Ladan Hussein on Making Music While Living with Schizophrenia

Cold Specks Photo by Norman Wong
March 15, 2019
After receiving a life-changing diagnosis, the artist formerly known as Cold Specks is sounding a call for mental-health support in the music industry.

In January 2018, the Toronto-based singer Ladan Hussein was the subject of an in-depth profile in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper of record. She had recently released Fool’s Paradise, her third album under the alias Cold Specks, and its ethereal electronic R&B sound marked a dramatic aesthetic break from the weighty goth-soul that had earned her a deal with Mute Records and invitations to collaborate with the likes of Swans, Moby, and Massive Attack. The interview was conducted in the midst of a whirlwind tour that had seen Hussein ping-pong from Europe to Dubai to Vancouver. In the piece, she describes her life as “beautifully unhinged,” but cautions that life on the road is “a recipe for a mental breakdown.” Sadly, in Hussein’s case, that was no exaggerated soundbite.

As Hussein explains today, at the time of that Globe and Mail interview, she had already started to develop delusional and paranoid thoughts unlike anything she had ever experienced before, but “things hadn’t gotten that dark yet.” The real nadir would come a few months later, when Hussein was holed up in her Toronto condo, plagued by auditory and visual hallucinations, anorexia, and serious thoughts of suicide. After a family intervention, she ended up spending two months at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, receiving medication and psychiatric care for an affliction that, to this day, she still can’t believe she’s been diagnosed with: schizophrenia.

Now that Hussein’s been out of the hospital for six months and is responding well to ongoing treatment, she’s at the point where she can begin to get her career back on track. And as she’s successfully managing her condition, she’s also actively trying to dispel the sensationalistic misconceptions around it. Here, Hussein opens up about her experience to both address the realities of living with schizophrenia, and to highlight the need for greater mental-health support in the music industry.

Spotify for Artists: At what point did you realize you were unwell?

Ladan Hussein: That tour [in fall 2017] is what broke my brain. It was about 50 days with hardly any days off. It was grueling. I completely blame the sleep deprivation. I would go four days without sleeping, and there was a lot of drinking involved, so I was just numb to what was going on. And it wasn’t a very successful tour. It was hard dealing with going to these cities day in and day out with no sleep, and people simply weren’t coming to the shows. It was too much pressure. It broke me.

After going through this dark period, how did it feel to be diagnosed with schizophrenia?

I didn’t believe it at first—I refused to believe it. I wasn’t taking my medication at first; I would spit it out. I didn’t believe I was sick. The doctors would tell me, and I would just laugh. I wasn’t willing to accept it. It was hard to deal with, for sure. Schizophrenia doesn’t run in my family at all; it just came completely out of the blue. It was very difficult to come to terms with it, and I’m still coming to terms with it. I have to go to doctor’s appointments and see a psychiatrist. I have to take an injection once a month. It’s very frustrating to deal with, because it means I have to be in Toronto. If I have a recording session outside town, I have to make sure it falls within the timeline of my medication. But the doctors told me I need to be on the medication for two years. I have to be very careful with what I put into my body and how I treat myself. I used to smoke weed every day and I can’t do that anymore. I don’t drink anymore.

What are some of the misconceptions around schizophrenia you’ve had to overcome?

I always heard negative things attached to schizophrenia growing up. It’s one of the mental illnesses that people fear the most, because they don’t understand it. It’s a traumatic experience, but it happens to many people, and it gets better. As soon as I got on the medication, it was like night and day.

How did you get to the point where you could make music again?

I had a lot of time on my hands in the hospital, so I started writing there. And it was very therapeutic—I had a lot on my mind, and it was nice to be able to write these thoughts down. It started off as just pen-to-paper, and then a guitar was brought into it, and now I’m going to Bristol to make a record with Adrian Utley from Portishead. I’m really excited. But I have to be very careful with this next record and how it’s portrayed by the media. I don’t want it to have this marketing angle around mental health.

We’ve been seeing more open discussions about mental health. Do you feel the music industry is doing enough to address the needs of artists?

It’s nice that people are talking about mental health now—it didn’t used to be like this. When people had public breakdowns, everyone used to just laugh about it. So it’s nice that people are beginning to speak up. But this is a very difficult industry to be in. It causes a lot of stress. You’re never really financially stable. Labels, booking agents, and managers don’t really take the mental health of the artist into account before they book these insane tours, and there’s just too much pressure placed on an artist. I just want people to be more aware that we’re human beings—we’re not machines.

—Stuart Berman

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March 15, 2019
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