Midnight Daughter is a Seattle based duo. Aurora Smedley (vocals, guitar, songwriting) and Bryan Djunaedi (violin, vocals) create powerful art by tackling hard subjects through their songs. Kevin Cole recently talked to Aurora to ask her about her journey through depression and how it affects her music.
Kevin Cole: So, Aurora, I first experienced your music being one of the contributors and judges to the NPR Tiny Desk contest competition, you had submitted the song "The High." It really struck me, first of all, musically, there were a lot of twists and turns to the song. The song just would build, ebbs, and flows. And then emotionally, it was just really raw. It was painful, defiant, powerful, really emotionally supercharged, I thought, and I found out that your music is about your four-year journey to recover from depression and being suicidal. And I was hoping you could share what that journey was like for you.
Aurora Smedley: Yeah, definitely. At the time, about five years ago, I was working as a musician in China. I had gone there to teach English and suddenly just had a ton of opportunities in music. Before that, I thought that it would take 10 years for me to be able to live off of my music. When I went to China, I got that almost immediately. But there was still kind of a sense of disconnection from the music and there is this kind of low-level depression that was already starting to set in. Then after I had a knee injury was when I became severely depressed. And so at that point, I had to find a solution.
Through hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, through meditation, through bodywork and whatnot, and that that has brought me to today as far as how that song is that saw something that I have found in my journey is that a big part of my recovery process has been learning to step fully into my experience of pain and grief and anger and fear and all of these emotions which people generally do not want to experience.
So that song is about fully experiencing pain and sinking deeply into it in reverence of it and being shaped by it. And that song is also hinting at my spirituality as well. It's a very multifaceted journey that has interwoven my music, my experience, my healing process, and my spirituality.
We shy away from pain as a society as well as talking about it and talking about depression and talking about mental health. When did you start talking openly about your depression, your journey? And was that hard?
It was really difficult at first. I saw speaking openly about my experience as being part of my recovery process, so I made a distinct effort to share openly about it as much as I could when it was appropriate. It was super hard at first. I would cry. It was awkward. I felt humiliated because depression is something that I felt that I was wrong for having and for experiencing. So there was a lot of shame wrapped up in the sharing of it back then, but now I'm at a point where I'm very open about it.
You know, it's really interesting with these Music Heals: Mental Health days. We asked listeners to share stories of their struggles and the role that music has played in their recovery and that simple act of people sharing their story is so deeply moving. It’s profound and inspiring to others who might be in that state of depression or in that same spiral or moment. It makes them feel not alone on their own journey.
Yeah. And I mean, it's so common and yet nobody wants to talk about it, you know, or very few people want to talk about it. And so I think it's very important that we share openly about it because I think actually the percentage of people that experience depression or any other mental health situation is very high. The percentage is very high, and I think it actually says more about our society than the individual.
I think our society shies away from pain. Which sort of seems natural because it's difficult. But if you aren't embracing it, it's just going to continue to be there and you're going to continue to be unhealthy, you know?
Yeah, I think a big issue with our society is that we do not learn how to appreciate our pain as much as our pleasure. And I think that that's a terrible loss because the pain that we experience allows for the joy to be that much richer. I think that we as a society need to change our relationship with pain and grief and all of these other complex and challenging emotions.
What were the things that you've found worked for you [combatting depression]?
So the three most impactful things that I've done in my recovery journey have been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, spending a long period of time in the wilderness, a type of chiropractic work called network spinal analysis, and therapeutic psychedelics. And none of this is what anyone recommends if you look up a blog online that says like “10 ways to recover from depression.” It's going to say other things than that, but these three things were the most impactful for me. And I tried a lot, a lot, a lot of different things.
I want to talk a little bit about each one. So network spinal analysis—what is that?
It's, it's a type of chiropractic work. It's very noninvasive. My experience of it has been the gradual release of major traumas from my physical body.
Did this open up other subconscious stuff?
Yeah, it's released like a lot of emotional baggage that I didn't even know I had. It's released a lot of things that I wasn't even aware were there—demons that have been there for a long time.
Okay, tell me about therapeutic psychedelics.
My first experience with therapeutic psychedelics was I just took a large dose of acid in the wilderness with my friend watching over me and I experienced connectedness with all of existence. And before that, I had been reading about Buddhism for many years and I had never understood what the Buddha was talking about, but in that moment, I experienced it. I also experienced ego death and all of these combined experiences have led to my relationship with the Earth and with the universe being quite different now. Now I have experienced how we are literally all one. So my experience of this has led to a very different perspective on life and myself and reality and truth and spirit.
Wow, that's cool. It might seem radical to some folks. There have been major studies that have been showing that the use of psychedelic mushrooms has a similar [effect].
Yeah, and I've done both, actually, and I've had very impactful experiences on psilocybin. Both of them have left me with really deep shifts in the way that I view reality and neither one would I say was like the end all be all thing for like my depression, but it was a major, enormous step forward. In my article, I stated that if I had to pick one, I would probably recommend network spinal analysis.
However, I think that true recovery from depression requires more than just the individual being okay with themselves. In my journey, I have noticed that the fundamental cause of depression seems to be one thing, and that's disconnection: disconnection from myself, disconnection from my community, disconnection from the earth, and disconnection from all of existence. And so the real way to heal that seems to be recreating the connection. So how do we do that? How do we truly do that?
In my experience, I have found that pain seems to be the thread that points to that part of yourself or that part of reality that you're disconnected from. So by seeing the pain, by allowing yourself to experience the pain, to hold the pain in reverence for what it is teaching you, you are able to follow the pain to find the parts of yourself that are missing the parts of yourself that you have cut off from yourself, the parts of yourself that you have hidden in a closet in your mind and told not to come out. So all these three things that I said are all related to, I think, different facets of becoming reconnected with networks. Final analysis. It's about becoming reconnected with the body and with emotion because emotion is a visceral thing. You know, it's a visceral body experience, emotion, pain, fear, joy, agitation. All of these things are physical and bodily experiences.
And then with psychedelics, I feel that what that has opened up for me has been a reconnection with spirit and all of existence in the universe and God and whatever you want to call that, you know, you can put many different names on it, but we're all referring to the same thing, you know, and then with my time in the wilderness, I feel that that was what created my connection with the Earth and recreated my connection with nature, because we are all part of this greater organism that we are all collectively participating in and contributing to or detracting from depending on our orientation. And so we're participating in this dance of the Gaia organism floating through space. And so how do we participate in that dance? What is our relationship to the earth and nature? And I feel that my time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail really allowed me to access that relationship.
My recovery has come about from me trusting my intuition more than anything else. In the end, you are the one that knows how to heal yourself.
There's no easy fix, it's a journey, but the journey through all the pain is beautiful and worth it.
Yes, absolutely. And it is a journey, you know, because of my recovery journey, all sorts of crazy miracles have happened in my life, including me being here with you, Kevin. And, you know, just the people that I know: meeting Bryan, my relationship with my family has completely transformed. My journey might not look clean and straight toward recovery. There are ups and downs. There are relapses. You know, there is confusion. There are twists and turns. And my journey to where I'm at now has been full of that. It's not a clear path, necessarily.
Can you tell me how your latest musical incarnation, Midnight Daughter, came to be?
After I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and I had all of these very intense experiences in my healing journey, I had come to an understanding of what my truth was, but I wasn't really sure yet how to apply that in society or in civilization yet. And so at the time, I was thinking that I wanted to be a backpacking guide, because fuck music. I didn't want to be in the music industry anymore because I felt that it was just frivolous. It was entertainment. It was a way for people to escape. It was a way for me to fill my ego.
It's interesting because my healing process has also shaped my relationship to music as well. Obviously, it's shifted the way that I approach my music. I was planning to be a backpacking guide and I was working for a program out in Montana and I had about eight days off. So I took eight these eight days to hike a 120-mile section of the mountains in Montana. On the fourth day of that journey, I started to have a vision and the vision left me with the understanding that I needed to return to Seattle to pursue music. I was kind of fighting against this for several days afterward because I was still holding on to my previous perception of the music industry, but then a couple of days later, I fainted and it seemed like the resistance that I had left my body at that moment. So it was at that point where I called up Bryan and I was like, "Hey, you want to, like, play stadiums and stuff?" (Laughs.) And he was like, "Well, you know, why don't we see how the first show goes?"
So how is it going musically?
I mean, it's been really challenging, you know, it's like at the beginning when we started working together, there were different challenges. We were starting to understand what our commitments are; what our desires with the band are; where we see the band going in the next like five, 10, 15, 20 years, you know? And then and then the pandemic hit. That was really existential for me. I mean, I haven't played live with Bryan since February, and that's been hard.
I can't imagine starting a band in the fall and having the vision to do this, really committing to doing it, doing about seven or eight gigs, and then it all getting shut down. So you're super resilient and see opportunity in obstacles and in pain, so what has the pandemic maybe taught you?
It's taught me that I'm really stubborn. I think that I've seen the pandemic as a way for me, as an opportunity for me to expand into other areas of my life and to allow myself to be happy and fulfilled in other areas of my life rather than just being completely mono-focal on music.
I've taken the time to make my space nice and to cultivate friendships and to song write. A lot of songwriting, which you guys can look forward to after the pandemic, because we plan on having like a whole new set once things are over. It's been a growing process and it's also remembering to recommit to the music all the time, every day. It's been multidimensional.
You've said recovering from depression is the hardest thing you've ever done.
What's the second hardest?
Second hardest? Oh, coming off the Pacific Crest Trail. It was the reintegration process after the fact. It was coming back to civilization afterward, being so much more sensitive after having been out with the Earth and with the weather and with the desert for five months and then coming back into society where everybody is in their head and they're busy and they're stressed and they are depressed and they're rushed. They have so many things to do, none of which really matter.
After you integrate back into society, how do you maintain that connection with nature without kind of numbing out?
Continuing to return, I think, is the real way—getting my feet in the dirt, even if it's just or in the ocean or in the grass, even if it's not like going for a hike or even if it's not going for like a week-long backpacking trip, just like going outside, touching the plants, just, you know, putting my feet on the ground without shoes on. That helps a lot.
How has your music changed from the type of music you were making in China?
It's been shaped by my experience of releasing pain and it's been shaped by my connection with my spirituality now. Before I didn't have any of that and before I was just playing music to play music and because it was part of who I was. But now I also see how creating music and writing music and performing music is also a service to community and humanity and the Earth, because of the way that it allows people to experience their full experience of emotion. I see that my relationship with my music now is more filled out. It's more rich, it feels more rooted and expansive. It feels more connected now than it did then. I see the purpose of my music and I see the alignment between my desires, the earth, and all of existence.
That's a great answer. KEXP is the place where the music matters. Why does music matter to you?
Oh, there are so many reasons. On a fundamental level, it's just who I am, you know, I've been playing music since I was four. No matter what, I have music playing in my head and I have new melodies being written in my head, whether I want them to be there or not. I think it's fundamentally just part of who I am. My recovery process has been accepting myself and part of accepting myself has been accepting the music and accepting the fact that the music will always be in me. Shutting it out would be shutting out a big part of who I am.
You and Bryan have great chemistry. In the video, the song is so unusual the way it's written. Bryan's violin parts are really amazing at times, following the melody line that you're singing at other times. He's a counterpart to what you're singing and then at other times he's just soloing and going off. You guys really connect. What's next for Midnight Daughter?
Basically, we see the pandemic as a way for us to prepare before things start up again so that we can hit the ground running when it all gets back online. The big next step for us is doing some live studio releases. When this airs, we're going to release our first live single on Spotify, but we want to have some studio releases early next year.
Bryan's incredible. He's one of my best friends. He's an incredibly talented musician and my business partner. We have to be so open and direct with each other. And he's so compassionate with me and he's so good! He's really talented! I feel honored and a little starstruck whenever I'm playing with him.
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