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With ‘Sessions’ program, Minnesota artists discuss connection between mental health and creativity

The program features notable members of the arts community sitting down for in-depth interviews with Sarah Souder Johnson, Dissonance co-founder and board chair, for conversations about their art, their mental health and how the two influence each other.

Local artists who participated in Dissonance's five-year anniversary artists' showcase.
Local artists who participated in Dissonance's five-year anniversary artists’ showcase.
Courtesy of Dissonance

For Jason Chaffee, it’s all about the stories. As a person in recovery from addiction and mental illness, he’s found that listening to other people recount their personal histories can be a way to help him feel less alone and see his own struggles from a different perspective. 

A few years after he moved to Minnesota from Seattle, Chaffee got involved in Dissonance, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that supports members of the local arts community by creating safe spaces to talk about mental health and addiction. He was at a release party for musician Katy Vernon at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis when he heard Vernon talk about her own experiences with addiction and the support she’d found through Dissonance. Hearing Vernon’s story got Chaffee thinking. 

“I was still battling alcohol and that whole demon at the time,” he said. When Vernon told the audience about Dissonance and its focus on the mental wellness of artists, something clicked in Chaffee’s brain: “The idea of focusing on mental health for artists was something I’d never heard of,” he said. 

He decided to give Dissonance a try. He went to Story Well, a monthly gathering where participants tell their own stories and discuss ways they can help and support each other. He also went to other Dissonance events. For Chaffee, the group became a lifeline.  

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“Dissonance was part of my story of getting sober,” he said. “It wasn’t the only story. Ultimately it took hitting rock bottom and a 12-step program to get me there.” 

The stories and support he received from members of the Dissonance community have been so central to Chaffee’s life that he came up with an idea: He wanted to launch something called “Sessions: Where Music and Mental Health Collide,” an in-depth interview series where notable members of the state’s arts community sit down with Sarah Souder Johnson, Dissonance co-founder and board chair, for conversations about their art, their mental health and how the two influence each other. Chaffee figured the finished product would be posted online and promoted to the musicians’ fans.

Jason Chaffee: “Dissonance was part of my story of getting sober. It wasn’t the only story. Ultimately it took hitting rock bottom and a 12-step program to get me there.”
Courtesy of Dissonance
Jason Chaffee: “Dissonance was part of my story of getting sober. It wasn’t the only story. Ultimately it took hitting rock bottom and a 12-step program to get me there.”
“I’d been toying with my own idea of interviewing an artist in my basement or something, setting up a livestream or doing a podcast about songwriting and getting the story behind the songs and their journey in mental health,” Chaffee said. 

“Sessions” could be a way to get those all-important stories out to a larger audience, Chaffee figured. “People’s stories really appeal to me. The way I was able to recover was through hearing about similarities, not differences, with other people — through airing out those similarities together and having a venue to do that in.”  

Sarah Souder Johnson
Sarah Souder Johnson
Chaffee, who’d been producing music videos for himself and for other artists around the Twin Cities, wanted the production quality on “Sessions” to be high. Videography, he explained, “is a passion of mine, another art form.” He imagined this as something more produced than just a camera on a tripod. 

Vernon, a Dissonance board member, was enthusiastic about Chaffee’s proposal. “He wanted to not just film and livestream an event we did already,” she said. “He wanted to put something really professional together, like an ‘MTV Unplugged.’” 

The rest of the Dissonance board also supported the idea. Souder Johnson, a mental health therapist, musician and former music teacher, was eager for the opportunity to sit down with notable Minnesota musicians and delve into their life experience and how it impacts their art. 

“‘Sessions,’” Souder Johnson said, is “something different than we ever have done before at Dissonance.” During the long-form interviews, the artist takes a close look at two of their songs, with Souder Johnson acting as a guide of sorts: “We pull the songs apart to find what they are all about.” 

Like everything at Dissonance, “Sessions” is produced by volunteers, Souder Johnson said. “This is a labor of love for us, especially for Jason Chaffee. We care so deeply about the artists we are talking to and we want to be sharing their stories in a way that really honors them.” 

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The first “Sessions” interview features Minnesota country blues standout Charlie Parr, who talks about his own history of depression and how that has influenced his songwriting. Creating a finished product that truly honors Parr’s work was important to Chaffee, who explained that he put in “upwards of 100 hours” of editing on that interview alone. And he could’ve kept going, he said: “I had to be pried away from it.”

Katy Vernon, a Dissonance board member, was enthusiastic about Chaffee’s proposal
Courtesy of Dissonance
Katy Vernon, a Dissonance board member, was enthusiastic about Chaffee’s proposal.
Vernon said she hopes that as the first set of “Sessions” interviews is released, viewers will come to appreciate the project’s focus on the featured artists’ strength and resilience, on the varied ways they’ve built their careers while supporting their own mental health and wellness. 

“We don’t want to make people feel like we’re diving deep just to feel their pain,” she said. “Everybody has a story to tell. It is more about smashing stigma and talking about the hard stuff that everyone goes through and how that can influence your art.” 

The myth of the ‘tortured artist’

It’s too easy to accept the idea that mental illness is just part and parcel of an artistic life, Souder Johnson said. The truth is that artists actually do their best work when they are mentally healthy and free from addiction. 

“When people are well they actually access their creativity in a bigger, better way than they did before, when they were not well. A lot of the time, for artists, struggling with mental illness or addiction has been glamorized, like, ‘He’s so unhinged,’ or, ‘She’s a loose cannon, but she’s got great songs.’” 

Souder Johnson and other members of Dissonance want to bust those stereotypes, and spread the word that artists deserve mental health support. To do that, they sponsor a number of events, including the monthly Story Well gatherings; hosted “concert conversations” with artists; annual seasonal events like “Unhappy Holidays;” and sponsoring the live music and storytelling event “Morningside After Dark.” All artists who perform are paid and all events are substance-free.

Vernon said that events are central to Dissonance’s mission of finding new ways to support, sustain and celebrate creativity.

“Dissonance is where wellness and creativity connect,” she said. “We concentrate on doing that by bringing together musicians and other artists. We discuss mental health and/or sobriety issues so that you’re getting entertainment but also going a little bit deeper into understanding what inspires artists to put out what they put out into the world.”  

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That understanding is accompanied by a need to help artists get healthy both physically and mentally, Vernon believes. After her mother died when Vernon was just a girl, she struggled with grief, mental illness and addiction for years. Until she finally addressed those intertwined issues, her art suffered. 

“It is important for artists to get healthy,” Vernon said. Dissonance’s focus on the intersection of creativity and mental health helped her to understand that she didn’t need to suffer for her music. “We don’t want to focus on the pain of the art. We want to address the fact that everybody deserves to be healthy and happy. Shining a light on mental health issues isn’t a suffering contest of who’s not doing well: It’s an opportunity to help others see the way to greater wellness.”

Until he realized that he didn’t have to be tortured to be an artist, Chaffee said he rationalized his own alcohol addiction as just part of who he was. 

“I thought that having an addiction to alcohol was just part of being a Chaffee,” he said. “It had nothing to do with my art or the fact that I wasn’t getting anywhere with my music. I tried using that excuse for years.” 

Chaffee blamed his stalled music career on the idea that for some reason he just couldn’t live up to his peers. He was depressed, and he self-medicated his depression with alcohol. The alcohol smothered his creativity, and his art suffered.  

“I wasn’t doing anything but feeding my addition,” he said. “That’s why I wasn’t getting anywhere.” In 2015, when he focused on his mental health and finally got sober, Chaffee said his creativity surged:  “I immediately stated writing. I did an album. The floodgates opened.” 

Souder Johnson said that she and her colleagues at Dissonance believe that helping more artists like Chaffee unlock their creativity will require a shift in the way we all look at the art that enriches our lives and the people who create it. 

“As a society we make it OK to pay artists in drink tickets or have a really crummy touring lifestyle and have a ton of financial insecurity, but all we reap the benefits of their art,” Souder Johnson said. “We really want to create a different way forward for how we as a society treat and value artists.”

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Deep dive

When they decided to call this new interview series “Sessions,” Chaffee and Souder Johnson were aware of the name’s double meaning: Musicians record in sessions — just as time with a therapist can also be called a session. 

As a mental health therapist herself, Souder Johnson thought the name was catchy — and accurate. “We can get pretty close,” she said of her conversations with artists. “We can really go there. We are calling ‘Sessions’ ‘Half-therapy, half-recording session.’” 

But “Sessions’” producers don’t want the episodes to feel exploitive or too revealing. Souder Johnson said she uses her professional judgment during the interviews, not taking her subjects to places that make them feel exposed, but still working to reveal truths that may speak to audiences in authentic, powerful ways. 

“I’m not looking for a salacious gossip piece. I’m generally curious about the person behind the songs. I also want to support people in being able to make it OK to talk about this kind of stuff in the first place. A good thing that can happen with ‘Sessions’ is someone might watch it and hear something that resonates with them.”

Charlie Parr
Courtesy of Dissonance
Charlie Parr
She hopes that viewers will take something away from her conversation with Charlie Parr. 

“If someone like Charlie Parr can sit and talk intimately with me about his experience with depression — he describes it in a beautiful, real, raw way — if he can do that and say, ‘I think it’s time to get back to therapy,’ other people might be able to say, ‘Maybe I should, too.’” 

After the Charlie Parr interview, Chaffee said he and his “Sessions” co-organizers plan to release four more interviews with other notable local artists. The next interview, with singer-songwriter Chastity Brown, is in production and will be released this summer. Later in the season, Souder Johnson will interview three more artists.

Chaffee said that listening to Souder Johnson’s interview with Parr only reconfirmed his belief in the powerful place of stories in the healing journey. While Parr hasn’t faced addiction himself, his open conversation about his mental health and the impact it has had on his art felt powerful.  

“How Charlie talks about his depression is what really caught me,” Chaffee said. “When he talked about being hospitalized as a kid and how that shifted his life, it make me take a different look at the world, made me sit up, listen and understand.” 

Mental health resources are available at the Dissonance website.