Forward Motions: KennyHoopla on Music as Escapism
The emerging artist talks self-doubt, the harm of “mental illness aesthetic” and wanting to feel better.
Written by Lauren O'Shaughnessy
01 KennyHoopla is a Wisconsin based musician whose debut EP dropped this March. He's been open about his struggles with mental health on social media and through his music.
02 Cofounder, Lauren O'Shaughnessy, spoke with Kenny to learn more about his process, wellbeing and future goals.
KennyHoopla is a 23-year old Wisconsin native and new force in the indie scene. His debut EP, how will i rest in peace if i'm buried by a highway?// dropped this March, and quickly gained traction among music hungry zoomers and nostalgic millennials alike.
Like many artists, Kenny’s work offers a look inside his mind and the highs and lows that define it. He’s no stranger to existential dread, depressive spirals and feelings of self-doubt. These themes are echoed in his music, and outside of it — on social media, in interviews.
Perhaps subconsciously, this honesty has made him a true mental health advocate. He doesn’t shy away from tough conversations and topics. In fact, he feels a need to speak on them. At the same time, he is hopeful and urges other young people to be as well.
Cofounder, Lauren O’Shaughnessy, spoke with Kenny about his mental health during quarantine, the role it plays in his creative process, and where he wants to go from here.
how will i rest in peace if i'm buried by a highway?//
Official music video for KennyHoopla's hit single.
I'm not sure how much you know about us. We’re a mental health nonprofit that talks a lot about the intersections of psychology and culture, which is why we're super excited to speak with you. Everyone on our team struggles with something, whether it's OCD or depression or ADHD. For most of us growing up, it wasn't non-profits or public schools that helped us feel better. It was music. It was art.
You write a lot about depression, frustration, highs and lows. What role would you say mental health plays in your creative process? Is it a coping mechanism?
It’s definitely a coping mechanism. But I also think that as an artist, I want to be a crutch for people that need one. I feel like that's our job. To put ourselves out there in a way that a lot of people wouldn’t.
A piece of me tries to write music from the perspective of someone I wish I had around. But at the end of the day, it’s just me being honest and not trying to overthink it.
How do the writing side and the performing side stack up against one another? Is writing more therapeutic and performing stressful, or are they both good releases?
They’re both stressful and therapeutic in their own ways. They’re two different worlds that I can’t really compare. Performing is way more therapeutic in terms of letting go, putting it all out there, and trying to connect.
I want to backtrack a bit and talk about your come up. During the early parts of a music career when someone is struggling to get noticed, issues with self-doubt can be massive. I'm wondering if that's something you struggled with and if it's gotten better now that your E.P. is out and is getting attention.
It’s been a constant battle. Especially because I didn't grow up in the most fortunate circumstances or with the same resources. It can be easy to look over and beat yourself up because you’re not on the level of someone else.
I have this whole thing - it might sound corny - but it’s this mindset that I’d like to make universal. It’s called “soon” and its meaning is essentially “something to look forward to.”
I’ve dealt with mental illness my whole life, and with suicidal mindsets. Whenever someone tries to talk to you about mental health, they always say “I’ve been there” or “It’ll get better soon”. The advice comes down to this idea of forward motion. To keep pushing and prove your mind wrong. I know it’s different for everybody, but I think proving that you don’t have to live the way you feel is the point. That things can be better.
I don’t know if that makes sense. [Laughs]
No, I get it! And I think you trying to figure out how to articulate that is a process everyone goes through. We can't really put these things into words.
When it comes to tough experiences like suicidal ideation, a lot of people are just looking for that small thing telling them tomorrow could be better, and maybe the day after that will also be better. Something that keeps you pushing, even if you're not thinking about the long game.
Do you have advice for other artists who are just starting out and trying to block out negative thoughts?
You have to embarrass yourself. You have to go into it ready to fail, not to get something out of it.
I look at it all as one big embarrassment. Push your tolerance. You're never going to be comfortable jumping into anything new. You have to start somewhere, as cliche as it is. So why not start now? You're helping a lot of people that you don't even know by embarrassing yourself.
Have you felt yourself getting more comfortable in your work as you've fucked up and tried again?
I don’t think so. [Laughs] I’m always embarrassed.
And, I’m not trying to be super controversial, but I feel like a lot of people use mental illness to their advantage in music. Or as their aesthetic. But for me, I’m not proud of it. I wish I didn’t need to talk about it. I wish these weren’t my problems.
It’s not like, I'm a rockstar and I have mental illness and I'm putting it at the forefront. I'm not trying to appropriate it. That’s the opposite of cool to me, because it's a very serious thing. I hope to one day make happy music about getting to the other side.
I think that's a complicated thing to talk about right now. The aesthetic-zing of mental illness is really popular. Where you draw the line between making people more aware of something and romanticizing it is complicated.
We've seen that a lot, not just in music and in art. Concepts like wellness and self-care have exploded and been commodified so aggressively. You can go on wellness retreats where you spend 3 grand on something and I mean, I'm sure it helps someone. But in terms of it being accessible and accurate for the vast majority of people, it's really easy to make this stuff look pretty when it's not pretty at all.
Wow you said that beautifully.
So I’m curious, I think you and I are probably somewhere around the same age. I’m 25.
I'm going to fan girl for a second, I know you’re friends with NowNow. I’m a big NowNow fan.
Yes! I still fan out when I’m with them.
The past couple of weeks I’ve been diving back into their catalog. That music is super nostalgic. Punk, pop punk, emo… a lot of these genres you traverse are having a resurgence again, which is amazing and something you're a part of. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about how that resurgence has to tie with how people are feeling. Emo and punk are historically very political, socially relevant music.
People need an escape. And the job of the artist is providing escapism. That music has energy. Like actual energy that makes people feel awake. Being loud in general does that.
I think that's what people are on right now. They’re mentally waking up.
People also like to run to the past. It’s not bad, but it kind of makes me sad. Cause I want to see the future of art and music and how much it can help.
Looking forward, are you planning on just jumping on new genres and making music based on how you feel?
I think that's what I'm on. I've always been in love with indie. That nostalgic feeling is not necessarily in the past. It lives in everybody. It's a high on life and that's a feeling I’ve had in myself and it's never left me. That's the kind of escapism I'm providing to people that like my music. That feeling of coming alive for a second. That’s what I want to do in the future.
Are there artists from your youth that made you feel this way? Or have been big inspirations?
Passion Pit. I actually learned he suffers from bipolar disorder. His music had colors. I feel grey a lot of the time, and it gets in the way of me making music and makes me feel lazy. But I hear these pieces of music when I’m writing that will trigger color. With Passion Pit, I could tell he was trying to make colors. That really helped me and was something I could connect with.
Who else…oh Kid Cudi.
I'm sure there's hundreds if you had to write a list.
The Drums. Johnny Pierce. Which is so funny because I listened to these artists and didn't know anything about them growing up. But you get older and realize that they’re just like you. None of them put it [mental health] out there though.
That’s something I don’t want to do. I don’t want to put my problems on the forefront to use it as a gain, or a way of getting empathy. I want to make something out of it... it’s so hard to explain.
You make music about the stuff you're going through, but don't necessarily want your aesthetic to be your hardship. Especially because it ebbs and flows. Rough one week, good another.
I think there are a lot of millennial & Gen-Z artists battling the same thing. You want to be honest about something, but that has the potential to mean your branded for that “thing.”
Yeah. And to touch on being branded… I get scared of triggering people. That’s a big reason why I take a step back with my music. I’m the same as you, I listen to a bunch of sad stuff. But I want to make sure it feels progressive and not like the “end” of something. It’s just a moment.
It’s tough, right? You make music for one moment and then it solidifies that thing. But that's the cool thing with music. You can always make more music.
I'm looking forward to your super happy, upbeat album in a decade.
You’re the realest for that.
So what are your goals for the rest of this terrible year?
I would like to make something special and try and get a little happier. I’m just being honest. I would like to try and get this feeling out of me. But I’m staying grateful and taking it day by day. Trying to do good.
Has quarantine been rough on your mental health?
My mental health is usually all over the place. But maybe it’s gotten worse? In the beginning I tried to be on it and get ahead, but I think it just ended up running me over.
Four months of this is good for pretty much nobody.
Yeah, exactly. Your hair is fire by the way.
Thank you. I did it in quarantine and had to bleach my entire head. I thought my hair was gonna fall off, then I looked like a Power Ranger for a month. Now it's at a nice equilibrium.
[Laughs] No yeah, it worked out.
Sweet man, I mean, that's all my questions for you. I'm not sure if there’s closing thoughts you have about all of this. It’s heavy stuff.
If I’m being honest, I feel like I’m about to have a mental breakdown. I can feel it coming. I don't feel really good inside at all. It’s almost embarrassing.
I was even having a thought before this, about not deserving to have an interview. But thank you, I’m grateful that I can talk on this. This is a start.
That’s your imposter syndrome talking to you. Your brain saying you don’t deserve this. I think it’s cool you brought that up, because it’s an internal dialogue a lot of us have. And it blows.
We’re super happy that you wanted to talk to us and are so open. Not just in this interview, but in general. You said it earlier - there was music when you were a kid that made you feel better, and I think you’re a part of that for other people. That’s important.
Thank you. Thanks so much.
My final question is, does that skeleton behind you have a name?
[Laughs] Oh my god I forgot to take that out. No, it doesn’t. [Laughs]
It needs one. You need to make a list.
I’ll get back to you on that.
About the author
Lauren is the editorial director and cofounder at the Made of Millions Foundation. She has been a part of the team since its launch in 2016. She has been open about her personal struggles with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and social phobia. You can follow her on Instagram at www.instagram.com/internet_lauren.
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