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Unmasking of a Pop Star: Shye.’s OK and So are You.

Cover art by Dina Levy.

I am in no way qualified to make any grand diagnoses concerning someone’s mental health.

That is, I’m not a psychiatrist, or a therapist, or arrogant enough to carry on as if it were otherwise.

Here’s what I do know.

I know that I’ve met a reasonable number of people throughout my life, and I’ve been privileged to call a number of those people my friends.  Of the people I’ve known well enough to know, a not-insignificant percentage have wrestled with anything from anxiety, to depression, to mental illnesses that I won’t get into right now, because this is not a story about me or mine.

I know that people tend not to be able or willing to easily understand that which they can’t see without a microscope, even if that microscopic thing is everywhere, and often right in front of them.  So it’s long seemed, at least to layman old me, that mental health has spent a lot of time being neither properly discussed nor understood by most of us.

So it is, and so it was when I chatted with an artist called Shye.

Behind Shye. is a real person, name of Nick Harrison.

Nick Harrison tells me on the phone that he’s speaking with me because he wants music fans to see real people behind the music they listen to. Nick believes that working on music doesn’t somehow make someone a perfect human being, and he believes that’s an important point that bears being talked about.

Alright then, Nick — you gave me an interesting conversation, and I owe you a good turn back.  So let’s call your bluff and give you what you asked for — let’s share you with the world, transparently.

***

At eight years old, Nick was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.  By 10, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“100% love to talk about it,” is what Nick said to me about his medical history.

If that attitude strikes you as just a bit unexpected, try to imagine the tone of his voice when he told me this.  Smooth, up-beat, and relentlessly friendly, Nick has one hell of a way of words. He wields them like an affable young politician that had just strode up to a podium at a rally of his supporters after practicing his stump speech for days on end.  In a certain sense, maybe he’s been practicing for a lot longer than that.

It was in that encouraging, upbeat style that Nick chatted with me about a “very tumultuous time dealing with the spark of adolescence and growing into a young man” (his words, seriously) while simultaneously wrestling with his “landmine of a brain.”

“(I) had all this anger and depression and frustration and didn’t know where to put it,” he continued.

Not that you’d know it from the way you sound right now, I admit I might have caught myself thinking.

That “tumultuous time” involved some number of doctors testing out different medications in different combinations; there were therapists, there were psychologists.  Until he was 13 years old, Nick felt he didn’t have a strong understanding of who he was as a human being. In Jr. High, things were, to quote Nick again, “out of control.”

Take a moment to appreciate how literal “out of control” can really be.  Imagine being barely a teenager, trying to survive the plenty-tough-enough-as-it-is middle school hellscape of homework, hormones, and rampant teenage awkwardness.  Now imagine your brain fighting you the whole way, making it even harder to feel like you could control anything: not your life, not your thoughts, perhaps not even your behavior.

At one point, the story goes, Nick’s parents even placed him in a facility…a “helpful” place, as Nick put it to me, where perhaps he could find his way.

This was Nick’s life.

Then, one week, it wasn’t.

Nick’s mom, apparently an audiologist, is by Nick’s description a brilliant writer in her own right.  (Every Christmas card featured poems and speeches, he tells me with some pride. “She’s magnificent.”)

Nick’s mom had an idea, and sometimes ideas can change lives.

“She handed me a notebook and a pen, and to this day that’s all I do, that’s how I know how to handle it.  A combination of wonderful supportive parents ready to do anything to make sure I was okay, and also having that passion of escaping by writing myself down, completely saved my life.”

This is not to suggest that writing is the only thing Nick does to stay well these days, of course. Confronting these things is hard, and Nick worked hard for his peace. It’s work that continues, and it always will. “It’s not like you throw a cast on it and it’s done,” as Nick put it. There are bad days; Nick’s well being is a project, and there is a plan and he follows it, complete with contingencies and consequences.  “It’s work every day,” he says, “a constant work in progress.” But for the sake of this story, let’s focus on the art, and on Nick, and where he’s at right now.

“Super, super proud of (it),” he offers cheerily of changing the trajectory of his life.  “Many people didn’t expect me to turn out,” he added helpfully.

Helpful. Friendly, encouraging.  No matter how remarkable the tale he spun for me became, he relayed it all like we were old friends chatting about the weather, like the spring had finally broken through; like he was still behind the podium, surrounded by his supporters on a sunny afternoon…

***

If you’re a fan of modern pop music, you should be glad that Nick never did put that pen down.  You wouldn’t be alone, either. Shye.’s single “Sinking,” which has sort of a late 2000’s-era anesthetic to the production, has racked up almost 90,000 plays on Spotify.

Shye.’s music is well produced, and his voice can hang.  Shye. makes the kind of music that if you heard it on the radio (do people still listen to radio?) you wouldn’t be surprised, neither in style nor quality, retro tinges or not.  You’d be satisfied.

Incidentally, that nod to pop songs past is no mistake.

“A younger me wouldn’t be shocked by who I am,” he laughs. “The coolest part of what I’ve been doing is, anybody who knew me from when I was in a punk band and touring full time, when I started releasing this kind of music no one was surprised.”

As it turns out, Nick was that dude in punk bands that would blast Backstreet Boys to stay awake while he was piloting the tour van through all those inevitable all-nighters.

That’s not some kind of aphorism, that’s apparently an actual thing that happened.

So why are we still talking so much more about Nick than about Shye.?

Well, Nick says that when he was diagnosed, 90’s pop music was still everywhere, and that meant that all of the potential pop heros impressionable young people always seem to look up to sort of looked more or less the same — “like a perfect model of perfection with no misstep,” as Nick put it.  For Nick, that wasn’t just unrealistic, it wasn’t healthy.

“I always wanted to be an artist that if I got myself to a place that I could be transparent and help people, I’d want that, because growing up I never had that. (I) never had someone that was dealing with the same things I was.”

So here’s what I know now.

I know that music fans of a certain age that dig solidly constructed pop tunes and perhaps might relate to an all grown up former punk rocker with a weakness for the Backstreet Boys and flair for presentation (he lists Jay Z and Justin Timberlake as inspirations, both as entertainers and as owners of their brand as well as their destiny) should give Shye. a listen.  

I know that chatting with Nick Harrison was one of the more satisfying experiences I’ve had in some time — a noteworthy accomplishment given some of the dark recesses of his past that he so eagerly urged us to retread.  He was in equal turns articulate, relentlessly positive, and effortlessly honest. It was like talking to a salesman, but a salesman with no wares to push but the truth, and the value of truth itself.

So I’d like to take a moment to say to Nick that I’m sorry.

I’m sorry, Nick, but we couldn’t do it.  You set out, I think, to work with me on telling the story that the truth behind every artist is imperfect — that there are always bruised and blemished human beings with calloused fingers striking those chords that reverberate for days and years later in our heads and hearts. That in fact, knowing that something so satisfying as pop music can come from imperfect and variable vessels only serves to enrich the art itself because it helps us see ourselves in the music we love.

But you messed it up.

You messed it up, because you talked to me about wrestling through your teenage years, and learning as you matured to embrace your Backstreet side, potential judgements from the “cool kids” be damned, and that’s more than admirable — it’s infinitely relatable.

You messed it up because bipolar disorder, according to the National Institute of Health, “affects about 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6% of the U.S. population 18 and older.”  OCD affects 1 in 100 children in the U.S alone, according to BeyondOCD.org.  We don’t talk about it nearly enough as a culture, but there are a hell of a lot of people working through this stuff. It’s hard. And you’re doing it. And millions of others are, too.

You messed up our project, because the story of flawed characters defending their bad behavior as inexorably linked to creativity, to passion, or, hell, maybe just to tour sales, is a tired one, and probably over extended.  And that story isn’t yours.

Or maybe it’s just that I misunderstood what you set out to do when we first started talking.  Because insofar as you’ve shared yourself beyond what your art has to say; insofar as your story could potentially help anyone working through mental health challenges to see their own potential to overcome their demons and make something beautiful with their lives, well, well done and then some — mission emphatically accomplished.

But if you thought you were going to reveal yourself to your audience as somehow less of a “perfect model,” as you so aptly put it earlier, than your catchy pop tunes might suggest you could be, in both style and in substance you came damn close to doing just the opposite.

So to the readers, I say this: you can find Shye.’s music on Spotify, you can check out Shye.’s videos on his YouTube channel, and you can be sure that somewhere, you can find Nick with a pen in his hand, working thoughtfully through life’s challenges with an attitude in every way in keeping with the most naive assumptions you’ve ever held for the impossibly perfect pop stars of your youth.

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