Val Emmich is an interesting person, blessed with beau coup talent. He’s a writer, actor, and singer-songwriter. Still, like many gifted artists, he suffers with anxiety and depression: Leo Tolstoy, Philip K. Dick, Adele, Lana Del Rey, Brian Wilson, Kristin Stewart, and even Abraham Lincoln.
Jack Nicklaus famously said, “Concentration is a fine antidote to anxiety.” This probably explains Emmich’s prolific outpouring of creativity, including more than a dozen albums, appearances on HBO’s Vinyl, 30 Rock, The Big C, and Ugly Betty, along with churning out marvelous novels, such as The Reminders and Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel, a New York Times bestseller.
“Worry” is the title of his latest music video, off his album Tizzy, which focuses on his depression and anxiety. The video, directed by Rob Fitzgerald, is a delicious angst-filled depiction of the inner tumult of anxiety, as well as a marvelously contagious pop song.
I interviewed Val Emmich for a couple of reasons: one, he’s hella-talented, and super-talented people, for the most part, are fascinating; second, his frankness about his anxiety and depression make him refreshingly human — he doesn’t pretend to be one of the beautiful-perfect people.
How would you describe yourself?
Kind, polite, fair, disciplined, motivated, ambitious, moody, distant, sensitive, vengeful, paranoid, in major disrepair, but in the process of being stitched up.
What is the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into?
I have a terrible memory. Let me think. Getting audited by the IRS felt like trouble, but I’m not the one who “got into” it; it got into me. The answer, probably, was when a cop — whose relative I had offended in a road rage incident that was totally instigated by me — found out where I lived and tried to threaten and intimidate me and it having to be settled in court.
What’s your favorite song to belt out in the car or the shower?
I don’t sing for fun. I am not any fun.
Who is your favorite music artist?
The Beatles. Common answer but the correct one.
How did you get started in music? What’s the backstory there?
I’ve been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember. When I picked up a guitar at age fifteen and I discovered that I could use it to write songs that would help exorcise the angst I felt — home-life angst and the regular teenage kind — I felt free and powerful for the first time.
How did you get started in acting?
It was an accident. I had no interest in acting until the owner of the bookshop I was working at suggested I try it. Her young son was an actor who had just appeared in The Sopranos and he had an agent. The bookshop owner set up an audition for me with the agent. I was eighteen, untrained, and scared to death. I did a cold reading for the agent. She claimed I was a natural and began sending me out on auditions. I landed a role in a commercial almost immediately. My actor friends hate this story. I had that same agent for over twenty years. She died a few years ago from a brain aneurysm and I haven’t acted since.
How did you get started in writing?
I was in my late twenties, newly married. My wife was (and still is) a teacher. She would get up early and go to work, and I would sleep late. Not uncommon for a musician and actor. One day, mysteriously, I woke up before she did and began writing a story on my computer. When my wife woke up, she asked, “What are you doing?” I told her, without a thought, “I’m writing a novel.” Before that moment I had never expressed to her or to myself any interest in writing fiction. That first novel sucked. The second novel sucked. But I became obsessed with writing, partly because it’s so difficult and I was ready for a new challenge. My third attempt, ten years later, became my first published novel, The Reminders.
What musicians influenced you the most?
I’m inspired all the time by new music I find, but the musicians I was listening to as a teenager are the ones that inspired me to learn guitar and start writing songs. They were all part of the so-called alternative scene that found commercial success in the Nineties: R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Green Day, Pavement, Modest Mouse. A lot of this music involved simple power chords which made learning guitar less intimidating than it might have been if I’d had an obsession with, say, Jimi Hendrix.
Which do you prefer? Writing, acting, or music?
I like them all. Like, not love. I like writing — music and fiction — the most. I like the control. I need writing to survive. I believe that to be true — that the act of creating things keeps me alive.
Have you always suffered anxiety or depression? Or did it just appear one day seemingly out of nowhere?
It appeared, I think, as a result of the trauma of childhood. Living with a mentally ill person who was always on the verge of inflicting harm on himself and who succeeded repeatedly, but never permanently, instilled a feeling of doom in me that I still can’t shake. My parents did the best they could. But it’s hard to feel stable and strong when you and your siblings are in charge of things that you’re not equipped to be in charge of.
Many creative artists experience anxiety and depression. One theory is that mood disorders aid creativity by providing an alternative way of looking at life and situations. Another theory states that creativity creates mood disorder as a by-product. What do you think?
Both ring true to me.
Do you have any ‘techniques’ you use to cope with your anxiety?
Therapy. Medication. Art. My wife and kids. My friends.
What’s next for you? Another novel, or another album, or what?
A new novel coming in the fall of 2020 and I’ve also written my next album. I don’t know how to sit still. It’s something I’m working on. I hate myself.