Matthew Perryman Jones: Finding My Voice
My song was my salvation.
-Matthew Perryman Jones
I have been a massive MPJ ( Matthew Perryman Jones) fan ever since I heard his unforgettably haunting voice pair with simple guitar chords at a local church in downtown Nashville probably close to fifteen years ago. I remember thinking to myself, “Now, THAT is how a hymn is supposed to sound.” It was this stunning mix of clarity and brokenness; youthful, yet carrying the weighty wisdom of an old soul. I didn’t know who he was, but I hoped I’d always have access to that voice somehow. Thankfully, his burgeoning career as a singer/songwriter has opened up a whole new world of music and truth for fans and friends, alike.
A couple years back, I reached out to Matthew to write. I knew him indirectly through the years thanks to mutual friends, and sensed a real depth and kindness. Also, I had started a little musical side project and was concurrently binging on his Until the Dawn Appears record nonstop, so why not aim high, right? He graciously accepted and we sat down to write a couple of times. Well, truth be told, each time we got a few minutes into an idea, then derailed with unending chatter about the Enneagram, therapy, etc… I’m pretty sure it was the death of that song. However, better than a song, a friendship launched andI am beyond grateful to have him share a bit of his story with us today on the blog. As you will read, he vulnerably bridges that often despairing gap between creativity and the emotional struggles involved along the artistic journey, namely depression and anxiety. Matthew is an artist’s artist: a true master of his craft and a transparent source of light and hope for so many, myself most definitely included. You are in for a treat today, friends…
Music seems to have always been with me. As far back as I can remember I was drawn to music and performing for people. It is in my blood to some degree. My mom was a singer, mostly performing solos in church. She has a beautiful voice. She also played piano and accordion in our house early on. My father loved music but was more of a listener. He lived mostly on a diet of folk music-Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio and the like. As a kid I gravitated to my dad’s record collection and would spend hours laying on the floor listening to records reading the lyrics and looking at the pictures inside the covers. I was fascinated.
In high school I started a band with a friend. We called the band “This Island Earth”. Bands like U2, R.E.M. and the Smiths informed our musical aspirations. This was the late 80’s and earnest, passionate (perhaps melodramatic at times) music was abundant in the more underground territory of rock-n-roll (U2 and R.E.M. were actually just emerging from the underground then). I looked up to these artists who were in their early to mid twenties as gods among us. They all seemed larger than life. They appealed to that expanding sense of grandiosity that was inside of me. I felt that anything was possible and I wanted to sing my way into transcendence…anything to take me out of the hardships of home life and the growing emotional complexities that seemed to mark my teenage years.
Feel it all
I grew up being what might be labeled a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP). Since I can remember I have always felt things deeply, both personally and empathically. I have that classic story of not ever feeling that I was like the others, or one of the gang. I would observe other people having a kind of ease about their life that I simply never felt; like I didn’t get the memo (for all you psycho-diagnostic nerds, I fall in that low percentile personality type of the population—Myers Briggs: INFP/Enneagram: 4 with a 5 wing).
I had friends and was easy to get along with but inwardly I never felt like I actually fit anywhere. I felt things intensely and was hyper-aware of everything around me. I had a kind of inordinate sense of life. Colors, smells, the feel of the air, the taste of food, were all on stun. For the most part I was intoxicated with these things. I had traces of what I would call depression now and again but I was mostly a highly energetic and incurably optimistic person. I always had a sense of possibility moving forward into my life. But there of course was a shadow cast with the light. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.
After a couple years of playing and developing as a band, we split due to the other guys graduating high school and heading off to college. However, right around this time is when my world turned upside down. For various reasons I won’t get into here, my life became more inward. I didn’t have that outflow of expression I found playing in a band. I began experiencing high anxiety. It would come out of nowhere, this gnawing sense that something bad was going to happen. It wasn’t tied to anything in particular which made it more concerning. Eventually these became full blown panic attacks. A panic attack for me was this disturbing sense in my gut and body met with my mind going out of control. The sense of doom brought about thoughts of death and mortality. My thoughts were irrational and out of control, but it seemed I could do nothing about it. I began spiraling into a very dark place.
At this point I’m 17. Due to the unpredictable and regularly occurring panic attacks I dropped out of high school my senior year. I didn’t feel comfortable driving and eventually became housebound. My parents would take me to psychologists, psychiatrists and nutritionists. My psyche seemed to be erupting with all kinds of neurosis. I became paranoid and wouldn’t eat food thinking it was poisoned and eventually began having obsessive thoughts, mostly in the form of religious blasphemies looping in my head. Growing up in a Christian home, I thought I was possessed or something horrible. I was 125 lbs and would shake and slap my head to rid myself of these tormenting thoughts. And there seemed to be no help. Medications seemed to just make me a zombie but inwardly I was in hell. I can say without melodrama or exaggeration that I was a person in sheer mental torment.
I would wade through these dark waters for the next 5 years. There were small seasons of mild reprieve where I could function to a certain level. I would go to church (the only social interaction I had) but never fully shared what all was going on. I felt crazy. People who sensed something was wrong with me would prescribe more prayer and bible reading. The fact was that I likely read the bible and prayed more than they did. I had a belief in God that became an absolute lifeline. However, God did not feel real or close at all. I felt abandoned both socially and spiritually. I clung desperately to whatever belief I had and walked through some very dark places on an internal and spiritual level. But in that dark and desolate cave I would sing. My song was my salvation. No one heard me. It was in that dark, quiet and lonely place that I would sing.
As I write this I am overwhelmed with emotion remembering it. Song was how I spoke to God and felt any shred of connection. I cannot adequately describe how alone in the world I felt; how separated from God and people I felt. I was alone and terrified. But I would sing.
Light through the cracks
I believe it was during this time that I found my voice. Through the aid of therapy and eventually the right medication the dark fog that surrounded me gradually began to clear. I would slowly notice the birds singing and the crisp blue sky begin to open. I was coming back to life. I felt a profound gratitude for life. I got a job at a grocery store and would stock the shelves…and sing. There was always a song on my lips. But it came from a completely different place than it did when I was 16. I had come through the dark forest and had something to say.
For a couple years I just lived, healed and assimilated myself back into “normal” life. Eventually, I went through the hoops to get myself into college. One thing I did during those 5 years of exile was read like crazy. It’s all I ever did (I was far from a reader prior to that). So I was ready to go to school and start finding my path. I thought that what I would do was study to become a therapist. I knew at this point in my life that I wanted to be an agent of healing in some form or fashion. Becoming a therapist was the only thing that made sense at that point. But I was living in a new trajectory and I was open for wherever the path would go.
Confessions and spotlight
To make a long story just a little bit longer, while I was in college I met a guy who invited me to play in his folk band. I will have to skip over some details here, but the short of it is that I started playing music again. I was writing and singing and eventually performing live. As a performer I was painfully shy. I was not interested in the spotlight or having the attention on me. I found it wildly uncomfortable. But after shows people would come up to me and express, sometimes with tears, how much the music connected with them emotionally and how I said things that they thought and experienced but didn’t know how say it. Some people would confess things to me that they had never told their spouse—hidden depression and dark thoughts. I was hearing all kinds of things. But I was learning that a connection was happening and the music seemed to be opening doors in people they had long locked tight.
Music and therapy seemed to be a good couple. So I went in that direction. I started pursuing a life as a therapist disguised as a performing songwriter. Again, I could write a book about how I ended up in Nashville and began my descent into the music business, but I will stick to the heart of things here. I was playing music for people, specifically hurting people. I directed my voice to the lonely, the confused, the abandoned, the heart-broken. I wasn’t looking for a record deal or fame. I wanted my music to find connection in the neglected and forgotten places. I based my songwriting approach from something I read from Henri Nouwen, “Rarely do happy endings truly make us happy. But often one’s careful and honest articulation of the pains and ambiguities in life brings us new hope”. I wasn’t going to write pop songs. I was going to write people songs.
Since that time my career has gone through all kinds of seasons. I have found varying degrees of what might be called success. My songs have found their way into TV shows, films, movie trailers and even a few radio stations. I have been wooed and whipped by the music business enterprise. But to this day I still receive emails from people telling me how my music saved their life. I’ve heard stories of how my voice has accompanied someone through the darkest times of their life. Again, this is where tears of immense gratitude come up. It moves me so deeply to think that something I put out in the world could offer some company to a soul that feels alone or broken by life.
Hearing these stories is why I continue to make music because it’s why I started in the first place. I think about throwing in the towel quarterly. I don’t like the enterprise of the music business. But I tell you, almost with precise timing, the moments I have been on the cusp of quitting I will get an email or have someone at a show tell me another story and end that story saying, “please keep making music, it matters”.
Over the last 17 years of pursuing a life in music and storytelling, I have come back into seasons of depression and hardship. It’s an ongoing process. Always. I have found great help with therapists and spiritual directors and friends. Life ebbs and flows. My belief and unbelief in a God, Source, Ground of Being, etc. has gone through many formations. I’m learning to lean into the Mystery a bit more and be ok with it, even enjoy it. And I will continue to write about it all along the way trusting that it will find its way to other souls who need a little company as they stumble through their own experience.
If I have something I am hoping to convey in my music it is this: you are not alone. I believe this is the primary value of music within the world. Music lets people know they are not alone in the world; that there is a thread within the collective human experience. We are not alone. I believe the more personal the writing, the more universal. We’re all cut out of the same hunk of cheese.
As a writer, my job is simply to stay true to what is inside me to say, whether it’s sexy or not; whether it will sell records or not. I have to stay true to that voice that emerged many years ago out of a dark place. No one will ever really know what it took to find that voice but me and I will guard it. I hope you reading this will do the same (wherever your voice finds expression).
You have a voice. Guard the voice that is yours, listen to it, know it and let it be known. It matters.