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Mark Mallman experiments with mood-altering music in his book ‘The Happiness Playlist’

Mark Mallman wants you to be happy.

Mark Mallman wants you to be happy. Wilson Webb

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
Where: 7th St Entry
With: 26 Bats! and Gabe Barnett & Them Rounder
When: 8 p.m Fri. March 22
Tickets: 18+; $12/$14; more info here