"It's OK to Not Be OK": An Unflinching Interview with Colin Dieden Formerly of the Mowgli's
Once of the Mowgli's, Colin Dieden's new Little Hurt project is unflinching in its rawness. "I used to think that meeting sadness head-on with happy songs was how I was going to move through it, but one day that stopped feeling honest to me."
It was always right there, in plain sight. The sadness behind the smile. It was overt, maybe even obvious. Yet now, it's that much blunter.
For California power-rockers the Mowgli's, whose most syrupy guitar melodies, flourishing horn lines, and groove-shaking beats were their trademark as if the group was incapable of writing nothing but the catchiest pop-rock songs you've ever heard, there's been change in the air. Their following was very much a cult following, but it was a very consistent and devout one. While albums like 2015's Kids in Love did a great job of showcasing their absolute mastery of creating earworms that get lodged in your heads for days, it was 2016's Where'd Your Weekend Go? that began letting fans see behind the shimmery veil. No matter how upbeat and funky the number was, the lyrics, almost universally, were confessional and sometimes downright brutal.
The song "Alone Sometimes" tried to put an optimistic spin on complete social isolation, while "Bad Thing" confessed, "I guess I might as well settle for one of these strangers / 'cos it's better than being alone". While the album was produced with a radio-ready perfectionist sheen, these awkward, honest lines started showing that there was so much more depth to the band's sound than what was initially thought.
Hence, it was a surprise that after the band's early 2019 release of the American Feelings EP, one of the group's core singers and songwriters, Colin Dieden, announced that he was leaving the group to go solo. His first single under his Little Hurt moniker "Good As It Gets" literally opens with the line "I'm not what I used to be". While his guitar strums turn into the kind of pounding chorus that would make the Mowgli's proud (complete with post-chorus whistle hook), his new material promises to be that fine mix of both catchiness and absolute catharsis. "Maybe I'll just find out who I am / And I won't like who it is," he shouts. The feeling is palpable, intense, and shared.
So what led Dieden to go solo instead of sticking with the Mowgli's?
"I think there's probably a lot of answers to this question for me," he tells PopMatters. "There's a lot of reasons why I felt like I had to do this, but the one that comes to mind is that I was ready to start telling my story. I've changed so much as a person, as we all do and while I am forever moved by the fact that people relate with those Mowgli's songs so heavily, I'm unsure that I still relate with the person I was when I wrote them as much as I used to. Everyone moves at their own pace, and I guess this is just mine."
The full EP for Little Hurt is out in early 2020, and even Dieden admits that there isn't a lot of musical difference between his new venture and hardcore Mowgli acolytes. "I don't feel like sonically I'm taking some huge departure from what I did with that band, and that's on purpose," he notes. "I mean this is the way I write songs, this is the way my music sounds, and it finds its way into every project I work on. Even songs that I write for other artists. I have my own style that I've been cultivating and shaping my whole career and wasn't going to throw that out the window just because I started a solo project. A lot of the stuff I write is pretty sad lyrically but set against really happy music. You can hear that I'm some of the later Mowgli's stuff, and I'm certainly bringing it with me now."
A lot of the pre-release press around this project has been around how Dieden is writing openly about his anxiety and depression. Even on "Good As It Gets" when he screams out, "I do it for the sex", it feels pained, raw. One of the new EP songs has a chorus where he proclaims that he needs "better love or better drugs". So why be this vulnerable at this point in his career -- and in a solo project no less?
"When I started this new thing, my entire goal -- the entire point of it was to be as honest as I could," Dieden explains. "To the point that it may sometimes make other people, or even myself uncomfortable. If I'm not accomplishing that, then there is no point in doing any of this. That is sort of my promise to myself and the listener."
When pressed to see if he could sum up his new venture in a single lyric, he notes that "one lyric that comes to mind (which really sucked to sing live in front of my family) is from a song called 'Messed Up' and it says 'I watched my parents get divorced and then again when I was 20 / Now it's so hard to believe you when you tell me that you love me'."
When asked as to whether it was therapeutic to work through some of his anxieties through songwriting, Dieden says, "Sort of." He goes on to admit that "I wish it were more helpful than it is, to be honest. I so badly want to say that when I write one of these songs, all this weight and hurt is alleviated, and I'm okay again, but in the spirit of honesty, that just isn't how it works. Happiness is an incredibly elusive thing for me, to the point where I often don't think I will ever find it and don't think it was really made for me, but that's a different conversation."
So as a prominent rock songwriter whose songs develop intense emotional connections with people, does he worry about fans engaging with him on intense topics like depression? "The goal I guess is for people to take these stories and find the places where they fit into their own lives," Dieden tells us. "If people really want to know about how sad I've been, great we can talk about it. But I think people have their own sadness they're trying to work through. I used to think that meeting sadness head-on with happy songs was how I was going to move through it, but one day that stopped feeling honest to me, and I realized I wanted to get down in the dirt and talk about how much shit sucks sometimes. I can't seem to fix myself or anyone, so at the very least, let me be honest."
Dieden notes that he does plan to tour Little Hurt and that he's been "writing like a maniac" so people can expect a "steady stream of music for the foreseeable future." He hopes people will connect with the single, even as his solo journey appears to be a mix of highs and lows. Yet, as one of his new songs tells us: "It's OK if your heart breaks / It's OK if you're lost in space / It's OK not to be OK."