Photo by Nicole Beuerlein
Crosby Morgan was nothing if not thorough in plotting out Psychosis of Dreams, a concept album about her experiences with mental illness. The Seattle-based singer/songwriter, who produces electronic music as Leandrul, sifted through over 300 single-spaced pages of journaling from ten years of her life with depression and borderline personality disorder.
She even consulted a therapist manual on dialectical behavior therapy to better understand what she had been going through from an outside point of view. “Seeing like, ‘Wow, I can understand now why, many years ago, my therapist said this thing,’” she recalled, speaking to The All Scene Eye by phone. “She saw what was going on with me that I couldn’t see, and she kind of revealed it to me. Seeing it from her perspective was pretty insightful.”
None of that study makes Psychosis of Dreams any less visceral, though; in the boiled down, 17-track opus, Morgan uses synth pop melody, industrial grit, and dark folk atmosphere to render moments of crisis and clarity with care for the way they really felt. Sometimes that’s a pumping synth bass and a scream, and other times it’s a whisper over an acoustic guitar chord. In its arc from 2010 to the present, it follows every hard-fought step on the path to self-love and acceptance of life and death.
The full album comes out March 5, with a run of cassettes on offer from the Handsmade art collective. Before the release, she helped us unpack its improvised percussion sounds and the ways it aims to help others struggling to confront the absurdity of life.
We’re coming up now on almost a year of life under pandemic conditions. How are you holding up?
I’m doing well, considering. I don’t have much to complain about. I basically get to work on music now [laughs] all day, all week, so I’m happy about that. It is hard because I miss my family a lot, but I’m lucky that they’re all being careful and everyone’s been safe so far.
How have you been impacted as an artist? What was it like for you shifting into this new pattern?
Well, I used to busk for a living, which was a good way for me to make money, so I no longer can do that, obviously. I’ve been able to work on recording and setting up a Twitch stream. That’s kind of cool, that I’ve tried to adapt in that way, and I think it’s actually made my ability to play live–like, I’m expanding my equipment and really focusing on that. I think that’s not something I could have necessarily done before if I was busking, because that takes a large part of your day.
You’re kind of sitting and waiting [laughs] for people to come by–that’s how busking works, in my experience. It’s not like you can go out for two hours and make a set amount, so you really have to often wait for certain parts of the day to pass. Like rush hour, for instance. You have to be there before rush hour, and ideally after rush hour ends, if you’re playing at a train station or something. That’s something that I’ve done more along the lines of my acoustic musicianship, because I busked for about eight years at Venice Beach, playing folk music. Basically, I’ve stopped doing that, and now I can hone in on my electronic music performance.
What kind of places would you set up and busk when you’d go out?
It’s almost been two years since I moved to Seattle, but before that, for the most part, I was living in LA. I would live with my parents for the majority of that time, and they live about 60 miles northeast of Venice Beach, so I would commute every morning. I would try to busk four to five times a week, and it would be about two hours of traffic both ways [laughs] and I’d have to get there sometimes around 4:00 a.m. to get a spot ’cause there’s a lot of competition at Venice Beach. It was a really intense part of my life, doing that, and summers were the hardest. I would actually get sometimes a little bit of sun poisoning because previously, I hadn’t had an umbrella, and it’s really hot there. It was really grueling, but it was also a really memorable, special time of my life.
Then when I moved to Seattle, I was busking in Capitol Hill, for the most part. I’d do some farmers markets, like the Fremont farmers market, and I was going to try the Capitol Hill farmers market, but then the pandemic hit. For staying afloat, I’m very lucky. I have a supportive partner, and I haven’t had to worry too much about financial stuff. I just try to take advantage of that opportunity by pushing on my live set, doing Twitch streams, and doing recordings.
How does a Twitch stream compare to busking? I’m curious about interacting with people busking versus interacting with people on a stream.
Actually, it’s more similar than you might expect, unless you expected that it was similar, because I still get really nervous. Even when I was busking and I did it hundreds of times, possibly more than that [laughs] and then the Twitch streaming, I still get nervous.
It’s almost the same because people can comment when you’re streaming, and you have this banter going on between songs. When I would busk, sometimes people would want to talk to me in between songs, or they would want to tip me or buy a CD, and that interaction is very similar, which is nice, actually. Twitch is special because of that. It’s hard for me to do social media stuff because I get nervous before I post things, but Twitch is like the bridge between social media and real life, for me. It’s actually my favorite form of interacting with fans or people that might be interested in my music.
Back in 2018, you put out your first electronic project, which was Primal. What was it like starting out in that space versus playing acoustically?
I had been working on my electronic music production skillset since 2011–I just didn’t feel like my production skills and the music content were developed enough to actually release an electronic project until 2018 with Primal. And I was so happy when I released it. I didn’t do any PR for it; I just put it out because I was so happy that I could, because I love electronic music. I don’t listen to folk music at all, really. I really only listen to electronic music, and I love it so much, and I was so excited that I could make something that I liked that much. It was a big relief, and it was really fun.
When did you start working on the songs for this new project, Psychosis of Dreams?
I came up with the idea to write about my experience with mental illness in 2015, and it took me a while to develop it, but it was on the radar at that point.
How did you go from having this idea on the radar to making this more fully-realized concept of the record?
It actually happened because I was working with some people in the music industry that did artist development, but they also kind of didn’t want me to release anything? It was a really tricky situation because they were trying to help me get on a label or get a production deal, and I found it to be very limiting. Eventually, I just–I didn’t follow through with that, and that was around 2017. That was a really hard time for me because I had been working with them for about two years, and I was not able to release anything–I didn’t get to focus on Psychosis of Dreams during those two years, and so finally, I had Primal lined up, and after Primal, I started planning out Psychosis of Dreams more fully.
I went through another bout of severe depression after those two years. When that happened, I was really inspired to expose the issue and the experience I had, so I started formulating criteria for the album. It’s all conceptual, and I tried to make most of the songs all in one key so that it felt like a full stream of thought and sentiment. I also came up with the melodic themes and the lyrical themes at that point, in 2017. What I’d decided was that I would pick as many words that were, like, poignant or relevant to my mental health journey, and I would write based on the title of the song, so I named the titles before I wrote the music and the lyrics. I finished Primal, I released it, and I took on the new role of finishing Psychosis of Dreams with those criteria.
How do you take a song title and make a song out of it?
It was sometimes hard. I’d have to scrap complete songs that I’d been working on for months because what would happen was, I would be fixated on the title. I always use lyrics as the palette, and then I would write the music or try to figure out chords that I liked, and then I’d add lyrics, and sometimes it’d just be too straightforward or overt. Like, “Death By Nerium” is the fourth song on the album, and that song in particular used to be a really long electronic song. Now it’s a shorter acoustic song, and I had to scrap it because it was not accurate to the sentiment, what “Death By Nerium” means.
Nerium is another word for Leandrul, which is another word for Oleander, which is a poisonous shrub that grows around southern California–many other places, too. I would think about eating that plant in my dark days. “Death By Nerium” is connected to “Interim,” which is about deciding if you want to live or die, so I had to be very sensitive with that particular song, and the electronic version of it was just too descriptive, or too angsty, I guess? It wasn’t soft enough.
“Interim” is such a more intense song. You really do some screaming on that, and then you go into this whispery, acoustic track. What was it like for you managing those poles of this record, of doing both of those things?
Well, that couple, because they’re interconnected–basically, the album is chronological, and “Interim” was the moment when I realized that suicide was an option for me, and I was terrified. Life was so painful at the time, so it does sound tortured. I’m actually screaming in that end part of “Interim,” and I realized that it needed to be soft and not like this other pumping, [laughs] intense electronic song. I realized it’s all there–it’s the moment after you’ve made the decision. “Death By Nerium” was essentially my song about saying yes to suicide.
So much of this record deals with the relationship between life and death. In the Bandcamp description, you kind of sum up your philosophy as, “I try to cope with death by infusing meaning into life, and I commit myself to the belief that love is what makes life worth living.” Can you tell me about coming to that conclusion?
[laughs] I’m glad you read that. These conclusions I made happened over the course of the last ten years. I mean, when I started writing some of the songs, like the ones that you hear in the album now, maybe eight years or so–2010 was when all this started, the mental health stuff happened, and working through those years, focusing on skills and therapy, going to psychiatrists, and doing the right thing medically was what allowed me to come to those conclusions.
I couldn’t not mention that love is an important part of healing, and infusing meaning into life, that is my coping mechanism. Understanding the absurdity of life–I don’t have an answer for it. I don’t understand why all this happens. I’m not religious, so I don’t think I know the meaning of life, or my life, or anything like that, and it was something that I struggled with for so long, through therapy and learning about myself and my values and what I care about in life. I had to reflect that in the music.
“Redemption,” the last song on the album, I talk about, “I found redemption when faced with a lock, but no key,” and that’s kind of that. I don’t have an answer, but I can make one for myself, and that’s infusing meaning into life so that I can deal with that lock without the key, which is death.
You mentioned this album goes chronologically. Towards the end, the title track “Psychosis of Dreams” and then “Redemption,” where do those fall in the timeline?
They really do fall at the end of my realization after these ten years of dealing with depression and borderline personality disorder. “Psychosis of Dreams” is a funny song because I wrote that in 2010, which is why that’s the first song on the album. I redid it because when I wrote that, it was about someone that I fell in love with–my first love–but when I went back to it and I wanted to remake it–“You don’t think I am enough to love,” I realized that that was me. I didn’t think I was enough to love, so it was a sad romance song [laughs] that turned into this thing where I was battling to not hate myself every day and battling to find love for the person that I am. That’s why that song repeats again.
The goal was that when “Redemption” asks at the very end, “Is there redemption for someone like me,” that’s a question I was thinking maybe the listener would ask themselves. If I’m worth redemption, or have value, or I’m salvageable, then perhaps if they related to the rest of the album, they can ask that same question to themselves. “Am I salvageable?” And hopefully they can say yes.
You mention that religion is not really part of your framework of dealing with these questions. What, then, does redemption look like, in that context of realizing you’re worthy of it?
It looks like acceptance of the unknown and living in the moment as best as you can. We’re not perfect–I’m not perfect, so I think the best I can do is to accept that I don’t know, and I’m going to keep infusing meaning into life and allowing myself to enjoy attachment, whether it’s a relationship, or my career, or music, or something I learned that day, or any day of my life. I think that’s what I’m talking about.
Music is very significant, I think, as part of that web of finding meaning or making meaning. One track I did want to make sure I asked you about is “Saved By Lizzy’s Taste in Music.” Can you tell me about where that song came from?
Yeah, that’s my commentary on what music did for me when I was really not well. Lizzie was my roommate in college for, like, half a year at UCLA. She was younger than me too, and she introduced me to all of the electronic music that I started–it was basically EDM, so there are quite a few different artists I mention in that song–
You mention Avicii, you mention–
Avicii, Deadmau5. [laughs] These were the staples that I learned about back in 2012 or 2011 when I was roommates with her. Her taste in music just made me excited about skipping class and working on Pro Tools stuff. It was just such a fuel for me, and that’s kind of the thing about life. At least I know that there are pockets of really good things, you know? It may be bad most of the time, but there are pockets where you can see a little bit more–and I guess that’s another theme, is seeing the light. It’s a really common metaphor, but seeing your psychosis of dreams as a dream, actually. Then you can wake up and learn from that. Like, figuratively.
If you could talk to yourself back in 2010 where this project starts, what would you say?
I would tell myself that the things that you value right now, they can change, and they can change the way you view life. It’s not about this structure that perhaps we’re all inclined to believe in. We’re supposed to value financial success, or being socially popular, or even on social media, or super athletic, or any of those things. Those are values that can be changed, and it’s important to change them to match what you are and the things that you truly think are cool–things that don’t hurt people or hurt yourself, you know? I guess that’s what I would say, is that values are malleable, and obviously, we want to be ethical [laughs] when picking our values. But you don’t have to put so much pressure on yourself because you’re not the same as what society thinks is success.
I think that’s really powerful as a way of growing up and becoming a more complete, realized version of yourself.
It takes time to fully realize who you are and what you think is cool and be confident in that. I struggled so much with that because I–I just hated myself. Just pure hatred for myself. I wasn’t good enough, and I felt like I just hurt everybody and hurt myself. I just didn’t like who I was, and I don’t think it was warranted [laughs] which is the–
No, of course not!
You know what I mean? It was totally just self-deprecation for the sake of–I don’t know. That’s something that I couldn’t really put my finger on. Like, I hated myself for whatever, “I’m fat, I’m ugly, stupid,” you know, “I said something wrong. They didn’t want to talk to me again. No one’s calling me. No one texts me.” Those aren’t reasons to really hate yourself. I’m just super self-critical, and perhaps perfection was something that I really wanted to achieve at that time in my life.
To contrast that, where you are now, what are some things that you value?
I mean, it’s hard to do, but I value my definition of success, which is, you did your best and you didn’t take things for granted. That opportunities–you tried to attain them and you took advantage of those things, and you did your best. That’s success, to me, because I think of the opposite. If you don’t take advantage of these opportunities or things that you–and obviously, if you have a goal, like music, or helping other people, then you can take hold of opportunities, right? They’re not opportunities for nothing. You have a goal in mind.
My goal this whole time has been to gain closure and self-acceptance and self-love, but also to spread that to other people. So when I have opportunities to keep making music during the pandemic and making a message out of Psychosis of Dreams that might hopefully help other people who feel the same way or perhaps make someone more knowledgeable about mental illness, that creates a compassionate group of people, if they can absorb the message. That’s the opportunity I had to take advantage of because I do have the ability to make music, and that’s something I love to do. That’s what I think is important.
Can I ask you about some of the production of this record?
There’s some really cool percussion sounds that you use. Like “Psychosis of Dreams,” for example–how did you make the rhythm parts of that track?
[laughs] I had my guitar case and a dresser, so the snare I think was a knock on the dresser, and I might have pitched it up a little bit, but there’s a clicking sound, and that’s my guitar case. I’m flipping the latch. Other things, I actually can’t remember. There’s a sound in there that sounds like a whoosh. I can’t remember how I made that, and it kind of kills me because I really like that sound. [laughs] In my session, it’s called “the fish,” so I don’t know why it’s called “the fish,” but that’s one of the percussive sounds on “Psychosis of Dreams.”
Tell me about your workspace. What is that area like?
It’s messy. I have a lot of trinkets that I can’t get rid of. [laughs] But more seriously, I have a Mac computer with Pro Tools, I have my interface and playback speakers, Yamahas, and basically–yeah, I like my space. I have these multicolored LED lights from Ikea that change smoothly, and I have a lot of those in my studio, so it’s very colorful in here.
Pretty much! [laughs]
When you spend so many years with a concept, how do you know that it’s in its final state?
That’s a hard one, but I did it. [laughs] It’s sometimes a weird commitment, like, “This is as good as it’s gonna get this round.” I was really terrified perhaps anyone that listens to the album might be like, “This is just not mixed well, and it sounds bad,” [laughs] because I don’t have a lot of music resources, so I did everything from scratch. I would take samples of certain things, like in “Molecules of Past Lives,” that eurgh sound, it’s kind of mechanical–that’s actually my dryer. I kind of sampled it and just made it different pitches and stuff. There’s some, like, Ryobi power drill sounds in there, but basically, I mixed and mastered it myself as well.
It was really scary, but what made me realize it was done was just that there were a few more things that I could tweak, but I had to say, “No, if you tweak those, you’re going to keep tweaking more stuff, and it will never end.” I actually gave myself a deadline, and I promised myself to not work on it after that, so it was a two-week crunch to finish mixing and mastering everything, and that’s how I did it. I’m hoping my next project will be better-mixed and mastered, but that’s how it goes. Like, “Primal,” I can hear lots of problems with that one, but I had to let it go.
When was that two-week crunch?
I think I finished in early September, so it was like the last two weeks of August 2020. It’s funny because I actually had been trying to make this for the previous month or so, and I was like, “This is not going anywhere,” so I had to give myself a two-week deadline, and I just did my best. [laughs]
There’s so much I never would have figured out–things like the dryer or the drill.
I tried to put some cool stuff in there! [laughs] Also, the plugins for the percussion and all the synths pretty much are stock, from Pro Tools. I know nobody uses them ’cause they’re stock, so I’m like, “Okay, this is how I’m gonna make it different [laughs] from other albums.” And it’s cheaper! So everything is pretty much made with MIDI, and I sampled a few things on my own with my iPhone and stuff. I just thought I’d mention that.
You alluded to the next project. What’s next for you since you finished this?
So, Psychosis of Dreams, pretty much internal-conflict-themed, deals a lot with internal awareness and sadness and stuff. I realized that the next step for me is to look into external conflict because that is something that makes me really sad. It makes me feel really worried. War, politics, climate change, things that are external. There’s going to be some theme of, like, there’s not much control. Internal stuff, you can’t control your emotions–when you feel sad, that’s not something you intended to do–but there is a way to manage it, and I think what’s going to be interesting and probably difficult emotionally making the next project is the fact that external conflict is not controllable on the micro level.
Has that reversed focus changed the way that you approach coming up with concepts and working them out musically?
Yeah, it’s been really not-fruitful lately [laughs] because I don’t know a lot about it, so I’m trying to read up on World War II, and I’ve watched some documentaries and stuff–there’s a lot of research I have to do to be able to pinpoint what I want to say, so it’s really in the developmental stage, baby stage.