Music Heals: KEXP Exclusive Interview with Phantogram

photo by Matthew B. Thompson

During the recording process of Phantogram‘s third album, Three, members Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter experienced a devastating loss. Barthel’s sister and Carter’s close friend Becky died by suicide. While the electro-pop duo has always explored dark themes in their songwriting, they weren’t prepared to face such trauma head-on. Since the tragedy, Barthel and Carter have teamed up with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to raise awareness and help remove the stigma of mental illness. For Barthel, this work has been a crucial part of her grieving process — and so, of course, has music.

The music of Three is brooding and brutal. Synths grind relentlessly, and guitars snake around breakbeats that sound stuck in endless agony. Barthel uses her voice to try to break through the dissonance — both emotionally and musically — and on songs like “Funeral Pyre” and “Cruel World,” her need for release is palpable. While she admits the writing and recording process for Three was cathartic, it was only the first step to her healing. For Music Heals: Mental Health, John Richards spoke with Sarah about her sister’s suicide, how she and Josh continue to work through their grief, and how important it is to talk openly about depression and suicide — whether you’re experiencing these feelings yourself or know someone who is.

Could you talk about your history working with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention?

We started working with them about halfway in between the cycle of Three. My sister took her life during the recording process of Three, which was about a year and a half ago now. She was also Josh’s very close friend. We all grew up together — Josh, Becky, and I. So it was a pretty traumatic experience, and still is. But I’ve finally been able to speak about it out loud without getting upset. So, I’ve been taking advantage of this opportunity to talk about it. We’ve also been donating ticket sales to the cause, to help spread the awareness of mental illness and suicide.

Can you talk about how you’ve come to grips with your grief and what that process was for you?

It’s a very complicated grief. The person with mental illness can blame themselves and also hide their illness. I always relate it to cancer or diabetes. These are diseases that are easier to talk about, easier to relate to. People aren’t afraid of getting help because they know they need it. But mental illness is different because you can’t see it. For me, coping with this changes every day. It’s a lot of anger, confusion, just feeling completely deserted and alone. And it’s a lot of asking yourself “what if, what if, what if.” It’s normal to feel guilty and like you could have done something. What if I could have been there that day? What if I picked the phone up? What if I told my sister I loved her and I could have helped her more? That’s the really confusing part for the people surrounding those who have committed suicide. It’s hard to understand. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to talk about it.

That’s the thing. We have to learn how to talk about it. There’s a stigma behind it. You’re seen as weak or as someone who just needs to get over it, which is the worst advice ever to anyone dealing with depression.

And that’s the hard thing to understand. My sister was born with anxiety and clinical depression. And we didn’t know this until later on. She committed suicide at 34 years old. So, it wasn’t just a teenage angst kind of thing. When she was two years old, she would have these awful panic attacks. Ever since she was young she always had these problems; she wasn’t able to cope the same way. All these different times in her life we always thought that she would grow out of it. We always thought that she would get better.

But that was never the case. She was never able to cope. We realized after the fact that she should have been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety. And that’s where I’ve come in. I want people to be aware that maybe depression is something you are born with and something that may require professional help. And if you don’t want that, know that you can at least talk about how you feel, because you’re not alone.

It’s not being alone that’s so important. And on both sides. It’s on those of us who are feeling okay to reach out and just say, “How are you doing?” and “I’m here if you need anything.”

This is the biggest and easiest first step. I’ve always been that person who’s like, “I’m great! How are you?” Because that’s normal and you don’t want to burden others. But you’re not burdening people when you’re being honest with yourself. You’re being you and you need to think about yourself first and foremost. It’s actually a really wonderful feeling when someone asks you how you are and you tell them the truth. Your relationship with that person grows tremendously just by opening your emotions up. You’re fixing yourself, and you’re also growing a relationship.

photo by Matthew B. Thompson

Talk about how you’ve used your own music as a vessel to help you and others with this healing process.

I’m lucky to have music to release my feelings and emotions. It’s so powerful to think that I’ve been able to use this outlet to help others. They can listen to our lyrics and songs and connect. But it’s also been kind of a double-edged sword because I’ve depended so much on music that I haven’t been able to express my feelings in the real world. I’ve kind of hidden my feelings because I can put it in my music. But going through this experience with my sister has made me realize that I need to speak out. I need to say that I’m not ok. I can’t just put it into a song and hide it.

Was it writing music or listening to music that helped you through the grieving process most?

It was writing the music. It all happened during the process of Three. We had two songs done. I think “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” and “Run Run Blood” were done. And then it happened. After that, every song that came out was based on this trauma and trying to understand life after you lose somebody from suicide. It gets very complicated and intense, but we were able to use that as the perfect outlet for our anger and confusion.

All of our records from day one have always been about the darkness in life, but there’s always that light at the end of the tunnel. This was just another way of growing and grieving the loss of Becky. It was actually really incredible. And when we finished the record I thought that was going to be it. I was like, okay, cool. I got this whole experience out and put it in the record and I’m going to be fine now.

And then we went on tour. And I had to play those songs every single night. And it was even harder to deal with than writing the record. I couldn’t go through anything without crying terribly during the set, after the set. I became extremely depressed. I was living that day and living that experience every single day onstage for an hour and a half. It was the hardest time of my life.

I know you can’t speak for Josh, but it must have been very difficult for him to get through this, too, while he’s both consoling you and grieving his friend.

Yeah, he took on the role of trying to take care of me while having to deal with himself. And he struggles with depression as well and always has. But he really stepped it up in taking care of me like a little sister. The incredible thing about our relationship is that we’ve been through everything together. We have this deep connection, kind of like a psychic twin thing. He knows exactly what I’m going through and I know exactly what he’s going through. He helped me tremendously through the tour and the songwriting and my breakdowns. He was the one who was able to talk onstage, connect to the audience and talk a little bit about Becky. He’s my rock. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Phantogram is currently on tour in support of Three, out now on Republic Records, opening for Arcade Fire this Sunday, October 15th at Key Arena. To see all our coverage of Music Heals: Mental Health Day, click here.

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2 Comments

  1. pacNW
    Posted October 12, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Hi KEXP. Glad you wrote the article. One thing – can you not use the word ‘committed’ when talking about suicide? The word ‘committed’ is used in other contexts such as ‘committed a bank robbery’ and ‘committed murder’. It clearly has a negative and violent connotation. To use it in the case of suicide is quite unfair and unkind language. Many grief organisations prefer you use language such as ‘died by suicide’. Can you change your language in the post? Thanks.

  2. Paul
    Posted October 12, 2017 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi. A quick word to say – very much agree with pacNW’s comment. Therapists will tell you the same; if you truly want to help with the stigma, that’s an easy – but large – way.

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