Vocal Magic

Arts and entertainment is a difficult industry during a pandemic, especially when dealing with mental health issues. Musician Daniel Sumbler talked to Fergus Byrne about the challenges he has faced and the benefits that music has brought into his life.

In a BBC TV interview a few years ago, Axminster based singer-songwriter, Danny Sumbler, pointed out that ‘suppression isn’t a healthy thing.’ He was referring not only to his own experiences growing up with Tourette’s but also to his aunt Lillian whom he never knew because at the age of six she was taken away to a mental institution. His father never saw his sister again and remembers watching her at the window as she was taken away and put into a black Morris Minor. Speaking to me last week about social interventions related to mental illness Daniel said: ‘The terribly sad thing is, not only would it have been a treatable thing now—as it is highly likely it was a form of Tourette’s or Asperger’s—but she stayed there for the rest of her days, then died there alone.’
A part of Daniel deeply understands and grieves for the loss of the positive effects Lillian could have brought to the lives of those around her. ‘That could have been me if I were a child back then’ he says. ‘My dad’s family were coerced and pressured into feeling shame, even guilt at the way she was looked upon.’ Daniel says they should have been able to feel proud of her, to see the positives that little Lillian might have offered. ‘So it is all of our responsibility to learn about these things and make happy little Lillians for the future.’
Seeing the positive sides of mental adversities is something that Daniel feels strongly about. In a recent song Here come the Tourettians—a heart-wrenching ode to living life beyond the pale of society’s so-called norms of behaviour—he sings of people’s perceptions, combining the sense of humour that is a necessary tool for survival with the reality of his own turmoil: ‘you’re wondering if we’re from outer space’ he sings and ‘you ask me why I do such things, but all I know myself is it makes me cry’.
With a voice that Johnny Cash’s producer described as ‘vocal magic’ Daniel’s music brings light into areas that he knows can be completely misunderstood. ‘Tourette’s didn’t really come into our stratosphere with any kind of understanding until the 80s’ he says ‘and even that was very much focused on the extreme shouting side of it—coprolalia and copropraxia, which actually only around ten percent of Tourettians have.’ Daniel does get some verbal symptoms, but not all. ‘I have found my own way to overcome and deal with every symptom through channelling it through my creative work mostly, or weaving my tics etcetera into the everyday things I do.’ He describes that thing that most of us have done at some point in our lives when we suffered from a fear of looking foolish. ‘You know like when you are running for a bus and you fall over—so you do a forward roll at the end to make it look like you did it on purpose? Ta,da!’
However, the consequent effort of containing something that one has little control of is draining. ‘Suppressing tics all day long though can be exhausting’ says Daniel ‘as can suppressing saying certain things I know I shouldn’t—but believe me, you don’t need Tourette’s to feel that way. When I do get home and am alone, however, I can sometimes look like Fred Astaire on LSD—as it all has to come out at some point. Not such a pretty sight, yet I am sure it is amusing. I must video it one day.’
Growing up with Tourette’s or any other mental adversity presents challenges that are individual to each person and the environment in which they live. Daniel was completely unaware that he was any different from any of the other kids growing up until it was pointed out to him. ‘I thought the rituals I performed before sleeping—OCD that is, not Satanic (though I did look like I was possessed whilst twitching some days)—the stepping on preferred paving stones, the vocal tics etcetera, I thought were things everybody did, as I knew no different.’
He remembers being hyperactive as a child and recalls surprising his mother one day after she had taken him out of school to help him with his reading. ‘Sitting opposite me one day, she was reading the newspaper which was open on the table in front of us and I began to read out the words to her. Not only upside down but back to front too of course. She simply took off her glasses, put them down on the table and said something like, “Dan, why didn’t you tell me you could read that well?” I honestly didn’t think it was that important. I had other “Tourettian” things on my mind.’
He also remembers how other symptoms began to appear: licking his lips constantly in a pattern and for a certain amount of times until it made them so sore it was almost unbearable. ‘I looked like I had more lipstick on than Bet Lynch—and that’s not a good look for a 7-year-old boy.’ Then there were the tics and twitches: ‘those beloved involuntary movements that made me a one-man sideshow with many faces.’ He describes it as ‘my own little gurning championship in one.’
As is often the case with mental health issues, outward symptoms can distract from or even mask what is going on inside. Daniel explained some of the problems that aren’t immediately apparent: ‘When I was 5 or 6, I would say to my mum, “I feel like crying but I can’t.” Now I know in hindsight these were early signs of a deep sadness I couldn’t exorcise through crying—which later spiralled into depression. Depression is like that; there is no release. It is like being poisoned and it is the worst and most debilitating associative disorder of Tourette’s for me. With most mental health conditions you get associative disorders—or the full package as I like to call it.’
Even in his early youth, Art was a place he could live where he could be free of much of his turmoil. With signature humour, he calls it ‘my solace and my expression all in one—a bit like one big satisfying twitch.’ Daniel’s mother drew and painted and when he picked up a pencil or paintbrush he was transported to that zone that became his meditation. ‘Music was the same’ he says. ‘My parents had a large record collection in the home, so it consequently became my first love; another escape and another paradox, being it gave me a way to live in the world presently without the agony.’ He refers to the process as a prime example of a contradiction becoming complementary—a marriage of dark and light. ‘It’s like when people ask me what I seek through my music and art; well I am not seeking anything. I am simply surrendering to getting lost—for when you are lost in something so magical, you begin to see your true self, ironically.’
From a musical perspective, the result of that surrender has unearthed a unique talent. Born and raised in Brighton, Daniel knew from his early teens that he would follow a musician’s path. But as any musician will tell you, that can be a path of many twists and turns, and very deep potholes. He played in different bands, gigged extensively and even generated interest from a major record label. He also became aware of how easy it was to fall into habits that might suit an itinerant lifestyle. ‘I was in the thick of it’ he says. ‘The vulnerability and anonymity of city life to a newcomer can be thrilling and fascinating—and it is at times—but for me, it was enough after a while. The adventure had pretty much worn off by the time I hit my thirties. The doorbell ringing at 10 am—me peering out of the window after a heavy one; seeing one or two blurry figures waving bottles of wine at me. I needed to move for preservation purposes.’
Much to the consternation of many around him, he turned down the suggestion of getting involved in a TV talent project, believing that easy-fix fame is never what it looks like from the outside. ‘It was quite interesting though, the reactions other people gave me—who I thought understood me to a degree. Some were almost abusive that I’d turned this chance for fame down for apparently nothing—yet I had preserved my integrity. I had put my work above five minutes of fame; that would have then been dished up ten years later on an episode of Loose Women, if you’re lucky. Jeez. I’d rather play the spoons. Fame is usually temporary, though I am certainly not knocking it; it can be a wonderful platform for many reasons—but it always depends on how you are represented. The arts however are eternal, as is time, and one bad and easy choice can taint something truly beautiful for a very long time. Any genuine artist will know this. Have the patience until it feels right.’
Today, like most musicians Daniel is waiting for the opportunity to play live again. He is currently writing a book about Tourette’s and mental health in general and has completed an album of new songs ready to take to the studio. The slow end to lockdown gives hope to many people in the world of arts and entertainment and Daniel is ready for new management, new direction and new horizons.
‘I am on a journey’ he says ‘not a mission. Mental health conditions, in fact, any state of being out of the norm, can induce wonderful art; just as wonderful art and creativity—creating it yourself or experiencing another’s—can induce healing for any mental health conditions that turn into mental health problems. There is a big difference between the two and society needs to learn this. All people have them in one form or another. They don’t always need a label. In fact, we call some of the most dangerous people on this planet sane… think about that one.’

For more information about Daniel Sumbler or to buy his music visit www.danielsumbler.com.