Music, Mari Fong knows well, is an escape pod.
During our journeys through the spiritual cosmos of human existence, we all hit pockets of turbulence. The detritus from collapsing planets and exploding stars shower us with emotional debris that damages us, sometimes to the point of near-total destruction.
But always, there is music. It was there for the artists she interviews as both a veteran rock ‘n’ roll journalist and now as the host of the mental-health-and-addiction-in-the-music-business podcast, “CHECK YOUR HEAD: Mental Help for Musicians.” Her depth of knowledge about the subject matter is gleaned from personal experience, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently, and nowhere is that more relatable than in understanding just how music can provide the safe spaces of solace and respite when those storms threaten to overwhelm us.
“Growing up, I was shy, but music was always there for me,” says Fong — whose first name is pronounced “MAR-ee” (“like calamari!” she adds.)
“I think music is an outlet for a lot of people who have a hard time expressing themselves verbally,” she adds. “With musicians, I’ve come to realize that most of them started playing music at a difficult time in their lives — when they were dealing with the divorce of their parents, or being bullied in school. It was their place of solace to pick up the guitar or whatever instrument they found.
“That’s the thing with music: You can be that introvert, that independent person who just spends time with themselves, creating something, but you can also build out all of those emotions — the anger, the frustration, the sadness — that you can’t verbalize. And musicians have a much easier time writing verses and melodies for how they feel vs. speaking one-on-one with somebody.”
By turning those emotions — those powerful, gut-churning, head-swimming, maelstroms of highs and lows that are part and parcel of the human condition — into music, they not only share their pain, they turn their own into touchstones for others. Listeners and fans find comfort in the connection, and while that’s true for music of all moods, it’s especially poignant for the dark nights of the soul.
“I think music creates, oftentimes, happy memories, memories of understanding how you feel, but when you’re in the middle of a mental health crisis or a mood disorder or addiction, you feel like you’re so alone,” she says. “You feel like nobody can possibly feel as bad as you do. But when you hear music that’s in line with how you’re feeling, you’re like, ‘Wow — somebody wrote this song, and it expresses exactly how I feel!’ And you don’t feel alone anymore.”
CHECK YOUR HEAD: Experience and expertise
Exploring those connections between emotion and music — but more specifically, between mental health issues and music — has become Fong’s calling ever since the CHECK YOUR HEAD Podcast was launched in 2019. As both the host and the executive producer, Fong (who’s also a certified Life Coach for Musicians) has hosted numerous in-depth, intimate and personal conversations with a veritable who’s who of popular music, including Gilby Clarke (Guns N’ Roses), “Portlandia” and “Saturday Night Live” veteran Fred Armisen, Emilio Castillo (Tower of Power), Danny Griego, Shaun Morgan of Seether the iconic Linda Ronstadt.
“I also always add an expert to the episode, someone who specializes in what the musicians are talking about,” Fong says. “For example, when the guys in Seether were on to talk about addiction and suicide prevention and their Rise Above Fest music festival, I included Dr. Dan Reidenberg, a world-renowned expert in suicide prevention. By doing that, I think we all learn so much, which is what I wanted originally: What can I say, what can I do, to help the listener?”
That she gets do to it through a prism of popular music makes her project even more satisfying. Growing up, she says, both of her parents were huge music lovers who passed on that passion to their daughter. Her dad was into Rod Stewart, her mother loved Diana Ross and The Supremes, and throughout childhood, she remembers there was always a record playing somewhere in the house, and one of her earliest concert memories was accompanying her parents to see Minnie Riperton and The Spinners split a bill.
At the same time, she also discovered a love of English and the written word. In elementary school, she won a fourth-grade essay contest in her native state of California, but it was in the late 1990s that she stumbled into a career as a freelance music journalist, she says.
“I had a friend of mine who was in a local band that did some great music; I really loved the band, but we had a falling out, and I felt really bad about that,” she says. “I started thinking, ‘What can I do to make it up to my friend?,’ and I thought, ‘You know what? Let me get some promotion for him.’ So I wrote an article about the band and submitted it to the local newspaper, but I didn’t hear anything back.
“At first I thought, ‘Oh well,’ but about a month later, they wrote me back and said, ‘We liked it. Do you want to start writing for us?’”
She agreed enthusiastically, and Mari Fong, music journalist, became one of the more respected voices in the Los Angeles popular culture scene. It was rewarding in a number of different ways, she adds, not the least of which were the mountains of albums sent to her home every day for review and interview purposes.
“It was like Christmas every day!” she says with a laugh.
But beneath the surface, Fong was fighting her own unseen battles.
A personal journey becomes a mission
“I didn’t realize I have a predisposition to having a mood disorder, dependent on stress and hormones,” she says. “When I was going through a change in life, one that includes some hormone changes, I slipped into a very bad depression, and I didn’t know what was going on, and the doctors just wanted to prescribe me something.
“When I thought I was better, I withdrew from the antidepressants, and I was great for about a year and a half, but then it started happening again. And I just thought, ‘What is going on?’ So I started to investigate, and it was a huge learning experience for me.”
What she discovered was that mental health of all stripes still has a stigma associated with it … that a great many health care professionals don’t know how to even broach the topic, much less treat it … and that the resources to help, while plentiful, are myriad and hard to find unless you knew where to look.
“I tried support groups and psychotherapies and medications until I found what worked for me,” she says. “It was such a difficult journey, and it was hard, and it was a lot of work, but when you come out the other side, you realize there’s a beautiful life there, one that you appreciate and want to enjoy by helping other people.”
Her personal transformation made her especially sensitive to mental health crises in the music community she loved so passionately. In 2017, when both Chester Bennington of Linkin Park and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden committed suicide … followed by the suicides of celebrity gourmand Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade the following year … she was rocked by the news.
“I just thought, ‘We can’t have this going on,’ and I wanted to do something to focus on musicians, because that’s what I know and love,” she says. “I thought about doing music videos for a nonprofit, but when they asked, ‘What do you want to do?,’ for some reason I said, ‘I want to create a podcast,’ even though I knew nothing about them and had never even listened to them!”
She was no stranger to turning personal adversity into success: After struggling with her own mood disorder, she obtained her life coaching certification for musicians in 2015, but the entire time, she adds, something pushed her to take bolder and bigger steps.
“I’m not a super religious person, but things have happened in my life where I’ve received these messages and intuitions, and it just seems like I need to go down that path,” she says. “After I got certified, I was working with clients, but something kept saying, ‘Mari, you’ve got to do something bigger. You’ve got to reach more people.’ So the second time I came out of that mood disorder, that was the biggest thing: the podcast.”
CHECK YOUR HEAD: Lifting up a light for those who need it most
Sponsored financially by the nonprofit organization DBSA San Gabriel Valley, the CHECK YOUR HEAD Podcast is billed as “a podcast where notable musicians and experts share their personal stories and real-world solutions for mental health.” It’s a direct outgrowth of her philanthropic work as a community mental health activist and a life coach, but the goal is to reach a broader audience, to peel back the layers of mental health that are seldom discussed, and to shine a light on the fact that so many musicians who choose to address their problems can serve as examples for an industry that’s often awash in addiction and mental health issues.
“Mental health is a journey — it’s about learning things about ourselves and about other people,” Fong says. “For those artists who have trouble talking about it openly, they can do it in a song, because in a song, that feels OK — and that’s especially true with men. As women, we tend to bond over talking about our emotions, and we can easily turn to each other for help.
“Men try to talk to their fathers, and their fathers often say, ‘Stop talking about it.’ And when they approach their friends, other men who receive this information don’t know how to respond, and many of them walk away because it makes them uncomfortable. So mental health is not only the strength of speaking out, it’s also the strength to respond to somebody.”
As a result, Fong hopes that the CHECK YOUR HEAD Podcast evolves into so much more than just a podcast: She envisions it as a movement, one in which those in the music industry acknowledge the proclivity by creative types toward mental health struggles, and the championship of having open, honest conversations about mental self-care and the ability of friends, peers and allies to offer much-needed support.
“These people are ‘CHECK YOUR HEAD’ superheroes, because when you speak out on mental health and share your stories and, more importantly, share your solutions, you’re a superhero — and who doesn’t want to be a superhero?” she says. “The battle with addiction, the battle with mental health, once you get to the other side, you’ve become a different person. There’s a maturity, an appreciation of life, and each of these individuals has so much experience that needs to be shared.”
The willingness by those who agree to serve as Fong’s guests makes them more than just marquee names. Sure, she adds, as a “Portlandia” fan, booking Armisen was a bit of a fangirl moment, but when the comedian — who also happens to be a drummer — opens up about the difficulties of life as a musician and self-acceptance, it becomes more than a tabloid-style celebrity interview. And every time, Fong adds, she comes away with a better understanding of the individual and the cause that serves as the driving force behind the podcast.
“I’ve learned something from each interview I’ve done, but as far as some of the most powerful, when you think about somebody who’s done so many drugs for so long like Emilio (Castillo), it really gave me a new perspective,” she says. “When you get to a point where you really, really don’t think you can get out, but you find that sliver of hope to grab onto and to really work your way up slowly but surely, it’s a really eye-opening conversation.
“He may have been one of the worst cases (she’s interviewed) when it comes to addiction, but he was a person who was constantly smiling, and you could feel his contentment with life. He was a man who had gotten to a point in his life where things were just flowing so smoothly, and he had an appreciation and a gratefulness for everything he had gone through to get there. That kind of resiliency really, always impresses me.”
A goldmine of mental health resources
In the rooms of 12 Step recovery, those who share their experience, strength and hope are encouraged to carry the message as much as they do the mess: In other words, telling one’s story is important for the sake of relatability, but sharing the solutions that brought about change and healing is essential. For Fong, speaking out on mental health and addiction recovery is only part of her mission, which also includes providing solutions.
“If you go to the website at checkyourheadpodcast.com, there are lists of resources, and I encourage anyone who struggles to go down the list and try different things, because you never know what’s going to click,” she says. “When you’re depressed, you feel so unmotivated to do anything; you’re at the bottom, and you don’t even feel like you have the energy to make a call or do the research to find out, ‘What do I do next?’”
Even with the resources compiled on the CHECK YOUR HEAD Podcast website, however, Fong acknowledges that selecting the right one can often be a trial-and-error process. Her personal story includes numerous trips to doctors and psychiatrists before she received a diagnosis and a treatment plan that worked; Castillo, she adds, tried any number of methods to deal with a drug and alcohol problem until he found the right recovery program.
“Sometimes, we have to be our own detectives,” she says. “It’s a lot of work, and a lot of looking in the mirror and really being honest with yourself and having to confront some things you maybe don’t like about yourself. And it’s especially hard for men, because they’re the ones who like to fix things. They want to have the solutions; they don’t want to be the problem.”
Addiction and mental health issues, however, don’t discriminate — by gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, race or any other commonly accepted lines of demarcation. They’re equal opportunity insidious illnesses, and so many of the musicians she talks to tell her the same thing:
“They often say, ‘I lost 10 years of my life because I couldn’t face what the real problem was,’” she says. “That’s why I feel it’s so important to list these resources for recovery. You just keep trying until you find what works for you, but it does take the work. You’ve got to take the steps, even when you don’t feel like it, even when you’re so tired and so exhausted. Because one little step may make the difference.”
Fong’s CHECK YOUR HEAD Podcast, she hopes, may help make that difference — if nothing else by offering the sort of inspiration that so many in the music community draw from others who get clean and sober, or who deal with mental health issues and become outspoken advocates. It’s the same sort of cathartic communion that, in a sense, echoes the final song of a concert.
“At a live show, everyone is on the same page, and it’s this beautiful thing,” she says. “It’s a feeling that’s just blissful, and it’s a feeling that can last for a week and make you feel good. And I think that’s part of the mental health aspect — it makes you be able to take the obstacles of life and deal with them better, because you’ve reached this wonderful high with music.”
And like those in addiction recovery who feel a powerful spiritual fulfillment by sharing their stories and solutions, Fong feels the same after each episode of the CHECK YOUR HEAD Podcast goes out into the world, and those who need it the most find it … absorb it … and reach out to thank her for what she’s doing.
“People say, ‘Thank you for doing what you do,’ but I never think about that,” she says. “I feel like what I’m doing is kind of what all things in my life have led to. From spending part of my career in the healthcare industry — I was in pharmaceuticals for 13 years, and I studied and promoted psychotropic drugs — to my music journalism to my own personal experience with mood disorders, it all culminates with this podcast.
“I just really want to help people going through these things, and to let them know there’s a way out — and these stories prove that. People who look up to those musicians, who find out that they were suffering once and going through what the listener might be going through now, but realizing they found a way out? That let’s them know that they can, too.”