This Boston-based Indie-Folk band is known for creating hopeful, evocative music about mental health. The lyrically driven project of Old Tom & The Lookouts is shared through the lens of writer and singer, Alex Calabrese and violinist Cecilia Vacanti. The two recently chatted with us about their latest album Just for Beasts and the mental health focus behind it.
Your upcoming album, Just for Beasts, takes a deep dive into mental health. Why did you decide to make that sensitive topic the focus?
My personal experiences with bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety inspired me to help create a more positive dialogue about mental health. In an industry that tends to romanticize the negatives of mental illness, I wanted to write a record that focused on hope and growth. Bands like Frightened Rabbit, Julien Baker, and Nathaniel Rateliff have done a beautiful job using their experiences to let folks know they’re not alone and that things can get better. I want to use my own familiarity with mental illness to spread a message of hope and inclusivity.
Every song sounds and feels sonically delicate. Was this intentional, so it could match the delicate nature of the album?
A: Absolutely. Using dynamics and specific chordal voicings to juxtapose the lyrical content is crucial in my writing process.
How much of an impact did the pandemic have on the creation of this album?
I feel confident saying that the pandemic was hard on everyone, but I do think some wonderful art came from it. The pandemic had a heavy impact on my mental health. Fortunately, I have an amazing support system in my partner, family, and friends; without having experienced this, I’m not sure if I would have been able to write as vulnerably. Several therapists and medications later, Just for Beasts was born.
What’s it like to make such an album that’s both painful to write and cathartic to record?
Writing this record has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. Some of these songs took less than an hour, and some took days, but each was its own therapeutic journaling experience. Many of these songs were written in collaboration with Jacob McCurdy and Cecilia Vacanti; without them and the supportive environment we cultivated, I don’t think the result would have been the same. Writing honestly and vulnerably is incredibly difficult, particularly when writing about actual life experiences. I felt like I was numb when I was writing Love in a Hospital, not because I wasn’t in touch with the words and message, but because while writing, I felt like I was reliving a particular hospital visit. During that visit, all I wanted to do was close my eyes and open them to my partner, Julia. And that’s what happened – that was it, Love in a Hospital. That was my hope through a very difficult time, and while that hope may be different to other folks, that’s what I needed to know everything was going to be alright. Recording this song was an entirely different experience altogether. Playing these songs makes me feel alive and truly in touch with being alive – there’s nothing like it.
What do you hope people take away from the album?
I want people to feel hope. As challenging as mental illness is and can be, there is always hope.
Do you have any advice for those struggling with their mental health and looking for relief?
For anyone feeling unsafe, please get in touch with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255. Speaking only for myself, I’ve found that therapy, a creative outlet, and medication have been tremendously helpful. On a more sentimental note: we are all worth it. We are all worth the effort it takes to heal and live hopefully, and while I’m doing my best to learn that for myself, I can say with confidence this is 100% true.