‘It’s not just me being dramatic’: The diagnosis that changed this musician’s life

By Nick Buckley

“Something I wanted to capture with this album, as much of a c— as a bipolar diagnosis is, there’s a lot you experience.”Credit: Billy Reeves

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Hertz is a unit of measurement equivalent to one event cycle per second. Expressed visually, a series of hertz cycles is typically depicted as a line moving linearly across a chart, dipping below and rising above a horizontal axis, forming an undulating sine wave as it goes. The same plotting can be used to visually represent music, too. For the Western Australian singer, songwriter and guitarist Carla Geneve, that wave felt representative of the states of her bipolar II disorder, a diagnosis she received in 2019. And it’s a wave she rode into Hertz, taking it as a metaphorical guide for her sophomore album of open plains Americana, written in the wake of that diagnosis.

“You think back through all the stuff that happens in your life. You do ‘the work’, as people call it. How is this affecting me? How has this affected me?,” Geneve says. “I was going back and plotting where I was in the past. It was interesting to see different songs that I’d written at different points on my emotional graph.”

In general terms, bipolar disorder’s peaks on such a chart would represent manic states including but not limited to elation, irritability or hyperfocus; while its troughs are filled with emotions such as hopelessness, sadness and indifference. The axis dividing the two extremes is euthymia – a word used in psychology and psychiatry to describe a baseline or tranquil mental state from which to measure emotional extremes. “Can wake up like it’s no big deal/ touch someone and know how to feel,” sings Geneve of the state on its namesake track.

When it came time to record the songs on Hertz, Geneve wanted the album to represent the oscillations of those emotions in its lyrical content, narrative progression and sonic details. In the album’s mixing, manic states are represented by “sparkly”, “crackly” highs and complex, quick chord changes on the album’s first half; while in its back end she pushed the timbre of her voice lower to embody the “slow, melting dirge” of depressive emotions.

Hertz is Geneve’s second album following 2022’s acclaimed Learn to Like It.Credit: Robin Bottrell

“Something I really wanted to capture with this album, as much of a c— as a bipolar diagnosis is, there’s a lot you experience. I wouldn’t say more than anyone else, but you experience [life] in a way that’s different,” she says.

The album opener Growing Pains was written at the onset of the pandemic during Geneve’s post-diagnosis period of reflection. The album then dives downwards on Drive Carefully, as she reflects on the vicious cycles that plague her lowest moments: “I know I’m angry all the time/ I’m angry cos I’m scared/ and I’m scared because I care,” she sings on the track. Hertz swings up again later on Bills, which she jokingly describes as a “silly… ridiculous… bossa nova song”. The album takes a devastating turn on Play School, a track inspired by Geneve watching a friend’s manic episode, punctuated with frightening bursts of synthesiser programmed with the album’s producer, Daniel Carroll.

‘[My diagnosis] validated my experiences and made me realise it’s not just me being dramatic, there is actually something bigger going on…’

“I wanted it to sound like the whole [song] is just breaking. It’s a shock of pure emotion. Watching someone go through a psychosis, it’s that complete disconnect from reality. There is just static white noise that comes out of nowhere; that’s what we were trying to make,” says Geneve. By the album’s closer Creatures in the Water, Geneve’s coasting on a high again, back at the start of the cycle.

“I remember walking around Fremantle, and just being like: ‘This is so beautiful’. I was thinking about everything around me. What’s over there? What are the little fish in the water experiencing? Thinking outward, about my friends and how magical the world is,” says Geneve.

She says that being able to write about other people, as she does on Play School and elsewhere on Hertz, has come from revelations spurred on by new treatment paths following her diagnosis.

“I gained empathy for myself and sort of got over the inner turmoil that came from being very confused and not knowing what was going on with my own life. Being medicated also is a big thing, because you actually have the time to think. Your brain starts working,” says Geneve. “I had a lot more time to start thinking of other people. My last record was really just my stories. I had the space to look at myself from a more objective position and then apply that methodology to other people.

“Which I’m very happy about because there’s way more people in the world than just me and probably way more interesting people too,” she jokes.

Geneve’s explicit in emphasising that people have wildly different experiences of bipolar disorder and that her own are just that. She declines to go into specific instances in which her own bipolar symptoms have manifested, but she’s learning the patterns of those swings and how they align with seasonal changes.

“It comes back to the title of the album, talking about a frequency that runs through everything in the world. Usually at the start of summer, I’ll start feeling better – more social, feeling creative, inspired and extremely hyper-focused, usually on music,” says Geneve.

“As that progresses, it sort of starts to sour after a while. You get frustrated because there’s only so much time in the day. And then it’s not happy, it’s not joyous any more. And then it will get to a point where it’s not fun at all,” she continues. “Then a crash happens and I’ve lined all this stuff up that I need to do, I’ve got nothing to give and I’m like: ‘F— it, I’ve done it again’.”

Geneve’s talking on a good day though, one of those spring heaters when Naarm tricks you into thinking winter’s over. She’s playing a headline set at the Night Cat later and we’re sitting in a patch of warm grass bordering a northern suburbs bike path. Birds are chirping and Geneve is buoyant.

“[My diagnosis] validated my experiences and made me realise it’s not just me being dramatic, there is actually something bigger going on… [It’s] a release from being confused, doubtful and unsure. It alleviates anxiety,” says Geneve, who was just 20 when she received her diagnosis.

Paradoxically, hertz cycles intensify as they get smaller. Kilohertz, megahertz, gigahertz and so on pack more of themselves into each second, their cyclical frequency increases but the size of the box stays the same. Geneve’s 2022 debut Learn to Like It, even in its quietest moments, felt like the overstretched rubber band holding that box together was ready to snap. But with more breathing room to process her diagnosis, Geneve runs Hertz’s emotional gamut with a level of acceptance missing from its tightly coiled predecessor.

Hertz’s cycles feel slower, more considered, more at peace with it all. “I’m not lazy, I’m just tired/ I’m not crazy, I’m inspired/ Even the times it backfired, they don’t phase me,” she sings on the gently strummed Feel. The album’s representative of Geneve’s deeper understanding of her life cycles, art and mental illness, and the places those things overlap. She wears her hertz on her sleeve, so to speak.

“It’s a chemical imbalance in your brain, but it also interacts with personality, experiences and a million other things in your life. I looked at my life for a while purely through the lens [of my diagnosis]. As I get older, [I’m finding] there’s so many lenses to look through.”

Carla Geneve’s Hertz is out on Friday.

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