By ANDREW ADAM NEWMAN
MENTAL illness strikes everywhere, but the toll has been especially evident among musicians whose depression or delusions ended with suspected or confirmed suicides: Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, Donny Hathaway and Mindy McCready are some who immediately come to mind.
Now, to help raise awareness about mental health, the New York City Metro chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness has enlisted five New York bands to contribute original music to an album about mental illness, “#IWillListen.”
Howard Lenn, a group creative director at JWT New York, part of WPP, which is handling creative duties for the effort pro bono, said the album did not emerge as a response to rock stars’ suicides.
“It wasn’t our intention to in any way be overt about the fact that there are musicians who commit suicide,” Mr. Lenn said. A 2013 campaign for the chapter introduced the slogan “I Will Listen” to encourage celebrities and the general public to post videos and status updates to social media expressing a willingness to lend an ear to friends and family struggling with mental illness.
“We were looking for another way to activate the hashtag #IWillListen, and music occurred to us because of the obvious metaphor,” Mr. Lenn said. “We want to encourage people to listen to their friends, and you listen to music — and music has the ability to convey what words alone can’t.”
Guidelines distributed to the musicians directed them to compose songs about their “experiences either directly or indirectly with mental illness,” highlighting popular songs in the same vein. For depression, for example, the guidelines mentioned “All Apologies” by Nirvana, written and sung by Mr. Cobain; “Beautiful”by Eminem; and “Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix; for schizophrenia, it cited “The Real Me” by The Who.
Mr. Lenn described the bands on “#IWillListen” as up-and-coming, and he said they were chosen by the New York affiliate because they tended to perform in the city, meaning that many who attend their shows, or listen to their recordings, live in New York.
The bands that participated are Controller (with the song “Separator”); Sweet Lorainne (“It’s Alright”); Boola featuring the singer Jeni Fujita (“Shadow River”); Jenna Kyle (“Keep Movin’ On”); and Romans Are Alive (“Cure for the Pain”). The recording sessions took place over two weeks in August at Avatar Studios in Hell’s Kitchen. Most of the artists are signed with KBV Records, which donated production and distribution for the effort.
Beginning on Friday, which is World Mental Health Day, listeners can download the album free on IWillListen.org, stream it free on sites like Spotify, or download it for a donation of 99 cents a song on iTunes. (Apple pockets its customary one-third of the proceeds and the rest goes to the nonprofit, according to JWT.) Also available as a free download is a booklet with liner notes, song lyrics and pictures of the musicians by the photographer Danny Clinch.
The performers will play at an album release show at Mercury Lounge in New York on Oct. 20.
Wendy Brennan, executive director of the New York City Metro chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the bands’ younger audiences were a draw.
“When you look at social change, people that really participate and get social change movements going are young people, and they really need to be involved to change the landscape about mental illness stigma,” said Ms. Brennan, who said half of mental illness cases had an onset by age 14, and 75 percent by age 24. “Young people are particularly vulnerable to mental illness.”
Boola, the stage name of Al-Rad Lewis, said that his songs tended to be “hard and rough and braggadocious,” but that his contribution to the album, which is not about the singer but is told from the perspective of someone in anguish, marks a departure for him.
“Rap is based on battling — you talk about how good you are and how bad everyone else is, and that’s where the bravado comes from,” Boola said. “But mental illness is a battle that’s inside, and that’s kind of the opposite of what you normally hear from rap songs.”
Boola and others on the album are featured in an online video promoting the effort.
In the video, only one musician, Ms. Kyle, notes a personal connection to mental illness, mentioning the struggles of relatives and friends. But others reiterate the stated purpose of the campaign, emphasizing that one in four Americans experiences mental health disorders in a given year, and that removing the stigma of mental illness begins with lending a sympathetic ear.
Carol Cone, global practice chairwoman of the business and social purpose practice at Edelman, the public relations firm, reviewed the video and found Ms. Kyle the most effective.
“Jenna Kyle had been touched in some way, and I wanted to see more of her commentary, and I wanted her to reach out to me even more,” Ms. Cone said, adding that people tend to be most drawn to causes when spokespeople are attached to them emotionally. “The other musicians talked about why this was important, and they understood it intellectually, but neither they nor their family members seem to have been personally touched.”
Over all, however, Ms. Cone lauded the benefit album.
“Give them kudos for trying to change the conversation to address the stigma, and this is a very thoughtful way to do it,” she said. “Whether it’s in terms of young college students or celebrities, we’ve all seen the amount of mental illness in this county, and people taking their own lives, and it’s just very, very sad.”