"Music Is Not Going to Cure You, But It's Gonna Make Things Better": Mark Mallman on The Happiness Playlist

Mixtape Week
Kevin Cole
Edited by Kelsey Brannan

Ahead of KEXP’s Mixtape Week, DJ Kevin Cole spoke with Minneapolis-based musician, film composer, author, and expert playlist creator Mark Mallman about the healing power of the perfect playlist, and the important role music plays in our lives. 

Earlier this year, Mallman released a book called The Happiness Playlist. After the devastating loss of his mother, Mallman began experiencing severe panic attacks and episodes of PTSD. During this time, his relationship with music changed, and it became difficult to listen to the heavy sounds of artists like Joy Division and Patti Smith. Instead, Mallman shifted his focus towards music that brought him joy and began collecting these songs into what he dubbed “The Happiness Playlist,” which he used methodically and medicinally as a means of finding comfort during a difficult time. 

Read a transcription of the interview below, where Mallman shares his own relationship with mixtapes, as well as what makes a song a “happy” song. 

KEXP: So, Mark, you created something called The Happiness Playlist after a bout of significant depression and grief when you were experiencing these severe anxiety attacks that would keep you up at night and also hinder your creative process. What was going on for you at that time?

What was going on with me was actually like diagnosed as a full blown PTSD episode and the anxiety and grief kind of led up to that. PTSD can make you really scared. Thunder happens and you hide under the bed, and it's pretty weird. I was listening to Bob Marley songs and Joy Division and stuff, and I found, hey, I can use it medicinally for myself. 

In the book you said that some of your favorite music music that you'd loved for so long — like Joy Division, Patti Smith, Radiohead — had suddenly become difficult for you to listen to and was maybe even amplifying the depression or the anxiety. 

It was amplifying the PTSD symptoms, for certain, but what it actually allowed me to do was kind-of filter music and see where it hits me in a healing way. I had to develop an arsenal of tools so that I could combat this weird onset that has happened, and one of those tools was this playlist of these happy songs that my critical self wouldn't dare listen to. Like, for reals, happy. 

I was gonna ask about that. The Happiness Playlist is a mixture of songs that — as you just said — you made to help you get through some of these darker times. There's everything from P!nk and Olivia Newton John to the Buzzcocks and A Tribe Called Quest. What were the qualifications of the songs that made it onto this playlist? 

I don't want to say that it was "cool" for me to experience any of this because it was a really frightening and painful and unique experience, but my response was completely visceral. I didn't really have to think much; I just had to feel and react. One of the things I learned was music that makes you dance kind of bypasses the ego, it bypasses the brain, and it focuses on the body and that can calm you down really quick. Music in a major key also works with the exception of funk. I noticed that funk can be in the minor key and still happy and it's the only genre that I found that would work that way. And then lyrically, it's pretty obvious. If a song had the word "skull" in it or "death" in it, it would scare me and I couldn't do it. 

The Happiness Playlist is maybe the first time I really learned how to allow music to access my heart.

Did your relationship to music change during this period when you were working on the Happiness Playlist and turning to music to provide relief and help? And has that impacted the way you think about or approach music now as an artist? 

I feel like, yes, it forced me to unlearn critical thinking and to respond with my body and not my mind. The Happiness Playlist is maybe the first time I really learned how to allow music to access my heart. As a musician, as a professional, you kind of get wrapped up in key signatures and tempos and the mathematics and then the demographics and the single and at some point, you learn the magic trick but you forget the magic. So it was me getting it back. 

It's really interesting you say that because I've always thought of your music as being really passionate which you would think connects directly to the heart. 

My music is cathartic in that it existentially addresses lyrically kind of pain and isolation and loss and how to conquer it and how to get through it. My music is about triumph but also facing the darkness. Dancing and positivity and the major key allowed me to access my kindness in my heart and my self-lovingness and my self-care and to recognize that strength isn't about being a mountain. It's about being a flower about being able to bend and to create joy through beauty. And not about having no fear but to embrace fear and walk with it. 

I love that. When you were putting together the Happiness Playlist, initially it was really for yourself, but you found it to be so effective that you, one: you've written a book about it, and two: you have made the playlist public. Can you tell me why it was important for you to open up about your experience and to share it?

I lost my mother to suicide and it ripped my life apart. I felt a deep need to communicate to the world that crying for no reason is OK, and that music can help you when you feel alone and to not feel lost. I needed to. I didn't have a choice. Once I came upon my healing and I realized, Oh wow, creating a playlist really helped me in a medicinal way. Music is powerful. Everyone knows it has this spiritual thing. It's one of the last spiritual connections we have in this kind of blase age of technological domination and so I wanted to simply and kindly create a book with no triggers that says, "music is not going to cure you but it is gonna make things better."

Man, I love that. Thank you so much for saying that. I mean, that's kind-of the foundational principle of KEXP, that there's an inherent healing power of music and an important message for us through whatever struggles people are going through is that, you are not alone. 

Yeah. None of us are alone. For better and for worse, none of us are alone. I mean there's nothing hippy dippy about saying music is a spiritual thing. It comes from the beyond and it enlightens our hearts. 

So, Mark, we know that songs matter and individual songs have a profound impact on us. Tell me about your thoughts on sequencing and why playlists or mix tapes matter. 

Let's take a sentence. If you would think of all those words in a sentence as an individual song, you can take songs and put them all together to say something more complex than the already complex individual song. I mean if you put Phoebe Bridgers' "Smoke Signals" next to "Walk this Way" by Run DMC, it's gonna be different than if you put Phoebe Bridgers' "Smoke Signals" next to a song by The Shins. You know, you're telling a story. 

The individual songs together can have a more profound impact even as you're telling a story, taking the listener through a journey. 

For sure. Everything adds up like pages in a book. 

... joy can be simple and sometimes our ego doesn't permit us to accept the power of simplicity.

I know that you threw out the critical thinking and you were really in a moment of crisis while going through a lot of this, but were there any songs that surprised you? That you were attracted to or that you got turned on to or that really spoke to you?

I think the one that surprised me the most is "Steal my Sunshine" by Len. And the reason it surprised me more than "Happy" by Pharrell is that when you talk about the "Happy" by Pharrell song you have a pop master who's proven himself time and time again as one of the great producers of a certain decade in music history. This song by Len, "Steal my Sunshine" -- it basically has one bass line. If you look at the lyrics, they kind of don't make sense. There's nothing in a music theory sense, speaking as a composer, that would rationalize to my ego critically why this song would make me smile, would make me dance, would make me laugh by myself in the car and sing along. However, it does. It works. And I think it's because joy can be simple and sometimes our ego doesn't permit us to accept the power of simplicity. It says, "Oh, you're smarter than that. You don't need to. You need something smart." But some things aren't about smart. Dancing isn't about smart. Dancing is about freedom and expression and letting your body sing. 

The Happiness Playlist on Spotify — is this an ongoing work in progress? Do you continue to add to it? 

I left it because it marks a certain part in time that is a companion to the book. When I started the book, I just listened to it constantly for six months and then morphed it kind of a little bit when the book was done. I said, well, I want the people who read the book to have the same relationship to my personal story. So I left it. It's done. That's that. And it marks a time in my life that it worked. So for me, when the book came out I said, it's complete, it's done. It is complete as a work. It is one of my works. [Laughs]

Mark Mallman’s book The Happiness Playlist is out now via Think Piece Publishing. He will visit Kinokuniya Books in Seattle on October 15th as part of his upcoming book tour. 

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