“Sorry about my head.”
If you’ve struggled with the many tentacles of depression and its ability to pull you under and away from family and friends—from your entire world—you’ll recognize that sentiment. It’s the opening line of the lead single from Gus Dapperton’s latest album, Orca. Over spare acoustic guitar, miked so close that it sounds nestled in your ear, Gus doles out the line, and if you’ve followed the 23-year-old’s career from the bright and charming early singles and EPs to 2018’s full-length album Where Polly People Go to Read, you’ll recognize that the singer-songwriter-producer has entered new territory here.
“In the past, I’ve written my songs from a place of love and heartbreak. This album is about internal pain and suffering,” he says. On “Bluebird,” Gus dives headfirst into the heaviest sort of anxiety: the fear of death, and how to come to terms with mortality. Musically “Bluebird” is all swagger, the feeling of moving through your life with thoughtless ease—the piano is bright and the bass drives the action forward—but the lyrics tell a different story. He sings, “My grave puts all the weight on hold,” meaning that the discomfort of living could be gone in death. It’s but one perspective on a complicated album that takes pain seriously—and healing too.
Gus began writing this project while on tour in 2018, exhilarated by performing for fans and first-time listeners in countries he’d never visited before, but feeling the stresses of the road as well. “I was unbalanced,” he recalls. “My lifestyle and habits had gotten extreme. I wasn’t getting eight hours of sleep a night, I was drinking and doing drugs often. Wasn’t eating healthy. And on top of it, I was performing. A show can be the most inspirational, emotional high; but if something goes wrong it can be devastating.”
Those precipitous highs and lows, and the desire for home, took Gus to dark places—even if it wasn’t obvious to those around him. One of the nastier aspects of depression is how it sabotages and dismantles connection; you’re alone in your head, feeling unable to communicate what you’re going through, and if you’re a young, physically healthy person the folks around you won’t necessarily see what’s afflicting you.
Lyrically, that idea is communicated across Orca; as Gus puts it, “You can’t understand the internal pain of something based on its physical appearance.” But the album’s powerful richness comes from how it musically complicates the solitary feeling of depression by bringing Gus’s family and friends into the songs. Because the album was written on the road, these songs came together as ensemble pieces, with Gus’s band. It’s more live-instrument driven than anything he’s released before, and his younger sister, who has long accompanied Gus in his band, plays a crucial and prominent role as a vocalist.
“I wanted my vocals to be more vulnerable than they’ve been,” Gus says, and to accomplish this he used less layering than in the past. “On this record it’s just my lead vocal and my sister
singing the harmonies.” Elsewhere, Gus’s friends join for gang vocals, making these personal songs into anthems to be shared among loved ones—anyone who can understand these feelings.
Turning the personal into the universal is the sort of magic music has long performed. On “Post Humorous,” Gus recalls childhood moments shared with his sister on singing, “I can’t help thinking about the way we joked in those funeral homes” over crystalline guitar. “We had all these deaths in the extended family when we were younger,” he says. “Being young, we didn’t understand death, really, and we’d be in these funeral homes laughing at the religious aspects of it and all the things we didn’t understand.”
As the song wrestles with how daunting death is, how strong the temptation is to laugh nervously at it rather than try to confront it with vulnerability, this line from Gus’s childhood becomes something bigger than a memory. It becomes something every listener can share in.
Gus’s creative decisions in pursuit of a raw sound to match these raw emotions didn’t come easily. “I’m a huge advocate for putting myself in vulnerable positions in my music,” he says but admits that confronting these feelings “was a chance to be vulnerable that I was afraid of.” But he pushed himself and, with the help of his friends and family, came out on the other side stronger. “It was cathartic to put these emotions into music,” he says.For tour dates and more visit: www.gusdapperton.com