Kris Ellestad fights stigma through folk

Thursday 09th, February 2017 / 17:51
By Arielle Lessard

An artist’s candid discussion of his journey with mental health and its effects on his music.

CALGARY — Artists’ relationships to creation and inspiration have always, at best, been tricky to pin down. Add to that a laundry list of personal struggles, an underdeveloped mental health care system, and a festering stigma surrounding depression and anxiety and you’ve got a recipe for artists and personal ruin. But this can also bring growth, or just maybe, a chance for something in the middle, a nourishing and gradual equilibrium.

Kris Ellestad, an unassuming and talented fair-folk singer-songwriter, has the kind of quiet attitude that can make a loud room hush. His relationship to public performance has grown, but not without its knots. “Enough circumstances align[ed] to decrease my anxiety to the point that I can share more than a joke or some self-effacing navel gazing,” Ellestad tells BeatRoute via email from Oslo, Norway.

It’s Ellestad’s lived experience that contributes to his earnest ability to connect, though his intention is to be less personal and write music for others, those things tend to be tightly packed, and “changing relationships, careers, identities, and families” in the past few years underpin the emotive core of his work.

Having performed with Amelia Curran’s ‘It’s Mental’ initiative, a grassroots advocacy group working to “destigmatize and support those dealing with mental health issues,” Ellestad is no stranger to the convoluted ways both our health care system and social networks deal with hardship. “Until mental health is treated as seriously as any other physical ailment we will continue to be a sick and hurting society.”

Ellestad personally experienced ineffectual counseling that left him worse off than he came in, and Ellestad’s been outspoken about his experiences with mental health. “If anything”, he writes, “I’ve gotten better at manifesting or discovering hardship.” The biggest change in his perception of mental health coming from a place of acceptance. “I finally accepted that using medication was not an admit of weakness or defeat.”

He emphasizes most people’s need for a full lifetime of support rather than an overreliance on medication and crisis counseling, which can be a drop in the bucket. “I’m lucky to be alive thanks to my family, not the medical system,” he says, making it clear he feels these systems have failed him.

Photo: Kris Ellestad

Ellestad has used his music and songwriting as a tool to work through his own struggle, but even this methodology is fraught. “I think art is naturally therapeutic when you allow yourself to explore your life and express any real feeling,” he argues, but “with music, the place where it gets sticky is when you channel a river of negativity into a song as catharsis and end up retraumatizing yourself every time you play it.”

Ellestad has experimented with electroacoustic rock, orchestral chamber-folk and everything in between, but Kris himself is a gentle tinkerer, who identifies in music with the “feeling of capturing something that’s chosen to reveal itself” and believes that “the best songs [he’s] written felt like [he] didn’t write them at all.”

Through it all, Ellestad perseveres to create new music, if his work on Faebles (2015) is any indication he’ll continue to find heart in arrangements, or as he says in a charmingly self-deprecating manner, “find a way to complicate things.”

His newest release features a burning church and is focused on vocal arrangements set to simple acoustics but feels like a grand lullaby, “Going home… Where I can do no harm.” 

Catch Kris Ellestad February 10th at the Ironwood Stage and Grill as part of Block Heater.

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