Five-and-a-half minutes into the video of his single Garden of Remembrance, Fish is filmed sitting on a chair with tears streaming down his face, before the hands of a woman caress his shoulder.
Those few emotional seconds – which he insists were unscripted – epitomised the melancholy and pain injected in what would be his final album, drawing a circle to a 40-year career.
Featuring a video of a couple walking on a beach separated by a glass wall (reminiscent of his classic Kayleigh), the song tells the story of his parents dealing with dementia “lost between the here and now, somewhere that he can’t be found”.
“We were shooting the video during lockdown and my mom was sitting in the next room. I knew she had dementia, but she didn’t know it. I told my mother, who was just 15 metres away, to come put her arm over my shoulder at the end of the video. She didn’t. Instead, (his wife) Simone stepped in. I got very emotional.”
The giant Scotsman, former frontman of progressive rock band Marillion, last week addressed a mental health conference in Malta, a country he has held close to heart for several years. Over dinner, he opens a window into a tortured soul, articulating emotions and poetic anecdotes that have been a hallmark during his career.
Fish (real name Derek Dick) says it was his decision to open up about his plight that proved to be the antidote to a life plagued by physical and mental health problems as well as grief.
Fish holds an ever-increasing awareness of old age and illnesses, through the death of his father, his mother moving into care with him, spinal operations, sepsis, throat operations and two marriage break-ups. It all comes together in Weltschmerz, a collection of autobiographical songs he swears will be his last. Released in 2020, the album went on to make it to several Album of the Year lists, but that will not convince him to change his mind about retirement.
The author of songs like Lavender and A Gentleman’s Excuse Me has always performed out of most artists’ comfort zones, which explains why he amassed a cult following since embarking on a solo career in 1990. His poetic lyrics are often pages long, sung by a unique voice of a generation.
But all that was on the precipice around 2010 when he nearly lost his voice and had to undergo two vocal operations as he saw his second marriage break down.
“I didn’t know if I was going to have a voice after that and if my career was over. And my wife left me. I was in a very bad place. I was having panic attacks. I went to see a doctor and told him I need to put my head to sleep. I couldn’t go on. My entire world became chaos.
“I remember going to the supermarket and just felt my entire life falling through some weird dark hole in my chest. It was frightening. I was standing there thinking I’m having a heart attack. I was en route to killing myself.”
It was at that point that Fish decided to try bring about a change in his life and redefine himself even on a musical level. He managed to recover his vocal chords, wrote another album, and fell in love with Simone “at the right time”. He discovered the joys of walking and diving, and fell in love with gardening.
But the demons kept haunting him, and world problems like the Syria war and global warming plunged him into another dark tunnel.
By 2017, he already knew he had one last album inside him and it would be called Weltschemrz, a German word which translates to ‘world weariness’. When he started writing the album, his father, his closest confidante, died, and he felt the world around him collapse.
He decided to seek help. A therapist hit the nail on the head when she explained that the singer had dealt with everything intellectually, but had not dealt with anything emotionally. Her claim was backed by a 2019 study that showed 75 per cent of musicians suffered from some mental health issues, while another research project showed musicians and creatives are 18 times more likely to kill themselves by suicide.
“People in the music industry are trying to find out who they are. There’s this catharsis, trying to be understood and recognised. Madness and genius are closely related.”
People in the music industry are trying to find out who they are. There’s this catharsis, trying to be understood and recognised. Madness and genius are closely related.
Did he ever consider taking his life?
“Yes. I’ve been right to the edge. My drummer had killed himself and I saw the pain that caused. But I didn’t do it because of Simone, my family, my friends. I’m a fighter and I’m Scottish. I was always brought up to talk about things when you’ve got problems. A problem shared is a problem halved. My old band and even musicians and friends don’t understand why I’m so open about my life. But talking about it helps me.”
The bedevilment threatened to scupper his last album, but instead, the result is quite possibly Fish’s finest work, even if it deals with the most painful subjects.
That’s when he penned the song Little Man, What Now?, a song about desperation and self-questioning. And after that came Man With a Stick, a song about his dad, which morphed into a song about him being scared of getting older and losing power. The list goes on – Walking on Eggshells deals with his tempestuous relationship with his daughter. Released to rave reviews, the album took listeners to dark and lonely places, but it also brought them together, and extracted a strange beauty out of the melodies.
The COVID lockdown forced him to abort his farewell tour, and to deal with the disappointment he introduced a Facebook initiative called ‘Fish on Fridays’, an unscripted live stream where he would talk to his army of fans around the world.
“It’s a very open relationship. But it also helped me realise that people wanted contact, and to feel part of a community. I realised there were a lot of people struggling, losing their jobs, losing their mental health. People were sending me e-mails saying Fish on Fridays was the only thing keeping them going.”
At 63, Fish is determined to do his farewell tour and then hang up his microphone. And he has no qualms about it. “Anything from now on will be in literary form. One of the reasons I was writing was to try to understand myself, to put all the thoughts, heartaches, dilemmas and pain through lyrics, and into little boxes. I don’t need to do it through music any more. It’s been done, it’s tired.”
I’m not getting despondent about it. I’ve had a great time
He reveals he doesn’t really listen to music these days, insisting that all the best melodies have been done, and he hates it when he sees other artists prostituting themselves and treating their fans like “credit cards”.
The world-weary poet pours another glass of white wine, and in his trademark deep voice says: “I live with physical pain every day and I don’t take any painkillers. At some point you realise you can’t go on. I’m not getting despondent about it. I’ve had a great time.”
He drains his wine glass and smiles: “There are books to write, gardens to be dug. And I’m looking forward to that.”
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