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Getting honest about music and mental health: 'I remember things in the book I spent years trying to forget'

Tony Wright was a member of the hugely popular band ASIWYFA. He talks to us about leaving the band and how a vicious assault contributed to depression.

Image: Tony Wright/Colm Laverty

FOR MANY A teen making music in their bedroom back in the pre-social media days of the early 2000s, the idea of getting signed to a label and becoming one of Ireland’s biggest bands was both a pipe dream and a fervent hope.

But what happens when that becomes reality? And how do you evolve and grow when the bubble bursts? That’s a topic that musician Tony Wright knows well. The Northern Irish native was a co-founder of the phenomenally successful band And So I Watch You From Afar (ASIWYFA). A band which he later – unexpectedly to fans and those on the outside – left. 

He has now written a memoir about his time in the band, which also takes in being diagnosed with depression and dealing with leaving the group at the height of their popularity. 

Tomorrow evening, Wright will perform at the Culture Vultures event at the First Fortnight festival, which uses the arts as a way of exploring mental health. The message from First Fortnight is to talk about your mental health, and it’s a message that Wright embraces too. 

Weird life

Though it’s a story obviously worthy of a book, Wright says writing his memoir Chapter and Verse (Chorus Verse) wasn’t a conscious decision. During a gig with his friend, the jazz musician David Lyttle (the pair also recorded an album together) a few years ago, Lyttle began encouraging his audience to take a chance on the red-haired rock musician sitting beside him. 

Embrace his pal Wright “because he’s lived a really weird life”, he told the jazz-loving audience. “But I had never thought of it that way,” says Wright of Lyttle’s assessment of him.

It got him thinking about the life he had lived: aged 37 now, he’s been a professional musician since the age of 15. By the age of 18, he’d played over 600 gigs, and been touted by major labels. In 2004, he co-founded ASIWYFA, but left them in 2011. 

Writing about what happened since he turned 15 has helped him make sense of his unusual life. It was therapeutic, too. Even writing about the tough times, times he admits he “dreaded” writing about.

He had plenty of highs in his early career. “[But] I suffered some of the most subterranean Dante-esque lows in my life as well,” he says. “It was a strange experience. I would never change it but it was amazing because it was all I’d ever dreamt of and all I’d ever worked for.”

Some of the lows left an indelible mark on him.

“I got assaulted in Vienna badly about seven years ago, toward the end of my time with ASIWYFA,” he explains.

Going back to write that part was quite difficult because I had to go back in my mindset to remember all of it. I tried to remember my responsibility as a storyteller as well. There is no way I can put the reader there without putting myself in there. I remember things [in the book] I spent years trying to forget.

He says he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder “for a long time” after the assault. 

Wright believes he, like all humans, is flawed. He’s had to look at his own “deficiencies as a human being, as a musician” since he left ASIWYFA. He’s only recently become comfortable calling himself an ‘artist’, due to the “self-deprecation that comes with the territory of being a musician”.

He found it hard – still finds it hard – to accept praise. He describes his book as a “collection of words on paper”, but is proud of it.  

‘It’s hard to feel like a hypocrite’

ASIWYFA was an amalgamation of his two previous bands. “No one felt more passionately about it than I did,” he says. The fact that others adored the band made him proud. But a few years in, he made the decision to leave. It appears he wasn’t on board with the direction the band took as it reached its peak.

“To have [the band's sound] taken away and have it remoulded in a way that you have no power over… It turned into a different thing. [That happening] whilst you’re still in a band is just horrible,” he says. ”It’s hard to get up and stage and feel like a hypocrite. Preach about solidarity and blah blah blah … when for that not to be the case behind closed doors.”

He says it was an “awful time”.

One of the things in life that pains me most is to ever be thought of a hypocrite and liar and to go up on stage and say those things when we couldn’t… We prided ourselves in ‘the cliches won’t happen to us’ – I think every young band thinks that. We were all students of the rock and roll stories, ‘we won’t let that happen’.

Wright is cautious in his words about his former band members. It’s clear there was a lot of love and support there, a lot of hopes that things wouldn’t go the clichéd way. But even Wright admits that with four individuals in a band, four distinct personalities and people with their own hopes and dreams, things aren’t always going to be a picnic.

Still, now that some water has flown under the bridge, he is able to appreciate what ASIWYFA achieved. “To be able to look back at those first two records and the EPs released at that time and shows we did at that time with an immense amount of pride,” is how he puts it. The band has a legacy, one that he’s proud of. 

He sees ASIWYFA as a different-sounding band now – one that he wishes luck to.

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Mental health

After Wright was assaulted, and he left the band, he says his “mind wasn’t in 100% the right place”. “I grew up a lot in that place and time,” he says now. “I learned harsh realities.”

He moved away from the label world and into producing music the DIY way. Throughout the journey, he says he’s been helped by some “very kind souls” who broke past his a man is an island mentality.

“Since I was burned when I was 15/16 with my first band, and then for it to happen in my late 20s again, it was like right, the one person you can trust here is yourself,” he says. But he ended up collaborating again, such as making the aforementioned album with Lyttle. 

In 2011, Wright told Ray D’Arcy on his Today FM show that he had been diagnosed with depression. “I spoke about it – didn’t think twice about it. I didn’t know it was a big issue on the island,” he says. It was in the years before major mental health campaigns, before public figures like the Rubberbandits and Bressie talked about men and mental health. 

“It went from my band and dad and brother knowing I’d been diagnosed to the entire island,” says Wright. He has seen the conversation around mental health get louder since then. “The landscape was very different seven years ago to what it is. We know a lot more - when the conversation gets louder it starts normalising things. Removes stigma. Makes people feel safe. That’s the best thing we can offer human beings.”

Which brings us to his endeavours today – a solo music career (as Verse Chorus Verse), yet open to collaborations, and he’s even dabbling in some comedy. This year, he’ll do something else new – star in a film, a biopic about German footballer Bert Trautmann, in a “small but pivotal” role. He’ll still keep making music, or as he puts it: “Going forward and trying to create and make sense of my own world.”

Harking back to that gig with David Lyttle that set him off on his writing path, Wright reflects:

“It has been a weird life but it’s been a good life. Hopefully there’s a lot more to come.”

Tony Wright will appear and perform at the Culture Vultures event during the First Fortnight festival tomorrow, 8 January, at the Sound House in Dublin. His book  Chapter & Verse (Chorus Verse) is available at major and independent booksellers.

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