react when we see it.
T: It’s very difficult as your actions also have an impact on yourself. Even mentioning suicide to someone you suspect is suffering may make it more uncomfortable and real for you too. That being said I think I’ve learnt better how to talk about it and my new single Wait (which comes out tomorrow) reflects that. It’s a little bit more upbeat. It was written for another friend of mine who called me up also dealing with suicidal thoughts and it took me right back to those awful feelings.
K: And I’m sure it is extremely frightening to feel like someone’s life is now in your hands.
T: Exactly, you feel the responsibility of them trusting you, like you have a duty and a chance to change their mind which is not always the case. I think it’s important to try and separate yourself from those feelings otherwise you will never be able to cope with it. It's also really important to remember that you're never responsible for saving someone from suicide. You can only do what you think is right and support them as best you can. This time round I did what I could to talk to him directly and thankfully he’s doing extraordinarily well now. So despite the sad content, which is a similar message to Stay, there is a happy ending to the story.
K: I’m really looking forward to hearing it. I imagine in a way it’s actually quite nice to have such ‘sister songs’.
T: No definitely, and who knows maybe my third one will be called Just Hang on a Moment!
K: aha but, really Katie, I think it’s fantastic, really inspiring and brave sharing everything with us. I hope writing the songs has been as cathartic and helpful for you as it sounds to me.
'I would advise trying to find balance too. Write, but also look after yourself, go outside (...) connect with people – it’s incredibly important.'
T: No definitely, I would not have recovered in the way that I did without it. I’ve been through my own mental health journey and in that depressive stage I remember writing obsessively. There was a point though that even though I was getting some great poetry out, I also needed to do something else. I was in danger of actually prolonging being depressed, it got to a point where I knew it was no longer healthy. So yeah, I would advise trying to find balance too. Write but also look after yourself, go outside, do exercise, talk to people, connect with people – it’s incredibly important.
Wait Official Audio
K: Entirely, a good message to end on. So just before we finish, what is next for you and the rest of this year?
T: Well other than the millions of subscribers I hope to get by the end of the month! No, I mean I’m just going to keep making music. I’m writing so much, two or three songs or poems a day.
T: I mean some of it’s terrible but generally it’s all more positive and I’ve been working with my new producer Alastair Wilson, who produced Wait and we’ve just been working around experimenting in different genres. I’ve actually been really inspired by 80s music recently so who knows we could be going into that! But yeah, just going to keep putting things out there.
K: I should also mention that Katie is a fantastic wildlife painter (see above) so do check her out on her art Instagram below. Oh and a last quick question, your stage name? Theta? How did you come to that?
'Theta is a brainwave state that your brain goes into when it’s very relaxed, in meditation. It’s a state of deep creativity...'
T: Ahh yes, Theta. Well, I really wanted a personality I could go into with music. And the first reason is that well, it’s a Greek letter which was sometimes used as shorthand for Thanatos which means death, which is where everything stemmed from with my music really. Also Theta is a brainwave state that your brain goes into when it’s very relaxed, in meditation. It’s a state of deep creativity, spirituality and that’s the vibe I wanted to draw people in, so they could share it too.
K: Well I think you certainly achieve that - it’s beautiful.
T : Thank you.
K: Right we’re going to have to end it there- but thank you so much Theta, and good luck with the new release! Also happy World Mental Health day for tomorrow everyone – go and talk to your friends, family, dog, cat about it and look after yourself!
Independent singer-songwriter, Theta, blends dream-pop, folk and electro-pop, to create highly emotive dreamlike atmospheres. Drawing on themes of love, loss and self-discovery, Katie writes philosophical and introspective poetry, matched with haunting vocals and searching synthesisers. Her music experiments with textured beats and sounds, creating a smooth, yet fractured sentiment. For more updates via Instagram, follow @thetavoice, and Katie's wildlife art account, @katiehargreavesart.