Nolwenn, a songwriter and artist from France, told us about how she goes about creating music, her favourite artists and their emotional impact as well as her personal advice regarding mental health and self-care.
Who are your favorite music artists that have provided you comfort? What are your favorite memories with their music?
There are lots of singers that have provided me comfort, but if I really had to pick only a few, I’d pick Dodie and Sam Fender. They have very different music styles but I relate to both of their lyrics and they have both got these unique voices that I fell in love with. I actually wrote a song about that feeling of closeness with an artist you’ve never met –it’s called Doppelganger and I wrote it for dodie. I think that this one-way relationship with an artist has a name, isn’t it parasocial relationships? I feel like that’s definitely a big theme in our generation. My favorite memories with their music are the concerts I went to. I took a trip from my town to Paris to see Dodie there and then flew to Berlin the day after to see Sam Fender. It was my first time taking a plane and I have absolutely no regret, they both smashed it. Each time I felt like the crowd was one screaming and enthusiastic giant (that’s a bit terrifying to picture but it’s a kind giant), I danced, jumped around, cried, laughed both times and left with starry eyes. I wish for everyone to one day experience something like that because it’s in these kinds of moments that you understand why you’re living.
As you are also a musician and songwriter, tell us a bit about how you write a song and from where you take inspiration!
First I want to say that there’s no right way to write a song. There’s no magic recipe, there’s no formula. It’s not a cake, it’s not math… The process of writing a song is different every time you make a new one. Most of the time for me I have a topic I want to write about, something I experienced or something someone said that stuck with me but sometimes I just have a little melody in my head and I’m just like “ok, let’s record it” and when I feel ready to put lyrics on it then I do! It can take months or years to write a song. For example I’ll take my song “Childhood memories”. I wrote the first verse and the chorus at least three years ago and finished it last May. Sometimes there are things you haven’t experienced yet that you need for a song and you just don’t know it yet… And real growth takes time (Sody said it first). Sometimes I also hear someone’s lyrics that trigger something in my brain and I start writing a song just like that. For “Cliffhanger” for example I was listening to Sam Fender’s “Pretending that you’re dead”, it made me think of something quite similar I went through that had been quite traumatic and that I had put on the farthest shelf in my imaginary brain shelf of things to deal with. And I was finally ready to gather my thoughts on the matter and write about it. And I needed two years for that; and that’s ok. Honestly for me writing music is like free therapy. It’s a way of putting feelings into words and melodies which offers so many more possibilities than just writing. And it’s also a way of turning things you have lived or imagined or heard about into something beautiful -or at least that’s the aim.
Does creating art serve as a coping mechanism for you or is it just for enjoyment? What are your favorite pieces of art that you’ve made?
I mainly take inspiration from negative feelings or bad things that have happened to me to write songs. I find it much easier to write about pain than happiness. I can count maybe two of my songs that are happy ones. I like to say that pain is fertile, and that the artist is the alchemist turning his pain into art. Sometimes I really wonder if I’m not clinging to my illnesses so much because I want to experience these negative emotions and have something to write about…. I think it’s part of the reason, maybe a tiny little part but still exists. Pain is a way of living and feeling things, it might be a bad one, but it’s still one. It is a coping mechanism, definitely, but it is also for my enjoyment. I love the whole process of writing a song, coming up with lyrics, racking your brain for a melody, rhymes, the whole figuring out what instruments you want, the harmonies, it’s awesome and so fun.
Sometimes I also use it as a message for someone. Yes. I wrote this song called “still the same” to tell my ex-best friend I missed her. A text? Nah. That’s too simple. God knows I like to make things complicated… It just honestly lifted a weight off my chest. I needed that. Sometimes it feels like you need to get something out of your system, and everyone copes differently with that; for me music is a good way to do that. And if people enjoy it then that’s even better, right? Killed two birds with one stone. I’m not sure she would like it though. I did almost write “your hair of pee” because the first verse goes “I was just strolling/Listening to the voice of [insert artist name]” and I wanted to put dodie but the only rhyme I could think of was… pee. I settled for Sam Fender and hair of fire, because I still hope that one day this girl will be my friend again. Dream big, hey? My favorite pieces of art. That’s a really tough one because I do have the tendency to be a perfectionist, it’s always hard to know if my work is genuinely good or bad. But if I had to pick I’d say for songs “Addictions” and “Missing out”, and for drawings my Heartstopper piece I made to gift dodie, my drawing of Daniel Howell which took two years and very recently my watercolor painting of the cover of Sam Fender’s Dead Boys EP that’s actually a postcard.
If you’re comfortable sharing, what has your experience been in battling an eating disorder? Do you have advice or words of encouragement for people going through similar situations?
Yes absolutely. I’m comfortable talking about my struggles, it’s fine. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in June 2020, but had definitely been battling it for at least three years and a half years. Following closely came the severe depression and chronic anxiety diagnoses -I got the whole package. I was in denial of the eating disorder for a long time even though I did realize there was something going on and seeing that I had a lot of weight and that my BMI was dangerously low. Then I finally came to accept it, I got into rehab in a clinic as an inpatient for about eight months – that was long. Believe me. I had the nasogastric tube twice, tried to take my life multiple times… At one point they even told me they didn’t know what to do with me anymore. And that meant I had really hit rock-bottom. Then a few months later on my birthday I kind of had a breakdown but in a good way, I started committing to recovery, I got better, gained weight back, felt alive again, had energy again… That’s when I got out of the clinic and almost immediately things started going south again because I started involving in bulimia behaviors -anorexia and bulimia are much more connected and complex than you could think. I gained weight really fast and before I knew it I had a BMI higher than I’d ever had and I passionately hated my body, more than ever before. And it didn’t mean that I was recovered. The mental problem was, and is, still very much there. Nowadays I’ve stopped binge-eating completely and I’m in the middle of an anorexia relapse that started about two/three months ago. On the 15th of May, I attempted suicide. And I really didn't imagine my life after that date -so when I woke up on the 16th, it was terrible, I really had wished for death. This life had just been pushed upon me unwillingly. Thanks mom. I actually have this song “Sadness is hereditary” -see, I do write a song everytime I have a negative thought- that goes “I once told my mother/I wish she hadn’t given birth to me/And honestly I still hold a grudge/Because my life is such a fucking smudge” (am I allowed to swear?). Says it all. So now I’m at the clinic again -not in the ed department though because they didn’t have any room left, subsequently I’m much more free than the last time I was there but I don’t know how long this will last-. It’s really not fun to be back here. However even though I tend to focus on the dark side there are good memories I’ve made here. One of my best friends, Anaëlle, I met there (I wrote “La princesse”, “As-tu déjà (Interlude)”, “Le soleil et la fleur'' about her). And I feel like I grew and matured so much as a person during these eight months spent working on myself. I had time to write loads of songs, draw a lot, read a lot… If I had to give advice to someone struggling with an eating disorder or really anything related to mental health, I’d say get help. Even if you think you’re not valid, if you think you still need to lose a few pounds or whatever your brain is trying to trick you into believing, we scream SHUT UP BRAIN and seek help. You won’t regret it. It’s a mental illness, there’s no body requirement, you are valid. My second advice would be to surround yourself with people you trust and are good for you. If you have friends suffering from eds too, always try to keep up a boundary and not let their struggle affect you too much. You have your own road to recovery, and they have theirs. They might cross and that’s beautiful, but it’s not the same path. Each illness is different, each recovery will consequently be different. It can be a very bad thing to be too close. I say that because I experienced it with Anaëlle, “Le soleil et la fleur” says “Empathy not sympathy” -meaning don’t absorb the other’s feelings and don’t let it take its toll on you. Because you already have so much to deal with, believe me you don’t want more on your (imaginary) plate. I will not make any inappropriate eating disorder jokes about plates. And last, remind yourself especially in the darkest moments that there is hope, and it’s possible to recover. Even when it looks like everything is dark, there are better days awaiting you.
What are your tips for self-care and taking care of your mental health? How important is spreading mental health awareness for you?
I haven’t been very good at self-care lately because there are so many things I can’t do in the clinic – I can’t take a good long bath, I can’t light a candle and sniff it, I can’t make myself a good tea and watch TV (we’re not even allowed tea !!), I can’t take a long stroll in the forest, not allowed to exercise, not even yoga – they took my mat, can’t spontaneously go shopping or hang out with friends or go to a concert… So if you can do all of this, and you think it might help, then I invite you to do so. I’ll be living precariously through you.
My form of self-care has been more focused on thoughts than actions; I try to give myself time, be patient with myself, try to keep up some good habits that make me feel productive and good about myself (bullet journaling, reading, practicing math, writing songs, playing the ukulele, singing…) but also letting myself time off to do “nothing” (watch videos, movies, series, just bawl my eyes out to a Sam Fender song…). Also everyday I try to have fun picking out an outfit and a hairstyle and jewelry. I usually really enjoy getting ready for the day, it’s a moment by myself for myself and those are so very precious.
Spreading mental health awareness is very close to my heart because of course of my own struggles but especially because we all have mental health, and it shouldn’t be taboo. Mental issues can literally destroy someone’s life and, to quote Sam Fender, “No one should feel like this”. My first boyfriend committed suicide and it’s something that I will probably never get over. If talking about stigmatized mental health problems can help even one person to feel better, and convince them to get help before it’s too late, then we should open the conversation.
Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?
There is actually. I would love to get some advice on self-releasing music because I just don’t know what to do with my songs. It’s really frustrating because they’re here, they’re finished, and they’re not out there in the world even though I would like them to be. So if you have any advice on that I would gladly take it. You can follow me on my Instagram art account nodoesart even though I’m not very active on there. Thank you lots for reading all this and I hope you have a great day. Bye!