Mark Mallman believes in the power of music to uplift and revive your spirt, which is why he suggests making “happiness playlists” to boost your mood during troubling times.
Mark Mallman has solid rock music creds. So say the folks behind the Minnesota Music Awards, where he’s been honored for best rock-and-roll band and best rock record in the state. So say critics from USA Today to Wired. So say fans attracted by his notorious live performances, eight studio albums, and numerous US tours.
Still, Mallman’s no rock snob. When he’s settling down to work or heading out for a live show, jazz is his first choice. And when he’s going through a dark time, he’s not ashamed to queue up Whitney Houston’s pop classic “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” or Pharrell Williams’ earworm “Happy.”
“When I had a cover band, I noticed a different use for music—a practical application of joy,” Mallman, 45, explains by phone from his Minneapolis duplex.
Sometimes, he points out, we just need music that inspires us to dance and sing along, helps us let loose or recharge, and gives us some uplift from the lyrics. Those are the basic criteria for what he calls his “Happiness Playlist.”
That’s also the title of his new memoir. The Happiness Playlist intrigues with episodic glimpses of the tight-knit Twin Cities music scene, Mallman’s bohemian lifestyle, his eccentric friends, and his idiosyncratic side projects—notably marathon performances of a single song. (Seventy-eight hours is his current record.)
Mostly, however, it’s a ride-along as Mallman picks through the landscape of grief and anxiety with his eclectic compilation of feel-good tunes for a soundtrack.
“I’ve been a musician my whole life. … Music was the thing I could lean on,” he says.
Mallman’s habit was to play upbeat songs to get psyched for the day or in the right frame of mind to write. (Apart from his own musical career, he’s a professional composer for film and television.) Now that became his exclusive listening diet: nothing in a minor key or with angsty lyrics allowed.
“I feel like songs can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says. “I have a Velvet Underground song [“Rock and Roll”] on my list and “It was alright” is in the lyrics. When you’re worried about your job or money coming in and you have someone telling you it’s alright from your speakers, you need it.”
Mallman really needed his Happiness Playlist when his world went sideways in September 2014. He woke up in the wee hours one morning with The Anxiety Attack That Wouldn’t End: “The panic locked in and wouldn’t go away,” he recalls.
The initial disturbance came with his mother’s unexpected death in winter 2013. Numbness, exhaustion, and tears—natural to the state of grief—escalated over time to crying jags, nightmares, sleeplessness, and panic attacks.
He couldn’t bear to be alone. He was plagued by baseless worries about his health. He developed random phobias—for example, crossing a bridge could send his anxiety spiking. It was especially confusing for someone who had always been “chill,” as he puts it.
Although the intense episode eased after a couple months, Mallman’s symptoms and search for a remedy continued. He tweaked what went into and onto his body. He read. He saw medical specialists and psychotherapists.
“I never gave up, even when I wanted to,” he says. “I fought back with learning, practice, and faith that joy would return.”
It’s an attitude he absorbed while growing up in Wisconsin. He says his mother, who successfully skirmished with depression for 68 years, “was a survivor and a fighter. She taught me how to smile in the face of adversity—absurdity, even.”
More than that, depression did not define her: “She laughed. She sang. She was a joyful person.”
“It took me about a year to figure out, ‘OK, I have to quiet my mind,’” he says.
The little things
In The Happiness Playlist, Mallman aims to share a helpful tool that’s free, has nearly universal appeal, and, by its nature, will be personalized to the individual.
The “cheerful music” concept slots into a larger approach that might be visualized as a set of scales: Filling one pan with as much positivity as possible lightens the paralyzing influence of anxiety. Mallman’s mix includes embracing gratitude, finding more time for light-hearted pleasures, and paying attention to moments of beauty and “random joy.”
Mallman’s work in therapy, his breathing practice, and the strong support network he put together (his down-to-earth dad touches base daily) get only passing references in the narrative.
In conversation, Mallman mentions that a therapeutic technique known as systematic desensitization has been especially helpful for him. The idea is that repeated exposure to the very things that trigger anxiety may reduce the fear, or at least show that it can be endured.
It’s no picnic, Mallman admits, because “in order to overcome it, you need to experience it. … The funny thing is, the worst part ends up being the biggest teacher. For me, walking across bridges” —here he puffs out a “phew” sound to convey how hard that is for him. “But when I do it, it’s the best feeling.”
Mallman’s been willing to go with any suggestions—from friends, from books, from his therapist—that might contribute to healing. If something worked, he kept doing that. If it didn’t, he let it go.
“So many people have different experiences and different answers that it’s up to us to do trial and error,” notes Mallman. “For me, the answer was to stop looking for a single solution. Look for a lot of little solutions and they’ll all add up.
“So I do ‘square breathing’ and I’ll put some flowers in the house. I’ll go find a spice or food I like the smell of and breathe it in—my version of aromatherapy. Sitting on the porch for 10 minutes can reduce a bunch of rapid thinking. Prayer works, too.”
With his anxiety under control, Mallman’s at work on a funk album and planning another summer tour. He’s also devoting a lot of time to his podcast Enjoy, which he describes as a sketchbook for comic skits and musical experiments.
“If I find myself with a heavy work day, I take time to do something fun first. I’m like, ‘I’ll do a rap about pizza for my podcast,’” he says with a laugh.
Much like a Happiness Playlist, it’s all about “lightheartedness and putting that out in the world. It’s fun, and it makes me feel good. … That’s when the light shines brightest, and happiness becomes a healer.”
What works for Mark Mallman
Willful ignorance. Mallman acknowledges his anxious thoughts and feelings, but tries not to let his energy linger there. Instead, he consciously chooses to put his attention on something positive. He compares the practice to training a dog—rewarding good behavior to encourage more good behavior.
Don’t fight the feeling. On the other hand, Mallman has found that pretending upsetting emotions don’t exist doesn’t work. With grief, for example, “give it permission to exit your body. Cry as much as you need to. Allow it to happen. It’s just like anxiety for me. Fighting it only made it worse.”
Let your freak flag fly. In Mallman’s view, it’s essential to healing that you embrace yourself as the special snowflake you are. “If we accept there is no one like us, we can use our [coping] methods, no matter how weird.”
Printed as “Everyday Heroes: A Soundtrack for Joy,” Spring 2019
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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