Automatic Songwriting

by Alison Eales

Alison Eales

I have just released my first solo album. It is called Mox Nox, a sundial motto that means ‘night, shortly’, and the theme running through the record is the passing of time, particularly the transition from day to night. Rather than writing songs specifically for the album, I looked through my songbook for things I had already written that fit this theme, and one of them (now called The Broken Song) jumped out at me as being a bit of a curiosity.

I’ve always been a night owl. I can be absolutely exhausted at 10pm, but by 11 my head will be racing with ideas. The Broken Song began its life during a nocturnal writing session, and its original lyrics made direct reference to being up all night. The song was clearly relevant – but it was also an underdog, half-written and still wearing its working title. I hadn’t thought about it in years.

Looking over the lyrics, I remembered that I had always liked the verses but struggled to come up with a chorus. I’ve never been too worried about following a verse-chorus structure, but I knew this song needed more, and I knew that it was stuck. The breakthrough came when I deleted my crappy excuse for a chorus and looked at the lyrics that were left. Quite suddenly, I saw that the song I had thought was about a particular event in my life was about something else entirely.

Listen to the song while reading the text.

A Broken Brain

One Thursday morning in my late teens, I woke up with a broken brain. I started to realise that something wasn’t right while my best friend was driving us home from a seaside holiday, and things only deteriorated as the day went on.

It’s difficult to describe, but I’ve since learned that what I was suffering from is called depersonalisation or derealisation. It’s a common symptom of lots of mental illnesses, and some people describe it as an out-of-body experience. For me, though, it was more like being locked somewhere deep inside my own head, like The Numskulls from the Beano.

I couldn’t process sensory input properly, and at times I thought I was hallucinating. In fact, I had lost my sense of time, so it would seem like things were happening in time-lapse or slow-motion or all at once. I would hear someone respond to something I had said without even realising I had spoken to them. I had difficulty recognising faces. My short-term memory and ability to concentrate were all but non-existent, and I was terrified.

Things escalated dramatically over the course of a couple of days. On the Saturday, I went to work at the bakery as normal, but only got a couple of hours into my shift before I broke down into a tearful, confused mess. I was sent home and my mum took me to A&E to see an emergency doctor, who was crap. ‘Textbook anxiety,’ he said. ‘Go home and try to relax.’ If anything, he made it worse.


On Monday, I managed to see our family doctor. We hadn’t lived in the area long, and I moved to Glasgow the following year, so this was the first and only time I saw him. I stammeringly described my symptoms as best I could and explained that I was terrified that I had somehow damaged my brain and would be like this for the rest of my life.

I will never, ever forget what he did. He reached across his desk, held my hand, and told me I was going to be fine. The sense of relief was instant; I can still remember feeling my muscles relax and my heart slow down.

We talked some more. I had been protesting that no, it couldn’t be anxiety, because I didn’t really have anything to be anxious about. He helped me to understand that there is a difference between being anxious and having anxiety. I’ve always been a worrier, and I often joke about my badly chewed nails and the fact my hair turned grey when I was seventeen. But when you have anxiety, your brain is performing the action of being worried even if there is nothing to worry about – perhaps even because there is nothing to worry about. It becomes physical. You literally worry yourself sick. And of course, if you don’t understand the problem, that just makes you more worried, sending you down a vicious helter-skelter.

The diagnosis was generalised anxiety disorder, and I was referred for anxiety management classes along with physiotherapy to help with relaxation and breathing. I had a fortnight off work, busied myself with various arts and crafts (I learned quickly that I find repetitive manual tasks help me to focus), and got a little bit better each day.

The Broken Song

Around the same time, I had fallen in love, something that had never happened to me before. I remember clearly that that was what I was consciously thinking about when I started writing The Broken Song, but when I looked back over the verses all those years later I realised that the lyrics describe the symptoms of my anxiety.

(Intermission: please feel free to take a moment to make up your own joke about love being a mental illness.)

This realisation put me in mind of automatic writing, where spiritual mediums claim to be able to communicate messages through pen and paper without consciously controlling their hands. I decided to change the focus of the song, and in the new choruses, I tried to capture that sense of being detached from my senses:

Can’t tell how hard I hit the glass *
Can’t tell how long has passed
Can’t see the marks
I can’t think my thoughts
Until I hear them

* On reflection, this line sounds a bit more dramatic than I had intended. I was actually just banging on a window to get my cat’s attention.

Mox Nox

When I went into the studio to make this album, all the other songs were fully written and arranged, and I had a clear idea of how they should sound. The Broken Song was still very rough around the edges, and I wanted it to stay that way. My hope was that it would sound like two songs stapled together, one dangling precariously from the other, which is how I feel when I’m at my worst.

I’m very glad I decided to include this song on the album. Having a theme forced me to try and bring all the songs up to standard, rather than just picking the ones I was already most happy with. Working on The Broken Song also forced me to relinquish a bit of control, and just experiment a bit – I have a perfectionist streak that isn’t evident in all areas of my life but comes to the fore when I am making music. Whether perfectionism is a friend or an enemy of creativity is up for debate, but its relationship with anxiety is unambiguous.

Thankfully I only had one serious relapse. I take medication every day, and I still get minor episodes from time to time, but I have learned to recognise the thoughts that are most likely to send me down the helter-skelter and how to deflect them.


Artist’s Note
Glasgow, Scotland
Alternative, Folk, Indie, Indie Pop, Rock
anxiety, songwriting

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.