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The Homeless Gospel Choir: “It’s Okay To Be Weird!”

Derek Zanetti tells Jake Richardson about the fallacy of normality, and how mental health and punk rock collide in his music.

Today is World Mental Health Day, and it also marks the start of YoungMinds’ takeover of the Kerrang! site for a month of mental health-related content designed to raise awareness and spark discussion around the subject. We’ve got loads of great stuff coming up, but a big part of what we’re doing this month is going to be presenting people’s personal experiences with mental health. To kick off that element of the takeover, we spoke to one of favourite guys at the moment, Derek Zanetti of the Homeless Gospel Choir.

The Homeless Gospel Choir is about inclusivity. Derek Zanetti’s one-man punk project is founded on the idea of creating a safe space for people to exist without fear of judgement. For Derek, there is no ‘normal’ – everyone is unique, and everyone deserves to live their life without judgement or exclusion.

This ethic feeds into his attitude to mental health. Having struggled for most of his life with bipolar disorder, the Pittsburgh native has taken the weird feelings inside him and turned them into art. Here, he talks to Kerrang! about his attitude towards mental health, and how it’s reflected in the books he’s written and The Homeless Gospel Choir’s latest record.

Your new album, Presents: Normal, talks a lot about mental health, right? 
Yeah. The song Seasonal Depression is all about mental health. It’s about trying to describe to your friends and family the weird feelings you’re having inside your mind. Trying to express that to someone who doesn’t or isn’t willing to understand is very trying: ‘With friends like that, who needs friends when you have seasonal depression?’ the song says, because it’s just as bad to be alone as it is to have shitty friends who aren’t willing to go with you on your journey. 

Sometimes is a track that’s also about mental illness: ‘Sometimes, I feel like Christmas morning – the lights on the tree and the smell of my memories.’ I sometimes feel like it’s the best day ever; it feels like Christmas morning and I have those warm feelings inside my heart. But the song goes on to say, ‘Sometimes, I feel like a hot pile of garbage that’s been left in the sun-porch two days too long,’ and that illustrates how it is to feel like absolute shit, and feel like you don’t want to live another day on this godforsaken planet. There’s this binary switch that exists inside my mind. Sometimes, I feel on top of the world and bulletproof; like nothing can stop me and I’m a bad motherfucker! But then I’m also insecure, lonely and sad, and sometimes I feel like no-one will ever understand the art I’m trying to make. I sing about falling from grace, and doing things that are wrong and I know are going to hurt me, like having pre-diabetes and eating cake on my birthday!

Presents: Normal at large addresses a lot of those feelings, and how I felt out of step with what we call normalcy. I’m just this weird, misfit punk. This is my ‘normal’, and everyone’s normal is going to be different, but this is what feels normal to me. The record is looking to put the listener at ease and let them know that they’re not alone in the weird struggles they have, and that it’s okay to be weird! You can be weird; you just have to figure out a way to participate with your own weirdness.

Preach. Tell us about the two books you’ve written – Existentialism: The Musical and Remembering Everything – and how they comment on mental health…
They both talk about mental health a lot. Existentialism: The Musical is about this series of questions I had regarding the value of my own life. ‘Does my existence matter?’ ‘Does anything anyone does matter?’ And if the answer is ‘Yes,’ where is the fruit of that? And if the answer is ‘No,’ then why do we do anything? That was the whole dance of Existentialism: The Musical – asking very difficult questions of my current self.

Remembering Everything is more of a hindsight piece about my past, and how it has impacted on my state of mind today. I’d like to forget that I grew up in a weird, cult church, and how I was forced to be afraid of the Devil and have weird feelings about sexuality. All the weird shit I was forced to feel as a kid has shaped and formed me, and I wanted to remember all those things and not forget them, even though they were tragic and dark. I wanted to paint an accurate portrayal of why I do the things that I do in the present day.

Everybody’s history is different. My music and my politics is based on the fact that I was raised in a cult when I was a kid, so I wanted to activate those memories, because they’re an important part of how I developed into the person I am today. To forget those things would do me a great disservice, so that’s why I wrote Remembering Everything. I wanted to let me people know that yes, shitty things will happen to you, but we get to take those shitty things and learn from them.

The Homeless Gospel Choir – Normal

When did you first experience symptoms of mental illness?
It’s something that I’ve always noticed about myself. I’d seen my father struggle with mental health, and I saw the way my own behaviour would rapidly change according to my mood and circumstances, almost like the flick of a switch. In the blink of an eye, I’d go from being completely okay to feeling like the world was going to end. It was after I got married and was spending a lot of time with one person in an intimate, home setting that I truly saw how my flippant behaviour affected someone I cared about so much. That was when I had to take notice of it, and I went and sought help.

What form does the help you receive come in?
I get treatment for bipolar disorder, but everybody’s experience with bipolar is very different, and I’d hate to go ahead and say, ‘If you struggle with bipolar disorder, there’s this blanket answer.’ That’s not true. I personally believe that to treat everyone as an individual, receiving the help and care they need, is more valuable than putting a name on something. The treatment I receive through my therapist is very specific to me. Some people need medicine in order to feel like they can participate in this thing we call ‘life’. I happen to have a therapist, and we tackle mental health from a certain angle, and that’s what works for me. I’m on a regular schedule, and the routine, the discussions we have, and the homework I have make up a real commitment. But I feel like I’m now in control of my mind sometimes, whereas previously, I never felt in control.

Do you have a message for anyone struggling to come to terms with the feelings inside them?
Yes, but this is not professional advice – it’s just me speaking from my experience. One of my favourite quotes of all time comes from Mr. Fred Rogers, who I’m obsessed with. He had a children’s programme in the US when I was a kid, and he’d say, ‘In times of trouble and turmoil, whenever you feel afraid, lonely or scared, look out for those who are willing to help, because there are a lot of people around you who want to help you.’

So, my message is: don’t be ashamed to talk about your feelings with people you trust, and don’t be afraid to go and seek help if you feel like things are going wrong. There’s no shame in it. A lot of my friends, including those in music, go to therapy. You’re not alone, and you’re not the first person to be feeling the way you are. Find people around you who are supportive – talk about these things with your loved ones. Just because the monster is under a bin lid today, that doesn’t mean that it won’t grow out of control later, and it’s better to try and get control of it now, than wait for it to turn into something you can no longer manage.

Words: Jake Richardson

If you’re struggling with your own mental health, don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone you can trust – it could be a friend, a family member, a teacher, a doctor, a counsellor or a helpline – or visit YoungMinds for more information about how to find support. If you’re passionate about improving young people’s mental health and wellbeing then take a look at all the ways you can get involved with YoungMinds’ good work here.

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