NeilHillborn-Interview-TheVoid-Podcast
Podcast Interview

Slam Poet Neil Hilborn Interview: The Void with Christina Podcast Episode #36

Neil Hilborn is an American slam poet who talks frankly and rhythmically about his own experiences with mental illness and the world at large in a way that is unique, hilarious and bone chillingly familiar to anyone who has experienced mental dysfunction or illness. When Neil Hilborn’s performance of “O.C.D,” an exploration of his experiences of the illness, blew up on YouTube (attracting 13 million views to date) it kick-started his life as a touring slam poet. Over the last few years he’s averaged a hundred spoken word shows a year worldwide and has helped to change the way we speak about O.C.D., bipolar disorder and mental illness in general. He’s also made it easier for thousands of people to articulate their troubled inner worlds.

Neil Hilborn is this week’s guest on The Void with Christina podcast.
Listen (and subscribe) on iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud.

“I’m in this weird liminal space where I get to make jokes and I get to be silly but I’m also expected to be serious,” Neil tells Christina Rowatt on The Void podcast. “A lot of musicians are kind of expected to act cool, you know? I think I’m in this cool space between music and poetry and comedy where I get to be silly and make fun of myself and be dumb and make dick jokes and then I get to turn right around and talk very frankly about suicide. I feel like I’m really getting to explore right now,” he says. “There’s definitely people who have been doing this before me but I think that I’m one of the first who’s really been influenced by stand up and by seeing musicians do banter at shows forever and ever.”

As far as resonant feedback from his shows is concerned, “the biggest thing has been that people will tell me ‘oh man, I never felt like I could talk about what was going on in my head and then I heard you talking so honestly about it, so it inspired me to open up to my friend or my mum’,” Neil says. “A lot of people have told me that they sought therapy because they saw my work and I’m like thank GOD. Therapy is like the thing that’s helped me be a semi-productive adult.”

In this week’s The Void podcast conversation Neil Hilborn and The Void podcast host Christina Rowatt chat about everything from Henry Rollins to iconic Chappelle Show co-writer Neil Brennan and the songs that changed his life, from The Mountain Goats to Bruce Springsteen. Listen (and subscribe) on iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud. A few moments from our conversation are transcribed below. 

Christina: What did you listen to growing up?

Neil Hilborn: When i was a kid I listened to what my parents did. I listened to a lot of Motown and rock and roll from the 50s and 60s, a lot of things on the more psychedelic side of rock, the Beatles middle albums, Jethro Tull and moody blues. And then when I started developing my own musical tastes I really went headfirst into punk rock. I think the first C.D. I ever bought myself was a Bad Religion record. I think it was “No Control” or something? The really skate punky era. A lot of that early to mid 90s punk, like NOFX and Bouncing Souls. And then I kind of went from there to all the genres that takes you to. A lot of hardcore and metal and now I’m a little too old and my back hurts a little too much to be that punk rock [laughs].

Christina: How do you see the relationship between rock and roll and being a performative poet?

Neil Hilborn: You know what’s funny? Growing up I’d go to all these shows and I’d think, man, I want to be in a band! What do I have to do!? But I have no musical talent whatsoever. Like every time I tried to teach myself to play guitar I’d say “I suck at this,” and so I always had this thought in my head [of] man, I want to go on tour and do stuff like this. I think it would be silly for me to try to emulate a lot of the people who I idolised onstage. I’m not going to be like Henry Rollins doing deep lunges and headbanging and shit. I’m not going to jump up on a stack of monitors like Iggy Pop.

Christina: That is such a good visual, imagining you Henry Rollins-ing. I hope you wear a vest.

Neil Hilborn: Listen, Hank is a big influence on me [laughs].

Christina: He’s a cool reference point for you. He’s one of the only people I’ve been able to watch talk for three hours.

Neil Hilborn: I saw his spoken word shows a bunch when I was a teenager. He would come through every six months to a year and I learned so much watching him tell stories. If you just lead an interesting life, it is interesting to hear you talk. So because of that I’ve always tried to just get out there and have experiences. And just get into some stuff that might go poorly for me, just because that’s how you can lead an interesting life and be an interesting person.

Christina: What have been the big risks you’ve taken in the the last few years. What is life like doing what you do?

Neil HilbornIt’s weird because I say I tour professionally. For the past few years I’ve done 100+ shows every year. I know a lot of bands will rip out 200 shows but I think that as a poet that’s about as many shows as you’re ever going to get.

Christina: What has the feedback been like from the comedy community? I can’t think of many comedians that talk as frankly as you do about things [mental illness, etc].

Neil HilbornThere are definitely a couple. Mike Birbiglia had a special three or four years ago called “Sleepwalk with Me” where he talked very frankly about his sleep disorder and mental illnesses in general. It kind of centres around this one traumatic event he had.

Also, Neil Brennan who is the co-creator and cowriter of Chappelle Show with Dave Chappelle. He just came out with a Netflix special called Three Mics.” He literally has three microphones on the stage. When he stands in front of one microphone he does one-liners. Another mic he does traditional stand up. And the third mic he does some pretty serious, very frank monologues and so I think that its just really out there. Comedians doing this kind of thing.

But I think you’re right … that I’m in this weird liminal space where I get to make jokes and I get to be silly but I’m also expected to be serious. A lot of musicians are kind of expected to act cool and I think I’m in this cool space between music and poetry and comedy where I get to be silly and make fun of myself and be dumb and make dick jokes and then I get to turn right around and talk very frankly about suicide. I feel like I’m really getting to explore right now. There’s definitely people who have been doing this before me but I think that I’m one of the first who’s really been influenced by stand up and by seeing musicians do banter at shows forever and ever. So I’m trying to figure out how all that stuff works.

Christina: It feels like an interesting time to be alive. Like the world might end, as you’ve talked about. But maybe it will be awesome. Who the hell knows? Do you feel like there’s that sense of what the shit is going on?

Neil HilbornI’m saying that if we can make it through the next fifteen or twenty years, shit’s going to be great. But we might not.

Christina: As you’ve said in your act, 50% of people have experienced mental dysfunction. To me, there are very few role models and very few voices talking about it and the way some people use [mental] illness as a slur, it’s like “fuck you,” there’s a lot of people who are high-functioning, creative artists [who have these conditions] … what’s been the most resonant feedback that’s come back from talking about the darker side of things?

Neil HilbornThe biggest thing has been that people will tell me: “Oh man I never felt like I could talk about what was going on in my head and then I heard you talking so honestly about it, so it inspired me to open up to my friend or my mum. A lot of people have told me that they sought therapy because they saw my work and I’m like thank god. I mean therapy is like the thing that’s helped me be a semi-productive adult.

Christina: What are five songs that have changed your life? Listen on Spotify here.

The Gaslight Anthem – “Angry Johnny and The Radio

Neil Hilborn: It’s off their first record Sink or Swim. That’s the record I’ve listened to most out of any other record in my whole life. I love that damn song.

The Mountain Goats – “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton

Neil Hilborn: The Mountain Goats and the Gaslight Anthem are my favourite bands. And Denton is the first track on what is widely considered John Darnielle’s best record, “All Hail West Texas.” I think it is the best first track anyone has ever written. It is perfect, you can’t fuck with it at all. It’s two minutes long and it has a whole fucking story and it’s sad and its anthemic it is brilliant. Its a brilliant song. Best fucking song.

Bruce Springsteen – “Thunder Road”

Neil Hilborn: The first track on “Born to Run.” Probably the second best album opener that anyone has ever written. I mean “Born to Run” wasn’t the first implementation of the “Wall of Sound” recording technique but it was one of the first. When it kicks in with the fucking horns and literally there is a xylophone at the end of that song and it adds to the huge build. Anyway, “Born to Run” is the dopest.

The Bouncing Souls – “Argyle

Neil Hilborn: The third track on “Maniacal Laughter.” Back when they were really Jersey pogo-punk. That was such an anthem for eleven year old me. That whole song was about accepting the fact that you’re a flawed human being. Not in so many words, obviously … its a very punk rock take … [basically] I might be a fuck up but no one fucks up like I do.

Streetlight Manifesto – “A Better Place, A Better Time

Neil HilbornIt’s off their record “Everything Goes Numb.” Its a really sort of long, intense song. It’s basically a letter to a friend, and he’s like don’t kill yourself. Its your life, you’re going to make whatever decisions you’re going to make but I love you and if you decide not to kill yourself I’m right here and I got you. I still think about that song now. I first heard it when I was maybe sixteen or seventeen and its still so important to me.

Listen to Neil Hilborn on The Void podcast on iTunesStitcher or Soundcloud.
Listen to his life-changing songs on Spotify here.
Watch The Void with Christina YouTube interviews here.

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