Chicago musician Mike Vinopal is the bandleader, songwriter, and guitarist of upbeat funk ensemble Local Motive, the lead guitarist of moody rock band Badcandy, and a pet dad. A former special education teacher, and mental health advocate and speaker, his lived experiences with mental health challenges have inspired his fierce dedication to bettering himself and the world through music.
Alia Reichert, field marketing associate and wellness coordinator with Nature’s Grace and Wellness, recently Sparked the Conversation with Vinopal to get his perspective on music and mental health.
Alia Reichert: Where do you get your song ideas? Does your songwriting act as a kind of therapy for you?
Mike Vinopal: My song ideas come to me in a bunch of different, often unpredictable ways. Sometimes it’s a melody with no words that captures a certain feeling. Sometimes it’s a compelling collection of words I can’t shake, or the song comes as a guitar riff first, like it was waiting in the wood. And sometimes, when I’m not forcing it, a song will just come out all together—like my subconscious composed it—which always feels extremely satisfying. Songwriting allows me to express a range of emotions that words alone often cannot. Music has saved my life and continues to keep me healthy.
Is cannabis part of your creative process? If so, how?
Cannabis is a big part of my life, including my creative process. As an adult, I use cannabis to help manage the racing and overlapping thoughts that I often experience. It helps me to relax, which always helps my creativity flow. But most importantly, I think it helps keep me balanced.
It’s also the kind of thing that when you share the experience of smoking cannabis with someone, it can deepen conversations—not the tropes you see in movies—and it can be a really beautiful experience to share a joint with other thoughtful people and just talk. Conversations like that can cause bursts of inspiration, which is another way cannabis helps my creative process.
In 2014, I received a diagnosis of Bipolar I disorder after being hospitalized for a manic episode. It was only after that I began to really reflect on cannabis’ role in my life. I’ve realized how much cannabis has and continues to support my personal mental health. Eventually, I began to feel more like myself again. I began writing loads of poetry and experimenting with other types of visual art. And eventually songs began to flow again too.
Local Motive released two singles, “Naive” and “Supposed to Be,” on Memorial Day weekend. Are their lyrics based on lived experiences?
Yes. Those songs, and this band, are so personal, they’re my heart and soul. I love singing from my toes and really feeling the songs flow through my entire body as I sing them out. The full length album, Slice of Life, will be out later this year.
It’s kind of wild how much the meaning of these songs has deepened and evolved over the years, and they will likely continue to shift for me personally, the more life l live, and experience different shades of grief that we all inevitably experience. . . [After] my most notable loss, my grandpa Nick, the lyric “Please don’t leave my life forever” in the chorus of “Naive” took on a whole new depth and sense of desperation. But the chorus on “Supposed To Be,” “Are you happy to be free now or are you sad to be alone?” reflects the duality of grief for the past and excitement for the future.
Dealing with things like the pandemic, job loss, deaths of loved ones, and lack of social interactions over the past two and a half years has intensified many people’s mental health challenges. How have you dealt with yours? What tools do you use to help?
It’s been rough for sure and I’ve had to utilize everything I’ve learned to manage, but I still have challenging days. It’s a difficult and polarized world we are navigating and it can be exhausting. I’ve made sure to talk to people in my bubble, especially my partner Erin. Talking is important because it makes it less noisy “up there.” When I isolate, I can get caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts and wind myself up pretty good.
Playing music is very beneficial for me. My two bands provide very different outlets.
Cooking gets me out of my head and helps me focus on something constructive and fulfilling. Gardening and making art do the same. Personally, the best self-care tools I can practice are the ones that give me something to focus on other than my racing thoughts.
Do you have any advice for someone that may be struggling with a new mental health challenge?
We’re only human and we are not unbreakable. We need to continue to normalize expressing complex and uncomfortable emotions within the circle of people we trust and love, and who love us back. We need to continuously practice being gentle with ourselves and learn to value the tools we’ve found that make our hearts sing. With those connections, you are reminded you’re not alone.
What have you learned from your previous mental health challenges that has allowed you to persevere?
Sleep is the most important thing. Without rest, my thinking just starts to degrade and my emotions get intense. I also learned that it’s better to sit in the discomfort of emotions as they come, rather than push them way down and drag them with you into the future.
Lastly, do you have a mindful message you’d like to share that helps you spark your day?
Oddly enough, it’s “Be a twig,” which is a line from “Twig,” Local Motive’s first single from our 2017 LP, Grams. It reminds me that sometimes I have to go with the current. Sometimes it’ll be a lazy river and other times it’s going to be a raging rapid. Whatever life throws at me, I have to remind myself, “Mike, be a twig,” and surrender to it. Because we owe it to ourselves to find out what’s around the next bend.