Words: Niloo Sharifi
Illustration: James Aylott

The Open Door Centre, located in the Bloom Building in Birkenhead, is a living example of how therapeutic support is best paired with the support of an active community. “Our whole approach has been to make the role of provider and the person on the receiving end as blurred as possible,” says charity director Lee Pennington, who founded the centre in 2011. This is the ethos motivating BELOW THE WATERLINE, a new project in collaboration with Merseyrail Sound Station which will be at The Open Door Centre as part of BBC Music Day, on Thursday 26th September.

Sound Station alumni artists Astles, The Blurred Sun Band and Amber Jay – all of whom have been through the innovative project’s artist-focused development sessions – have been asked to create their own musical interpretations of a project which represents over a decade’s worth of music made by News From Neptune. The metaphors contained within the title of the project, Below The Waterline, tie in emotional concepts – the precarious battles of the mind that can have us barely staying afloat, or going under. Sonically and lyrically, nautical themes ripple through the album.

I chat to Dave Miller, AKA News From Neptune, about these pieces: “The songs go back to about the best part of a decade ago, and that was a period of time when I had very poor mental health. A lot of recording was done in a very isolated space.” In these periods, making music was a way to get through the day. “Part of me is quite scared of the instruments,” he confesses, “but once I finally get down to it, it’s an expressive thing – it’s all I know.” These songs are an expression of Dave’s own journey from anguish to healing: “Hopefully, it gives a rounded view of the journey you’ve been on yourself, and you come through it feeling like you’re a better person.”

I can’t help feeling that this project – turning an introspective album about a journey through mental health, composed in isolation, into a collaborative piece – is something of a metaphor for what it takes for many of us to feel better. Introspection has its place, but collaboration can turn sadly written songs into a joyful event of connection. “I was in bands as a teen, but then there was five or six years where I was recording just for myself – partly thinking, ‘One of these days, when I’m better, I’ll get it out there’,” Dave explains. “When I finally got into collaborating with people, I felt so silly for not doing so all these years.”

For Dave, playing with other musicians has been a great way to re-establish contact with a world he had pulled away from for some time. “It’s very exhilarating to see someone else taking your idea and running with it,” he says. “It’s kind of freeing it into the world finally – it takes a certain weight off your shoulders. When you rub your ideas up against other people’s, that’s where sparks fly really.”
Charlie Peacock of The Blurred Sun Band shares this sentiment. “Playing music with your buds is fun, as we all know,” he puts sagely. “Cathartic,” he adds, in a faux-American accent. “Because you’re kind of putting a bit of yourself out there, maybe – and people are responding to it? It’s conversational, isn’t it, in the same way that interacting with other people in any way is satisfying – but when you know someone really well, it’s easy, and I guess that’s what making music with your pals is like.”
Singer-songwriter Astles agrees: “Yeh, that’s when you’re the happiest – for example, when I play bass with Bill [Nickson], that’s just joy, a pure, great, nice feeling,” he says, smiling. “I don’t do the things that I get the most joy out of, because I’m like, I need to do this career thing, and it’s just what we all wind up doing. Me playing my friends’ songs – that’s the best feeling that I have. It’s the simplified version of what it should be.”

Below The Waterline taps into the essence of what makes music worth doing – the power of music to connect. This is fully in line with The Open Door Centre’s approach, and an urge to connect musicians with other musicians. “They know the challenges that people are facing,” Lee tells me, talking me through a 2016 study by Music Minds Matter, which helped inspire the project. As Lee explains, their survey found that a disproportionate number of musicians are suffering from mental health issues, and asked questions to try and understand why. The responders identified a few factors repeatedly – ‘poor working conditions’, ‘lack of recognition’, ‘the welding of music and identity into one’s own idea of selfhood’, ‘the physical impact of the job’, as well as ‘issues related to being a woman in the industry’.

“When you rub your ideas up against other people’s, that’s where sparks fly really” Dave Miller, News from Neptune

Amber Jay can relate to these findings: “Starting out, I was not very confident at all, especially being a solo female artist – working with producers and going into rooms that were mainly a male environment, I kind of felt scared to speak up. I thought that everyone else will know better than me, because I’m new to it. It took me a while to get through that, and take my own identity and vision and hold onto it.” She’s also open about how strange it is to turn something as vulnerable as music into a product: “It’s weird sitting with a song, and it being so raw, but then trying to make it into something that is pleasing for other people to hear. It’s trying to find that balance.”

This balancing act between persona and true self takes an emotional toll; these themes run throughout my conversation with Astles – he is open about the psychological impact of being part of a scene. “A lot of people have perceptions of you even from seeing you play, or seeing something of you online – so that when you’re hanging around with other creative people, even though you’ve never met them you just know that they might have an opinion of you. Sometimes the perception you think people have of you can really make you act up, when you really do need to just be yourself and be calm.”

I’m always saddened by the realisation that so many creatives started out with a desire to escape from the demands of the nine-to-five, institutional living by choosing creativity as their vocation, and ended up in an even more demanding predicament. Charlie of The Blurred Sun Band ascribes much of the stress of being a musician to the material and financial realities everyone has to contend with. Charlie works in a café for much of the week – between that and the countless gigs and rehearsals, spare time is incredibly rare. “Being a musician is a portfolio career, isn’t it? Obviously there’s a financial element to it. The only money we really make is from doing the jazz show – if we were relying purely off our actual creative output we would be fucked, pissed as poets on payday. There’s not much money in actually being creative until you break through, I suppose.”

There is a huge gap in resources for musicians in our area, one that projects like this one help to close, bit by bit. As Astles notes, success in the field in some ways boils down to nothing more than endurance: “[It’s about] who can tolerate the most. That’s what they always say when you’re young – if you’re gonna make it, you’re gonna have to tolerate so much of people telling you you’re shit, and abuse and stuff like that, and it’s like – that’s what I wanted to get away from.” In my view, this battle between love and necessity is an inevitability for any creative who is trying to make a living from what they create.
It’s a contradiction – there is something pure and playful in musicianship, which is unavoidably corrupted when it enters the market. Suddenly, it’s a competition, which tends to reward self-flagellation. “I think that paradox between the persona and the person – the more you get into music and it being your full-time thing, and the only people you hang around with are musicians – you actually can lose part of yourself that wanted to play music in the first place, and you’re left with this more miserable version of yourself, because you think that’s what you need to create. You get below and sink under it more.”

The musicians I’ve met who manage to exist and play without the yoke of self-consciousness are those who manage to maintain a certain level of indifference to public perception. When I ask Charlie whether he shares this experience of a claustrophobia, being beholden by a pressure to keep reproducing a false image, he says, “Not really. I think the whole vibe of Blurred Sun Band is that we’re just kicking about doing music that we like – we have other means of income through music, so Blurred Sun stuff for us is just us four mates making music and it’s a fuckin’ laugh. I guess, once you stop worrying about whether something’s going to be received well, it gives you a chance to do more weird shit.”

I personally think everyone feels better when they free themselves from the desire to be desired. For myself, it’s an ongoing process of reprioritising, until I am left with only the situations and people which cause me joy. Joy is to be found in openness, mutual support and real contact with one another – developing enough trust to relinquish control, and to be curious about an outcome that is not guaranteed. These are the principles thrumming beneath Below The Waterline. “I’ve never met Charlie from The Blurred Sun Band,” says Dave, “but I’ve seen him playing live. I think they’re great, and the idea that he’s taking my songs the way he wants to take them, it’s very exciting to see where they go.” The final performance on 26th September will be a celebration of this process, culminating in a group performance, the form of which is currently still in a constant state of flux. No one involved in the project has a crystal-clear idea of what is going to happen on the day, and maybe that’s the point. “That’s the thing,” Dave says, “letting loose in the world and seeing what happens.”


Below The Waterline will be performed live at a special event as part of BBC Music Day on 26th September at Bloom Building.

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