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Maxim speaks to Elliah Heifetz about anxiety, national identity - and dad jokes
Hi Elliah! Thanks for taking the time to talk today. You were born into a family of political refugees from the Soviet Union, and you’ve spoken in the past about feeling ‘less than American’. Your new album is an examination of identity from the unique perspective of someone who’s both inside and outside the culture at the same time. How easy was it to capture this for the project?
It was easy once the joke had occurred to me that I could make a patriotic Country album, where if you’re not really paying attention to the lyrics, you could think it’s just another honky-tonk record. But if you listen to the lyrics, you think, ‘Wait, what is that guy saying?!’ The joke was to make something with all of Country music’s traditional bona fides, recorded in Nashville with eighteen players, referencing other Country traditions and songs - but to then have the lyrics be a subversion of that, it was like the dominos just fell. When I was starting out, it was about saying ‘I can be just as folksy as people from more stereotypically ‘Country’ parts of America, and that I have just as much of a right to make this kind of music as anyone else. But now, with this album, that approach felt very unsatisfying. So I just had to embrace the imposter syndrome and the fears I’d had about how this would be received. People will either think, ‘This is really stupid’ - or they’ll think, ‘This is really stupid - in a good way’!
I think what I love most about the album is how uplifting it is. That’s no mean feat given the weight of the themes you tackle. Was this a conscious decision to make the album a generally joyful record?
Definitely. First and foremost because I’m trying to make a record that could really change some people’s minds about this country and the American identity. So I think it would’ve been very bad for anyone to leave this record thinking that I don’t love this country - because I do. While fully recognising how much of a scam the American Dream is for so many people, I am living proof of it. And I really do believe that could only happen here, and criticising this country comes from a place of love. Secondly, some of my biggest heroes musically are John Prine, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan when he’s feeling a little more light-hearted - artists whose lyrics kill with humour, kindness and laughter. Artists whose lyrics will crack you up with one line and punch you in the gut with the next. As a listener and as a human, humour is my language and it’s how I wanted to communicate on this album.
Some of the most heart-wrenching songs are Country songs. Paradoxically, there is still a reluctance in the genre to put a label on things such as ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’. People will sing ‘I’m so lonesome I could cry’ to their heart’s content, but we don’t get much discussion about Hank Williams actually having depression. What inspired you to be so open about your struggles with anxiety on this album?
It’s part of the Hank Williams and George Jones mythology that they were deeply sick men. In the beginning of Jones’ career there was almost a fetishisation of his depression and alcoholism. Especially because Hank had just died so young, people were like, ‘We have to see George Jones because he might suffer the same fate soon!’ - which is insane! Now you listen to those songs and you can literally hear the devastation in his voice, but that’s morbidly twisted into a sales tactic. You know, I wasn’t hesitant about this song. My journey with talking about anxiety more openly had a lot to do with simply understanding that I was suffering from it, instead of just thinking I had this crippling personality flaw that I couldn’t control. It felt like it was my fault, and that I just sucked for being that way. My anxiety was triggered by a traumatic event when I was nineteen, and for a long time after that I had no idea what was wrong. I look back now and I’m like, ‘Wow, it seems so obvious’. But at the time I’d just think, ‘Wow, what is wrong with me? I’m so hot and bothered today!’ I was resistant to medicine for a while, because I’d heard all these horror stories about how it can cloud your creativity. The song ‘Anxiety’ was written in the depths of the decision to go on medication. As anyone who’s had an anxiety attack can relate to, it wasn’t anything huge - I just moved apartments. I went from a big space to a very small space. That’s the thing about anxiety, it’s not necessarily about crazy, traumatic things causing it, it’s just that your brain is imbalanced. I didn’t like who I was, I felt detached from my relationship - it was a whole mess of things. My journey was about accepting that I had anxiety, and learning how to deal with it. When it came to writing Country music about this, I just felt like it completely made sense. What was harder was feeling comfortable addressing it and talking about it, and treating it like something that’s distant and not ‘me’ so that I could put it into a song.
The verses in ‘Anxiety’ are musically sparse, and the more built-out hook then comes in waves, which captures the way that anxiety often presents itself in waves.
Absolutely. It’s gradual, which represents how the clouds keep forming and you don’t really clock that the third anxiety attack was worse than the second, and so on. It gets to the point where you’re like, ‘How did the chorus get to be this much?’
How do you use music to help your mental health? Do you find it more therapeutic creating or listening to music?
Most of my time with anxiety it’s definitely listening over creating. Until three or four years ago where I hit a really bad low and decided to seek help, I had this attitude of ‘This is not going to affect me, so I don’t need to write about it’. I had the mentality that I’d already won against my anxiety. I definitely listen to more music than is healthy - there was a time when Spotify would limit how many songs you could listen to, and I blew my maximum within two days! There are albums in my life that are like infinite banks for my emotions. Some albums, you listen to a lot and then you get to a point where you think, ‘Okay, that now reminds me too much of that time in my life’. But there are certain albums that are bottomless wells for me to pour my feelings into. The relatable nature of hearing what other artists are going through has been a huge coping mechanism for me - even though, like you said, nobody was naming it as ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’.
I love ‘Living proof’, particularly this lyric about your mother: “Her second tongue was English, but her first was kindness”. It’s such a powerful message about viewing someone in terms of who they are rather than extraneous things like the language they speak. Especially at the moment, the issue of xenophobia unfortunately seems to grow more pressing each year. Having said that, given the hostility that is often shown to migrants, to me this record doesn’t generally have a tone of anger - when it would perhaps be understandable if there was some. Is this a reflection of where you’re at, or would you say this is more about escapism?
I would say that sonically, you’re 100% right that not any one song tips into a place that you think, ‘Oh yeah, this is the angry song.’ But lyrically, I feel like I can identify some lines where I’m like ‘Ow!’ There are so many outlets in my life where I have these conversations from a place of anger, and there are many outlets where I feel like I use anger effectively to do what I can to make a difference. But I am not angry when I make music. To make this album angry just felt dishonest to me. I’m upset, I’m depressed, I’m manic - I’m whatever you want to call me. But I’m not ever really angry. When I am, I feel like my music suffers. That’s a huge statement of privilege, because I think there are many people who don’t experience a similar privilege to not be angry when they make music. But that’s just my personal process. It’s the opposite for many artists that talk about how they can’t make music unless they’re going through heartache. For me, I need to be pretty stable to write music. William Wordsworth - and please excuse me for being pretentious, but I did English at University! - he has an essay where he says that poetry is ‘the superfluous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquillity’. I always loved that because it’s not just recollected as in remembered, it’s re-collected. So it’s not emotion as it overflows, but it’s the process of re-collecting it once you’ve processed it.
I love ‘Keep the Grass in the Ground’, and the light-hearted metaphor of this. What’s the meaning behind that phrase for you?
On the surface, it’s just this picture of a bored kid needing entertainment, and they will just yank grass out of the ground because it feels satisfying. Why not? But just because something is beautiful and there, it does not mean that it’s yours. You know? There are so many ways to get so much out of life without it being at the expense of something else or someone else. That’s the underlying message of this song. It’s like a momentary thing for you because you’re lost or bored or whatever, but it has a long-term negative effect, so why would you do that?
Folk and Country music have a strong tradition of storytelling, which is one of the things that draws me to it. As well as on your new album, you’ve brought your storytelling talents to the stage by writing a number of musicals. How do you find this complements your career as a solo artist?
In college I was in a band in which I co-wrote the songs, but I hadn’t ever written a song by myself. My friend then asked me if I wanted to write a musical with her and I said, ‘Yes - as long as it could be about Folk music!’ The following summer I was at The New York Musical Theatre Festival, and that built into a few musical theatre jobs. But the whole time I wasn’t listening to musical theatre that much - I was listening to Country and Folk. I was making music inspired by the music I was listening to, but I wasn’t actually making the kind of music I was listening to.I decided to then pursue the singer-songwriter route. Now that I get to do both musical theatre and singer-songwriting, the symbiosis is so obvious to me. I know that songs from a musical are too specific to a particular musical to be truly released on their own, but I know they’re going to be that much more memorable if they could be released as their own thing. On the flip side, writing songs that tell stories in theatre has made me a much more confident storyteller through my songwriting.
We ask all our interviewees to name their favourite three songs that have a theme of mental wellbeing. What would be your choices?
1. Blue Umbrella - John Prine
2. So Much To Do - Willie Nelson
3.’Til I Gain Control Again - Rodney Crowell
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