At this point, it's difficult to find something Brett Newski can't do. Born Brett Wisniewski, the prolific songwriter, composer, and producer made a name for himself early on as an independent musician capable of booking his own international tours and surviving on a shoestring budget. Lately, the Milwaukee–based musician also added a fledgling career as an illustrator and author who is digging deep into the world of mental health through art. And though he's released several critically-acclaimed records and counting, it was his first book, It's Hard To Be A Person, that really helped skyrocket Newski to even greater heights.
"It was definitely the hardest project I ever made," Newski said during a recent phone interview. "My music, I tend to write for myself a bit more, and the book I was making for other people. I would say it's like the work of twenty albums in one project, just to write one book." Part of the difficulty was how the pandemic forced natural extroverts and frequent performers like Newski into a dormant mode for months and in some cases, even years. As so many people around the globe struggled with a similar loss of purpose, community, and career, along with increased anxiety and depression, Newski turned his own negative emotions back into art in an attempt to help others process and heal.
Part of the whole impetus for writing the book came from Newski's propensity for illustrating. A mashup of comic book structure, hand-drawn images, and vulnerable admissions of his own mental health struggles, the project is a continuation of some of the same themes found on his albums by, as Newski puts it in his own summary of the book, "blending humor with pure depression." Kicking off with a few older drawings he'd posted on the internet, It's Hard To Be A Person ended up as a book that elicited quite a powerful response from a community of people struggling to put words to their difficult emotions.
"Years ago, somewhere on the Internet, I posted a few dumb drawings making fun of my own anxiety and depression," he writes in the synopsis of the book. "The response to them was warmer than anticipated, and people kept asking for more. Blending humor with pure depression seemed to strike a chord with a decent amount of people. So I kept going, and after about three years of drawing, I had enough dumb drawings for a book called It's Hard to be a Person: Defeating Anxiety, Surviving The World, and Having more Fun."
Aside from the fact that Newski's book is an excellent read, beautifully drawn, and a great resource for anyone struggling with their mental health, it's also a succinct distillation of the same skills that inform his work as a songwriter—even if his love for '90s indie rock is a bit more present in the sonic palette of his musical work. "A lot of my first records were like '90s alternative records, like Stone Temple Pilots, Weezer, Green Day," he said. "Those were really important records for me, and I'm into short melodic songs that are very lyrically driven. Our band has channeled the '90s a bit. I try to incorporate some of that stuff melody-wise and sonically, but for the lyrics aspect, I put a lot of time into it."
On early records like his debut, In Between Exits, Newski's propensity for brief snippets of fuzzed-out melodies is on full display. Still, he quickly pivots and incorporates other textures and sounds into his catalog, like on 2014's American Folk Armageddon, which is, rather predictively, an entirely acoustic record. Working both as a solo artist and at various times with other musicians in band arrangements, like his stint with The Corruption while living and working in Vietnam. Sharing his most recent album, Don't Let The Bastards Get You Down, in 2020—along with an accompaniment to his book dubbed It's Hard To Be A Person: Soundtrack To The Book—Newski shared that he has a couple other records already ready for release.
"I have two completed albums that are completely done, and I'm mustering up the energy and the courage to start promoting them," he said. "Promoting albums is way more work than making them. That's the thing that's more daunting than the creative side." As he readies these compilations for release, Newski has also been on the road, opening for classic indie rock acts like Nada Surf and continuing to channel his love for the '90s by tackling anxiety with a dose of humor. If that kind of ethos works well for the visual project you're working on, then his songs will slot in quite well on a soundtrack seeking that hard-to-find balance.
Brett is about to embark on a tour, and his new album is coming out on April 7th.