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Scott Hutchison and How to Mourn Tortured Artists - Pacific Standard

Reckoning With the Loss of Scott Hutchison

Suffering songwriters have long helped listeners feel less lonely. If only we could repay the favor.
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Scott and Grant Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit perform at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival.

Scott and Grant Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit perform at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival.

Scott Hutchison is gone, and I feel as if my hand is now unlinked from that of a person with whom I felt a shared anguish. Hutchison was the frontman and songwriter of the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, and at 1 a.m. GMT last Wednesday, he left a hotel in a town in the west of Scotland and was never seen alive again. Shortly before leaving the hotel, he sent out two tweets. The first one read: "Be so good to everyone you love. It's not a given. I'm so annoyed that it's not. I didn't live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones." And then the second, final tweet: "I'm away now. Thanks."

Frightened Rabbit was an indie darling band, the type of band that meant the world to a devoted group of fans who saw their own struggles in the emotional upheavals that the group was singing about. Their concerts were often intimate and reverent experiences, even in moments of sonic messiness. Frightened Rabbit was a band of chaos, and their fans got it. It felt as if the chaos in the sound represented Hutchison's own inner turmoil. For as long as Frightened Rabbit was a band, Hutchison struggled publicly with mental illness, always using a dry wit and proceeding by self-deprecation. He never plainly told an audience "I'm not OK," but he didn't have to. It was all right there in the music.

In 2008, Frightened Rabbit released what amounted to their breakthrough album, The Midnight Organ Fight. At the time, I was sleeping on the couches of friends and barely had a job, with no real place to call my own. I felt as lost and depressed as I'd ever been in my life, despite having struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I'd been alive. It is hard to explain, without sounding foolish, the way that music helps in these moments, but I kept returning to The Midnight Organ Fight that year because it was the album that best articulated the particular longing that I was looking to escape. The album wasn't optimistic, and neither was I. It spoke to the parts of my depression that felt the most real. The thing about not wanting to exist is that it doesn't always mean that you want to die. Sometimes, it just means that you want to live in the absence of everyone else, or without the burden of having to try and maneuver through the world. Hutchison was intimately familiar with the desire for that absence, and he was the first, for me, to paint a picture of what that might be like. Take the song "Keep Yourself Warm":

And the room fills with steam
Oh, evaporates, disappears
My point of entry is the same way
That I'll leave

When I learned that Hutchison had disappeared, I knew the news of his death would be soon to follow. Given his history, and his battles, it seemed inevitable. Hutchison is not alone in what he represented: a musician who got to the heart of a universal anguish by so publicly wrestling with his own. Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Amy Winehouse. This year, even before Hutchison's death, I'd begun to think about the fairness of this exchange—if it can be called an exchange: A fan, who is in pain, consumes the pain of an artist, and maybe we call it even. But at the end of the trade, one person feels better, and the other person might feel the same, if not worse. There is a catharsis for an artist in revealing pain to an audience, but there isn't the transfer that an audience gets: The burden is often on the artist to transmit those feelings, again and again. To create is to heal, in some measure, but to create as Hutchison did—with his mental illness at the front of his every song—is to revisit the site of a wound and pick at it openly for an audience. There is bravery in this, of course. There is bravery in the very act of staying alive when your brain is convincing you that to do so is a less than worthwhile idea. But bravery itself doesn't save a person who is sold on the idea that living isn't something they can do anymore.

I've been kept alive by music, and I've had friends who were kept alive by music. And the thing I know is that when a musician dies at the hands of their own demons, it makes the demons in your life—the ones that the musician helped you understand—seem briefly larger and more menacing. A person inspires you by enduring in the face of insurmountable pain, until they decide not to endure anymore. By virtue of having imagined yourself in the same boat, that death can become a fresh and dark isolation.

I don't think the answer is to stop looking to musicians to help me find a small light in the dark. I'm wondering, instead, about the ways I shape the task itself. There are still songs that get me out of bed on the days I don't want to get out of bed, and that will always be the case. As I get older, I think more about the artists behind the songs, imagining them as full people, and not just vessels for my own healing. There's an honesty in thinking of artists in this way, and it makes the exchange feel more equal.

Hutchison's body was found near a body of water called the Firth of Forth, the tidal mouth of various Scottish rivers. On The Midnight Organ Fight, toward the end of the album, there's a song called "Floating in the Forth," which makes reference to the body of water. In an interview from May 3rd, less than a week before he went missing, Hutchison said of the song:

"Floating in the Forth" was a real tough one. [Suicide is] a real thing. It's a real thought. It's a thought that I've taken to a place that I'm far less comfortable with.... I've gone 90 percent of the way through that song in real life. But at the same time, it's gratifying. It's heartening to know that I've been through that, and I stood there performing that song, alive and feeling good about it. It's a tough one. My mum and dad were at the show in Glasgow. We can joke about it, but it must be really hard to hear your son sing about that.

But it is the chorus I most remember. The sparse and swelling guitars make a bed for the lyrics:

And fully clothed, I float away
(I'll float away)
Down the Forth, into the sea
I think I'll save suicide for another day

Some mornings, under the darkness of covers, I would once sing that chorus to myself until I was convinced to get up and turn on the lights. It meant something. I think it still does.

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