“You may be hurting, but you are unique, you are special, you definitely have a special power somewhere! Find it”
Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch is without a bike. It’s been stolen right at the moment we’re scheduled in to speak. I’m listening to his answerphone message; hovering – silent. It says not to leave a voicemail as he doesn’t pick them up. I text instead, and wait.
In his 20s Stuart Murdoch was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that rendered him absent from the rites of passage he is so associated with. It was an experience that harnessed his imagination and turned him into one of the most gifted musicians and writers we have today.
The outsider trapped indoors constructed the lyrical narratives we would all eventually move through, lovesick, on a sunny afternoon, while trapped in an office, or free at the park with a boy with a filthy laugh – and so many more mundane landscapes that became populated with the indie-kid romance of his characters. Stuart’s inner life has allowed his audience to feel like the contents of their lives is soundtracked by a novelist. His songs are established in the collective consciousness of an entire generation.
The phone rings. Thoughtful and generous with his time in spite of the missing bike, Stuart delivers his answers with warmth and calm. He tells me he is soon to leave for Moscow on tour.
Just before the interview ends I ask him if Belle and Sebastian are ever going to run another competition to put their fans on a record cover. This is what they did with their current three-part EP How to Solve Our Human Problems; it’s on my bucket list to be a Belle and Sebastian girl.
‘Maybe in ten years’ he says.
‘Ten years?! Stuart! I’ll look terrible by then’.
‘You won’t look terrible, you’ll look experienced and distinguished. Older people are beautiful’.
I want to grow old with Belle and Sebastian.
I put the phone down and I realise, that as it was an incoming call, only my voice has been recorded. The interview along with the bike has been lost. Colour my life with the chaos of trouble.
A few days later I get an email from Stuart on tour in Moscow. He’s written his answers down for us and sent them back. From Russia with love to the readers of The Mind Map.
They say don’t meet your heroes. If your hero is Stuart Murdoch I’m a witness to the fact that he’s one of the great ones. Here he is not once, but twice reborn (with a big thank you) for Going Through The Emotions…
What has been your biggest life challenge so far and what did you do to overcome it?
I got sick with ME/CFS in 1990. It changed my life fundamentally and forever. I’m still very much dealing with it day to day. Such a chronic condition is bound, I think, to have a deep effect on one’s mental health. It has!
What advice would you offer a young person struggling with CFS/depression? What have been your main coping strategies over the years and reflecting now which have been most successful?
Try not to be alone. Try to connect with people the best you may. You might even reach that magical stage when you realise that your presence is doing someone else some good, which is very good for your spirits also.
It might be furthest from your mind at the minute, but it might just be that the whole point of your travails happening to you is so that you may gain compassion for other people, and therefore set out to help. But I realise this a lot to ask if you are at an acute and difficult stage.
When I first got sick with ME/CFS, we formed a support group, specifically for young people. It was good to be with people who understood what was going on without having to explain everything.
Was it a lonely experience being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome? I read that it made you feel like an outsider, but that it helped you to daydream and become a songwriter – was that your way of coping with the loneliness of it?
At times, the ME/CFS was very isolating. My lifestyle was so strange, emerging like a weird insect into the light for an hour a day, staggering for a short walk.
When I realised I might be able to write songs, I clung to every word I wrote. I knew it was the only worthwhile thing that was happening to me. I felt like a character in a story who had to endure terrible things, but who was given a secret power to help them prevail.
What advice would you give people in situations where they find themselves feeling isolated?
Don’t be afraid of taking a chance. Use your ‘difficulties’ as an excuse to ignore social norms! Try something new, join a class or a club.
We always felt that we had so little energy that it made us bold in ways that would have embarrassed our old selves. Leave that self behind. Don’t be afraid to leave behind out of date plans and ambitions. This is you now. You may be hurting, but you are unique, you are special, you definitely have a special power somewhere! Find it.
Does connecting with the community of people who also suffer from ME help? What strength have you gained from speaking and reaching out?
I actually didn’t talk about ME/CFS for years. I went through a patch when I seemed to be functioning better, and I just wanted to forget about, put it behind me.
Over the past eight years I was plunged back into ME/CFS, and I realised I couldn’t NOT talk about it. It was affecting my ability to do my job, so couldn’t be ignored.
I figure now that it’s up to me to help when I can, to try to elucidate the position, and to be part of the search for a diagnosis and cure. It might be the most important thing I ever do.
Tell me about your interest in Buddhism and yoga. How did that begin, and do you feel spirituality is something that supports your wellbeing?
When I first got ill, so many material things in my life fell away – work, studies, friends, athletics. When the buzz of your life has quietened, new thoughts arise. Mine happened to be of the spiritual kind.
So I went to church, and I still do. I used to meditate too, but in the past five years I’ve thrown my lot in with Buddhists big time. I don’t see a clash. One spiritual practice seems to enrich the other. I love the philosophy of Buddhism, the way that it suggests a path for living. It’s very practical and helpful.
What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?
I would say, a family day that I could enjoy, without feeling ill. Just having good energy to be with my boys. I’d take one on an adventure in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Then a nice barbeque with friends later.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
One of the monks at the Buddhist centre pointed out that everything in your life, everything that you have and have had in the past, was given to you, made for you, prepared for you by others. Food, clothes, water, the house you live in, etc. Therefore, you can practice being grateful at every turn, to everyone, from the person who made your sandwich, to your mum for having you!
Complete this sentence: “Ace mental health for me means…”
Going to bed feeling excited about the adventure of the next day.
What do you eat to stay healthy?
Well, I’m not healthy, so I’m not absolutely sure that it makes any difference whether I eat chocolate or salad! But if good healthy food is around, I’ll definitely eat it. Fish and greens, and soups and salads and fruits. I love it when we go on tour because I get loads of lovely green veg to eat.
Do you have a daily routine of exercise or do you make it up as you go along?
I walk, slowly. I have no routine, I just go where the wind blows. I love my bike. It’s a road bike. The reason I couldn’t speak to you straight away was because my bike was stolen just before I spoke to you.
Here at The Mind Map we remember playing football and ‘tag’ – running around the playground everyday and loving it – can you share a similar memory?
Yes, I have lots of good memories. I had really good energy as a kid. I always loved the Scouts and Cubs and canoeing on the lochs. It’s the little things. I remember a long walk through the Scottish countryside on holiday, when I was 10 or so, singing all the Beatles songs I knew, while my brother played air drums.
What three songs lift your spirits?
I’m currently making a playlist for my 50th of songs from each era. Songs that lift my spirits are:
Sam Cooke – What a Wonderful World
Nina Simone – I Wish I knew How it Would Feel to be Free
Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Want to Have Fun
What advice do you offer to friends when they are feeling overwhelmed?
Sometimes when people are truly overwhelmed, I’m likely to tell them anything they want to hear. It’s not the best time to challenge them with Buddhist wisdom.
When I come back from my class and my wife has just put the kids to bed and is knackered on the sofa and I try to tell her something I learned that night, she often says, “Don’t give me the Bhudda..”
I usually go get her a beer instead.
An artist unafraid to chart new musical waters, Astles has been praised for hRead More