The Cover Story

Nessa Barrett: “I want to help people because I know there’s a lot of people that felt the same way that I did”

Growing up with severe mental health issues that her uber-religious family didn’t understand, Nessa Barrett has always felt different. But through dealing with traumatic loss and finding new connections in therapy, the Gen Z superstar-in-the-making has finally found a place to belong and be happy…

Nessa Barrett: “I want to help people because I know there’s a lot of people that felt the same way that I did”
Hannah Ewens
Jamie Lee Taete

When she got tired of California, Nessa Barrett had to find some kind of comfortable reality in LA. She retreated to a high-rise that could’ve been designed by Bugatti, a sleek black obelisk that overlooks a handful of neighbourhoods in the city-state. Inside her space is white – white sofas, carpets, surfaces – spacious but cocooning and most importantly safe. The 20-year-old doesn’t leave except to go to the studio, go on tour, or to occasionally see her three older friends. She doesn’t drink or party, doesn’t socialise with people her own age, just stays in with her Persian cat Kitty – also white – writing in her gratitude journal, doing tarot, playing guitar or filming TikTok videos.

When Kerrang! step inside her ivory tower, the tiny four-foot-10 artist greets us wearing a riding top, jodhpurs and equestrian boots. She lays her black riding hat on the table, pulls up a chair, caves into it and starts nursing a vape. Kitty is on the sofa, eyes are locked onto her.

“The breeder showed me him and I felt so connected with him, then I found out he was born the same day that my best friend passed,” she says of her cat. “So he just brings me a lot of comfort. He’s so connected with me. He falls asleep on my chest. He wakes up in the morning. I swear he talks back to me.”

Within months of being on TikTok, Nessa was one of the most followed people on the app. After signing to Warner, she released the first of many haunting singles – the devastating ballad Pain – and reintroduced herself as Billie Eilish for teens who love dark pop-rock. Part of the reason young people gravitate towards her is the way she freely speaks about her borderline personality disorder and makes art from her struggles with mental health. Across the couple of hours we spend together, her body language is both vulnerable and self-soothing as she wraps her arms around herself or folds them as she freely hands over intimate details of her life. She doesn’t know any other way: she’s revealed her highs and lows like the aftermath of her suicide attempts, subsequent hospitalisation, grieving best friend Cooper, and her journey to the top, where she’s the happiest she’s been in her first two decades on the planet.

From this better headspace, she’s creating music that feels most like her: new song American Jesus is one of her favourites that she’s written. Across the languid and longing melody she sings to someone, ‘You know you’re my weakness / American Jesus, save me / You’re the greatest love of my life.’

“A lot of people that struggle with abandonment issues, in borderline personality disorder specifically, they tend to give a God complex to people that they start falling in love with in the beginning,” Nessa says of this single. “I experienced it a year or two ago. That person can do no wrong in your eyes. You’re just hopelessly devoted to them, and you do anything for them. It’s really fucked. But it’s like… you make that person like your religion.” In the BPD medical literature, this phenomenon is called having a ‘favourite person’: the centre of attention, a source of ultimate comfort that can quickly morph into a destructive relationship.

Nessa never questioned whether to write about her darker experiences or share these features of her illness. “I know a lot of people struggle with BPD and I know it’s insanely hard,” she explains. “It’s a chronic illness and one of the most painful mental health disorders. A lot of people can’t even get diagnosed with it until they’re 18 because you have to go through puberty. And I had a bunch of misdiagnoses. I feel just sharing everything that I’ve been through would help a lot of people feel understood and not alone. Because that was the thing for me: I felt so crazy my entire life, I thought that I was a lost cause, there was no hope, something was wrong with me, I was born with a messed-up brain, I couldn’t control anything. And I would be like this forever. Finally knowing the pinpoint of what was wrong with me and getting that clarity, that was the moment where I was like, ‘Okay, I want to help people.’ Because I know that there’s a lot of people that felt the same way that I did. They didn’t know what was going on.”

“I feel like for a lot of people that are in the spotlight, things like struggling with mental health is very embarrassing”

Nessa Barrett

The stigma around BPD is reflected in the fact that very few stars come out as having it – actor Pete Davidson, singer Madison Beer and Nessa are among the only ones – though the internet loves to armchair diagnose plenty of troubled celebrities.

“I feel like for a lot of people that are given fame and they’re in the spotlight, things like struggling with mental health is very embarrassing for everyone,” she says of this lack of public role models or advocates. “It also opens up so many other people to comment on it. And I made the choice to accept that.”

Cruel or judgemental comments about her mental health on her social media posts are a regular occurrence. But she ignores them. “Because I struggled so bad, I’ve been at rock bottom, I know what it feels like to be fully suicidal, and not wanting to be here and really fucking struggling every day, like every minute. Now, to the point where I’ve finally never felt this happy, I feel like now I can help everyone, not necessarily get there but help them get there for themselves, because that’s their own battle – but at least I can show them that it’s possible.”

It took a few years for Nessa’s spiritual awakening to begin. She was turned off from organised religion growing up in a Latin Catholic family in New Jersey. Trips to church were terrifying.

“There would be scary things happening where my family would just start speaking in tongues in the middle of the whole service and collapse on the floor and pass out. And then the priests would cover them with a blanket and pray over them. They would get ‘possessed’ by the Holy Spirit,” she remembers.

Certain religious people she met were distinctly bad people without decent morals that aligned with her own. Her community “played down” her mental health issues, which began at age six.

“They couldn’t understand that I was struggling because of things that I went through, and what I had to deal with mental health or any of my disorders and maybe just the fact that I need help – they just saw it as the devil, the demon. And I felt like I was very invalidated.”

At school, despite being smart, her ADHD and dyslexia prevented her from engaging fully. Nessa suffered from nine concussions, which affected her brain: she went to vestibular and ocular therapy to learn how to balance and track and read with her eyes. Then came her first stint in a mental hospital during high school. All of this made her feel that she never fit in.

Despite rejecting her religious upbringing, she spoke to God every night. “I prayed just because I wanted my life to be better so bad. There’s a lot of times growing up where I really wanted to give up and I did not want to be here. I just talked to Him.” She considers how three years ago she arrived in LA and almost immediately became famous, which launched her on the path to her music career. “That wasn’t possible… I look back and all of my prayers are answered.”

The catalyst for finding her faith again was the death of best friend Cooper. “Once you lose someone so close to you you’re pushed into a corner, where you can either take two routes in life. And I just chose that [religious] fate. There’s so many beautiful things that Cooper would tell me, and talk to me about God before he passed, and I have voice memos of him praying for me, and just telling me, ‘Nessa, God’s just waiting for you to accept him, His arms are open waiting for you.’ I thought it was very lovely. Just looking back on that now, I feel like I just accepted Him. Life has been a lot easier. And better.”

That faith expresses itself through writing. Nessa's dad was a producer who recorded and freestyled in the house, while her mum was a fan of Spanish music. “Now I can just either sit with a piano or guitar or listen to something in my headphones and write off the top of my head, because that's how I saw my dad do it. I would even help him record; sometimes I would almost engineer for him,” she remembers. When Nessa writes, she just lets her thoughts and feelings flow out, giving over to a higher power. “It’s the universe saying what needs to be said. And I’m just the one that gets to make the song. When I think like that, it’s so easy for me, because I’m not sitting down trying to focus and really write something and scrambling thoughts around. I just let it happen and it ends up being really powerful and good, and it comes easy.”

This creative process is something she talks to her hypnotherapist about. After a decade and a half of bouncing around different therapists and trying different forms of therapy, this person was recommended to her as a last ditch attempt. But this is not a therapist who sits around enveloping Nessa in sympathy and pity, she plays hard-ball and tells her about herself, Nessa says, raising her eyebrows. “Which I need. And she guides me spiritually.”

How does hypnotherapy work for your conditions? Nessa replies as though she’s imagining herself doing it. “You’re very relaxed, and it’s very tunnel-vision. It’s visual if you do it right. The first time, I didn’t really let myself go fully. But it gets to a point where you can't open your eyes if you want to. I was uncontrollably crying at one point. Because I was in front of my younger self. And that’s just wild to say but it’s true. And I got to hold her. Really deep things. I was very sceptical about it, but it honestly changed my life.”

Maybe this sounds wild too, but Nessa feels her music has powers of manifestation. The 2022 debut pop-rock album, young forever, that cemented her as a Gen Z alt. it-girl was eerily interwoven with real events. “I made this song called madhouse,” she laughs and looks at her manager, Bree, who is sat further down the table. “Right after it dropped I literally was put in a psych ward.” And then there was die first, the simple love song about wanting to go before Cooper and her late mother. “For back-end reasons, we ended up pushing it back two weeks and my brother and my best friend in the entire world [Cooper] passed on the day that die first was released, and it was his favourite song. All of my releases when it came to the album are just absolutely fucked. There’s no way else to put it.

“It kind of makes me scared because my new EP…” she says, trailing off. “There’s just a few songs on there and I’m like, ‘I really hope I don't manifest that.’ The universe works in very unfair ways sometimes.”

“The universe works in very unfair ways sometimes…”

Nessa Barrett

The new EP, coming this summer, is called Hell Is A Teenage Girl, a reference to the 2009 cult bisexual horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body. Those are the first words spoken by Needy Lesnicki, played by Amanda Seyfried, and everything that follows is a carnivorous exploration of adolescent female revenge, their hormonal wants and needs. The EP will touch on topics that Nessa feels are typical to the teen girl experience in today’s society: unfair beauty standards, slut shaming, heartbreak, boys taking advantage of you and the impact of the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the States last year – a decision that eliminated abortion access across more than half of the U.S., forcing pregnant women to carry to term or travel to states with abortion protections for a procedure.

That latter piece of political news was devastating to Nessa, since she’s dealt with relevant personal experiences of her own. “So when that whole thing happened, I was very distraught over it and heartbroken and I feel like we’re just going backwards in society. I’ve never been so disgusted. There’s so many circumstances where abortion is needed. I get the whole pro-life thing because, you know, everything’s human, but I feel like everyone should have a choice. No-one should be telling anyone what to do with their body. We got so far working towards equality and it’s just going back and I feel it’s just very unfair,” she says, as softly as she communicates everything else. “My whole project is saying that I feel like this happens to us because when it comes down to it women are the most powerful. No-one wants us to rule the world because we’d do it right. They’d be scared.”

When Nessa goes into another room, Bree says that sometimes she forgets Nessa is nearly eight years younger than her. “Her maturity level is well beyond her years. This girl is only 20 years old. She’s been through so much and she has such a good head on her shoulders. And she’s matured a lot over the past three years.”

Nessa comes back and the conversation moves onto whether she’s intentionally single at the moment. “I’ve always been the type of person where I don’t like being alone. I always wanted someone. I’m very much a lover but recently I’ve been focusing on nothing but loving myself more. I’ve never been this mentally stable and happy ever in my life. And I don’t want to kind of ruin that by getting into another relationship. This has been my longest period of pure joy and stability, which I'm not used to, but I need this to be for like, two years straight before I jump into a relationship because then I’ll know that I’m ready and healthy enough.” She pauses. “I think that I am now, but I just need to focus on myself more than anything. Because I have been and that’s what’s been helping me.”

Before she’s left alone in her tower so she can pack for tour, she concludes that the main reason she wanted to make music was to help herself and other people. It doesn’t sound anything but genuine. “I just don’t really think about the success anymore. My hypnotherapist tells me all the time: the ego is the one thing that’s going to ruin it. If you break that ego down and you don’t let it control you then you can do this forever.” Now she’s pieced together some serenity for herself, forever doesn’t seem so long.

Hell Is A Teenage Girl will be released this summer

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