Photo by Ross Gilmore / Redferns

The Brutal, Graceful Optimism of Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison

The frontman had a gift for finding the funny and the cripplingly sad in his songwriting.

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May 11 2018, 8:04pm

Photo by Ross Gilmore / Redferns

The body of Scott Hutchison, the 36-year-old singer-guitarist of the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, was found this week not far from the very bridge that was a specter of death in one of his own songs. In “Floating in the Forth,” from 2008’s near-perfect The Midnight Organ Fight, he wonders, “Am I ready to leap? Is there peace beneath the roar of the Forth Road Bridge?” He decides, right there in the song, not to do it, though he knows that those feelings may come again. “I think I’ll save suicide for another year” is how the song ends, and that line has gone from hopeful to devastating with this week’s news. It seems as if “another year” may have arrived.

Hutchison’s family—including his lovely, affable brother Grant, Frightened Rabbit’s drummer—went through hell starting May 9. Scott went missing after having posted some cryptic tweets, and at 1 AM he left his hotel, which was walking distance from that goddamn bridge. Family and friends flooded social media with pleas for information on his whereabouts, hoping that what seemed inevitable was somehow not true. His body was found at Scotland’s Port Edgar Marina, near the south end of the bridge, two days later. The police did not confirm a cause of death, but were not treating it as suspicious.

Scott and I spoke about "Floating in the Forth" just a few weeks ago, in an interview for Noisey. The band didn’t play it too often, but it was part of the Organ Fight’s tenth anniversary tour, which meant it was part of the set every night. He was, as always in our interactions over the years, positive, immensely friendly, and thoughtful: “It’s a real thing. It’s a real thought,” he told me. “I’ve gone 90 percent of the way through that song in real life. But at the same time it’s gratifying. It’s heartening to know that I’ve been through that, and I’m stood there performing that song, alive and feeling good about it.”

That was the strange, beautiful, complex world of Scott’s songs, released on five Frightened Rabbit albums over the past dozen years: He dwelled on the darkest parts of his heart and mind, but almost always in a way that was ultimately therapeutic. His songs, it’s probably safe to say, kept him alive for a long time, and the outpouring of support and grief this week is proof that they helped a lot of his fans through those same dark times. In our interview, in a rare moment that wasn’t accompanied by an enthusiastic chuckle, he accepted with gratitude and humility the idea that his songs may have saved lives. His fans told him so, and he believed them.

From the semi-concept album vibe of Organ Fight—which is about getting over a life-shattering breakup—to explorations of his own faults like “I Wish I Was Sober,” Scott tended to put it all out there, and to put it out there with turns of phrase and insights that could be devastating, especially when they were pointed inward. He seemed to find life both funny and cripplingly sad, and he could mingle those sensations like no other recent songwriter. In our interview, he fondly recalled his song “Dead Now,” saying it was one of the funniest things he had written, almost a reaction to the idea that he was constantly miserable.

It’s a devastatingly great catalog of songs that will—for the time being, and for me, anyway—be extremely difficult to listen to. I don’t want to be presumptuous or betray some journalistic line by saying that Scott and I were friends, but we were certainly friendly. We met in 2010, when he came to The A.V. Club office, where I was the managing editor, to record a cover of The Lemonheads’ “Confetti,” which he claimed to have “sprinkled” with a bit of Scottish sadness. He hand-wrote the lyrics on a piece of cardboard, an item I treasure to this day. He was forever grateful that I bought him a delicious breakfast that day—eggs benedict—and he brought it up over the years. He always asked about my son, and joked that they were going to start a band together, to be called Poop Eyes. I don’t remember the occasion, but I remember being squished in the back of a taxi with him once.

By the time the band stopped by The A.V. Club for another session in February of this year, I had left my job, but went back to visit for the day—who else was going to host a session by one of my favorite bands? It was the day of the first Midnight Organ Fight anniversary show, and he wasn’t sure when in the set they should play the album, or what other songs to play. He ended up essentially letting me write the set list. I saw Frightened Rabbit play more times than I can count over the years, and those two Chicago shows that week were among the most joyous and cathartic. It reminded me of something he said in an interview we did a few years ago, around the release of Painting of a Panic Attack: “I don’t think people come to a Frightened Rabbit show to feel sad!”

So when we spoke for the Noisey article a couple of months later, it didn’t seem odd for me to ask how he was doing—as more than a pleasantry, it was understood from the question and our history. He answered, cheerily, that he was “a solid six out of ten,” and that he didn’t think he could hope for much more than that, though. “If I get a couple of days a week at a seven, fuck, it’s great.” He laughed a lot during that conversation, as he always did. I briefly considered leaving that exchange out of the piece, but decided that it was in keeping with the spirit in which he always presented himself. He put those feelings out there, and it helped him. After the conversation, he sent me a funny Facebook message after Skype prompted him to rate our call (for sound quality, presumably). He wrote, “Tough question. Also, where do I rate it amongst all the conversations we’ve ever had? It’s definitely top 5.”

He told me that Frightened Rabbit had already recorded demos for their next album. He seemed fired up about his new side project, Mastersystem, which had just released its debut album. Frightened Rabbit was set to headline its very own festival, The First Incident, in just a few weeks. There was so much more for him to do.

The Hutchison family issued a statement: “Scott, like many artists, wore his heart on his sleeve and that was evident in the lyrics of his music and the content of many of his social media posts. He was passionate, articulate and charismatic, as well as being one of the funniest and kindest people we knew. Friends and family would all agree that he had a brilliant sense of humour and was a great person to be around… Depression is a horrendous illness that does not give you any alert or indication as to when it will take hold of you. Scott battled bravely with his own issues for many years and we are immensely proud of him being so open with his struggles. His willingness to discuss these matters in the public domain undoubtedly raised awareness of mental health issues and gave others confidence and belief to discuss their own issues.”

Depression tends to color its victims as joyless, desperate, and miserable, and I’m sure that Scott experienced those feelings, and maybe in more cutting, profound ways than most. But let’s not allow the brief moment that he may have succumbed to those feelings to define the man or his music. And let’s not glorify his death as inevitable just because he explored it with his art. Let’s do what he suggested in one of his final tweets: “Be so good to everyone you love.”

In our interview, he pushed against the idea that Frightened Rabbit was all sadness and misery: “There’s got to be a sense that, as fucked as life can get, we’re still alive and we’re still doing this and we’re going to attempt to carry on.” In one of his most perfectly realized songs, “Head Rolls Off,” he sings with brutal, graceful optimism about existence itself:

When it’s all gone, something carries on
And it’s not morbid at all
Just when nature’s had enough of you
When my blood stops, someone else’s will not
When my head rolls off, someone else’s will turn
And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth

There’s no doubt that Hutchison’s music—and soul—made those tiny, positive changes to Earth during his too-brief 36 years. I didn’t know him well, but I’m confident that he would want to be remembered not for the painful moment or manner in which he left, but for the moments of catharsis, joy, and understanding that his music fostered while he was still here.

If you’re struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there is always help available. You can call 800-273-8255 any time of day or night, or you can chat with someone from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online.