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Ellen Loo
Photo: Calvin Sit

Interview: Ellen Loo

Ahead of her first show in two years, Ellen Loo opens up about her battle with bipolar disorder and returning to music

Written by
Douglas Parkes

Editor's note: In memory of Ellen Loo who tragically passed away in August 2018, we revisit our 2015 interview with the musician in which she opened up about her battle with bipolar disorder and expressed a new optimism about the future.

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Formerly one half of Cantopop duo at17, alongside Eman Lam, Ellen Loo dropped out of sight just as her solo career seemed positioned for a leap to the next level. There were signs in the build-up to the show but it wasn’t until after her largest solo concert to date, in Wan Chai’s Queen Elizabeth Stadium in 2013, that Loo discovered she suffers from a type of bipolar disorder.

Retreating from public view to tackle her condition, she returned to the spotlight this year with an exhibition at PMQ, in Central. Pillow Talk featured journal extracts and paintings Loo had created as therapy to help combat her illness. A home-recorded album by the same name was released online and the physical copies available at the exhibition sold out, proving her fans had not forgotten Hong Kong’s one authentic ‘rock girl’.

On the eve of her 30th birthday, Loo is winning the fight against her malady and is looking to the future rather than the past. She discloses all about her recent struggles and tells us why turning 30 is a cause for celebration rather than anxiety.

You released some new songs earlier this year tied to your exhibition at PMQ. What was the story behind that?
It was a painting exhibition with a ‘self-invested’ project, a book. The whole project was about my sickness – I have bipolar disorder and I’m still under medication for it. The whole intention behind the exhibition was to reveal my sickness. 

There was no public knowledge about the illness before then, was there?
Correct, so it was a coming out. And the new songs were part of a self-recorded album, made in my bedroom. It’s a really casual album because it was recorded at home and I paid for everything.

When were you first diagnosed as bipolar?
I couldn’t sleep and that’s when it all started, in 2013. I was preparing for my first Queen Elizabeth Stadium show, and after the concert I still couldn’t sleep. I went through psychotherapy and, given the diagnosis, I thought it was depression. But things didn’t get better, I kept doing crazy stuff.

Shortly after, I went to a psychiatric doctor and I started on anti-depressants. After taking those I got really ‘high’ and I started kicking walls and wanting to hit my head against the wall – and I still couldn’t sleep, so I’d go out in the middle of the night. Wandering places I don’t even know where, and I had to use Google Maps to find my way home. I just did crazy stuff. 

But in the end, the diagnosis was corrected?
Eventually I was diagnosed as bipolar II. There are differences, because bipolar I is much more severe. Bipolar II is a bit milder, but it’s still really dramatic. I started taking medication a year-and-a-half ago. It took me nine months to find the right dosage. It was a really, really dramatic time for me. It was living hell. It’s tough to go through that kind of pain. You just don’t know what’ll happen next. You can be really depressed at one o’clock and by three o’clock you can be jumping around. I couldn’t have a normal social life. I wasn’t working, I wasn’t writing songs, I couldn’t listen to any sort of music, I couldn’t go to any concerts. I had to wear earplugs when I went out because I couldn’t even stand to hear the sound of cars or buses. I was isolated, totally isolated. I isolated myself from my friends and family and it was really painful. Sometimes I would just cry all day and other times I would just try and paint – hence the PMQ exhibition. 

Photo: Calvin Sit

Was painting recommended as a therapy, or was it something you took up yourself?
When I started going through psychotherapy my therapist told me to draw with my left hand – I’m a righty – because it would help me emotionally and let me express how I feel more. So that’s how I picked it up. I didn’t draw anything before that. I fell in love with it and it expressed a lot of my emotions. It’s how I knew I had a dark side in me – I started drawing hearts and painful things, dark things, and that’s when I realised I was in a dark place. 

I drew almost 100 paintings throughout one year. I’d just draw and draw and draw and wouldn’t sleep. Now I’m much better, I really recommend people go through psychiatric treatment, to take it seriously, because it’s a sickness. In the States and Canada it’s pretty common to go through medication, but in Asia and Hong Kong especially, people are very reluctant.

It’s still quite stigmatised...
Yes, and to me medication is necessary. Bipolar is really serious; I think medication helped me a lot. I never thought I could work again, I didn’t dare dream of being a singer again. I didn’t feel I could be socially active again.

Was the illness a sudden affliction? Or, with hindsight, can you see earlier indicators?
I think, looking back, I’m quite a dark person, and I’ve given myself a lot of pressure. I’ve always wanted to be loved by everyone, I’ve always wanted to achieve something impossible. But I think after the whole sickness I’ve changed quite a lot.

In what ways?
I’ve learned how to love myself. I used to want everyone to think I was perfect. That’s why I worked a lot – I was a workaholic and I couldn’t stop. I wanted to release song after song, and I wanted everyone to think I was some really hardworking girl. I wanted everyone to think my work was perfect, I wanted everyone to love me. I wanted that love so much. But after the whole bipolar thing, I figured that it wasn’t possible to achieve what I was striving for and that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter all that much.

Has what you’re striving for changed then?
Yeah, I’m 29 years old now, and the show I’m preparing for is called 29 Live. My new song is called My Will of 29. It talks about how I want to bury my past and how I want to flip the page when I turn 30. I want my 30th year to be something new. I want to be born again. I want to start a new era, a new life, a new way of living. I was a vegetarian for 10 years and this year I just started eating meat again. I woke up one morning and I really wanted buffalo wings. And I just went for it. It’s true! I just wanted change that badly.

What advice would you give to your teenage self now that you’re 29, going on 30?
Wow, I’d say... Don’t stop writing, because it’s really hard. If you want to get into the music industry, it’s super hard. You’re definitely not going to earn enough to make a living, especially now. If you want to write, you should never stop because it’s the most precious and valuable thing. It’s really easy to publish things on the ’net, so just keep writing and posting stuff online – lyrics, songs, anything. We have that benefit nowadays. Back then you didn’t have that access.

How was it recording the Pillow Talk songs at home?
Pretty fun, actually. I never thought I’d get to release those songs. It was kind of like being naked. Having to reveal everything was a really new experience, it was fresh for me. Some fans had really positive feedback. They felt it was all Ellen Loo, that it was a really personal and intimate album.

And what style is the new album shaping up to be?
Definitely less commercial than the first two. It’s more folk-rock, and a bit psychedelic. I wanted to work on the lyrics more this time than on the melody. I used to write all the music on my albums, this time I wanted others to write the melodies so I can focus on the lyrics. Hopefully, it’ll come out and be ready for release next summer.

Do commercial considerations still impact your music?
It’s a pain in the ass, but it does. Still, it’s better, I consider it less these days. But I hate the way it gets to me. I still ask for opinions, I still ask whether a song is pop enough or whether it has a hook. But I don’t think it controls the market that much anymore. Now you have so many choices, you can listen to any kind of music online. No-one really buys music anymore – I don’t even pay for music, to be honest! Because of that, music has to have more character, it has to have style, it has to be special.

Now you’re feeling better, what else is planned?
We’re planning an at17 comeback in 2017, as it’ll be our 15th anniversary. We might do some concerts or maybe just a single. A whole album might be a bit much.

Do you think at17’s style will be more accepted now?
I’m not sure. We were always a bit ahead of our time, that’s what I felt. But there are no regrets – you’d rather be ahead than behind, right?

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If you or someone you know suffers from a mental health illness, you can refer them to Hong Kong Free Press’s Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Services in Hong Kong, which provides detailed information on clinics, counselling services, psychological assistance and more.

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