"You can fail at what you don't want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love. " - Jim Carrey
I lost myself in the music industry. To be completely honest I'm still struggling to find my way back to myself, but I'm getting there. Today I'm proud of the small victories, some days that might simply be showing up to work, remembering to speak kind words to myself and some days that might be simply finding the strength to get out of bed. Today when I head to the studio to work on my music, best case scenario I will deal with anxiety, worst case I will end up having anxiety attacks and need to cancel the whole session. But most days I make it to the studio and I am proud that I do. I never thought that would be me. I never used to be like this either, I used to walk into the studio like it was my own bedroom. But the industry will do that to you, if you let it. And unfortunately I did.
I want to tell you my story, because my story is actually far more common than most would ever like to admit, and the more we speak about these things, the less people in the same situation will feel alone and preferably, the less people it will happen to in the first place. You see, my story is not one of big cruel label heads, horrible managers and manipulative producers, although it could feel like that. My story is about lots of tiny little decisions I made, trying to be successful. My story is about what I did, to myself.
For those who have been following my journey for a very long time, you will have seen a rising pop star on the verge of breaking the music industry in Switzerland. You will have heard and seen me on radio tours, TV shows and opening up one of the biggest events of the year performing my debut single in front of a 8000+ people. You will have read about me and seen my face on the covers of magazines and newspapers. You will have expected me to do so so well. And honestly, so did I.
Just under 10 years ago I was discovered by an established producer in Switzerland and invited to his studio. I had written about 3 songs by this point on an old and broken guitar, and the only reason he heard of me is because a friend of mine convinced me to let her film me and put the video up on YouTube. After hearing me live in his studio, he expressed a keen interest to work with me, and explained I would need to go into development for some time before we could record an album. I was overwhelmed by this opportunity and wanted to get everything right. Often in life we are told opportunities like this only come once in a lifetime, so I wasn't going to screw this up.
The producer explained he wanted to make sure our music would be successful, and in order to do this I was encouraged to write more generically, more pop, write in ways that would be easy for non english speakers to understand, write in simplistic ways so anyone could sing along and write top line melodies that could be easily remembered. I remember often being told that the way I write was too bluesy, too indie, too wordy, too complicated. I wanted to get everything right and I wanted to learn and he was very patient with me throughout the process. Prior to working with him I had no music experience at all except at school, I had just a raw talent, so he taught me a lot about constructing music, the business, how to record, and I have so much to be grateful for and I always will be.
After a couple years the production team expanded, things started to look a lot more serious and I became more and more determined to make this work. Along with my music, my look also became a topic of discussion. There were concerns I dressed too boyish, too edgy, too much black, not feminine enough, concerns I would be too much for people. I was encouraged to wear more colour, dress more feminine, sexy and look more approachable. I remember being shown a photograph of M.I.A. as an example of how I could maintain the no-fucks-given attitude while still showing a bit of cleavage. After getting enough courage I tried to casually express a strong desire to shave my hair as I have it today, I already had the sides and back shaved, but I really wanted it to be all gone. Even though one of the producers liked the idea at first, in the end everyone agreed that in order for me to be perceived as feminine I had to have hair. And that was that.
The following image is from a photoshoot that never saw the light of day because the press publication deemed it "too edgy":
It was a hard transition period in general, as I often felt encouraged to be someone else, no ones said that in those words, but that's how I felt. I did as much as I could to still feel like me, but I often felt pressure to be this ideal pop star everyone would want to talk about, and to make everyones investment worthwhile. No one held a gun to my face, no one was forceful or manipulative, but l was often scared to voice my feelings, sometimes I did anyway, but often times I found myself trying to go along with what someone else wanted, trying to convince myself it's what I wanted too. I didn't want to offend or disrespect the hard work everyone had put in, I most certainly didn't want to seem ungrateful. I can imagine if the producers read this they might even be a little surprised to hear how uncomfortable I actually was much of the time, but it's always been a talent of mine, to put on a brave face, to appear confident and outspoken. I guess that's what made me a successful presenter back in the day.
My writing process started to feel very conflicted, I would struggle to finish that chorus they loved, because I didn't actually like the chords. I couldn't bring myself to write that bridge they added, as I felt it distracted from what I was actually trying to say. But I was told in order to achieve success and get radio play, I had to obey a certain pop formula. With me increasingly not liking the production choices I was told were essential, it became harder to trust my own choices and I found myself becoming more and more dependent on the producers opinion. Within this new box I had been given, within this confinement I consented to, I tried my absolute best to still stay somewhat authentic, to embed honest messages in my lyrics, I tried to steer production into an edgier direction, away from anything that sounded like bubblegum pop, and eventually we compromised with what ended up being a very polished and well put together electronic pop album.
An established major label loved the album, as well as a couple national indie labels. The major label expressed a keen interest in signing me and releasing the album internationally, they talked about how easy it would be to connect me with international managers and international booking agencies, so it was a no brainer to sign with them. And everything seemed to be going well, more or less, collectively we were able to organise quite a bit of press and TV opportunities, some through myself as many knew me as a successful model and presenter, some opportunities came through the producers as they had their own connections, and great work was done on the labels part by securing the gig of my life so far, opening the NRJ Fashion Night performing my debut single "Bitching":
Despite things looking great on the outside, I got a sense that I wasn't welcome within the industry. I remember how someone on my team walked up to me a few days before my NRJ performance, sharing how a high ranking individual of the event voiced he was cringing at the thought of me performing on their stage and couldn't wait to get it over with. Lord knows why this person on my team felt the need to share this with me. I of course vomited every day leading up to and on the day of the performance. You can't tell from my performance, because again, my talent of making everything seem like it's ok.
When I walked into some of the more mainstream radio stations and press publication, it's like you could smell how they want you to fail, it's little subtleties, but they would steer the conversation planting little traps to make you look a laughing stock, they make digs at you subtly yet consistently and even make sexist and obscure remarks right before the interview, probably to derail my confidence, or more likely, to distract away from their lack of. But it hurt, a lot, and affected my confidence. My label told me to keep smiling and I did.
Everything was going according to plan until my label broke the news they won't release another single until I have found management. According to them they asked everyone and they all said no. Let that sink in for a moment. With all the contacts available to a major label, apparently every manager and every booking agent they know declined to work with me. That hurt. It became my responsibility to find management, not any management, they wanted me to find influential management, despite having no knowledge of the industry. Ironically the main reason I signed with them, was because they said that was something they could do easily. My producers tried reaching out to their contacts, but again, it was a no. At this point, releasing another single felt like a far away dream.
Bit by bit it seemed everyone around me assumed defeat and focused their attention to other projects. Seeing as all resources had apparently been exhausted in Switzerland, I searched for managers in the UK. This was also no use, because the UK music industry is consistently 5 steps ahead of most of Europe, so the feedback to the album was that the production sounded dated and I would need to rework all the songs. Again. Change everything again. It was during this time I suffered my first emotional breakdown, with many more to follow.
Occasionally I still had press and TV reach out to me personally for interviews, but I was encouraged by the label to decline because "I had nothing to talk about".
A friend of mine who had prior label and radio experience and had also worked in branding for a number of years was an incredible support during this time. She was strong, someone I could trust, she was good with people, she was funny as hell and took no shit. I convinced her to be my management. After long hours of going through conversations and emails from my label, speaking with the producers, finding out what had and hadn't worked according to them, we reworked my whole branding and I was ready to fully embrace becoming the pop star everyone had encouraged me to be, in the hopes that we could win everyones support in our upcoming label meeting and release music again. There was enthusiasm surrounding my change of appearance, I was praised for wearing colour and looking more like a pop star, but still no commitment or enthusiasm to release any more music. It was a strange meeting with a lot of poker faces.
I remember after that meeting, as my manager and I sat down for lunch, I watched her cry. I had never seen her cry before. Strangely I was comforted by her tears, as I felt someone finally understood. Contractually I was not allowed to record or release any music until I was formally dropped by my label and it seemed clear at this point that I was far down their priority list. It wasn't until about two years later I was formally released from my contract. I don't know why it took them so long, maybe there were people on the label fighting for me and it took them that long to reach a mutual decision? Maybe they forgot about me? Either way those two years dismantled every last bit of confidence I had left. Once I was formally released from my contract it then took an additional 6 months to receive my songs back.
During this two year contractual limbo, my mental health was the worst it had ever been.
I had completely forgotten who I was, I feared decision making, I questioned my own thoughts, I questioned everyones intentions, depression and anxiety attacks had become my day to day. I could no longer separate what I wanted from what others wanted, I felt self-conscious about everything, to the point I would re-record the same voice note up to 10 times before sending it to a friend, and sometimes I still do. I felt insecure about everything from my music choices to what I wore or, my makeup, and I would cry my eyes out every time I attempted to do my hair. So I finally shaved it all off.
My manager and I worked to get me back in the studio to start working on my EP with the promise that I could finally create the music I want, without compromise. The stakes were so high for me, too high. We released a couple songs, a cover of Jack Garratt's "The Love You're Given" and my single "Loved & Lost", but we never completed the promotional tour we started because our relationship came to a halt while on a press tour in Athens.
In hindsight the work relationship with my manager cost us a beautiful friendship. You see, every suggestion she would make, felt like the whole weight of everyone encouraging me to be someone other than who I was. Every attempt she would make to lead when I was weak, felt like the weight of everyone telling me what to do. I found myself constantly feeling attacked, backed into a corner, pushed around and manipulated, even though she was just trying to help. I was clearly traumatised and in too much pain to understand or see clearly, but I was adamant to push through and keep going, and I must have sounded very convincing because she agreed to push through with me. But inevitably quite a few arguments, anxiety attacks and emotional breakdowns later, my manager recognised it was no longer a healthy dynamic and suggested we go our separate ways. She was right of course, but I didn't want to hear it.
With no one left, it was just me. The only person left I could unleash all my anger and pain out on, the only person who had gotten me into this whole heartbreaking mess in the first place, was me. I chose this path. They were my choices. Granted I didn't always feel empowered that I had much of a choice, but they were my choices non the less. All the anger, the disappointment, all the pain turned into self hatred. I self harmed regularly and I was suicidal. I thank god for my incredible husband, family and close friends, without them I'm not sure I'd be here today.
It's hard to explain to anyone on the outside how a failed pop album can make you want to take your own life, because it's not about the album, it's about you. It's about allowing yourself to be changed despite not being comfortable with it, it's about allowing your dreams to be defined by someone else, it's about making consistent and gradual small steps to essentially disregard and disrespect yourself. It's about losing every sense of who you are by trying to be someone else. It's about crippling self doubt because you bought into an idea of yourself that wasn't yours. It's about shame. It's about losing faith and trust in yourself, because you forgot the sound of your own voice, because your own thoughts are drowned out by other people's opinions that are still in your own head. It's hard to explain, but it's about so much more than an album. I still can't listen to it. Maybe I will one day, but not yet.
So I had to learn the hard way how to listen to myself again, how to honour my own wishes, follow my own dreams, figure out what they even are, how to have faith in my instincts and how to forgive myself for not starting to learn this sooner. Because when we don't know who we are, other people will tell us who we are, and we will believe them. The thing is, the person you have to look in the eye at the end of every day, the person who picks up all the pieces when all is said and done, the person who is guaranteed to be by your side for better or for worse till the day that you die, that person is you. So you are the most important person in your life. Your mental and physical health is of the upmost importance, and that includes your ability to love and respect yourself, to be proud of yourself, proud of who you are, not for what you've done, or achieved, but for who you actually really are. This is the greatest form of success anyone could strive for, and for me this has become my sole focus, to heal and to encourage others to heal. Because even the smallest of cracks, when they accumulate, they have the power to crumble even the strongest of mountains.
This is not to say that you shouldn't consider advice from others who have experience, but when you do, especially when it is concerning something you love so much, I want to encourage and empower you to build your own foundation within yourself first. Make sure you are being honest with yourself about how you feel. Don't allow fear to shy you away from listening to or voicing your desires. Don't allow the world to pressure you into believing you only have one shot at success, because there are so many layers to success, and it's relative, so what does success mean to you? And you alone? What vision will bring you the deepest amount of joy and pride, even if no one ever gets to see it but you? What is you vision? And trust me, I know the answers to these questions are not easy ones to find, it is too easy to fall into the trap of wanting to please others, wanting to do things, because of others. It's often what we're taught, so don't give yourself a hard time for needing time to find the answers.
I wish for you to feel empowered in who you are and to take pride in getting to know yourself, I wish for you to get used to having honest conversations with yourself and not shy away from having those tough conversations in the mirror. If I had strengthened my relationship with myself before I entered the music industry, things might have been different. But if I hadn't been through what I went through, I may never have acquired the knowledge about myself that I have today. That is the beautiful thing about life, if you are alive, this means it is not over, your story is not done, you still have so much more to give, to experience and everything can always be turned around for the better. Every hard experience always has the potential to bring forward light and the growth that is necessary, and it is by growing and by loving ourselves, that we will succeed.