Kenton Hall – My Bipolar and Getting Where I Needed to Be

Kenton Hall is a singer/songwriter, filmmaker, author, and proud dad of twin daughters, and he has just released his double album “Idiopath” and “Omniopath,” featuring 33 1/3 tracks. Hall also has bipolar disorder, diagnosed after he ran away from his abusive parents from Canada to the UK as a teenager. ABILITY Magazine’s Karina Sturm speaks with Kenton Hall about growing up with bipolar disorder, running away from the cult he grew up in, his latest musical projects, and how his identities influence his life.

[CN: Brief mention of suicide; Language]

Karina Sturm: Hi Kenton! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I know you have had quite a rough start to your life! Do you want to tell me a bit about your teens and how you ended up running away from Canada to the UK?

Kenton Hall: I was raised by British parents in Canada, but they were members of a very strict religious cult. I always tried to escape because being a bisexual, atheist, bipolar teenager in a group of religious people didn’t sit awfully well with either of us. (Laughs). Since I had British citizenship, I came to the UK when I was 19, intending to just get away for six months, but, well, I’m still here. I got distracted by life somewhere along the way. I packed the night before and moved to a different country, which may have had something to do with the lack of impulse control when you have bipolar disorder. I wasn’t medicated back then. This is one of a handful of times in my life where being bipolar did me a favor – there aren’t many – by giving me the ability to take this massive leap of faith and make a decision that had no reasonableness or thought given to it, but was essential to me getting where I needed to be. 

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Sturm: You were found to have bipolar disorder at age 16, right? It must have been tough to navigate this new diagnosis without a support system at such a young age.

Hall: Yeah, it was. We suspected something was going on with me because I had been quite erratic in my emotional pitch from early childhood on. Then, there was a suicide attempt at age 16, where the possibility of bipolar was raised. Still, my parents not being particularly helpful – that’s maybe the understatement of the year – they hesitated to diagnose me since I was still an adolescent. They wanted to wait until I was an adult and did not offer me any medication. I remember a social worker sitting at the end of my bed saying, “Do you think this might have something to do with your parents’ religion and the conflict there?” And I responded, “Yes, I do, but I don’t know what you want me to do about it because I can’t just leave and live on the street. ‘Cause, for starters, I’m a writer. I have no real-world skills.” (Laughs). “So if I leave home at this point, I will die.” I struggled for another three years before I fled to another country, hoping to start anew. My daughters are going to be 21 this year, and when I look back on my own life, and I think about them at age 19, I wouldn’t put them in charge of a pair of roller skates, let alone move to another country and start with no support system whatsoever. (Laughs). They agree. They told me, “You were insane, Dad.” I said, “Yes, literally, legally, and with medical certificates to prove it.” (Laughs).

Sturm: How did you manage to get through your daily life alone in a new country at age 19 while at the same time managing your bipolar disorder?

Hall: I was a British citizen, but I couldn’t claim any unemployment, so while I was looking for work, I was on income support which, back then, was £38 a week. I was paying £50 a week in rent, so I was already starting at a minus £12 deficit. I used to busk in the street to make up the rest of the bills and try to survive. Then, I did the most sensible thing that any musician living alone does: I got myself a girlfriend. (Laughs). 

When you’ve been living with bipolar disorder for a long time, you don’t consider yourself to be different; you are not aware that your mood swings are an aberration compared to anybody else. It’s always been the case for me that the mania could be very useful up to a point. When it starts, you feel great and energetic, and you feel like you can do incredible things. You are able to make decisions and imaginative leaps quickly. But at a certain point, it becomes painful, and if it doesn’t stop, psychosis is waiting for you at the end of the tunnel. The following depression would be crippling, sometimes so crippling you would switch off altogether. I was constantly pinging back and forth between these highs and lows. When I was young and resilient, the highs were so high, and during the phases in between, I would simply wait to get back to the high. It was like being a drug addict who walked through the molasses of depression with the hope of a rush coming. I remember, many years later, when I finally found a treatment that worked, I realized that I’d been in pain 24 hours a day every single day of my life.

However, my memories of life before treatment are a bit muddled and not necessarily in order, but I got lucky in one specific way, which is the driving force for a lot of my work: When I started looking at bipolar disorder from the outside while I was writing my book Bisection, I went on a lot of forums, and I realized that a lot of people with bipolar disorder don’t have the language to articulate what they’re experiencing. They don’t have any outlet for their feelings, which I find heartbreaking. I could articulate what was happening to me even when it was extreme. It’s how I’m wired. Language never entirely goes away. And that’s why I feel a responsibility because if I can talk about it, I should talk about it! Many people fear the consequences of how they’ll be viewed and judged because of it. However, I’ve reached an age where I do not care what anybody thinks of me. I still have a thousand regrets from earlier years; the choices I’ve made, things I’ve done under the influence of mania in particular, or the things I failed to do under the influence of depression. But there’s no changing that. What I can do is ease the journey for somebody else. They see something I’ve written or hear what I’ve played, and maybe they feel that life is doable with bipolar disorder. It’s not always fun, but it’s possible.

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Sturm: Are you using your music as an outlet to cope with all your feelings?

Hall: Actually, I have to be careful with music because it affects me emotionally in a way that no other art form I’m involved with does. I live in a leveled place most of the time now, thanks to heavy doses of pharmaceutical substances, but music cracks through that. When I was not well, I avoided music altogether simply because it was too much. My bipolar disorder is a different type of inspiration. I am much more capable at capturing my emotional journey in music than I am in prose. With prose and film, I’m better at capturing what I see in the world and other people’s emotional journeys. Whereas in music, I’m able to access my emotions. I started listening to and analyzing music at a young age, and my first thought was, “I need to do this!” Same with writing. I didn’t want to just consume it; I wanted to create it. 

Sturm: there any art form you aren’t good at?

Hall: Yes, painting and drawing. My stick figures get sued by other stick figures for pretending to be stick figures. (Laughs). But music, writing, and acting are all different threads of trying to put my emotions in order.

Sturm: Tell me a bit about your new albums: Omniopath and Idiopath.

Hall: I have been away from writing music for ten years and had a lot of emotions I hadn’t put in order. I shoved them to the back of my mind while concentrating on getting well. I also had teenage children who needed a different focus from me. Many of the big dramatic emotions I had been coping with up to that point usually would have been parceled into songs over the ten years; they’d gathered up and needed addressing. Suddenly, it felt like music was the best way of doing that. That’s how it ended up being a 33-track album.

Sturm: Yeah, I was wondering about that. That’s a lot of new songs! 

Hall: This is what happened: One of my old bandmates moved back to the city where I’m living. He threatened me to start recording again. At first, I told him I didn’t want to. However, I had a dozen songs in a bottom drawer from when I stopped making music professionally, so a bit later, I said, “Okay, we’ll do those.” But as soon as I started recording, I started writing again. Before I knew it, I had these songs that were all part of the same statement. No one could tell me I couldn’t do a triple album because it was my record company. Then it becomes a press hook. Since “man releases album” isn’t the most exciting headline in the world, “crazy man releases crazily long album” sounds slightly more interesting.

Sturm: What kind of art did you do during those ten years before you started recording music again? I assume you couldn’t ignore all your creativity?

Hall: I was writing, but I was writing in other forms. I wrote and directed a movie, A Dozen Summers. I wrote a play and lots of scripts and stories. I mainly was filming and acting. I pivoted into a different part of my creativity. People used to ask me, “Oh, so you act, and you write, and you direct, and you make music?” And I always respond, “Yes, I tried to pick as many insecure careers as I could so that I could be broke and a bit nervous all the time instead. I’d like to be insecure across the entire arts; that would be great!” (Laughs). I could have been a writer and director while also being an accountant, but that’s not who I am. I didn’t have a fallback position. All of my fallback positions were equally insecure as my go-to ones.

Sturm: So you’ve always been a writer, a musician, and a filmmaker at the same time?

Hall: I think of myself as a writer first, and then all the others spring from that. I don’t make any difference in my head between writing a script and writing a song. It’s different muscles and different outcomes, but it’s all storytelling. Maybe I should call myself a storyteller if that didn’t sound horribly wanky. People will fight you in the street if you tell them you are a storyteller. And they will be correct. But that’s it. I’m interested in people’s stories. I know how chaotic it is inside here [pointing towards his forehead]. And I remain fascinated with what’s happening inside the people I’m speaking to. I know that whatever conversation we’re having, you also think 1,001 things, and I want to know all about them. So that becomes the genesis of wanting to tell stories because you hope, mainly if you’ve been through some of the struggles with mental illness, it builds your empathy. Because if you’re self-aware in a good way, you realize that all that pain and everything you kept to yourself, other people are probably doing the same thing in their own way, which means that you have to be a lot more careful about how you speak to them. You have to be more considerate of other people’s feelings because you can’t judge anything on the surface. You can’t judge people purely on what they say. You can’t even judge people purely on what they do. In your younger years, you react to what’s on the surface, and I learned a lot about people that I probably would have hated if I judged them on the first impression. But when you take the time to understand how complicated a human being is, you sometimes find real and more substantial connections.

A book cover showing two images of a face next to one another with a happy and a sad person. Text: A more or less accurate account of bipolar parenting and twin wrangling. Bisection. Kenton Hall
Book cover of Kenton Hall’s book “Bisection”

Sturm: Does this mean your new album contains songs covering your experiences of those ten years you weren’t songwriting?

Hall: This is purely coincidental, but the songs I’d written when I was last writing songs ten years ago came at the beginning of a new relationship. So some of those songs are about a new person coming into your life and the trauma around that. And then, ten years later, I was processing the end of that same relationship. I managed to get that whole story from my perspective on the album. I’m also talking about some other things I’ve struggled with or thought about, so it is a pretty good snapshot of me over the ten years with that relationship at the center. It’s about new beginnings and losses, but also all the challenges I’ve wrestled with, including getting well, in the middle of that. It’s nice to have a romantic relationship in there, because that’s what most people understand. Additionally, I feel a lot, and I didn’t get a chance to speak out about many of those feelings. Being a musician, that’s when you get the opportunity to say it. So it’s a very long love letter with tangents.

Sturm: Isn’t a love song a must-have on any album?

Hall: You definitely get told that, but I think they always mean a “soppy ballad,” There are ballads on this record, but I don’t tend toward the soppy. It is a heartache record in a lot of ways, not just from the romantic perspective, but a heartache in terms of processing the world and seeing how much pain is in it. My songs are the empathetic response to it. The album also features songs about toxic masculinity. I’ve realized it is easy to become toxic if you’re not vigilant, even for a nice guy. So this album is about maturing to a certain extent. How you view your relationships with other people changes massively over a period of ten years, particularly if you’re drawn to self-analysis, as I am. I have to be because I must ensure my emotions aren’t pinging off in a dangerous direction. One of the hardest things when living with bipolar disorder is that when you approach psychosis, you don’t know if any of what you think is true. For instance, I might suddenly believe I am a talented musician. But how am I supposed to judge whether I’m meant to be doing this or if I’m kidding myself when the first thing my brain might do is tell me that I’m better than I am or that it’s all going to work out? It might be lying to me like a son of a b*tch. So I am constantly walking this fine line and asking myself: Am I making rational decisions? Am I making decisions influenced by the chemicals of my brain being mixed up by a cowboy? I’ve replaced the constant pain and reactionary way of living with a very vigilant process of questioning my decisions. And at times, you are desperate to make an impulsive decision while also dealing with the impatience and rejection that are part of the business. You are putting your face in the chainsaw a little bit because the people most capable of doing the job, meaning the people that are emotionally open, emotionally aware, and able to write and to create, are at the same time the people that are hurt most by the brutal industry surrounding it. The level of rejection and apathy in the music and film business is extreme. Anytime you put something out in the world, you’re not dealing with people saying, “This is terrible.” You’re mostly experiencing them asking, “So?” This apathy is the hardest because that’s where you’re constantly banging your head against a wall, trying to get through. Rationally, if you’re competent at what you do, your audience is out there somewhere. It’s not everyone; it will never be everyone. You have to find the people that will respond to what you do, but you don’t know where they are. They’re hiding amongst 8 billion human beings. And in reality, you need about 3,000 of them to keep your living going. And how do you get to them through all these gatekeepers, which either costs time or money or judging on their taste? You have to get through this wall of people in front of them saying, “It’s not my thing. I like techno.” Okay, but I don’t need to talk to you. I have a techno friend. You talk to him. You introduce me to your singer-songwriter-liking friend, and we’ll all balance this out. Dealing with that when you’re also trying to be a grown-up and cannot go too far down the rabbit hole because you don’t always come out is a big part of the job. You must arm yourself against it and be patient, but simultaneously, you cannot miss out on those leaps you must make. It’s a minefield, but you know, it’s my minefield.

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Sturm: How are you coping with the rejection and lack of empathy so that it doesn’t harm your mental health?

Hall: It’s a process. There are days when I feel it nudges me toward a darker way of thinking or feeling either desperate or despondent. But I know where my anchor points are. My kids are grown up, but they’re still my go-to to shake myself loose of the beginnings of something. It’s easy to go to them and just let them ramble at me about their lives, and suddenly my problems don’t seem so terrible because I’ve got to focus. You can always find some dad thing to do or to fix. So generally, finding somebody else to help is my coping strategy. Going and finding another artist struggling with the industry – it’s so much easier to deal with from the outside – and giving them a pep talk sometimes is the pep talk that I need. And it’s easier to give it to somebody else. One of the reasons why we did the covers version of the album – other than it was at 4 am when I thought, “Yes, let’s get 36 other artists to cover the songs as well because I haven’t got enough to do.” – was that it made the whole experience less insular for me because I was able to speak with other artists, and also being able to hear the songs reinterpreted meant I wasn’t quite so judgmental regarding myself. I could listen to my songs as compositions because it wasn’t my voice or playing. It meant during the whole process, I could celebrate other artists who had done these remarkable jobs. And that has kept some of the worst at bay.

Sturm: Tell me a little about how your other identities, for instance, identifying as bisexual, influenced this album.

Hall: I don’t often talk about my sexuality because I don’t want to be jumping on anyone’s coattails. I am more like 70/30 or 80/20, and I don’t know if that’s bisexual enough. When the children were small, we talked about diversity with them and tried to bring them up to be quite open. Later, I would hear them say to one of their friends, “My dad’s half gay.” (Laughing). And I said, “Well, it’s 70/30.” (Laughing). They didn’t have a problem with it because children don’t until they’re told. After growing up in an incredibly restrictive environment where everything was sinful and bad, and then coming out, it took me a long time to work out how I felt about anything. But once I did, I stopped caring about what anybody thought. I’m fortunate enough that I have a job where, the vast majority of the time, I don’t run into an extraordinary amount of prejudice about my mental health. When you’re in a group of artists, and you say, “Oh, by the way, I live with bipolar disorder,” they tend to go, “Okay, yeah, I’m schizophrenic, and he’s got anxiety, and she’s depressed, and they’re dealing with their own thing.” Only when you walk into the regular world, where people are uneducated about it, you will get any kickback. For instance, I took a job with a charity a few years ago, trying to get finances in order and doing communication. So I was writing and making little films for them. I remember having to tell the manager that I was bipolar. It was so weird because it had been so long since I’d seen that fear. This wasn’t a bad person. This was a supportive person who wanted to do the right thing, but the immediate reaction was, “Oh, what the hell do I do?” And that reminded me of what it’s like for other people living with things that the rest of the world doesn’t understand. I have worked hard to get in a position where if anyone has issues with my mental health or sexuality, I can simply say, “So, I’ve lost all respect for you now, but never mind, just jog on.” Most people don’t get that luxury. They have to live in the world and be around people that don’t necessarily understand them or have any desire to understand them. And that’s another reason I feel responsible for talking about mental health. You have to be a positive force in the universe.

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Sturm: I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for speaking so openly about your mental health! I hope your album is going to be super successful. Take care and talk to you soon! 

Hall: Thank you for having me. Take care.

Karina is a disabled/chronically ill multi media journalist writing, blogging, producing podcasts and documentaries in English and German.

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