The Happiness Playlist is a memoir with the potential to inspire others to see music as a comfort, a companion, and a healing balm.
In The Happiness Playlist: The True Story of Healing My Heart with Feel-Good Music, musician Mark Mallman struggles with profound grief over the death of his mother. Early in the book, he writes, “It’s tiring, but grief opens up new ways of seeing.” Music does the same, and it is only through marrying them together that Mallman finds a way out of his own deep depression.
Mallman covers a year of grief and recovery, and of a strange addiction to sadness and anxiety. To help himself, he develops a happiness playlist. Savvy readers will have Alexa at the ready to augment the reading with the same songs that bring solace to Mallman. Keenly aware of the potential for music to influence moods and outlooks, Mallman turns away from some of the darker songs that he used to scream out and instead opts for Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” and Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” and the music runs the gamut from musicals to the Velvet Underground. Just as Mallman is grieving the loss of his mother, he is also transitioning from being his beloved Annie’s boyfriend into her friend—another loss where he sees and actively sows the potential for something new.
One great strength of the book is Mallman’s deep affection for and knowledge of Minneapolis and its music scene. Between worshipful conversations about Prince and gigs at places across the city, he paints an active picture of the place, its people, its restaurants and bars, and its niche shops and history. The scent of deep-fried tater tots nearly wafts off the page as Mallman meets with friends at neighborhood haunts. He relishes the names of specific streets and stores, imbuing the text with familiar names for residents of the city.
The prose is fueled by short, declarative sentences and a narrative willingness to be emotionally vulnerable. It is often funny and just as often bittersweet. Mallman spends months trying to understand his nightmares, his anxiety, and his desire to be well. Along for the trip is is father, an endearingly supportive parent who gifts his son a Crock-Pot and advises him to make good, cheap soup. The two knock along supporting and loving each other as part of their own recovery from grief. His other frequent companion is Annie, and their conversations are silly, strange, nonsensical, and intimate. Mallman has a particular gift for catching the quirks of their dialogues.
Speaking with conviction to the notion that music can heal, The Happiness Playlist is a memoir with the potential to inspire others to see music as a comfort, a companion, and a healing balm.
In The Happiness Playlist, Mark Mallman offers a compelling memoir covering a time in his life influenced by his decision to listen to “happy” music in order to recover from grief.
Mallman is a veteran Minneapolis musician known for his headline-catching marathon performances (he once had 75 musicians back him for two days while he performed one song continuously, with only bathroom breaks). Here, he writes about his grief over his mother’s death—an event that sparked panic attacks, crying jags and nightmares—and shares the somewhat unfocused daily routine that resulted: hanging out in nightclubs, seeing movies, relying on a support network of friends and fellow musicians.
Mallman’s writing style is direct, clipped and staccato; his words are vivid bursts of observation, often hypnotic: “White-noise tinnitus rushes out of my faucet brain. The sound of washing dishes. Strong breezes. Lips that shush the baby. Coming from somewhere beyond the drop ceiling is a swamp of a tune.”
As we follow his journey, we grow to like his menagerie of friends—hipsters and street philosophers straight out of central casting—as well as his ex-girlfriend Annie and his father, who lives alone in Milwaukee and is constantly in touch with Mallman, ending every conversation with “I love you.”
Like a catchy song, the book’s rhythms are upbeat, despite Mallman’s pervasive grief. He mentions a few of his “Happiness Playlist” tracks—spanning 1960s oldies to current rockers, pop to punk to R&B (Minneapolis, after all, was Prince’s hometown)—but never offers a full list or solely credits his playlist for his recovery. He notes that therapy, time passing, a positive support system, all contributed. Yet, he writes, “I can say with great confidence that happy music unsticks the muck from the boot heels.”
In all, his story suggests that surrounding ourselves with positive reinforcement can help us shed the veils that darken our lives— a lesson we arrive at after a life-affirming and thoroughly enjoyable read.
'The Happiness Playlist' Is a Moving, Entertaining and Well-Written Reflection On The Art Of Living, Music, Grief and Joy: 4.5 Stars
In THE HAPPINESS PLAYLIST, author and musician Mark Mallman careens his way through days and nights of unsettled energy, aiming for meaning, peace and experience, after the death of his mother. Millman resides in Minneapolis and his book is a stream-of-consciousness narrative—moment-to-moment, thought-to-thought, anything that comes into his head, along with what he does on his own and with friends. At its best, the style is reminiscent of Kerouac, Hemingway, and Bukowski. Mallman is capable of being jokey and sarcastic, but then the prose will cut through the patter, becoming quite moving in odd, surrealistic ways: a crock-pot becomes a symbol of loss, a reminder of a parent now gone. An ended relationship with a girlfriend, now in the iffy stage, is seen through the chattering prism of a freezing “Adult Night” at the zoo.
A series of mini-adventures keeps the THE HAPPINESS PLAYLIST entertaining: a Sleep Apnea test, a dog-walk, dinners out, musical events, a band rehearsal, a Thanksgiving journey to visit a father in another state, now alone after a mother’s death. Accompanying the adventures, of course, is music—the “playlist.” The age of the reader and taste in music will determine how much the list resonates, but there’s a wide range. Mallman tries to keep a sense of innocence and wonder through the book. He’s not there to judge, but to experience. The result can seem juvenile, of which the narrator is painfully aware: “Later, I wash the dishes. There are no clean towels, so I dry them with a shirt. When my Dad was my age, he was married with two boys and a house. I wonder if he dried dishes with a shirt.”
The simple description of the author’s journey is that he uses music to heal his wounds, but that summation is only part of it, and doesn’t do the book the justice to which it’s entitled. Mallman also leans on his “tribe”—friends and fellow artists, girlfriends and colleagues, his father—as well as his own creativity and his tremendous ability to look with humor and detachment on his frozen environment and the healing possibilities in his own head. The result is an uplifting memoir that earns its wings honestly, with humor and perception.
In this debut memoir, a musician offers a brief meditation on loss and grief, explaining how songs helped heal his heart.
Mallman’s panic attack started a year and a half after his mother’s death in an accident—a delayed reaction. A doctor told him: “Sometimes the brain waits to process a trauma.” Nothing seemed to help; even some of his favorite music became “terrifying” to him in its sadness. The author decided to make a “Happiness Playlist” of inspiring and cheerful songs to try to help break him out of his funk. The playlist included Bob Marley, the White Stripes, Pharrell, and Gorillaz. His therapist suggested that he “surround” himself with people who would “lift” him up. A few weeks later, a woman named Annie came into his life. He listened to his playlist nearly exclusively as he battled depression through the fall and winter months, bantering with an eclectic group of friends and artists in the Minneapolis scene and celebrating Thanksgiving at home with his father. Many of the interactions seem slight—going to the mall with Annie; glibly commenting on an art exhibition to his friend Eugene. But it was all done to keep Mallman from dwelling on his mother’s death. And it seemed to work. The author’s epiphanies are somewhat esoteric, and there is no one moment where he declares victory over sadness. It comes in small bursts, as when he’s writing songs: “Make certain to sing through your mouth from your heart, not with your mouth from nowhere.” Perhaps as a result of his musical background, his prose also delivers staccato, declarative lines: “The asphalt beneath us is fresh with sleet. It sprays the surrounding cars as we speed by them. My window doesn’t close tight. A whistle sings in my left ear. Everywhere is music.” While the prose is economical, it can feel terse until the rhythm settles in. Overall, observing Mallman fighting grief feels like watching a fishing bobber battling a strong current. Still, this book should offer solace to anyone grappling with a similar situation.
Readers struggling with depression will likely find comfort and solidarity in this account.
Grief can unexpectedly rear its sometimes ugly head at moments many of us are not prepared to handle. Grief can choose to manifest itself in ways that we may not expect and at a time when we may think we’ve beaten the storm. For many dealing with grief, anxiety and panic attacks are not uncommon after traumatic events such as a death or a significant relationship breakup.
These topics and more fill Mark Mallman’s new book The Happiness Playlist: The True Story of Healing My Heart with Feel Good Music, which is set to be released on March 19 by Think Piece Publishing. Readers who have dealt with grief, anxiety, and depression may find solace, empathy, and hope as Mallman explains his healing process through music and close relationships. Mallman created what he refers to as a “happiness playlist” that he listened to when he was feeling anxious or experiencing emotions related to the events that preceded his anxiety.
Mallman, widely known as a musician, screenwriter, performer, and now author, talked candidly about his memoir in an interview with The Local Show’s Andrea Swensson.
How did you know that you wanted to write a book?
For a long time I’ve been thinking in third person, and I think it was writing that was happening in my mind. I would just go to the grocery store, and as I was buying groceries, I’d be thinking in terms of a narrative, and of course I write songs for my job. But I didn’t really know I’d love writing. I had been struggling with panic and anxiety, but really mostly just trying to keep peace, stay happy and stay positive. I found that anytime I’d pick up a book that would be telling me how to live my life – like a self-help book or something – I wouldn’t finish it, or it would bum me out because I could never follow the rules. And then I read the Stench of Honolulu book and it was super funny, and it was bad. And I didn’t say ‘well, I’ll write a bad book,’ but what I thought was, isn’t this interesting?
There are so many pieces of writing that tell you how to live, but what about a book that just creates a feeling within you, like songs do? I started writing on this idea of songs for the last four or five years that cause a reaction of positive energy within you. I thought that could be done in a book. As a mode of self-care, I had established a happiness playlist. I was putting it on a lot when things were stressful. And I thought what would be cool is if I decided I would commit to this playlist for six months and keep a log of how these songs get inside of me and explode positivity. I thought I’d do it in winter because that’s the one force that unites us all in a certain type of uphill struggle in Minnesota – something that we all go through together. I don’t think winter is a totally subjective experience like a breakup, or like coping with a death, which is in the book.
In addition to taking on this experiment, you’re also coming to terms with a breakup and the death of your mother, and those two things are rendered very beautifully along this journey. I’m wondering, when you set out to do it, did you know it would be these six months — or did it turn into six months because that’s how long it took you reach a new place in your life?
Going back to screenwriting, which helped me a lot in terms of how to be concise with language – Star Wars starts in the middle of a fight. The first thing that happens in Star Wars is the fight scene. Luke Skywalker – we’re starting at the beginning of his journey, but his journey starts in the middle of the rebellion. I think it’s a great place to start a story, kind of in the middle of the story with your character at the beginning, but there’s stuff already happening. I picked two of those pivot points. It’s a book about music. When I was feeling sad, I put the happy songs on and it worked. It’s sort of that simple.
I feel like a lot of the advice people give if you’re in a funk or if you’re experiencing depression or anxiety, is you should go outside, you should get some exercise and you should drink some water. Trying to get you to return to this other part of your being, which is your body. But that’s all really hard to do when you’re depressed. So music seems like a quicker pathway to getting this movement happening.
Keys fascinate me. Here’s a thing that’s not even really mechanical. It’s just a piece of metal. There’s only one part to a key. It’s a simple thing, and yet if you lose it your life stops. It’s this tiny little thing that lets you into your house. You couldn’t get into your house without it. Everybody’s been to a point where they’re broken up with, they don’t want to go to work, or where they don’t want to get out of bed because they’re a little bit sad. I feel like music is this little key. It’s little, but it’s enough to get you out of bed and get you on your day. Getting out of bed is the most important part of the day for most of us.
I exercise. I do drink a lot of water, and I have a panic system. I don’t talk about that stuff in this book. This is a music book, but I do have this idea that dimes make dollars, and that it’s easier to find 10 little things than one big solution. Find 10 little solutions that add up. So for me it is go outside, drink some water, talk to dad, and put on the happiness playlist. And usually it doesn’t take all 10 dimes to make a dollar. It usually only takes like four or five, and then I’m up, I’m out of it and I can be productive and the rest of the day is downhill. There’s this idea of catharsis, which I talk about in the book.
In the middle of winter and in the darkest coldest days, a song was released. It was a song by Phoebe Bridgers called “Smoke Signals.” It’s eloquent, heartbreaking and it blew my mind. It’s the only real part in the book where I broke form. I put it on repeat and became obsessed. We all know what that’s like. I got nervous. Am I going to go into a pit? I felt myself. I felt the song. I felt it change me. I became Phoebe Bridgers in the song, and she says, “I am a concrete wall.” I let it happen. That moment, I felt power over my emotions because I realized that I could listen to a sad song. After all this time of only listening to happy songs I had built up this fear. What if I listen to a sad song? I said, I’m going to listen to it for the rest of the night. And I just played it. I absolved myself through exhaustion. I still adore the song. It actually empowered me. I realized that there’s a place called Calm, a place called Quiet the Mind, a place called Listening, and Silence. Those are places where anxiety doesn’t flourish. Anxiety tends to flourish when we’re standing against the wall screaming and hearing the feedback. It doesn’t tend to happen when you quiet the mind, when you are like a tree, or when you watch and allow the world to pass you by. I feel like listening to music quiets our mind in the same way.
One of the things I wanted to ask you about: you and I both really love cute things, and kind of a recurring theme throughout this book is how much you love dogs. I kind of see it in the same vein maybe for you as listening to happy music, that dogs give you this kind of relief from your mind.
Dogs – I learned from a dog and some people might learn this from their bird. Animals have so much to teach us just by existing, and it’s a shame that we disregard how wise animals are because they can’t talk. You take your average pet dog. It’s somebody’s dog in a house. So what? If you watch them, they’ll teach you how to fall down seven times, get up eight. A dog teaches you resilience, to go forward without hesitation, to be loving, and to give someone a kiss despite the dirt on your face. I feel that I learned so much from that little pooch. We’re indebted to animals.
One of my favorite Twitter memes is “We don’t deserve dogs,” with a picture of a dog doing something amazing.
I think one of the points in the book that hit me the hardest emotionally was when you talked about Toto.
I had intended to have some magical realism in the middle of the book where I escape into The Wizard of Oz. I watched The Wizard of Oz, and while watching it, I went down a Wikipedia hole and learned that Toto is female. Our society, for a myriad of reasons, has assumed Toto is a male dog. To me what that reveals, this whole fakeness of Hollywood narrative, and that The Wizard Of Oz is really like a fever dream that Dorothy has. She learns by going there that there is nowhere over the rainbow, and that the rainbow is actually inside of her. When I was watching her sing this beautiful song, Toto keeps looking off-camera. I keep watching, and that dog’s just being a dog. A dog doesn’t know it’s a dog in a movie, just like a dog doesn’t know it’s followed by 15 million people in Instagram. It just is, like music, and that music can only be music. A dog can only be a dog.
Toto does this all the time in The Wizard of Oz. Everyone’s leaving a scene and Toto runs to the side. What it does is break the fourth wall for me. Toto breaks the fourth wall, and by doing that, it enables us to see that The Wizard of Oz is just a magic trick. The Wizard is a magic trick, and when you reveal the trick, the magic dies. In order to maintain the fluffy feeling of magic, we can never know really how it works. Toto reveals to you constantly, “This is just a movie. I’m not even a male dog.” If you don’t remember the magic, once you know the trick the magic dies. If the magic is dead within you, you can’t say anything to an audience that is going to move them.
When it happens it’s miraculous. For some reason, life is dragging you down. You’re plodding along, one foot in front of the other, when, suddenly, you hear a song that transports you out of the doldrums and to a lighter, happier place.
Something like that happened for Minneapolis musician Mark Mallman. In the years after his mother’s death he struggled with anxiety attacks that woke him, panicked, in the middle of the night and threatened to slow the insatiable creativity that had inspired a decades-long musical career — a career that included the release of more than eight solo albums and such memorable feats as the days-long “marathon song cycles” that earned him a mayoral proclamation and national publicity.
This mood turn was sudden — “like flipping on a light,” Mallman said — and, for a time, he was blindsided.
A lifelong lover of a range of musical styles, from alternative rock to punk, disco-glam and metal, Mallman realized that he wasn’t finding joy in some of the music that he’d always loved. It was a frightening discovery.
“I just couldn’t listen to some of my favorite bands,” he said. “Joy Division scared me. It freaked me out.” Mallman doesn’t feel comfortable labeling this experience in psychological terms. “Maybe in the ’70s they would call it a nervous breakdown. But it wasn’t that. It definitely took me a long time to get to a place where I could put a name on it. Now I like to say that for a while my life interrupted itself.”
But Mallman, who’s coped successfully with anxiety for most of his life, discovered a treatment that eventually helped him put his life back on course. Realizing that he was actually able to find joy in certain songs, he assembled a collection of them over a few months, and named it “The Happiness Playlist.”
Mallman’s playlist is an eclectic mix of musical styles, but all the songs have one thing in common: a focus on happiness, optimism, bravery and, most important of all, joy. While he worked on coming to terms with his grief and regaining his equilibrium, Mallman roamed around Minneapolis with his many friends, visited his father in Wisconsin, went to the doctor, got a sleep study, went out for meals, texted his ex-girlfriend — and kept “The Happiness Playlist” on constant rotation.
“I used the playlist to cheer myself up and help combat certain bits of anxiety that would go deeper than I felt like I needed them to,” Mallman said. “I realized this wasn’t an existential crisis. It was an amygdala hijack. It was like my body hijacked my amygdala and I went crazy — until I started listening to the playlist and things got better again.”
A naturally sensitive and finely tuned artist, Mallman nonetheless appreciated the practical solution that the playlist represented. To find inner peace, he accepted that he needed to take a step away from being a music creator for a time and allow himself to settle into the more passive role of music consumer.
“I’m pragmatic,” he said. “I like to focus on solutions. Listening to music, not performing it, brought me out of my situation. I had to let go of control for a time. I was consuming music, not producing it, and that was OK. I would sit back, put the playlist on, and go, ‘Ahhh.’ For me, listening to music was a path to joy.”
Mallman felt so inspired by his recovery that he wanted to tell other people about the experience. When he met Adam Wahlberg, founder of Minneapolis-based Think Piece Publishing, through a mutual friend, he told him that he’d like to write a book. [Full disclosure: Think Piece also published this author’s book on resilience.]
Wahlberg, a longtime Mallman fan, was intrigued and excited about this opportunity.
“Mark’s our Elton John,” Wahlberg said. “He’s really talented. He’s had a real big run. He’s such a big persona.”
But Wahlberg also knew that Mallman was just coming out of a delicate period, and he realized that writing a book about his experiences could be emotionally draining.
“He was fragile after his mother passed,” Wahlberg said. “His whole persona for the 20 years before that was Mr. Positive, Mr. Upbeat. Then there was this shift, and he wanted to write about that.”
Wahlberg told Mallman that he’d be interested in seeing the book when he had a draft ready. That was all the encouragement Mallman needed: He began to write about his rough months and his recovery.
While he was writing the book, Mallman never let himself sink into the depths of despair — his goal was to write an uplifting, even funny story about grief and anxiety. He wanted to show his readers a path to happiness, and he did that by truthfully narrating his own journey, floating above depression and clinging bravely to joy.
“We have this story of a person who is frivolously going through his life, processing his mother’s death, going through a breakup,” Mallman said. “This isn’t a book about losing your mom. It happens to have it as part of the subject matter, but I feel that there are a lot of other things it the book, too.”
When Mallman understood that his writing might have the power to uplift others, just as the music in his playlist had uplifted him, he was thrilled. “I realized,” he said, “‘I can help people, make a difference, bring them joy just by reading this book.’ It was exciting. There is a guided meditation going through the book. The reader will not brought into darkness. The reader will be laughing instead. “
Mallman has studied screenwriting, and one of the first things Wahlberg noticed when he read a draft was that the book, which is steeped in Mallman’s life in Minneapolis’ music scene, feels almost like a screenplay.
“I thought the book was totally original and fun to read,” Wahlberg said. “It reads like a movie. You can imagine some of the scenes on a screen, the characters, the settings. His dialogue is strong. It’s remarkable.”
“My book is about this very simple idea that when you are in a crappy mood, play happy music and watch how it can help,” Mallman said. “Music isn’t a be-all-end-all solution for everyone, but it has been a real solution for me. I built a career on it.”
In the book, Mallman writes openly about the experience of witnessing his mother’s struggle with mental illness.
“I grew up in a family where a member of the household was successfully battling depression,” Mallman said. “I was raised by a person who knew how to handle depression. She was strong and open with her emotions, and I was inspired by her when I wrote this book. If you think about it, 68 years is a long time to live with depression. It gives me a tremendous amount of empathy for what she lived through.”
Wahlberg said he was most impressed by Mallman’s goal of presenting his readers with a practical tool to lift their spirits and find their way to a happier place.
“Mark doesn’t want to write about the triggering events of his grief,” Wahlberg said. “What he’s really doing with ‘The Happiness Playlist’ is writing a cognitive behavioral therapy(CBT) book about tools that you can use to stay balanced. I’ve never read anything like it. Mark is writing what CBT people teach, spelling out skills you can use when you start to feel the pain.”
Mallman likes the idea that he’s providing readers with happiness tools.
“Adam talked about how this book is really going to help people,” he said. “In the midst of rewriting my first draft I saw a post online about someone who had taken their life. They had left some sad posts and that spurred me to think that it would be neat to have something out there that manifests joy instead. I wrote ‘The Happiness Playlist’ so that other people can have one more tool in their arsenal, a tool that moves away from sorrow and brings joy.”
The altruistic bent of “The Happiness Playlist” is classic Mark Mallman, said Lazerbeak (real name Aaron Mader), a Minneapolis-based producer and CEO of Doomtree.
The two got to know each other in the mid-1990s, when Lazerbeak was still in high school and performing in the band The Plastic Constellations. Mallman, a Constellations fan, supported the young musicians, inviting them to participate in one of his marathon song cycles.
“He was this generous elder statesman,” Lazerbeak said. “He was already established here. He was really kind. He helped us get on our feet in the music scene.”
Lazerbeak and Mallman lost touch for several years, but began hanging out again last year when they ran into each other at a mutual friend’s wedding. The two met for lunch, and learned that they had a lot in common.
“Our minds were aligned,” Lazerbeak said. “I had gone through my own battles with anxiety and depression. I’ve had struggles, too. I worked on re-centering myself and got into meditation.”
Mallman told Lazerbeak about his book project, and Lazerbeak talked about his recently released solo album, “Luther,” an instrumental work he calls a musical “meditation.” He appreciated Mallman’s playlist idea. “Sad music doesn’t help me when I’m really sad,” he said. “I need to go listen to my favorite artists of all time. I can totally relate to the idea of listening to happy music to feel happy.”
They also collaborated on a song, titled “Peace on Earth.”
“We have been on similar paths,” Lazerbeak said. “Both of us focus on the good and the positive. The struggle is good. The triumph is the process. When you talk about mental health it is easy to go down into the darkness. Mark doesn’t go there.”
People would have been shocked if Mallman had taken a different approach in his book, Wahlberg said. “Anyone who is familiar with Mark would say he is exuberant, super-sensitive, up and positive. In a lot of ways that’s what makes the reading experience of this book fascinating.”
When “The Happiness Playlist” book was finally finished, Mallman sent his friend a copy. After reading the book, Lazerbeak fired off a text. “I told him it made me really emotional,” he said. ”I was slowly crying for the last 30 pages. Not in a sad way, but in this cathartic way. His voice just struck a chord for me. It is a gift to be able to walk through a journey with someone who is so willing to be vulnerable. I know that he really wants to reach the people who are in the dark. That’s his mission, and he achieved it.”
When Mark Mallman’s editor first heard his book pitch about songs that helped him survive a bout of depression and anxiety, he assumed that the Twin Cities rock musician meant the usual miserable stuff.
“I figured it’d be a ‘High Fidelity’ kind of book and he was listening to people like Nick Drake and Kurt Cobain,” recalled Adam Wahlberg of Think Piece Publishing. “When I mentioned those specific artists, though, he actually got kind of mad.”
A piano-pounding indie-rock vet who made his name by pulling off bold stunts — such as a legendary 76-hour marathon concert — Mallman attempted maybe his most surprising endurance test yet during the winter of 2014-15.
He made a pledge to listen to nothing but happy music. Using Spotify, the 45-year-old singer/songwriter put 50 sunshiny tunes on an endless loop all winter long.
What happened next — in his newfound listening habits and his attempt to revive his personal life — are recounted in often touching and sometimes wryly hilarious details in a new memoir, “The Happiness Playlist.”
It wasn’t so much an experiment as “a desperate act of self-defense,” Mallman said. At the time, he was stinging from a breakup with a longtime girlfriend and still mourning the sudden death of his mother in 2013.
Lila Mallman and her son learned how to play piano together, and she also taught him the joys of trying to make other people happy. But her son could not find the tools to make himself happy.
His depression gave way to sudden bursts of anxiety that woke him up in the middle of the night, setting the playlist idea in motion.
“It became a physical thing,” he said. “Certain things would literally trigger a negative physical reaction” — including the fiery Nine Inch Nails song “Heresy” and the freaky Ralph Steadman paintings at Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis (art he otherwise adored).
So it was out with the NIN, Nirvana, Joy Division, Smiths, Patti Smith and all the other mopey/angsty music that heavily defined Mallman’s Generation X, and in with the Pharrell, Bob Marley, Staple Singers, Whitney Houston, ELO, Gorillaz and all the other unabashedly upbeat and hopeful tunes he could find (and stomach) for four months straight.
“A lot of my friends would say they hate a song like Pharrell’s ‘Happy,’ ” Mallman said, “but I clung to it. I needed that different kind of physical response you get from a song like that, a song obviously meant to make you get up and dance.”
“Happy” wound up at No. 19 on Mallman’s happiness list, between Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” at No. 1, Randy Newman’s “You Got a Friend in Me” in the 50th slot and all those aforementioned artists with good vibes.
In the breezy but hardly light 130-page book that grew out of the playlist, random day-to-day occurrences became meaningfully intertwined with the drama (or lack thereof) in the music — things such as having the back window of his van shot out by a pellet gun, or going to the Milwaukee Public Museum with his amazingly supportive dad when he went home to Waukesha, Wis., for his first Christmas without his mom.
Mallman will promote the book in his adopted hometown with — what else? — a gig with friends at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis on Friday.
Even during the long, dark months chronicled in the memoir, he remained active as a musician. He worked on film and commercial music and crafted one of the best albums of his nearly quarter-century career, 2015’s emphatically titled “The End Is Not the End.”
It’s the same show-must-go-on resiliency that he drew upon to perform “Let It Be” at his mom’s memorial service without breaking down.
“I had a harder time hearing Paul McCartney sing that song in concert than I did singing it at her funeral,” he said. “Playing music is a very proactive thing. Listening to it is a lot more passive.”
In the book, Mallman explains how and why he could no longer find catharsis hearing the more down-and-out songs that he and many other die-hard musicheads consider the mightier and more meaningful music in pop culture. So he just went for the full-bore poppy stuff.
“Feel-good music doesn’t fail me,” he writes. “Major chords and positive lyrics give faith to know that everything works out all right. … Happy music unsticks the muck from the boot heels.”
Much of the memoir grew out of diary entries during his winterlong sugar binge.
His editor thinks “you can tell Mark is very into movies and sees the world through artists’ eyes by the concise, creative way he writes.” Wahlberg also praised a more pragmatic side to the memoir: “He did want this to be a useful book to help people, and I think it is. One of our big goals at Think Piece is to just get people talking more openly about [mental illness], and his book is an unusually fun way to achieve that.”
Mallman doesn’t want to oversell how effective his playlist idea was. Going cold turkey on alcohol consumption also helped him get healthy again, even though he believes he never suffered from alcoholism. He also enlisted therapy, antidepressant drugs, meditation, a sleep study “and a whole gamut of more common remedies” for stress, topics not really covered in the book. (“There are already plenty of good self-help books about those things,” he said.)
“This playlist is just one small, relatively simple solution I came up with myself. Putting a song on: It doesn’t come much easier than that. But sometimes 10 small things like this can be as effective as one big, complex solution.”
He also doesn’t want to overstate his love for the 50 songs: “Eventually, I did get pretty sick of a lot of it,” he said.
The idea worked, though.
“Obviously, it wasn’t a total cure-all,” Mallman said, then mustered that mischievous, piano-climber smile so recognizable from his live gigs. “But I’d be pretty shameless if I titled the book ‘The Happiness Playlist,’ and it didn’t actually have a happy ending.”
Mark Mallman once seemed indefatigable, invulnerable even. The musician’s four marathon performances include a non-stop, sleepless 78 hours in 2010 (a single song, essentially, with 576 pages of rhyming lyrics). He was like a machine, and then the machine broke.
On March 19, Mallman released a memoir, The Happiness Playlist (Think Piece Publishing, $14.95), about trying to pull his life back together after his mother dies and a months-long spiral of grief and anxiety sends him looking for a way out. Music proves to be the ladder up, from Sibelius to Pharrell.
Along the way, Mallman visits Mia. In the book, he and a friend named Maurice (who’s wearing a full-body cat onesie) muse about the myth of suffering artists while looking at van Gogh’s Olive Trees. It’s preposterous to assume all great art is conceived in torrid, emotional squalor, Mallman writes, before fantasizing about meeting up with van Gogh to thank him for his inspiration to the world.
I would like to treat van Gogh to some Dairy Queen. Our strawberry cheesecake will resemble the sky in Olive Trees. We will ooze into one another like human paint. The sky will become a spaghetti twist of ruby and tangerine. Surrounding us will be a frame painted in gold. Below the painting, a card will read The Ice Cream Eaters. Oil on Canvas. Date unknown.
Mallman goes on to comment that the “most purply” painting in the museum (a reference to Prince) is View of Dresden: Schlossplatz by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. I have no idea what Schlossplatz means, he writes, but my guess is grape soda. It is a little-known fact that Kirchner augmented his paintings with grape soda. (This is probably a playful take on grapeseed oil, which artists historically used along with other oils—most commonly linseed oil—in oil painting.)
In any case, Mallman was in good spirits in 2016 when he returned to Mia to film part of this video on Snapchat, for a song called “It’s Good to Be Alive.”
Happiness gets a bad rap. Especially in music.
But for Mark Mallman, upbeat tunes were a life-saver. After a freak panic attack that wouldn’t quit, he amassed a playlist of uplifting tunes like Bob Marley’s “One Love,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and The White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends.” The effects the songs had on him, and how he emerged from this anxious mood, are beautifully detailed in The Happiness Playlist, his new memoir with Twin Cities publisher Think Piece Publishing.
Mallman also gives readers a peek into insightful conversations with fellow artists about the healing and hurtful repercussions of music, playful repartee with a girlfriend-turned-BFF, and an endearing relationship with his father that revolves, in part, around a Crock-Pot. The book is steeped in local culture and starving-artist life.
Throughout the narrative, however, there is a palpable grief surrounding the death of his mother, Lila, in 2013, though Mallman circles around the details of that event in person and on the page. “My mom was a fighter,” he says. “She survived depression for 68 years. She didn’t lose her life to depression. She fought. I don’t wrestle with that. I witnessed it. I witnessed an outside pain but I still don’t understand the inside struggle. And my heart goes out to people who struggle with it.”
Mallman doesn’t believe there was a direct cause-and-effect relationship between his mother’s death and his own mental health struggles a year-and-a-half later, though he does admit, “I lost my mind when my mom died. I lost my relationship with reality. I feel like my DNA changed.”
Which is why he created a playlist to alter his mood, saying goodbye to some of his favorite acts, like Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, and Joy Division. This self-administered music therapy wasn’t his only coping strategy, however. In the same way he diversifies his income as a full-time musician–by scoring a movie trailer, playing a gig, DJing–he diversified his coping strategies, too. Therapy, square breathing, exercise, and eliminating sugar and caffeine have all been helpful. He also leans on faith. “When a person dies, I believe they go to the afterlife and we go to the after-death,” he explains. “The after-death is a place that we deny as a culture, but it’s a place of grieving.”
Writing turned out to be restorative, too, if unintentionally. The Happiness Playlist took eight drafts and two years to complete, and Mallman was intentional throughout about both his tone and objective. “People who are going through shit…need light,” he says. “It’s not a heavy book. It’s a light book about a few heavy topics. But it’s also about music as a path to joy.”
This approach mirrors how he’s made music since around 2001, when he decided he would not write songs while depressed. “I realized that scary music was kind of killing me,” he says. Playing those songs again and again had taken their toll, and he felt karmically responsible for what he was putting out into the audience. When touring, he only had an hour a day to actually play music onstage – and he wanted that hour to be the best part of his day. So he stopped creating from his “woe is me” moments. “I don’t want to walk with my demons,” he says. “If someone hurts my feelings, I work through that outside of songs.”
With The Happiness Playlist, Mallman proposes a new use for music, one beyond that of a soundtrack for driving, ambiance at a dinner party, or as a way for teens to annoy parents. “What I’ve learned about music is that there’s a power in its frivolousness, and that empowers me to do some of the harder things in my day,” he says.
That doesn’t mean sad music doesn’t sometimes seduce him. Towards the end of the book, there’s a scene where Mallman hears Phoebe Bridgers’ “Smoke Signals,” a gorgeous downer if there ever was one, and the songwriter in him can’t turn it off. It made him wonder if the happiness playlist was “permitting joy or prohibiting emotion.” Though the playlist taught him that he could feel good again, his conscience questioned whether or not he was denying himself a full range of feelings. Now, he understands it as: “There’s a place beyond happiness…It’s a meditative spot.”
It’s the spot he seems to be in now, wild-haired and wearing bright pink-framed glasses as we discuss The Happiness Playlist at Mia. After the interview, he plans to check out a Van Gogh before heading to the gym. He hopes his quest for good vibes will spread with the release of the book and its accompanying Spotify playlist.
“When you feel good, that joy manifests and you create tangible positivity,” he says. He’s currently channeling that energy into a podcast and a new funk album, one of the only styles of music he says can be both in the minor key and happy at the same time. “People want to be happy right now,” he says. “There’s a zeitgeist of happiness. We need it.”
Mark Mallman went through a beast of a Minnesota winter a few years back. In the aftermath of his mother’s death and the dissolution of a romantic relationship, the Twin Cities musician found that certain songs were too much to stomach—specifically, the ones echoing a despair he couldn’t shake. So he curated a list of positivity-imbued melodies—stuff like Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” —and took it like medicine over and over and over again. (See the entire playlist at the end of this post.)
Eventually, he started keeping a journal and the results became The Happiness Playlist: The True Story of Healing My Heart With Feel-Good Music. It’s a window into his mind, his close relationships, and a tour of his favorite Minneapolis hangouts during that formative period. Instead of a step-by-step guide to a more-positive existence, it’s more like a living-proof document of music’s healing powers. “I hope that it can help a lot of people write their own playlists and use music to reinforce some positivity when times are tough,” Mallman says. Ahead of a book-release party at 7th St. Entry, he explained to Minnesota Monthly how and why music makes him happy.
How did this book come about?
Once I decided the topic I was going to write about was going to be this happiness playlist, the first draft of the book is just journaling. I knew my story. There was going to be winter involved. I knew I was going to listen exclusively to the playlist. I just kept a diary of what went down. Then it took another year to take it from journal entry to the book. It’s about the collective idea of a playlist. I didn’t want it to be a prescription of songs for people. I wanted it to be “this is how a happiness playlist affected me.” I didn’t know exactly how it was going to affect me when I set out to write, but I had a vague notion that I was going to be in a good mood [laughs].
The book’s narrative doesn’t spend much time analyzing the songs on the playlist, they’re more in the background.
Music is not much different from the food I eat or the air I breathe. I’m just immersed. I’m not saying that I couldn’t survive without music, but I’m saying that I’ve integrated it into my life in such a way that it’s a phantom limb. The difference is that I haven’t written about it. I don’t have a critical mind that could offer up an authoritative deconstruction of a song in the same way that I write songs to deconstruct the world around me. So it made more sense for me to tell a story. It was hard for me to find a book to make me feel better, and I really needed it. I figured there needed to be a book that would address some healing and my hope is that people read it and feel good. Which is different from why I write albums. When I knew I was writing it, I was thinking, “Make sure it’s funny, make sure it’s happy,” because I wanted that response.
So is this book a happiness playlist of personal memories?
It’s intended to create a complex, calm, positive feeling as opposed to a book that dissects happiness. Instead of talking about it, just be it. There’s a mindful, meditative quality of talking about things that are beautiful, dogs that are cute, rain that is soft, foods that are warm, and people that you love. When you read this, your body goes through the same responses. It was easier for me to write about light things, and dip into the heavy stuff now and then, than to just go [barf], here’s all the horrible stuff that happened.
How much of a playlist person are you in life?
Writing an album is like creating a playlist, and I grew up making mixtapes. Now, a playlist is such an integral part for even the most casual music fan. We all have playlists, you know? As a creator of music, I forget that there’s also just listening. That playlist is just an aside. I have all the playlists that I use for research or if I’m composing. The happiness playlist that I have was just super organic. Like, “Oh, I’m in a crappy mood, I’m going to put this on.” It snuck up on me that I’d create a piece of work about it.
Three ways songs make me happy: a physical response to rhythm, nostalgic emotional response to the lyrics, or that rare song that’s manufactured to be about happiness that actually feels genuine. Which categories do these songs fall into for you?
First and foremost, the body responds. We listen with our bodies. The initial response in the recording studio when a song’s in the right spot is everyone is moving their head. For happy songs, I think that energy is transferred to the body. Music bypasses the intellect and expresses the soul.
For me, the cultural context or the historical significance of a song didn’t come into play—with the exception of [Bobby Day’s] “Rockin’ Robin.” Mom and I would listen to the oldies station when I was real young. I remember “Rockin’ Robin” would come on and we’d sing along. It’s a simple, happy song. In that way, it’s very powerful in manifesting joy. She loved robins too, they were her favorite bird.
The third, is that manufactured happy song. An artist is a manufacturer. We sometimes channel our ego in our work and tell our personal story, but other times we write dance or rock music with the intention to rock out with the band. Or to make music for dancing. “Happy” has proven globally as a song that was manufactured to create happiness and has exceeded those expectations. It’s a phenom. I’m sure that Pharrell just has powerful emotions about the positivity of that song that no one could have expected. I hope in some way my book can do the same thing.
As this playlist came together, did you get sick of some stuff?
A song that didn’t make the playlist was U2’s “City of Blinding Lights.” It got cut. Something about that song makes me feel incredibly high, elated even, but there’s this saccharine descending bell in it. It started to drive me nuts, and the earworm became a little too strong to listen to over and over. There are some songs on there that you would think would be annoying but every time “The Bare Necessities” comes on, I love it.
Some of the vocalists for songs you chose could yield an entire happiness playlist on their own. Take Mavis Staples or Damon Albarn (Gorillaz, Blur).
That’s interesting to me. As a songwriter, my intuition is that Damon Albarn is writing from the child self, which comes up a lot on this list. Returning to our innocence, lyrically and stylistically. Literally, with “Over the Rainbow,” which is sung by [Judy Garland] playing a child, and “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps, they’re singing to a child. Beatles songs are basically kids’ songs. We might associate childhood with a certain naiveté, but there’s a lot of wisdom in being a child. A playlist is like a hive mind. When you make a mixtape for someone, it’s a collection of multi-faceted emotions that you might feel for them. But there are elements of this playlist that are driving the same points home: dancing, love, and be like a child. And potato chips.
Mark Mallman is experiencing the worst panic attack of his life. Mallman is a musician in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as well as a son, brother, and friend to many. He’s masculine but displays his emotional side when needed. In The Happiness Playlist: The True Story of Healing My Heart with Feel-Good Music, Mallman learns to overcome the fear in his life before it gets the best of him entirely. A year and a half after the unexpected passing of his mother, the doctors tell him that his brain is just now ready to proceed through the grieving process. During this time he experiences disruptive anxiety and restless sleep. He considers the soothing effect that music can have and decides to use it to regain a sense of normalcy in his life and to feel better. He decides to make a “happiness playlist” to ensure the positivity of his musical exposure. Being a musician, Mallman has music in his blood. While still learning to be on his own, personally and emotionally, he sees his mother peering into many parts of his daily life. Each chapter covering a different month, and the reader will watch him grow emotionally into self-reliance, with the help of his friends, father, and music. In spite of the downfalls in his life, Mallman has been and continues to be a very upbeat person who chooses to see the good in situations and people.
Having never experienced anxiety or the loss of a parent myself, I still feel that I can understand Mallman’s story well through his writing and the emotion it portrays as well as through my personal understanding of the impact music has on changing a person’s mood. Music is such a big deal in all areas of life. When one is knowledgeable in music, it can help boost intelligence and creativity. Having lived in Minnesota and the Minneapolis area for the last several years, it was enjoyable to read about the places to which Mallman traveled and frequented. It’s too bad I didn’t know about him before. With love, positive feelings, and good music playing a large role in his book and life, the target audience could be any age, any gender, but are probably those who live in the northern states or places with a colder climate who understand how hard it can be to keep an upbeat attitude when it’s cold most of the year.
In late 2014, a year and half after the sudden and unexpected death of his mother, Mark Mallman started to break down.
“Something is wrong,” he writes in “The Happiness Playlist,” his just-published memoir. “I’m shaking. I’m crying. I’m having a panic attack that doesn’t go away. Not in the morning. Not the day later. Not a week later. … The panic attack lasts two months.”
A Waukesha, Wis., native who has lived in Minneapolis since 1991, Mallman tried everything he could to heal himself. He quit drinking, sugar, caffeine and multivitamins. Nothing seemed to work until the singer/songwriter gave up on … sad music.
He began making a Spotify playlist filled only with happy songs.
“I did a trial and error of what songs bothered my body, what songs irked me” said Mallman, a longtime fixture of the local music scene with his own star outside First Avenue. “I started paying attention to what made me clench up and what made me chill. A song could be in a minor key and I’d say, ‘Creeps me out. Not going to work.’ If there was a word like ‘gun’ in it, I dropped it.”
What made the cut? A total of 50 tracks, some obvious, others not: Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” Bob Marley’s “One Love,” Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow,” Lizzo’s “Good as Hell,” Prince’s “Paisley Park,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).”
“It was an experiment in using music almost medicinally,” Mallman said. “I know (a gloomy band like) Joy Division makes me happy when my s— is all together. But circumstances outside of my life had unraveled. I needed to get out of bed. I needed to get through the day.”
Mallman spent the 2014/2015 winter listening to almost nothing but that playlist, which he has since made public on Spotify. And it worked.
That playlist serves as the backbone for “The Happiness Playlist,” which follows Mallman through those dark months spent connecting with friends and family, attempting to reconcile with the past and figure out how to move forward. He’ll discuss the book during a reading at 7 p.m. April 3 at St. Paul’s Subtext Books.
The 130-page book makes for a quick, but utterly fascinating, read. Mallman jumps right into the story and keeps things moving at a rapid clip. It’s thoughtful, funny and touching and will likely linger in your thoughts long after finishing it.
Mallman didn’t set out to write a book when he made the playlist. “But what spurred me to do it was the fact that I found this really awesome tool I’d never used before,” he said. “I was listening to music as a listener and not as an employee of music.”
Over the years, Mallman has started reading, but rarely finished, numerous self-help books. “I realized there are people out there who like these books. I get that people like them, but they weren’t working for me. I thought there had to be more people out there like me. This is not a self-help book, it’s a true story. I wrote the book I felt was necessary for people going through what I went through.
“You write a book that is needed, not a book everybody else already wrote.”
Mallman had previously only written some short-form music pieces and movie reviews. He had no experience beyond that. “I didn’t know what I was doing, it was like the Wild West in my mind. I knew how to write poetry, so I would write a long poem about my day and turn it into paragraphs. I needed raw material more than good material. I figured I’d make the raw material good.
“It was really freeing and super fun. I went through seven drafts of learning how to write a book and that took an extra year. But it was a blast. And my main thing was that this book is going to be funny. I wanted to make it dense and efficient and concise, yet funny and poetic.”
Mallman did make it clear he wasn’t suffering from clinical depression. “My relationship to depression is witnessing it. My depression is the depression that results from post-traumatic stress disorder. I watched my mom struggle – and succeed – with depression for years. It’s hard for me to say that my PTSD was the result of grief. I don’t want to blame my mom. And this book isn’t about depression.
“The point of the whole thing was to write a happy book about some heavy stuff in a time when people are overwhelmed. It’s about happiness and finding happiness amid the confusion of life.”
Music is an essential part in everyone’s day, in the morning, during a jog, but a musician helped show us the power of music and how it can help listeners cope with mental illnesses.
Musician Mark Mallman joins Mike Max in studio to talk about his career in music and his new book, The Happiness Playlist, all about how he used happy music to fight anxiety and grief.
Mark Mallman’s “The Happiness Playlist” is a book about listening to tunes to put you in a good mood and mindset. The Minneapolis musician is hosting a book reading and signing, as well as playing piano, at Canvas and Chardonnay on April 23 at 6:30 p.m. We caught up with him to chat about the new project.
How would you describe “The Happiness Playlist?”
It’s a chronology of listening exclusively to happy music to see if it would affect my overall disposition on a day-to-day basis over the course of a winter.
What are you hoping people get out of this book?
I wrote the book to share this idea from an expert opinion that music has healing qualities that can collectively function if applied in a thoughtful manner. (Although) I’m not a scientist or a psychologist, I do have 30 years of music experience as a music professional. So I do feel like an authority on this topic.
What was it like writing the book?
I had the playlist around for two years. Everyone has a playlist you just kind of keep. And I had been going through some self-help books and thinking, “God, these are all a pain in the ass to read.” They’re either one of two things: too big and boring and you never finish them, or too depressing … Or third thing: it’s a Ponzi scheme. I can write an expert opinion on how I use music to help me through my regular day-to-day stuff. And it’s a totally different perspective than a doctor or priest writing about music. I feel like it’s an insider’s how-to guide. Most music books are “here’s my tour” stories. I kept a journal and refined it into a piece of literature that uses music. I feel like it can help people go through heavy stuff, but it’s not a heavy book.
How can people make their own playlist?
For me, when I’m in the studio and writing, I’ll listen to my body. That sounds mystical and hocus pocus-y, but when the music comes on, pay attention to how your body responds, and not your brain. For instance, there’s a Sting song on my happiness playlist and there’s a lot of narrative about Sting that doesn’t have to do with the melody. You mention Sting and talking about his music is lower down the list. (People) might talk about his history or acting. By listening to your body, you become more in tune with what’s happening. I try not to discriminate based on a critical review or what my musical peers might think of that artist. Someone like Joni Mitchell… widely accepted. Someone like Pharrell (Williams) might be disputed. I’m more inclined to resonate to R&B and funk, and indie rock and punk. But it’s different for everyone. Recognize that this is for just you. It’s not for anyone else. Don’t worry about if it’s cool. Throw the idea away that you have a guilty pleasure. It’s like food; order what you want.
Did you include shout-outs to any Minnesota bands?
Lizzo’s on there. Prince is on there. A lot of the happy music I found is R&B and funk. That’s the one thing I discovered that’s influencing my music now. There’s something about dancing that bypasses the ego. R&B, and funk, and soul… music that has to do with dancing generally is not depressing. And even the depressing stuff, it’s still awesome to dance to.
When musician and writer Mark Mallman’s mother died unexpectedly, his reaction was swift. He went to his parents’ home in Wisconsin, helped his father and family there.
His personal response came later.
“I didn’t grieve,” he said Tuesday.
Mallman, who has spent more than 20 years recording and performing, kept touring, spending time with friends while living in a loft apartment in Minneapolis.
“Not in an irresponsible way,” he said. “I just didn’t grieve, and then I started waking up scared.”
The panic attacks grew longer and longer. The delayed grief paralyzed Mallman. He faced his grief with help of a psychologist, family, friends and a playlist of songs he found up-lifting.
Mallman wrote about his experience in “The Happiness Playlist,” his first book. He hosted a reading and musical performance Tuesday at Canvas and Chardonnay. More than two dozen people attended the event.
Between solo piano performances and reading from the book, Mallman reflected on his experiences.
“When you lose a parent, you lose your reference to existence,” he told the crowd.
Mallman, who is used to performing live either solo or with a band said reading and talking about his book is a much more intense, personal experience.
“The book’s just basically a journal I turned into literature by rewriting it 80 times,” he said.
Many random thoughts made their way into the book from mundane details to ideas he said felt revelatory at the time.
“I never thought I’d write a book, and honestly never thought I’d get the chance again,” he said. “So I wanted to put all my thoughts in it.”
“I don’t think we live in a culture that knows how to grieve,” he said.
His father reassured him that death is a part of life, he said. However, in day-to-day conversations, death is rarely acknowledged let alone discussed, he said.
“We deny ourselves that,” he said. “We live in denial of our bodies, we live in denial of our climate and then when it comes time to grieve, it bites you in the ass.”
That attitude left him to grieve on his own, he said. That’s where the playlist helped. There will always be moments of solitude where grief creeps in. Mallman said his playlist of songs helped him cope with being alone in those moments.
Mallman spoke with people who attended and signed books while the playlist played in the background. He said he hopes his book helps people who find themselves grieving and alone.
“I’m trying to show people when you don’t have anybody, you can put some music on,” he said.
Music throughout history has provided people a means to gather, talk, worship, pray, celebrate, dance, sing, meditate. Music is both communal and profoundly personal, providing comfort, happiness, inspiration, joy. Many of us have music playlists—for in the car, at the gym, on a walk.
We recently asked two author-musicians to reflect on the role music has played, and continues to play, in their lives, and specifically how music influences and informs their religious and spiritual understandings. Their reflections follow.
When Minneapolis musician Mark Mallman began suffering from unrelenting panic attacks, he turned to music to help with his healing. Not just any music, and not to the heavier, edgier stuff that had been some of his favorite acts—Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, Joy Division.
He turned to happy music. Mallman created a soundtrack for what became the title of a book about the experience, a soundtrack dubbed, The Happiness Playlist (Think Piece Publishing, 2019). “People who are going through s… need light,” he told Citypages (March 22, 2019). “It’s not a heavy book. It’s a light book about a few heavy topics. But it’s also about music as a path to joy.”
Mallman largely traces his mental health struggles to the sudden death of his mother in 2013. “I lost my mind when my mom died. I lost my relationship with reality. I feel like my DNA changed,” he told City Pages. Music—along with therapy, exercise, diet, the support of friends, a loving father—helped restore it.
At the height of his anxiety, music helped provide Mallman the comfort he sorely needed to return to health. One book reviewer writes of The Happiness Playlist: “Speaking with conviction to the notion that music can heal, The Happiness Playlistis a memoir with the potential to inspire others to see music as a comfort, a companion, and a healing balm.” (Clarion Reviews, Feb. 1, 2019)
“Comfort,” “companion,” “healing balm”—words often attributed to religion and religious experience. Does Mallman see a connection between music and religious experience?
“Music can be all those things too,” Mallman says. “And for many musicians, the act of performance is a religious experience in and of itself. It celebrates life. In my book, I use music to channel my heart from the muck of ‘Real Life.’
“Music is an element. It is not unlike water. Water can be applied to our lives however we see fit. Not only to keep us alive, but to facilitate a more fruitful life. The majority of the songs on my happiness playlist are in the major key. Gospel and Funk are some of the few genres that have happy lyrics in the minor key. When it’s time for me to address the spiritual, the song of a bird or the wind is more sacred than any songs a person could write. There is no playlist happier than that of the natural world.”
He says this about the presence of faith in his life: “I’m not religious in traditional ways. I’ve developed my own beliefs that combine things, though I still pray at night to who is mostly the God I was raised under and the God my father and mother practiced to.”
Mallman continued: “As an adult, I find the spiritual world all around me. I’ve devoted my life to manifesting joy where once was a void. I serve the world this way, first through music and now with a book about music. I believe music can manifest love. I do not align myself with negativity, judgment, or hatred. I was raised in an awesome Catholic church called Saint John Neumann Parish in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
“I still practice many ideals taught to me as a boy. The top of those values is to listen with an open heart. When paired with music, internal worlds of struggle can be conquered. In my book, I dedicate a six-month period of listening exclusively to a playlist of happy music. What I learned from it was that music releases us from the constructs and failings of the modern world. It touches us where words fail. This is the root of our healing from the confines of daily life.”
It is well documented that anxiety and depression are rising among young people. One new analysis reports that the number of children and teens in the United States who visited emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts doubled between 2007 and 2015.
Says Mallman, “My heart goes out to those struggling with anxiety and depression. It’s not easy. Much is kept under the surface. If you suspect someone is suffering, reach out. Ask them if they want to see a movie or get some lunch. Invite them to the barbeque. Play some uplifting music. An act of kindness will reach deeper than you’ll ever see. There is no place in the world for hatred or cruelty. Let’s recognize through hardships, we can lean on positive music to pull us through. When people seem to be failing us, the music is its own reward. I learned so much in the process of writing this book.”
Mark Mallman first feels a contender for his happiness playlist in his body — a technique he uses in mixing his own music in addition to, recently, deciding that Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” is a good song to listen to over and over and over again.
“They speak to my body before they speak to my mind,” Mallman said in a phone interview from Minneapolis, where he had taken a break from composing music.
It’s in his back and shoulders, he said. If it loosens up, he knows.
Mallman’s compilation of upbeat songs was the starting point for his self-help/music memoir “The Happiness Playlist: The True Story of Healing My Heart With Feel-Good Music.” While grieving the sudden death of his mother, Mallman turns to music as a “map to safe harbor.” He chronicles three seasons of his life during this period — the tacos, the twice-daily conversations with his father and the perfect New Year’s Eve spent with an ex-turned-friend.
And in the background: the music.
Van Morrison’s “And it Stoned Me,” Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.”
Mallman, a longtime figure in the Minneapolis music scene, will give a reading and sign books at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Bookstore at Fitgers. He will return to perform June 8 at The Red Herring Lounge.
First, the playlist
Mallman’s grief was delayed, but when it finally struck, it struck hard. His story opens with a never-ending panic attack that has him afraid to sleep and afraid to be awake.
Music had always been his thing, but suddenly Joy Division and Patti Smith were too bleak. He shed old favorites in favor of a growing list of upbeat tunes: a 3-plus hour playlist with the likes of Bob Marley’s “One Love,” Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow,” Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody.”
Whether it’s in his life as a touring musician or in creating an album or DJing an event, he said, music has had a practical application. Making the playlist was different.
“It was probably the first time since my teens that I approached music entirely as a listener,” Mallman said.
Sade’s “By Your Side,” Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll,” Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.”
Olivia Newton John’s “Xanadu,” Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” Rufus Wainwright’s “Oh What a World.”
Then, the book
Mallman started journaling with the idea of writing the book he wanted to read — a path forged by an eclectic collection of writer models who write what he calls “truthful books”: Amanda Palmer, Ernest Hemmingway, Annie Dilliard.
Mallman said he knew he wanted something funny and uplifting; a here’s-what-happened-today story.
He describes the process as “tedious fun.”
“There’s part of writing the book that’s like mowing the lawn,” he said. “You know it’s going to look great when it’s done. You have to have faith in it.”
He writes about the day-to-day trudge, living as a working musician in an urban environment, figuring out why his sleep is so wonky. Sometimes he gets silly with hypotheticals with his ex Annie and talks about smashing piano keys with his buddy Eugene.
His father drops nuggets of wisdom during phone calls, and Mallman never hangs up without telling him that he loves him.
Mallman eats tacos, brings gas station cookies to a party; the window in his van gets shot out. He receives a message from a psychic and sells equipment. He deconstructs the song “Happy” — how it annoys some people and makes others, literally, happy.
So how is it?
“The Happiness Playlist” is a concise look at how one human lives his life in the years after a family tragedy and how a human lives after a breakup with a partner he doesn’t want to lose as a friend and how a human just simply lives.
Mallman’s is a collection of dogear-worthy passages that concisely describe anxiety and the litany of worries — climate change, whether Mallman’s hair dye is seeping into his skull.
“An asteroid hit the earth,” he writes about his mother’s death. “Out the window, the planet’s crust ripped open. An ice blue magma leapt into the streets. The city became a two-dimensional disaster zone. My jaw clenched. I’m surprised I didn’t crush my own teeth. Reality was a shallow veil. Who prepares for this? One hundred razors cut my flesh into squares. They toppled over each other, squiggling on the hardwood. I didn’t even notice.”
Alternately, there are quote-worthy lines like, “if it can’t be said with hair, it can’t be said” or “a sundae is a salad with better ingredients.”
Mallman’s life now
Mallman has been doing readings and wants to tour with the book, rather than a band, he said, in the fall. The goal is to sell a copy to everyone in the world — all however many billion of them.
“I want to get it to people,” he said. “I want to continue on this path of positivity and just manifest joy and all that hippie dippy sh**.”
Mallman said he has found the experience of reading aloud to be a more direct way of communicating with people. He’s meeting people who really connect with his words.
“Music enables the listener to evacuate some emotions they didn’t know how to access,” he said. “Music is more abstract. It’s nice to express the conversational side.”
He was told, he said, that writing a book would open doors.
“I knew they’d be career doors,” he said. “But really what happened: my family, we became closer. And my family got bigger.”