Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending the debut of Ella Mine’s concept show Dream War. The conceptual project delves into the depths of hopelessness, pain, and internal turmoil with such grit and vulnerability, yet it offers a beam of light to those who find themselves in the midst of similar fights. From beginning to end, the show’s poetic songwriting and diverse art rock sensibilities display Ella’s passion and intense dedication to the project. “I’ve given myself completely to this work,” she tells me at a local coffee shop. “I love all the music projects I’m involved in, but when I started writing Dream War I realized this is what I need to do.”
Ella Mine is performing Dream War in its entirety on October 11th as part of The Art of Evocation’s Hutchmoot show titled “Well – Exploring the Healing Power of Art.” In anticipation of the show, as well as her Local Show tonight, I sat down with Ella to talk about the show’s origins and her personal journey through the darkness.
Chris: Before we dive into your personal experiences, emotions, and struggles that led to Dream War, what were some musical or literary influences that informed the project?
Ella: In middle and high school, I studied classical piano in a vigorous program in Nashville. So some of my earliest musical romances are with composers Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy. After that, I’d say the Waterboys, Glen Hansard, Lone Justice, and Beck. Waterdeep changed my world too.
As for literary inspirations in Dream War, there’s one song (“Where Is She Now?”) taken from Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy right before she takes her life, and the next song (“Sound + Fury”) is based on Macbeth’s response to that news. Another song, “Wheel of Love,” is primarily taken from my reflections on the book The Mystery of Marriage by Mike Mason. It carries the idea that when you give yourself to anything, you’re opening yourself up to pain, which is essentially the premise of the whole work.
Chris: So the show you’re performing at Hutchmoot centers around mental health and the healing power of art. How does Dream War engage that conversation?
Ella: Well I’ve walked through a lot since age 17, and in Dream War I wrote what I needed to hear to help me through it. But really it’s about any struggle through darkness—wanting to love or dream or believe in something and then having that affection, hope, or trust ravaged. How do we move on into loving or dreaming again?
Chris: To the extent that you’re comfortable, can you talk about some of what you’ve lived through?
Ella: I was diagnosed with a pain condition called Central Sensitization Syndrome when I was 17. To help with the pain, I was prescribed an SSRI designed to treat depression, but commonly offered off-label for physical pain like mine. After two months, my personality was completely altered. It took me and the people around me completely off guard. We didn’t know that the medication would have psychoactive effects.
I became apathetic and hateful, two emotional states I had never experienced before. It was terrible. I got off the SSRI slowly, thinking, “Now I’ll be back to normal.” Sadly, that’s often not how it works. Getting off of the medication was even worse. I experienced psychosis, a confusing, terrifying state where I didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t. Visual and auditory hallucinations made it difficult to know whether or not what I was seeing or hearing was real.
The drug also caused akathisia and mild cognitive impairment that made math, logic, and even speaking difficult. I had compulsions and impulses that were completely foreign and terrifying. That’s hard to live through. At that point, it’s a choice to keep living. And five years later, I’m still on an incline of recovery.
Chris: That is such a difficult journey. So how were the impulses and feelings and pain fueled into Dream War?
Ella: I lived through a darkness that was so oppressive and surrounding and really inside of me that I could truly relate with and write a song from Lady Macbeth’s perspective, wondering if I’d ever be clean again. I had to fight so hard against the terrible things I thought and the terrible things I had impulses to do.
The thoughts and impulses felt so organic and personal, and at the same time so foreign. But I knew this was wickedness, especially when harmful thoughts were directly correlated to the people I cared about the most. I can still feel the horror of thinking those thoughts.
The chorus of the song “Dream War” is my weary white flag:
“Calling off the dream war cause I
Can’t keep the waves from breaking on this shore
Calling off the dream war cause I
Already lost the dreams I was fighting for”
I couldn’t keep doing it. During that time, my dad (Douglas McKelvey) was talking to me about how fear works, how sometimes fear is the weapon. I didn’t get it at first, but now I realize that the fear itself was the dangerous thing. So the verse in that song which says “If I ran, then I ran with the fire of fear” speaks to the idea that I’m running from something that seems real, but maybe it’s just the fear.
Chris: So dreams are a running theme throughout the show. Did that come from real experience as well?
In those moments of clarity, it was like getting my head above water before being thrown back under the sea. I would take in the deepest breath of air that I possibly could. Then back under the waves, I would hold that breath as long as I could.Ella Mine
Ella: Every night I’d have to make the decision between staying awake with akathisia in a dark house, not knowing what my tired brain was going to do, or go to sleep and experience the creepy, violent dreams I’d have. I would wake up and still be half in that awful dream state, and that was when I most wanted not to be alive. As real and organic as these experiences felt, I was aware that up until that year, I had lived as a completely different person in a different life. I had believed in goodness, loved living, loved people, known truth. So I recognized the difference. And I knew that of those two experiences, the one that I wanted to be reality was not the one I now found myself in.
Dream War is full of ocean and water imagery because in those moments of clarity, it was like getting my head above water before being thrown back under the sea. I would take in the deepest breath of air that I possibly could. Then back under the waves, I would hold that breath as long as I could. In the recovery community, they call that sort of cycle “windows and waves.” In the windows, I would find truth and bury it inside of me. Not bury as in hide it, but as in secure it somewhere safe so that when I feel like I can’t reach it, I can still remember that it exists.
Chris: What were those things you were able to hold onto?
Ella: Scripture, love, moments where I knew God—I took those things that in moments of clarity I knew to be true and just held them tightly. And then in confusion, mania, and psychosis, when I was capable of it, I chose to believe what I in other times knew to be true. That took a lot of energy, and I learned how much I needed other people.
Chris: So in other people, you found the energy to continue?
Ella: Not necessarily. In other people, I felt the freedom to relax. It was like after a boxing match, where you’ve fought hard and you’re worn out and you can just fall into the arms of the person in your corner. In stages where I felt too weak to fight for myself, I knew that my family, mentors, and friends were supporting me. Sometimes we have to get to that point where we can’t take care of ourselves in order to recognize how much someone else can.
Chris: So if they were the relief, what energized you in your fight?
Ella: That’s a good question. I think we know that a fight for what’s good is worth the struggle. Maybe stories helped, being steeped in stories all my life. In stories, there’s usually darkness and a fight. There’s tension before resolution. If you can see your own life as a story, it helps to stay in the fight and maintain at least a shred of hope.
Chris: In a lot of stories that portray the fight between light and darkness, light wins, and the darkness just goes away. That’s not the case with your show.
I want the hope that's offered to be a hard-earned hope, not an easy answer.Ella Mine
Ella: That was important to me in this work. I didn’t want to take my listeners through this intense journey and then slap on a happy ending or solution. Sometimes as artists, we just need to ask the question. But I also didn’t want to leave those who’ve walked through this journey with me in a dark place. I wanted the work to be as true and inviting as possible, but also as worthwhile as possible. If you see this show, I want you to be glad you did, even if it’s not easy listening. I want the hope that’s offered to be a hard-earned hope, not an easy answer. I want it to be the sort of hope that has survived the worst that darkness can throw at us.
Chris: Was it hard to balance creating a hopeful story, but not a happy story?
Ella: The biggest struggle I had in writing was moving from the place of “I don’t want to dream or love or believe in something again” to deciding, “I will dream again.” I spent months asking people the question, “As humans, how do we do this?” Often after being hurt we think, “I’ll never hope for the best again,” or “I’ll never be able to trust someone like that again.” But at some point, we go, “OK, I can do this again.” So what is it that causes that change in us?
From that struggle, I wrote “Wheel of Love,” which is mainly asking those questions. It never answers them; it just invites the listener into the question. The decision to keep going comes later, and is made in the context of recognizing that the world won’t necessarily support me, and that people I love might still hurt me, and that love is something we’re going to have to fight for. But it is worthwhile.
The most important lines of the show are the bridge of “Fire”:
“I’ll lay down in my burning bed
Though darkened thoughts run through my head
I’ll focus on the light instead and
Close my eyes and dream again”
Living is painful, but I’m still gonna do it. I’m gonna focus on the light. As someone who still experiences physical pain on an everyday basis, I know that sometimes all you can do is shift the focus and accept that you’re feeling it, but it’s OK.
Chris: It’s great that even though you wrote the things you needed to hear, the songs are able to speak into other people’s journeys.
Ella: As I wrote, I was hoping and praying that this would be what it needs to be for myself, but that it would also meet the needs of others. I read recently, “One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through, and it will be someone else’s survival guide.” That’s one of the redemptive results I’ve already seen from what I’ve gone through. So many people I know have experienced similar reactions to medications and gone through similar life patterns to what I experienced. And when nobody else in their circles can understand what they’re going through, I can.
Chris: What is your hope for people who come to see the show at Hutchmoot or elsewhere?
Ella: I want this experience to be an invitation for anybody who is hurting or struggling or in the middle of a fight to continue the walk through the struggle. I want this music to create space to feel what we don’t normally allow ourselves to feel. We often try to shut off our feelings because they’re painful or we don’t have time for them. I want to offer a space for people to enter into their struggle, and then in a kind way, walk with them until we’re again within sight of the light that’s always been there.