‘To me it is very much just a way of being’: talking autism, music and creativity with Daniel
In the first Plastic People interview, I speak to guitarist Daniel Donaghy about the challenges and joys of being an autistic musician
Plastic People is a new blog and interview series exploring music from the perspective of neurodivergent people with conditions like autism, ADHD and dyslexia. In this first instalment, I spoke to Daniel Donaghy, a student and guitarist from Belfast who has autism and ADHD, about his favourite music and the challenges of making music as a neurodivergent person. Being autistic and a musician myself, we had a good deal to talk about. His band, Gin Palace, offer an appealing fusion of indie-pop and the disco-funk of Chic. One of their tracks, as well those picked by Daniel and others discussed in this interview, can be found in the Spotify playlist below. Where we used musical terms, I’ve done my best to explain these in simple language.
Our conversation starts with the frenetic music of American new wave band Talking Heads. In fact that I almost named this blog after the song Slippery People, before I realised how odd the name would look. ‘David Byrne is our unofficial mascot,’ he says of the band’s lead singer and principal songwriter. The version of the track listed here is the expanded live version lifted from the band’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, a performance which Daniel says ‘just speaks to a part of me.’¹
He goes on to talk about Byrne’s use of cue cards known as the Oblique Devices, developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt to offer new limitations and help break creative blocks. ‘He would say that he was only able to use two chords for example. And he said that helped reduce down the number of ideas in his head, because any time he went to write music it was just thousands of ideas firing about in his head all at the same time… That’s my big problem, when it comes to writing music, is just having too many ideas at once.’ Options, I note, are something that autistic people seem to struggle with. ‘When I’m in the studio with my band, I essentially leave the fine-tuning… to everyone else most of the time.’ he says. ‘I just want to release twenty different versions of the same song.’
When it comes to writing music, Daniel describes a process that is based on combining existing structures and systems. ‘I was able to rote learn all the scale shapes and all the chord shapes and all my arpeggios and whatever else. And now to me, composing music, is really just a matter of putting parts that already exist in my head together.’ While this seems like quite an autistic way of thinking and writing music, we nonetheless agree that writing entirely new music is impossible. ‘For me, music is very much a tradition. We understand why music sounds good because other people have played things that way. Our ears are trained to hear a major third as a happy sound because it’s what specifically Western music has always associated with happiness. But if you look at how East Asian music is organised, then the concepts of major and minor are a lot more nebulous and there isn’t necessarily a major key and they’re certainly not tied to notions of sad and happy the way they are for us.’
Music for Daniel, as for many neurodivergent people, can be a kind of therapy. ‘Music is how I escape things like overload, I have certain songs that if I listen to them nothing can be wrong with the world and I can just go into a place of my own and listen to them. If I was feeling overloaded by sound, because sound is a big trigger for me, I could just start listening to music and music is never overloading. Even if my brain is shot to hell and the slightest sound is enough to send me up the walls, music is always fine.’ I suggest that this seems to be a running theme of my own experience and that of other autistic people I know; that we can sustain loud noises under some conditions but not others. ‘Noise to me, even huge amounts of incredibly loud noise, can be immersive and relaxing,’ Daniel says. It’s often more about the quality and tonality of the noise than it is about loudness. ‘If I’m in the living room with all my friends and we’re having a drink or whatever, something happens and someone gulders [Northern Irish slang for shouting] … and everyone starts shouting, that will set my teeth on edge completely.’
Music, he says, also plays the role of keeping his brain active. ‘I never listen passively to music, I’m listening to the harmony and chord structures and think, well how would I play that? I’ve always thought that would definitely be an autistic thing.’ To confirm this, I go on a brief tangent about my obsession with a specific chord sequence and how I screamed at the television when my dad was watching a Nanci Griffith concert video and she played it.¹ ‘I’ve always been a man for suspended chords,’ he says, ‘There’s a bit of a thing for autistic people doing things a lot more actively and I think music is definitely one of them.’
What does autism make more difficult about making music, if anything? ‘It doesn’t limit my creativity, but it does limit the ways in which I am comfortable being creative. I feel like there are certain very logical, structured ways of approaching music that I am more inclined towards and I think being able to break out of that would probably be a good thing. And I think it probably is an autistic thing that does make that more difficult.’ But he says ‘in terms of playing music…autism is honestly a benefit for me. Because it is one of my special interests, I can lock into it very easily.’
Gigging and the environment of a gig are also not easy to approach as an autistic person. ‘You’re always expected to be talking to people constantly, always organising something, always doing something,’ he says. ‘Being put in that situation can be difficult, and just the constant social aspect, you cannot really make music in a band without socialising constantly. I was diagnosed when I was very young, when I was 8 or 9 I think. But this was at a time when the phrase Asperger’s was still used in diagnostic criteria and when people still talked about ‘borderline autism’ which they don’t do anymore.’ We laugh about how ridiculous that term sounds now. ‘It’s the most f***ing cursed phrase I’ve ever heard… I developed a kind of thought where I was like, well, I’m not really autistic, that’s not really how I operate… All horrendous thoughts to be having and all really not helpful at all to me, but that’s the way I thought about it. And so I forced myself to become okay with the late nights and the long travelling and all that stuff because I didn’t have another choice.’
Now in his twenties, his thought process seems different, even if he continues to be in bands and play gigs. ‘As I got older I started using Twitter and discovered there were loads of autistic people like me who had similar experiences of autism and that a huge amount of my experience was shaped by autism and that that was okay.’ It’s a part of coming to terms with autism, and with being neurodiverse in general, I suggest, to recognise when it gets in the way of things you love and learning what parts you’re okay with and what you’re not okay with. ‘In music for me, that was a really big thing, realising that I will have challenges,’ he says. ‘There are also things that are easier for me than they are for other people. It’s spiky profiles, all that stuff. We’re good at some stuff, bad at others.’ We touch briefly on recent discussions of the term ‘superpower’ in response to its use by the climate activist Greta Thunburg and the construction of autism as a wholly positive and negative thing. ‘I’ve always taken the view that people want it to be a superpower or they want it to be a disability… Neurotypical people and some autistic people struggle with the idea of it just being a thing… To me it is very much just a way of being.’
Talking Heads — This Must Be The Place
Referring back to the start of our discussion, Daniel says he is in a long-term relationship and wants this song played during his wedding. ‘It’s so wonderfully autistic’, he says. ‘I’m not having some f***ing slow dance s****.’
Penguin Cafe Orchestra — Perpetuum Mobile
I have a particular enthusiasm for this one. ‘I’m very obsessed with music that is plinky plonky, I just call it stimmy music’ I say. He agrees: ‘I actually deliberately threw this in there as an example of a song that is like a stim for me. I start listening to it and there is a process in my brain that starts off, and it’s very familiar and comfortable. I don’t know how to describe it but I know that you know what I mean. ’
Feist — Train Song
This song is taken from a charity compilation by various indie rock artists released in 2009 to raise awareness for HIV and AIDS. ‘My dad had a CD copy of that album that he would have played in the car when I was very young and I heard a huge amount of that and it was some of the first music I ever really liked,’ Daniel says. ‘The song that got stuck in my head was the Feist one.’
Lose Yourself To Dance — Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams
I immediately noted the similarity in Daniel’s guitar playing to that of Nile Rogers of Chic, who played on this Daft Punk single as well as Get Lucky. ‘That’s why that’s in there,’ he says, ‘My clean [guitar] tone] is modelled on Lose Yourself to Dance… And my guitar playing style is very very Nile Rogers-y. I learnt how to play the funk stuff from watching him.’
Elbow — Lippy Kids
‘That’s another ode to my dad and another kind of stimmy tune actually. Lippy Kids, it’s a very accurate description of what it’s like to be a teenager… When they play it live, you know it has that one note on the keyboard just playing constantly? They set their keyboard to repeat and tape that key down with a piece of gaffer tape. I just think that’s fantastic.’
Daniel can be found on Twitter at @ sellingalibis. If you have a musical obsession you’d love to talk about or would otherwise like to discuss your experience of music and neurodiversity for Plastic People, I can be reached on Twitter at @ 128harps.
 I recently discovered the cover of Slippery People by Mavis Staples of the gospel and R&B group The Staple Singers, a version which I consider to be essential listening.
 For any curious musicians reading this, the sequence I am talking about is back-and-forth movement between chords II and III in the major key. As can be heard in the chorus of Nanci Griffith’s Love At the Five and Dime, Frank Ocean’s Ivy and about ten songs by Scottish indie pop band Camera Obscura.