Here’s a line from one of my all-time favorite TV shows:
Good night Seattle. This is Dr. Fraser Crane wishing you all good mental health.
I wonder how many fans of Fraser have truly ever pondered on the significance of that line – after all, we’re talking about a sitcom here and not a documentary on mental illnesses. However, anybody who’s ever been depressed, even for a little while, knows the importance of good mental health. In fact, good mental health is one of the most important things in life and as with health, we should always prioritize it. Why? Because once it’s gone, life can turn into a pretty dark place. The problem is that mental health is a little bit like your index finger. You aren’t really aware of its importance until there’s something wrong with it.
How do I know this? Well, I have first-hand experience in both: being depressed and breaking the index finger of my right hand. In each case, my life got very difficult but obviously, in completely different ways. The thing is, while your index finger will be as good as new in a couple of months (in most cases anyway), fractured mental health will take considerably longer to heal. And yet another challenging thing about depression is that it will creep up on you. You don’t necessarily see it coming. Nobody gets depressed in a blink of an eye. Rather, depression takes time to develop. It’s like being trapped in a swamp: you sink into it one micro inch at a time. What this usually means is that once you realize your mental health is slipping, it’s already too late. And obviously, it doesn’t help matters that most of us are convinced that bad things only happen to other people, not us. We feel we’re too clever and strong to get depressed, only the weak ones do. In reality, if you are fifty and you’ve never been depressed or slightly adrift, chances are it’s not because you are clever and strong, it’s most likely because you have been extremely lucky and things have gone your way.
Our track of the week, Robb Murphy’s “Sleep Tonight” deals with flailing mental health. It’s a story about “an over-done man with too many plans and a need for a change.” As always with Murphy, the lyrics are deep and meaningful. They do not beat around the bush but blatantly state, “I lost myself today.” Indeed, “Sleep Tonight” is a track about being lost and scared.
I want to take away, take away the night
I want to leave behind all the echoes of the day
Don't want to be weak but I'm hopeful for this year
I will sleep tonight
Murphy’s lyric puts a lot of emphasis on sleeping and for a good reason. You see one escape from an unpleasant state of mind is to sleep as much as you can. At least that’s what worked for me. Of course, anyone who’s ever had to tackle mental health issues knows that sleep is one of the first things to suffer when your head is filled with negative thoughts. In fact, we don’t even have to go as far as being depressed. I’m sure most of us have experienced what it’s like to be so stressed out over something that you wake up in the middle of night and cannot fall asleep again. It’s a drag, isn’t it? That’s normal but when you are depressed, it’s not your work or your driving test that wakes you up a few nights in a row, it’s the unsolvable problems in your life and the bitter disappointments that have been stacking up for quite a while.
Musically speaking, “Sleep Tonight” owes a lot to the Kinks. From the start, you get a feeling you are listening to a brilliant Ray Davies tune from the early seventies. The arrangement is dreamy, placid and airy. The strings are very effective throughout and the way the eerie piano notes dance on them in the intro of the song will give you goosebumps. Robb’s vocal delivery on this one is particularly strong and I do love the section where the song is reduced to only Robb’s voice and acoustic guitar. The orchestral arrangement that kicks in towards the end of the song is breathtaking and the way the song fades out, with a few lone piano chords disappearing into the distance, adds to the melancholy and solitary feel of the track. This song is yet another proof of the fact that Robb Murphy is one of the strongest contemporary singer-songwriters, a true artists’ artist.
To make this track-of-the-month review special for Robb’s fans, I asked the man a few questions about the story behind the track. The questions and answers are below. Enjoy.
1) Tell me a little about the lyrics of "Sleep Tonight." How did they come about? It seems they paint a story of a guy who's a bit beaten down by life. What's the inspiration?
The song “Sleep Tonight” was written in Italy where I took a break for a time away from my normal busy life. I stayed in a small basic house in the country with no Internet connection and the usual distractions. I think it’s whenever we are in a relaxed and undistracted state is when we can reflect and be most creative. The song was partly about my own thoughts of keeping up with daily life, work, bills, family etc. Sometimes it can all get a little much and it can be hard to switch off at night, “leave behind all the echoes of the day”. Another aspect to the song is related to the battle my mum had with depression for years and during recording the album she passed away, at which time I added the end lyrics, the kind of a mantra to help myself through difficult times, “I am able, I am willing, I am hopeful, I am stronger, I am patient, I am grateful.” I am maybe a little beaten down in life but aren’t we all? We usually all come through somehow. I use my music to help me at times, the people I meet while doing it, and I hope this extends to people who listen to the song.
2) At which point of the recording process of "Sleep Tonight" did you decide to involve the Ulster String Quartet? What was it like working with them?
“Sleep Tonight” was going to be an acoustic project initially, but when I started playing the songs with the band they began to grow naturally. I knew from pretty early on that it would be a bigger project than I had envisaged and that I had to let it lead me to where ever it would go. Once more instrumentation came in from the band, I made the decision to get a quartet involved to keep the album sounding organic and natural – on my first album I used synth programming for the string sections. I began recording the album not yet having the quartet involved. Alan Ladd who plays piano on the album was tasked with scoring strings. The album was really taking shape and a lot of the parts where recorded before I had the quartet on board, but I always knew that it would work somehow. When it came time to record, I contacted the Ulster String Quartet as they are all top class musicians who also play in the Ulster Orchestra – I may as well aim high! It was really fortunate that Danny from USQ got back to me pretty fast to say he would love to be involved and it had actually been on his mind to get involved in this kind of pop music. He was also familiar with my first single “Love in Abundance,” which was a great start – it was meant to be! The song “Sleep Tonight” was actually not meant to be a long song to begin with. When we recorded it, we had a few end options scored, so I could decide on which ending was best. However, when I came to mixing the album, I couldn’t cut it as it just seemed right to let it go until the end. In terms of the USQ, the guys are great to work with, really easy going.
3) "Sleep Tonight" single is released in support of the Samaritans to raise awareness on issues to do with mental health. How did the Samaritans become involved? And more importantly, why is this cause close to your heart?
“Sleep Tonight” album was initially written in Italy with my mother in mind and to an extent, my own issues. My mum had been suffering from mental illness for many years, unfortunately to the point where I had actually got used to it. She was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and was on many different medications over the years, in and out of hospitals, and also received electro shock therapy. When I was planning the recording of the album, she passed away unexpectedly and I believe that this condition took its toll on her body. I wasn’t sure if I would continue with the project but after time and with support from others, I did. “Sleep Tonight” will be the last single from this album and it makes sense to me to use it as a way of raising some awareness for mental health. I decided to contact The Samaritans as we had actually played a few gigs for them in the past. They are an unfunded organization here in Northern Ireland, even though they are a 24 /7 service. I met with Pamela James, the Belfast Director at the time, and she was extremely supportive and set the wheels into motion for their support.
4) Tell me a little bit about the video. It does a fantastic job depicting loneliness and depression. I love the use of colors, especially towards the end, the bit where black and white folks turn into color.
I think animation has a way of reaching people, as it tells the story but also leaves an element open for a person’s imagination and interpretation. When I was writing the story, I knew it was a heavy subject and I needed a similar animation style to suit the mood. I was looking through many animations from various people around the world and I happened to speak to a singer-songwriter from here called Peter McVeigh, who suggested an animator he had used, Maria Becvar. I watched some of her work and the style seemed to match with what I envisaged, and she also lives in Northern Ireland, which was great. It was tough getting a balance of the opening, setting the mood. This was challenging because the mood couldn’t be too dark. Otherwise, it could put people off. I knew, as the animation progressed, that the message of hope would come through near to the end and with that, the colors would become more vibrant to match the change of mood by the lead character. As he opens up and shares his mood lifts, he becomes more positive and realizes that he is not alone. We can all go through this at times in our lives. “Maybe it’s hard for us all” is the end message, which was created by the Samaritans’ team.
5) You are a fantastic lyricist and I'm not referring to just the song "Sleep Tonight." I've listened to your music a lot and admire your ability to touch the listener at a rather deep level. Has that been a conscious choice at some point, to develop your writing towards a more meaningful approach?
Thank you very much! Yes, there was a point when I decided to work on my lyrics, to paint more of a picture and write in a way that would put across my message but still leave the message open enough for other interpretations. When I began writing, it was just a lot of random thoughts and phrases. It made some sense but it wasn’t really consistent. Then, in my first few bands, I tried to have some theme or meaning but it was all still very open. Writing as a solo artist, I was more conscious of lyrics, I would rewrite and work on them so that each line or word had some meaning and wasn’t wasted. I would write a lot, I have many songs on my iPhone as memo recordings and then sometimes I take lyrics from these different ideas to make one song. I also believe it’s good to have some kind of hope in a song – even if when I am writing it, I do not feel it. Writing, in a way, is my own therapy. I want the situations in my songs resolved and look forward to a time when I will have peace. My hope is my songs take others on a similar journey.
You can find the animated music video of “Sleep Tonight” here:
And another music video of “Sleep Tonight” featuring Ulster String Quartet here:
You can learn more about Robb Murphy here:
About the curator - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.