We spoke with Jerry David DeCicca about his work teaching mental health awareness to school faculty, why it’s up to authority figures to fix broken systems, how beloved entertainers set the blueprint for our lives and finding the hidden blessings in personal challenges.
I was always a reader and schoolwork introduced me to a lot of books. More than ever, I think that reading best teaches us empathy, how to be alone and analytical thinking.
I understand that you taught mental health awareness classes to teachers when you moved to Texas. This concept of “teaching the teacher,” in a way, fascinates me, partly due to my mistrust of the American school system. While it’s important to teach young people a sense of personal context and emotional maturity, I barely find value in saddling kids with a colossal amount of homework or putting trigonometry before learning to pay taxes or get an apartment. I know I’m going off-track here, but any thoughts on this?
Jerry David DeCicca
I don’t have any strong thoughts or background on that, but I’d agree that life skills are more essential than ever. My old job that you mentioned was to teach mental health awareness, how to help someone in crisis, how to route someone to help, and, mostly, early intervention. As far as homework goes, I didn’t always do mine as a young person, but I’m grateful that I was always a reader and schoolwork introduced me to a lot of books. More than ever, I think that reading best teaches us empathy, how to be alone and analytical thinking. Most systems are broken, and that’s why it is up to individuals in positions of authority, like educators, to do their best.
To tie this back into mental health, I feel that’s so important in situations like that where there isn’t a ton of individual attention. I had some real attention problems as a kid, which mostly led to me being bullied by kids and faculty alike, but I also remember kids who had far worse and didn’t really get the attention they deserved. What did you learn from teaching school faculty a more nuanced view of mental health?
I had a similar adolescence in that way. Some teachers were very grateful for the training and felt like it really opened up how they looked at some of their students, better prepared them to help them. Other teachers didn’t believe in mental health; they thought it was all behavioral issues that could be controlled by corporal punishment, which is pretty scary. So, a pretty wide spectrum. It was both a rewarding and challenging job. It was similar to performing my songs — it may not connect with everyone, but it connects to the people that are open to it.
I still want to put songs into the world that aren’t already there, not calculate how to engage more people. If my primary goal was to make money in life, I’d get a different job or write different songs.
I’ve recorded and released albums since I was a teenager, but certain life changes have altered my perspective on all that. It used to be the be-all end-all of my life that I’d finally break through with some success with my music, but my favorite thing to do right now is just learning Logic on my computer, dreaming up songs for myself that I have no timetable or “plan” for. It’s incredibly freeing! What’s your perspective on creating art? Does personal enjoyment come before writing for an “audience” for you?
I still get a ton of joy from writing songs and recording them. It gets me through my day and calms my thoughts. I still believe that a great song and a great record will someday find its audience and that the size of an audience does not determine its value. I like a lot of popular music figures, but they’re mostly from the past, though occasionally someone who’s genuine breaks through. It would be nice if my music was sustainable, but that isn’t a priority and never has been.
I never think about that when I pick up an instrument to write. I still want to put songs into the world that aren’t already there, not calculate how to engage more people. If my primary goal was to make money in life, I’d get a different job or write different songs. And if you want to be popular, there’s a formula you can follow. It’s always been there. I also, on occasion, produce records for other musicians, and this is also really rewarding. I’m not sure why more musicians don’t do this.
As I enter a new phase of life, I’ve been evaluating the people who have had the greatest impact on my personality. I’ll tell you two of them here: David Letterman and John Lennon. How about you? Can you give me some examples as to how they affected you?
So, I love Letterman, too. It’s funny how when I was growing up, he seemed ironic and now he seems existential, especially compared to the frat boys that populate late night shows now. For me, it’ll always be Springsteen, Lou Reed and Dylan. Those are the Big Three that came into my life at a very early age and shaped my thinking about art, politics, class, race, songs, personal expression and performance. The best thing Springsteen has done in 20 years is write his brilliant book, Lou never made a bad record, and Dylan is consistent in his Bob-ness. Those guys still bring me much joy and comfort and I’m always grateful that they handed me a blueprint as I hit my teens.
I’d like to briefly talk about the idea of dealing with being in the world right now, plugged into a constant stream of digital messages. I don’t really blame anyone for feeling overwhelmed, irritable or down right now. I almost feel like you’ve got to be delusional or insane to be 100% okay with the state of things, and I’ve never felt that way about the planet before! How do you deal with the incoherently dumb, shrieking noise at the heart of everything right now?
Yeah, it’s pretty tough out there! It’s easy for me to limit my e-time because I’ve always been so resistant to the world of glowing screens. I don’t stream music or anything like that. I also live somewhere quiet and more rural, which helps a ton. I have a job in vocational rehabilitation that, although it can be pretty stressful, I believe genuinely helps others move forward in life, so I do get some positive sparks throughout my days. That helps a lot. I also try to compliment people and help strangers and take a lot of deep breaths. It sounds corny, but I find those things help me reset. It’s okay to be angry at the state of the world; you just have to be careful not to let it eat you up. I’ve learned that making tiny positive marks in other people’s lives helps me more than them. I also have a very loving partner and great pets.
A lot of people in the world don’t have the luxury to struggle with those things because they’re too busy worrying about food, shelter and personal safety. I’ll call being aware of that my concept of blessings.
What’s your personal concept of blessings? Personally, it’s always been a concept that dogged me. I can’t really parse whether certain things that happen in my life or others’ can be attributed to a larger presence or just plain old effort. I can’t be dogmatic either way, though, because there’s a lot we don’t know about the world. What do you think?
Well, I guess a big part of life is luck and then the rest is hard work and those percentages are different for all of us. I’ve never felt like my life was easy, but it certainly is easy compared to most people throughout the world and history. I’ve made it through a lot of personal challenges that I struggled with greatly, but I’m also aware that a lot of people in the world don’t have the luxury to struggle with those things because they’re too busy worrying about food, shelter and personal safety. I’ll call being aware of that my concept of blessings.
Finally, can you tell me about a single habit in your adult life that you have changed or altered in the recent past? Why did you do so? How did it affect you psychologically, emotionally or physically?
Short answer is I’ve limited a lot of commotion. I have a pretty regular sleep schedule and I try to cook a lot of meals at home. It helps me deal with stress better, be more positive, and clears my head for writing songs. I live with my partner. We have pets and we’re both very engaged in supporting one another.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: February 8, 2018
Total questions: 7
Word count: 1356
Reading time: Five minutes
aloneness, analysis, anger, art, authority, Bob Dylan, breath, Bruce Springsteen, calculation, class, comfort, commotion, consistency, crisis, David Letterman, education, engagement, expression, faculty, formula, health, illness, incoherence, individual, Jerry David DeCicca, John Lennon, Logic Pro X, Lou Reed, mental, messages, money, musician, occasion, performance, politics, positivity, priority, production, reader, reading, recording, schoolwork, songwriting, student, sustainability, taxes, trigonometry
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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