In Advance of Upcoming Show at Westside Bowl in Youngstown, Singer-Songwriter Brett Newski Talks About Taking on Mental Health Issues in New Book

Cover art for the new Brett Newski book. - Courtesy of Brett Newski
Courtesy of Brett Newski
Cover art for the new Brett Newski book.

Singer-songwriter Brett Newski suffers from anxiety and depression and, as a way of coping, often turns to music and art. Newski recently released the illustrated book It’s Hard to be a Person: Defeating Anxiety, Surviving the World, and Having More Fun, which is accompanied by a soundtrack featuring eight original songs.

He's also the host of the popular podcast, Dirt from the Road, which features interviews with acts such as All American Rejects, Dashboard Confessional, Nada Surf, Stelth Ulvang (the Lumineers), Guster, Heartless Bastards, the Verve Pipe, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Steven Page and Butch Vig.

Newski, who performs with Red Wanting Blue and Meghan Farrell at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 12, at the Westside Bowl in Youngstown, spoke about his book in a recent phone interview from his Milwaukee home.

Talk about your musical background.
I wanted to buy a guitar when I was 13 but didn’t have any money so I got a job at McDonald’s making five bucks an hour. I was flipping burgers and taking orders and making five bucks an hour. That was the starting point. It taught me about work and hustling and being a sort of grown-up. After a little while, I had enough to buy a guitar. I bought a shitty electric guitar from the local music store and I started learning Weezer and Green Day songs and got obsessed with it from there.

Was there a good music scene there in Milwaukee in the early 2000s?
I wasn’t old enough to go to shows in downtown Milwaukee, so I wasn’t aware of the local scene. My pops and I would go to concerts and see Gin Blossoms and Better Than Ezra at Summerfest or the County Fair. I got exposed to great touring bands and a lot of that good ’90s alternative guitar rock. That was a good foundation for getting started. It was also music I could learn to play at a young age.

Was your dad a musician?
No musician ability, but he’s a huge music fan. He sold radio airtime on a classic rock radio station for 35 years in Milwaukee. He’s always been around music. I would hang out at the radio station when I was a little kid, and that was an exciting place.

What was the first band you started?
I started a ska band. I think everyone starts in a ska band.

Where did things go from there?
Violent Femmes are from Milwaukee and Victor DeLorenzo, their original drummer, lives down the street from me. I ran into him at a coffee place and started talking to him about producing an EP of mine. We worked on that and the Femmes just found out about me through them. I did an acoustic punk record called American Folk Armageddon, and they took me on tour. After that, I just kept plugging away and touring and taking what I could get. It’s been ups and downs. If I zoom out on a macro level, I can see that things have gotten better every year. As you age, you have to upgrade your shows every year to survive mentally and not go insane. I try to be more efficient with my time and realize I have a finite battery. I’m kind of a workaholic but also always on the fringes of running myself into the ground, so I have to be careful about burnout.

When did the anxiety begin?
I guess I noticed in my mid to late twenties, which was really late. I spent so much of my life being uncomfortable things. I just had general anxiety but didn’t know what it was. A ton of people have it. It’s more common than not these days. Once I figured out what it was, I could take measures to combat it or use anxiety as my friend or as fuel. It’s pretty useful as fuel. It keeps me motivated as uncomfortable as it can be. Sometimes, it just lights a fire under my ass and keeps me going.

Do you take medication?
I’ve been on and off medication for years. If I’m in a lower trough, I’ll hop on a low dose of something and then cycle off when the clouds part. I’m a fan. It’s certainly an incredible invention. Thirty years ago, we didn’t have any of this stuff. If people were really struggling, they were just seen as really sad people. It’s a good use of modern technology.

When did the idea for the book come about?
I always wanted to make a creative project outside of music that would kick my ass and be really hard and challenging. The concept of finishing a book was never something I thought I could achieve. I was working on these drawings for years. When COVID came around, I thought, “Shit, if I don’t finish this book now when I have all this time, I will never do it.” That lit the fire under my ass to finish the book. It’s been the most rewarding project I’ve ever done. It was also the least fun to make because it was hard. Organizing so many pages and thoughts into one unit was a real bitch. It’s been the most helpful thing to other people out of everything I’ve ever made. It reaches so much farther than music, which is great but so much more niche. Mental health is something that everyone can relate to. I really like depressing comedy. It’s my favorite type of comedy, and I feel like there’s not enough of it.

Talk about the songs that go with it.
We had all these raw, thrash-y acoustic punk recordings. I didn’t really know what to do with them, but I knew I liked them and I thought they were good. When I finished the book, it seemed like the perfect time to match some songs with it. I have some cool guests on it. One my musical heroes, Steven Page, from Barenaked Ladies, is on the opening track. [Timbuk 3's] Pat MacDonald is a close friend of mine. He’s a Wisconsin guy who’s a close friend of mine is on it. One of my friends Boney Macaroni, who’s a Dutch punk artist, is on it. I'm doing a tour with Boney in Holland in May, so the album sparked a cool friendship there.

Talk about the upcoming performance in Youngstown.
I love Youngstown. I’ve been coming there for a few years now. It’s a great blue-collar rock ’n’ roll city. We played the small room downstairs there in the past. But this is in the big room with [Ohio-based rockers] Red Wanting Blue, so it should be really cool. I’ll play some songs and talk about the book between songs. 
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
Scroll to read more Music News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.