You Are Here: An interview with Piney Gir

You Are Here: An interview with Piney Gir

As part of our Inner World series we talk to Piney Gir about mental health in the music industry and how she’s creating a support network for her scene, as well as her creative nature as a songwriter. 

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Piney Gir with You Are Here sign“I have had a warm, wet, melancholy blanket shrouding me for as long as I can remember. I spent nine years in therapy identifying it, picking it apart, and dissecting it took away some of its power. For a long time I didn’t know what to call it, I couldn’t identify it by name, it was just a feeling.

“Growing up, nobody ever talked about depression, and when they did it was like, ‘cheer up!’ but you can’t just snap out of it, or turn it off like a light switch. It’s essentially an illness especially when it really gets a grip of you, and I’m sure everyone has felt that way to some degree at some point. When the brain twists to someplace painful, harmful, dark with self doubt, triggering fear, it’s just not very useful, in fact it’s very damaging and that damage can last a long time.

“For me it’s about identifying the slip before it fully happens and doing things that nurture the soul really helps before getting too far gone. Whether that’s watching Wayne’s World because it makes me laugh or going for a hike on a beautiful day; writing a song or meeting friends at the pub for a pizza and a glass of wine, these things won’t heal depression but they are good for the soul and that helps.

“I’m happy that mental health and mindfulness is more acceptable to talk about now, because there is no shame in feeling depressed and in fact shame can only make it worse. Talking about it certainly makes it better, so let’s all start the conversation, please!”

Piney Gir is set to release her latest album – You Are Here – on 1 November. The album is full of her familiar take on ’60s pop and alt-Country, her optimism spiking through the dark and intimate lyrics which reflect her personal journey and the shit-show much of society has become. It’s an album which looks back and explores missed chances and loss, as much as it shows a present vulnerability about navigating who you are and the life you find yourself living. There are loose melodic passages, echoing vocals, and points of sharp clarity where the honesty of it all makes you at once curl away from the close-cutting and reach hopefully toward belonging. But even where there is darkness there is little melancholy, no wallowing to be found, for these songs are the cracks Piney has opened to let the light in on herself and on the listener.

“I try to find the positive in everything, I guess that makes me an optimist. Sometimes it’s hard when the shit really hits the fan to find the silver lining, but it’s worthwhile to try. When I started writing this album a whole lot of terrible things happened to me all at the same time. I channelled this misery into the album but here’s how it healed me… in that I don’t believe in sending a negative message out into the universe, I feel like that creates a ripple effect that is best avoided. I don’t want to put negative ripples in motion, so it forced me to find the positive, even when I thought there wasn’t anything positive to latch on to.

“Writing this album made me dissect the tragedies and find what good came from them, sometimes I had to look really hard for that shred of positivity. It was a good exercise in optimism. I think it’s relatable, because everyone has hard times and everyone needs to twist a negative issue into a positive one in order to cope – sometimes that feels impossible – and how you choose to do it is up to you. Writing You Are Here was very cathartic for me.”

The dark and the light, the duality within everything, is a theme explored on previous album mR hYDE’S wILD rIDE of which she said of the songs in a 2015 interview with God Is In The TV, ‘darkness and light, there is optimism in bad things and there is darkness in good things.’ But while You Are Here may be born of tragedies it is again shaped by Piney’s determined optimistic nature the album. Her creative approach isn’t about suffering for her art, but processing whatever comes her way – personal or on a wider front – through making art.

“I disagree with the suffer for your art thing in principle, but I think the merit in that theory may come from the fact that creative people by nature will wear a heart on their sleeve. To make good art you have to be in touch with your emotions, otherwise why are you doing it? If you are in touch with your emotions then that spans the entire spectrum of emotion, not just the sad ones. Some people are more inspired by certain feelings. I have written joyful songs; I have written dark songs and for me, songwriting spans the spectrum. Some people might only write about their pain, everyone processes this stuff differently. That might be where the suffer for your art cliché comes from.

“I am so fed up with the state of the world that I’ve had to stop reading the paper and stop watching the news because it was affecting my mental health. Trump is a joke, why isn’t he impeached yet? Brexit is ridiculous and I’m so sad that it’s happening, people voted for it without all the facts and it will soon get much worse for everyone in Britain. #MeToo was important and needed to happen, but it’s sad that it needed to happen; I don’t know a woman who didn’t have a hashtag MeToo. We are destroying our planet.

“It’s depressing, and affecting my head, affecting my ability to be glass-half-full, so I’ve had to elect to put my own head in the sand, to stay sane. Maybe that’s not the healthiest way to handle it, but I feel powerless against these huge, global issues. When possible I speak out about it, I have a fire in me that wants to fix it, but it feels stifled by the wet blanket I call current affairs. I do the small stuff – try to buy locally, avoid plastic, recycle everything, take public transport or walk places, am vegetarian, buy vintage/recycled clothes. That’s what I have control over, so that’s what I do, but it doesn’t feel like enough when you see starving polar bears on an Attenborough show or starving nations and war-torn countries. I just wanna help, it makes my heart hurt. I guess acting locally is the best way to think globally right now, again here we go with the ripple effect.”

Ambivert creativity: the extrovert performer, the introvert creator

“I’m an extrovert on stage because I have to be. I conjure it up just before I go on – minutes before going on stage I’m getting in the zone – or when my confidence is high and I’m with people I know already I can be extroverted. But on a day-to-day I’m an introvert. I am also kind of shy and it takes ages to actually get to know me. I can trace these patterns back to moving and changing schools a lot in childhood, it was hard being the new girl all the time, and I was quite guarded getting to know people as I never knew how long they’d be in my life. And kids can be mean. If you’re different, which I was. My extremely sheltered upbringing and going to only-Christian schools created a baptism-of-fire when I first went to a state school where people said the F word and took drugs at the weekends; I was scared, and bullied and had to appear strong.”

Raised in America’s bible belt secular music was banned when Piney was growing up, the experience shaped her outlook and the idea of duality can be seen again; a sunny outward disposition even when inside shadows fall. She said, “I did my best to be cool or charming without letting people in too much, it made me feel more socially secure to embrace being an outsider than trying to belong. I am still a bit like that and would love to be more open. I think people see me on stage or in a social setting and think I’m this really bubbly extrovert, but I actually get social anxiety at the thought of going to parties and unfamiliar events because it takes so much energy for me to put on my happy face and go to functions where I don’t know anyone.

“I feel bad as I’ve let some of my friends down in the past, flaking on their parties and important days because of my social anxiety. I also try to hide that tendency, but friends would probably understand if I just told them about it. The funny thing is, when I do go to a dreaded social event where I don’t know anyone, I will often have a great time and wonder why I don’t do that more. That’s just me and my strange brain. I’m working on it.”

It’s likely to be a trait many can identify (this writer included) and there is much learning involved in harnessing the power in the extrovert and introvert parts of your nature, while navigating the social anxiety which can surface alongside. “Being a natural introvert is great for songwriting, holing up with a pencil and a blank book and just writing, letting songs flow in solitude is very comfortable for me. Most of the time I’m in my own head and that’s great for creativity, songwriting and hashing ideas out.

“I sometimes co-write and would like to do more of that. It feels like a safe space to get to know someone. It’s quite an intimate process, writing a song; it’s like a fast-track to friendship. I have great friends in my band family – there is a collective of musicians that I’ve been making music with for over 10 years – and I love going into the studio with them and making some noise; recording and rehearsing is always fun. They take my scratchy demos and make them shine, and we have such a good time figuring it all out, everyone is trusted to do the thing they are best at and so there are no egos, no meltdowns or arguments, it’s all peace and love and music. It’s maybe my favourite bit of the process and is a safe place for me to feel extroverted and try new things; literally we just play like the studio is our toy box.

“The performance element can take me out of my comfort zone, but I think I actually thrive on the nerves and it makes my performances more charged. I’ve found a way to make my tendencies work for me, so let’s call it an opportunity.”

Piney Gir

A prolific musician Piney arrived in London following gaining her music degree – the rebellion against her sheltered upbringing. While figuring out where life would take her she found herself in her first band – synth pop outfit Vic Twenty – and she’s since immersed herself in music working with many names across the scene while also honing her own practice and sound. She said, “I am very lucky in that whole songs appear in my brain practically finished. I have lyrics, melody and most of a song structure in my head almost like a lightning bolt. When this happens I have to flush it out as quickly as possible. It’s almost like my brain will get in the way of this muse if I don’t quickly channel it. If I’m on the go I’ll write it down in my little notebook and hum it into my phone. If I’m home, I’ll record a scratchy demo on a 4-track, cassette recorder.

“That’s not to say the songs are finished, I might tweak a rhyme or change the third verse, add a middle 8 or an outro or something, but the basic song comes to me almost like a message or dictation.

“I will sometimes have dry spells when I don’t write anything. I don’t freak out about that, I just call it my incubation period. When I’m out living life, experiencing stuff, and absorbing all the feelings it will later give me inspiration for a song; sometimes it’s just gotta ruminate in there for a bit. It’s okay to let an idea simmer until it’s ready, pressure and rushing can evolve into writers block, so I just go with the flow and it’s always fine; the songs hatch when they are ready.”

Musicians, mindfulness and mental health

The inner world each of us carry has an ever-changing terrain and its not only our approach to it which we choose, but the way which we react when its cast in darkness and the openness with which we’re able to share that with others. Musicians mental health, and the impact of the industry, is a topic which is being bought to the fore more often with the shame which may once have shrouded it being thrown aside in favour of a more accepting approach to the human experience.

“‘Mindfulness’ is kinda trendy and cool right now. Between everyone and their dog listening to the Headspace app, and the number of people who do yoga is on the rise, attending a gong bath is now a regular occurrence in these modern times, there’s a lot more nurturing of the soul happening in the public eye and I think that can only be a good thing.

“I guess the flip side of that is it could be alienating if you don’t identify with the new hipster/hippy/new age thing that is making the rounds on Instagram. However, the fact that you can privately meditate with an app that is widely available, or that you can do Yoga With Adrian in your own front room, means you can nurture yourself without feeling judged or having to push too far out of your comfort zone. The fact these resources are free and available can only be a good thing, and there is no risk to simply try it out and see if it works for you.

“I think too, if mental health is a buzzword, then that gets the conversation going and that’s half the battle right there. It kinda doesn’t matter if it’s trendy to be mindful, so long as it helps people. It makes no difference if a book from Urban Outfitters was the catalyst for you finding a better way to be mindful or if you have an epiphany on a mountain. Whatever route we take to better mental health is the right one.

“It think it’s also worth saying if things get really dark and you feel like you don’t have anyone to talk to, you can call a Samaritan. If you need ongoing therapy you can get free treatment from the NHS. So by all means go to a gong bath (I love the harmonics and the way it makes me feel) but if I was having a proper meltdown I would seek proper help and help is available for free, so everyone should seek help if they feel they need it. There’s no shame in asking for help. If asking a Doctor for therapy is intimidating or calling a hotline isn’t your style, at least talk to a friend, or journal it or something. Do not bottle those feelings up inside, please.”

We return to the part creativity plays in Piney’s own sense of wellbeing. She said, “For me, songwriting is cathartic. It’s a way for my brain to release the stuff I’ve been overthinking. Putting it in a song helps things make sense to me, it puts issues into perspective and reminds me I’m just a tiny little grain of sand in the universe; my problems are ultimately meaningless, I like that feeling. And because I try to maintain my principle of perpetuating a positive ripple effect, it forces me to look at my lyrics and think about where I can find the silver linings.

“I don’t want to put depressing messages out there without offering a glass-half-full solution. In searching for the bright side in my lyrics, I also find them for myself in the action of dissecting my words. And in the same way that nine years of therapy, helped me rebuke my mental health demons by facing my issues, hashing out songs is similar in that one must process and process again to mill through the options to settle on the finished thing. By the time the song is recorded you’re halfway there, it’s very healing.

“Of course I still have bad days, but this helps. And sometimes it’s not a big heavy thing, sometimes it’s light and I just want to tell a story, and that’s really fun and great for my mental health. Most of my songs have layers and aspects of both.”

The industry itself isn’t always the best place for creatives who are facing a challenging traverse of their mental health. The intimacy often at the centre of making music and the expectation of putting it out there for judgement, the seeking of validation, the holding out of the dream of ‘making it’ (whether you’re an artist who seeks it or not), the pressures of the workload in releasing and promoting music at any level, the prevalence of alcohol and drugs, a focus on image not just art. There are many pitfalls in the industry, even when being creative is a therapy in itself. Piney has found support for herself, and is now looking at ways to pay that forward and support others. She said, “I’m actually in touch with Music Minds Matter about trying to start a local support group for musicians, and really for anyone who wants to drop in and feels they would benefit from some creative support, but this charity is primarily for musicians. MMM is great in that they provide free mental health care specifically designed for musicians with formally trained therapists all of whom used to be musicians.

“I guess us musos do have a strange set of guidelines to live by: the odd hours we work, the sporadic nature of our work, the nomadic musician vs. the holed-up-in-the-studio musician is often the same person toggling a Jekyll and Hyde existence, not to mention the freelance life of chasing outstanding invoices, the erratic nature of how royalties work and flow can create added financial pressure on an already tenuous way to earn a living.

“Thanks to streaming platforms, it seems the major labels and publishers are getting rich, the platforms themselves are getting rich, but that doesn’t trickle down to the musicians, so that can lead to musos juggling several jobs and feeling the strain in essentially working different jobs all the time. Not to mention musicians have to be their own online marketeers, making music is now a brand that you have to sustain online, it’s a lot of stress to put on one person, often these traits do not come naturally to the creative brain, so the result is musicians are stretched thin trying to do everything without necessarily possessing all the skills to do it, this leading to frustration and self doubt, and that can certainly be a trigger for depression.

“Of course nobody enjoys being criticised and it is really scary putting an album out into the unknown and waiting to see how it’s received. It’s important to accept that you can’t please everyone, and if you are proud of your own work then that is the most important thing, to stay true to your vision and honour your songwriting voice. That’s the best you can do.

“Over the years I’ve learned to develop a bit of a thick skin and let the haters hate, sod ’em! Remember that making music is a gift, and we are lucky we get to do it. If someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to listen to it. Bad reviews annoy me, because music is subjective and everyone’s taste is different, so why don’t reviewers just write about stuff they like? We should celebrate creativity and the courage it takes to share our work. Don’t let haters get you down, it’s not worth your mental health.

“Most musicians I know do not have a team of people helping them. I’m really lucky I have the people in my life that help me, but it’s still really hard. I can’t imagine how much harder it would be without my manager, my sweet press lady, my radio pluggers not to mention the artists, musicians and video directors I collaborate with, I cherish their efforts and creativity. I think it’s great Music Minds Matter exists and I think communities would benefit from local chapters and drop-in meetings that happen regularly. I’m trying to do something about that for more easy-to-access, grassroots support.”

Immersive inspiration and supportive scenes

It’s not only been the support of organisations such as Music Minds Matter and Piney’s own approach to mental health but the support of a scene which has been helpful. She said, “I absolutely love Loud Women and Get In Her Ears – I’m playing a show for them on Valentines Day! – and I love being a part of The Other Woman Show on Soho Radio. Every month I do a programme; the other girls in the collective includes: Cheri Amour, Hatty Ashdown, Ruth Barnes, Speech Debelle, Zoe Howe.

“I definitely identify with the need for celebrating female-fronted talent and these nights are a great remedy to the four-guys-in-a-band bland that we’ve been subjected to for decades. Of course there are awesome male bands too, I have a lot of guy pals in great bands – my band has some lovely guys in it! But on any given night in any given venue, you will be more likely to find a bunch of boys on stage. According to Women In Music the gender divide in music is roughly 70% male and 30% female.

“Loud Women and Get In Her Ears are brilliant at being kick-ass women promoting a scene and keeping it real! And it’s not just a platform for women it’s for feminists (men can be feminists too) and it’s for queer, trans and non-binary people… it’s important we all have an arena that nurtures our talent and celebrates our dreams while feeling accepted and encouraged in a safe environment. This scene kinda feels like a family and I’m lucky to be a part of it. Ideally we’d be in a place where gender isn’t even a conversation, but we’re not there yet, so let’s celebrate our differences and praise the underdog!”

Being part of a scene is about giving back as much as benefiting from it and Piney is actively seeking to support others and build community. She said, “I was part of a development programme called Leap which was put together by Serious to develop an idea I had alongside seven other musicians in the UK, we all came from different backgrounds and did totally different things, there was a jazz musician, a music therapist, a games composer, a girl who was once on The Voice, a girl developing a musical based on her disability, an opera composer, and a traditional Indian singer. It was an amazing experience.

“We went off to the countryside and stayed in a big house and devoted a lot of time together in workshops and classes, but the first thing we did was have a group therapy session. What was really amazing about that was, even though we all came from totally different backgrounds we had so much in common and it was all linked to our chosen path of being a musician, and it was really healing to hear their stories and to realise we shared this bond.

“Sometimes doing what we do can feel a bit lone-wolfy, so it was nice to feel like part of a pack. I came away from that session thinking if just one discussion with other musicians made me feel so good, why can’t we do it more often, and why can’t this be easily accessible for everyone?”

For Piney inspiration is an immersive experience, striking from unlikely places and as often to be found in the every day as it is in other art. While her songwriting is inherently personal, and as vulnerable as it is melodic as a result, there is a sense of letting go when music is released. She said, “Inspiration is found in everyday objects and experiences; I am inspired by films, books, paintings, people. Sometimes it’s about the beauty of things; sometimes it’s about pain or anger. There’s a full spectrum of colour and emotion to tap in to. It can be abstract or it can be more like storytelling.

“I think all creativity is influenced by wider factors; life and love and all of that stuff. I am very inspired by art, film, literature, nature, human behaviour and relationships. I feel like my mind is broadened when I connect with something visual, sensual, emotional, spiritual. I absolutely love music, but I don’t know if music inspires me in quite the same way. Music is my happy place, but when it comes to making my own music I prefer to immerse myself in other sources of inspiration, I guess I want to keep my brain a clean slate so I can channel my melodies and discover my words.

“Some people write overtly about politics and that’s cool, it’s great to have people voicing those things. It’s not my style to write overtly political messages in my songs, that’s not to say the messages are not in there, but they are sometimes masked in metaphor. You can interpret my lyrics however you will.

“Once I’ve finished making the song what the lyric means to me becomes less relevant in a broader sense. I love that creative exchange with a listener, it gives the song a second life and sometimes a deeper meaning; an unexpected twist could happen in someone’s interpretation of a lyric, some might consider the message lost in translation, but I think if you’re getting something from it then it’s not wrong.”

  • You Are Here by Piney Gir is released on 1 November 2019 via STRS.

See Piney Gir live

  • 28 October – Hull – Adelphi
  • 29 October – Durham – Old Cinema Launderette
  • 14 February – London – The Finsbury (for Get In Her Ears w/ Grawl!x).

Where to find Piney Gir

Where to find support when you need it

Inner World is our regular feature about creative natures. Through conversations with artists we explore what it means to be a creative, where creativity comes from, and how creatives interact with their inner world and the world around them. If you would like to be featured or have a suggestion for a conversation get in touch.

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Sarah Lay

Sarah Lay is editor of Popoptica.
A long-standing music journalist she's also co-founder of independent record label Reckless Yes, an author of novels, and when not messing around with words and music, a digital strategist.
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