Mery Steel overcomes depression, heartbreak on way to ‘She’s Back’

The singer and songwriter’s excellent new album, released digitally on Jan. 1, explores the ways the same bonds that connect us can also fray, implode or wither away.
Mery Steel
Mery SteelNick Fancher

There’s a short-lived moment at the onset of She’s Back!, the long-in-waiting new album from Mery Steel, where everything appears okay. “It’s going good,” Steel sings atop sun-kissed instrumentation. Then a beat later she adds, “We should break up.” 

And so it goes on a record where the musician is most often surveying the wreckage, turning out raw-nerve songs on which she wears her busted heart on her sleeve (“War”), shoulders the blame for a relationship gone to pot (“Bear in Your House”), and recounts the “mediocre blow” levied by a friend-turned-lover-turned-memory who talked shit behind her back before making themselves scarce (“We Both Know”). “When I heard you got married/I was happy that you had,” Steel sings on the loping tune, backed by drummer Henry Allen, guitarist Milo Petruziello, and bassist Max Platitsyn, along with Glenn Davis, who produced the record and provided additional guitar and percussion. “But I still feel the knife twist/When those things you did come creeping through my head.”

Then there’s “Honey,” which unfolds casually over the course of nearly six minutes, Steel singing about handing herself so fully over to the idea of love that she’s willing to sacrifice everything to maintain it – her health, her family, her friends. “I wrote that song thinking, man, I love being in love so much that nothing else matters,” Steel said in early January at Club 185. “This is a drug, an addiction, right? I would throw away my whole life for the chance to feel this as long as I can.”

Steel wrote the songs that make up She’s Back! in 2018 and ’19, at a point when she was single for the first time in her adult life, “swiping all over the place in the app,” as she put it, meeting new people and working to figure out exactly what she wanted from a relationship. This combined with a long-held interest in human connections led the musician to begin writing songs that explored the way these bonds could fray, implode or wither away. 

“I love to think about how other people work. I love to think about how I work. I want to know what makes people tick,” said Steel, who traced her specific interest in romance to middle school crushes and early binge-watching of teen dramas. “The way I write songs is the same way I work out my personal problems: out loud. If I’m having an issue with someone, I’ll get in the shower and have an out loud [dialogue] about it. And that’s my way of gathering my thoughts and figuring out where I stand. And these songs are no different.”

In the two years Steel spent amassing the tracks that make up her new album, she said she moved full bore, writing and performing music, working full-time and balancing an active social life. “I was feeling good all of the time, not getting much sleep,” said Steel, whose forward motion was obliterated by the March 2020 arrival of the coronavirus. “I was busy as hell, and then all of that momentum stopped, and it was scary. I have this fear that if I don’t keep using my talent, it’s going to disappear, which I know isn’t real but is a real insecurity. … And in that, I experienced levels of emotion and intensity and thoughts and feelings I never had before.”

When the pandemic hit, Steel largely tabled the songs she had been working on, her creative life slowing to a pace that matched that of the larger world. Her work life also suffered, with the stresses of her 9-to-5 enacting a mental and physical strain that became unbearable, exacerbating feelings of depression and compounding physical illness. “I experienced this real uncertainty, because for really the first time in my life I wasn’t able to push through and make it work like I always had before,” Steel said. “It was almost a bottomless pit of things I’d tried to, I don’t know, fake my way through? And now I was actually having to really dig in.”

The first place this strain showed itself, Steel said, was in the creative process. And as these doubts crept in, the musician began to ask herself, “How am I supposed to finish this album?”

“Glenn Davis, who produced the record, would periodically send me an email like, ‘Hey, are you still trying to work on this?’” Steel said. “And I’d be like, yes, I am. And then I would have a couple weeks of bandwidth, and it would fizzle out. … And it became this really drawn-out process where I started to feel really bad about myself and unsure of the finished product and the direction of it and what it was going to be.”

At her lowest points, Steel started to consider She’s Back! an albatross of which she’d never rid herself, saying that the prolonged sessions sometimes left her feeling as though she were perpetually trapped in the year 2018. And yet, the musician never had any doubt the album would one day see release, allowing that her attitude toward the record shifted almost immediately after it surfaced online on Jan. 1. “I kind of thought it was a hodgepodge and that the songs didn’t come out the way I wanted,” she said. “But now that it’s no longer hanging around my neck, I feel differently toward the songs. … I’m really happy with it now that I don’t have to worry about it.”

A similar thaw has also taken place within Steel’s personal life. She left the career that caused her untold stress and took a step back to focus on her physical and mental health. And within that healing, she said she has again been able to tap into her creativity, which for a time felt inaccessible. “During COVID, my focus had shifted to emergency mode, or sustainability mode, and whatever space I had to create before was lost,” said Steel, who hopes to release a second album this year, one rooted in the alienation and depression she experienced amid the lockdown. “And now, finally, I’m recovering the space and the capacity to just do the stuff that makes me feel good.”

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