The National’s Matt Berninger talks battling depression and writer’s block

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The National frontman Matt Berninger has spoken candidly about his battle with depression and writer’s block, and how he documented it on the band’s upcoming album, ‘First Pages Of Frankenstein’.

Berninger was speaking in an exclusive cover interview for the latest issue of Uncut, where he revealed how the COVID period after The National’s last record ‘I Am Easy To Find‘ [2019] and his 2020 debut solo album ‘Serpentine Prison‘ saw him facing “burnout” and a depression he likened to “the train going off the tracks”. He explained said he found himself unable to write lyrics for a whole year.

“Usually when I’m in a troubled place, I can make something out of it, and write a song about it, and that does a lot to solve it,” he said. “This time, I didn’t want to. I was uninterested in my own grief. I was uninterested in my own problems. I was maybe even a little embarrassed by it.”

He continued: “Then the longer I went without really exercising that [writing] part of myself the harder it got to connect to it. The untangling, or whatever the thrill is about making something out of nothing.”

The frontman revealed how then went sober from alcohol and marijuana and commenced a course of antidepressants. He also noted how he feared that he might have “manifested” the “misanthropic sort of thing is that I inhabit on stage” and always channeled in his music.

“I’d been writing sad, depressing music for a long time, then when it really hits me, when it all really catches up to me, I didn’t want to write about it any more,” he said. “I just could not articulate the fog at all. I didn’t want to put words to it. It just all felt ugly and gross and all the thoughts in my head were small and bitter and fearful.”

Speaking of how his depression felt like “a genuine illness”, “being nauseous” and “sadness and fear about everything”, Berninger explained how the support and “faith” of the band, as well as the dedication and love of his wife Carin Besser, helped him through. Besser’s advice, ‘This isn’t you, this isn’t real, this is just your brain right now, your mind is not your friend’ even inspired a lyric and the title of the band’s newest single, featuring Phoebe Bridgers.

The National
The National. Credit: Taylor Hill

After returning to the road last year, Berninger found that the support of his bandmates, gratitude for the fans that came out to see them and the return of his songwriting muse inspired him to turn his dark times into music, further lifting him out of his depression and feeling like “the clouds were finally breaking”.

“It was their faith,” he said of his bandmates and how it led to him writing more music.  “Why are songs such magical emotional pills? Doing therapy and antidepressants and getting totally sober, none of it was making any difference. But writing a song about nothing making any difference was the thing that made a difference. That was my medicine. Lexapro doesn’t work on me, but Aaron and Bryce’s [Dessner, guitarists] sketches do.”

He added: “My relationship with the band and my relationship with my wife and everything is really healthy, and always has been made more healthy by writing about it falling apart.”

The National's special collector's edition of the latest issue of Uncut
The National’s special collector’s edition of the latest issue of Uncut. Credit: Press

Elsewhere in the interview, the rest of the band talk about their journey back from the brink and their own individual struggles, while collaborators including Phoebe Bridgers also discuss what the band mean to them.

Order the new June issue of Uncut here, which also comes with a 15-track CD of The National deep cuts, solo and collaborative rarities, including two unreleased tracks – as well as features on George Harrison, Lucinda Williams, Ian Hunter, Joanna Newsom, Fatoumata Diawara, Natalie Merchant, Shirley Collins, Jonathan Richman, The Orb, Cian Nugent and more.

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Speaking to NME back in 2020, Berninger opened up about depression and how it inspired the track ‘Oh Dearie’ from ‘Serpentine Prison‘.

“That song is about depression, and acknowledging that you can reach people deep inside those places” Berninger told NME. “I go in and out of phases of exhaustion, dejection and despair, but not in the way that some people do. You can get so lost inside the weight of all of it.

“It’s a song about respecting depression and the people that have it. My brother goes through phases. There isn’t a single person I know who hasn’t been debilitated by sadness, sometimes their whole lives or sometimes in phases. It’s a real thing that everyone should be conscious of and look for in their friends.”

The National release ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’ on April 28, and will head out on a world tour that takes in dates in the UK, US and Europe throughout the summer. Visit here for tickets and more information.

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