Local Current Blog

Newly published memoirist Mark Mallman talks about grief, anxiety, and the healing powers of music

Mark Mallman at The Current. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

Grief can unexpectedly rear its sometimes ugly head at moments many of us are not prepared to handle. Grief can choose to manifest itself in ways that we may not expect and at a time when we may think we’ve beaten the storm. For many dealing with grief, anxiety and panic attacks are not uncommon after traumatic events such as a death or a significant relationship breakup.

These topics and more fill Mark Mallman’s new book The Happiness Playlist: The True Story of Healing My Heart with Feel Good Music, which is set to be released on March 19 by Think Piece Publishing. Readers who have dealt with grief, anxiety, and depression may find solace, empathy, and hope as Mallman explains his healing process through music and close relationships. Mallman created what he refers to as a “happiness playlist” that he listened to when he was feeling anxious or experiencing emotions related to the events that preceded his anxiety.

Mallman, widely known as a musician, screenwriter, performer, and now author, talked candidly about his memoir in an interview with The Local Show’s Andrea Swensson.

How did you know that you wanted to write a book?

For a long time I’ve been thinking in third person, and I think it was writing that was happening in my mind. I would just go to the grocery store, and as I was buying groceries, I’d be thinking in terms of a narrative, and of course I write songs for my job. But I didn’t really know I’d love writing. I had been struggling with panic and anxiety, but really mostly just trying to keep peace, stay happy and stay positive. I found that anytime I’d pick up a book that would be telling me how to live my life – like a self-help book or something – I wouldn’t finish it, or it would bum me out because I could never follow the rules. And then I read the Stench of Honolulu book and it was super funny, and it was bad. And I didn’t say “well, I’ll write a bad book,” but what I thought was, isn’t this interesting?

There are so many pieces of writing that tell you how to live, but what about a book that just creates a feeling within you, like songs do? I started writing on this idea of songs for the last four or five years that cause a reaction of positive energy within you. I thought that could be done in a book. As a mode of self-care, I had established a happiness playlist. I was putting it on a lot when things were stressful. And I thought what would be cool is if I decided I would commit to this playlist for six months and keep a log of how these songs get inside of me and explode positivity. I thought I’d do it in winter because that’s the one force that unites us all in a certain type of uphill struggle in Minnesota – something that we all go through together. I don’t think winter is a totally subjective experience like a breakup, or like coping with a death, which is in the book.

In addition to taking on this experiment, you’re also coming to terms with a breakup and the death of your mother, and those two things are rendered very beautifully along this journey. I’m wondering, when you set out to do it, did you know it would be these six months — or did it turn into six months because that’s how long it took you reach a new place in your life?

Going back to screenwriting, which helped me a lot in terms of how to be concise with language – Star Wars starts in the middle of a fight. The first thing that happens in Star Wars is the fight scene. Luke Skywalker – we’re starting at the beginning of his journey, but his journey starts in the middle of the rebellion. I think it’s a great place to start a story, kind of in the middle of the story with your character at the beginning, but there’s stuff already happening. I picked two of those pivot points. It’s a book about music. When I was feeling sad, I put the happy songs on and it worked. It’s sort of that simple. 

I feel like a lot of the advice people give if you’re in a funk or if you’re experiencing depression or anxiety, is you should go outside, you should get some exercise and you should drink some water. Trying to get you to return to this other part of your being, which is your body. But that’s all really hard to do when you’re depressed. So music seems like a quicker pathway to getting this movement happening.

Keys fascinate me. Here’s a thing that’s not even really mechanical. It’s just a piece of metal. There’s only one part to a key. It’s a simple thing, and yet if you lose it your life stops. It’s this tiny little thing that lets you into your house. You couldn’t get into your house without it. Everybody’s been to a point where they’re broken up with, they don’t want to go to work, or where they don’t want to get out of bed because they’re a little bit sad. I feel like music is this little key. It’s little, but it’s enough to get you out of bed and get you on your day. Getting out of bed is the most important part of the day for most of us.

I exercise. I do drink a lot of water, and I have a panic system. I don’t talk about that stuff in this book. This is a music book, but I do have this idea that dimes make dollars, and that it’s easier to find 10 little things than one big solution. Find 10 little solutions that add up. So for me it is go outside, drink some water, talk to Dad, and put on the happiness playlist. And usually it doesn’t take all 10 dimes to make a dollar. It usually only takes like four or five, and then I’m up, I’m out of it and I can be productive and the rest of the day is downhill. There’s this idea of catharsis, which I talk about in the book.

In the middle of winter and in the darkest coldest days, a song was released. It was a song by Phoebe Bridgers called “Smoke Signals.” It’s eloquent, heartbreaking and it blew my mind. It’s the only real part in the book where I broke form. I put it on repeat and became obsessed. We all know what that’s like. I got nervous. Am I going to go into a pit? I felt myself. I felt the song. I felt it change me. I became Phoebe Bridgers in the song, and she says, “I am a concrete wall.” I let it happen. That moment, I felt power over my emotions because I realized that I could listen to a sad song. After all this time of only listening to happy songs I had built up this fear. What if I listen to a sad song? I said, I’m going to listen to it for the rest of the night. And I just played it. I absolved myself through exhaustion. I still adore the song. It actually empowered me. I realized that there’s a place called Calm, a place called Quiet the Mind, a place called Listening, and Silence. Those are places where anxiety doesn’t flourish. Anxiety tends to flourish when we’re standing against the wall screaming and hearing the feedback. It doesn’t tend to happen when you quiet the mind, when you are like a tree, or when you watch and allow the world to pass you by. I feel like listening to music quiets our mind in the same way.

One of the things I wanted to ask you about: you and I both really love cute things, and kind of a recurring theme throughout this book is how much you love dogs. I kind of see it in the same vein maybe for you as listening to happy music, that dogs give you this kind of relief from your mind.

Dogs – I learned from a dog and some people might learn this from their bird. Animals have so much to teach us just by existing, and it’s a shame that we disregard how wise animals are because they can’t talk. You take your average pet dog. It’s somebody’s dog in a house. So what? If you watch them, they’ll teach you how to fall down seven times, get up eight. A dog teaches you resilience, to go forward without hesitation, to be loving, and to give someone a kiss despite the dirt on your face. I feel that I learned so much from that little pooch. We’re indebted to animals.

One of my favorite Twitter memes is “We don’t deserve dogs,” with a picture of a dog doing something amazing. 

I’m addicted. 

I think one of the points in the book that hit me the hardest emotionally was when you talked about Toto.

I had intended to have some magical realism in the middle of the book where I escape into The Wizard of Oz. I watched The Wizard of Oz, and while watching it, I went down a Wikipedia hole and learned that Toto is female. Our society, for a myriad of reasons, has assumed Toto is a male dog. To me what that reveals, this whole fakeness of Hollywood narrative, and that The Wizard Of Oz is really like a fever dream that Dorothy has. She learns by going there that there is nowhere over the rainbow, and that the rainbow is actually inside of her. When I was watching her sing this beautiful song, Toto keeps looking off-camera. I keep watching, and that dog’s just being a dog. A dog doesn’t know it’s a dog in a movie, just like a dog doesn’t know it’s followed by 15 million people in Instagram. It just is, like music, and that music can only be music. A dog can only be a dog.

Toto does this all the time in The Wizard of Oz. Everyone’s leaving a scene and Toto runs to the side. What it does is break the fourth wall for me. Toto breaks the fourth wall, and by doing that, it enables us to see that The Wizard of Oz is just a magic trick. The Wizard is a magic trick, and when you reveal the trick, the magic dies. In order to maintain the fluffy feeling of magic, we can never know really how it works. Toto reveals to you constantly, “This is just a movie. I’m not even a male dog.” If you don’t remember the magic, once you know the trick the magic dies. If the magic is dead within you, you can’t say anything to an audience that is going to move them.

The Happiness Playlist will be released nationally on March 19, 2019 by Think Piece Publishing, and will be celebrated with a release show at the 7th St. Entry on March 22. A portion of this interview will air on the Local Show, 6-8 p.m. tonight, Sunday, March 10, on The Current. The Happiness Playlist will also be featured on The Current’s Rock and Roll Book Club, 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 20.

Ahead of the book’s release, Mark Mallman has shared his Happiness Playlist on Spotify.

Marla Khan-Schwartz is a writer who is mostly inspired by desserts, deep conversation and a bold glass of red wine.


The time is now to move forward and address mental health. Call to Mind aims to inform and mobilize new conversations about mental health.