Ask Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds how he chose a career in music, and he will tell you that music chose him. From the time he was very young, Reynolds was creative, expressive, and in his feelings. Reynolds struggled with depression and mental health challenges from the time he was a kid, but he didn't really know what it was until he was older.
"I didn't have a name for [depression] in my teen years, but I knew that I was different than the kids around me," he says. "I was just different, and I didn't quite know what it was. When I got into high school, I certainly started to know, 'OK this is depression.' Anybody who's been depressed knows that it's not [just sadness]. There's a big difference between, 'Hey, I'm sad my girlfriend broke up with me. I'm heartbroken and I'm sad,' and depressed."
To Reynolds, depression looked like this: "I lost interest in everything that I usually used to like. I became very anti-social; I didn't want to go out and felt numb."
Reynolds comes from a large close-knit Mormon family based in Nevada and he's one of nine children who all seem to be high achievers. He says that academia was prized in his home and that art was more of something you pursued as a hobby. His siblings are doctors and lawyers, with the exception of his older brother who has been at his side as his trusted manager. But for Reynolds, music was the only way.
"It was my life," Reynolds says. "It was all I did since I was 12. When I started to deal with mental health issues, music was therapeutic for me in a way that nothing else was. I felt like I could communicate in a way that I wasn't able to to an adult, or to anyone, really. That's why I say [a music career] kind of chose me because I really didn't have a choice. If I was going to stay alive, I was going to do music. I genuinely feel like music saved my life in that way."
Reynolds started writing songs when he was 12 years old, and he tells me that at this point in his career--at age 34--he's probably written thousands of songs. But he's only released around 5 percent of them professionally.
His songwriting process is the way he expresses and processes his feelings. So in essence, it's equal parts therapy and career: "Music for me ... there was nothing I would rather do with my day than sit down and create," he says. "The thought of, there's nothing, there's a blank canvas now. I get to make this into something, and I get to listen to it, and I have it in an archive. That was exciting for me. I love creating something from nothing and then having it ... and capturing a moment or feeling or thought. I always start with a soundscape. What I mean by that is I'll sit down with no preconceived notions.
"I never have journaled lyrics previously and said, 'Now I want to turn these lyrics into a song.' Some people do that. That's the way a lot of people like to create. But I don't. I'll have a keyboard or guitar, or some sort of melodic instrument, and then I'll start to create how I'm feeling. And I don't even know what that is because feelings are really complex--there's not just, like, sad, happy ... There's also feeling indifferent, there's a lot of complexity to emotions. So I don't quite know what I'm doing, but I'll play it and then it will say what I'm feeling. And then to that I will start to write melody and lyrics. They come usually around in the same vein. Like, I'll hear a melody and then I'll hear words with it, and it really is a very quick process for me."
As an example, one of Reynolds's favorite tracks so far on Imagine Dragons' latest album, Mercury called, "It's Okay [to be not okay]" didn't exactly come right out of the box ready to go. Reynolds credits veteran producer Rick Rubin, combined with the collective brains of his Imagine Dragons band mates, with the ability to get the best stuff out of him by pushing him to new limits. Rubin thought the first draft was boring and suggested Reynolds go into a studio room alone with a basket full of acoustic instruments like shakers, tambourines, guitar, etc. to tinker around with. Incidentally, Rubin's Wikipedia page looks like its own Billboard 100 list of the most prolific musical talent of the last two centuries, from Johnny Cash and Beastie Boys to Jay-Z, Linkin Park, Red Hot Chili Peppers, et al.
Reynolds emerged from his room six hours later with a much better version, with a vibe inspired by Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." It's basically the song as you hear it now on the new release. It's a song that will probably speak to those who are struggling and managing mental health issues. It's also a homage to someone close to Reynolds who is in the LGBTQ+ community who wants to be exactly who they are and love who they want to love.
It's hard to categorize whether his songwriting process is traditional. Who decides what's traditional and non-traditional when it comes to art? Regardless, his formula is working for him and the band. After years of playing shows in Vegas casinos, Imagine Dragons became a hit and their first three albums were smash successes.
Their first album, Night Visions had sold more than 2.5 million copies in the U.S. and earned double platinum status. Their fifth studio album, Mercury - Act 1 was released earlier this fall and debuted high on the charts and had millions of streams on Spotify on day one.
Reynolds knows that he's fortunate in the career that he's had, and he tells me that because he knows how privileged he is, he feels a great responsibility to show his brokenness. His hope is that through being outspoken about mental health on social media and through music, he can help by normalizing therapy and creating safe spaces for people who are feeling ostracized or alone.
Reynolds also started a charitable foundation called LoveLoud, an organization with a mission to "ignite the vital conversation about what it means to unconditionally love, understand, support, accept, and celebrate our LGBTQ+ friends and family." But Reynolds and team have their work cut out for them in conservative religious areas like Utah, where the last LoveLoud Festival was held.
Utah has some of the most beautiful and rugged landscapes in the U.S. It was originally settled by Mormon pioneers and is still the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. One of the more tragic and surprising facts about Utah is that nestled quietly between the blocks of happy families and multiple Mormon churches on almost every corner, there is a dark underbelly of secret prescriptions for antidepressants and the youth suicide rates will shock you.
In Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death in people ages 15-24. It is twice as common as death by car accidents. Between 2014-2016, youth suicide in Utah was increasing each year nearly four times faster than the national average in this time period.
There's not enough data on the exact cause and effect, but Mormon members know what people on the outside think about them and the high standards they are expected to live. They wear it like a badge of honor. If you've known any Mormons, they're likely some of the friendliest and happiest people you've ever met: Clean cut. No drinking, smoking, or swearing. They serve two-year service missions right out of high school, volunteer weekly in church callings, and pay 10 percent of their annual income to the church. To them, the greatest of all rewards, eternal life with God and your family members, is earned in the future in the afterlife. Like their pioneer ancestors, Mormons are taught to endure hardships and roll with the punches, focused on an eternal perspective.
The downside is that this effort to live what members see as the highest standards of righteousness has casualties. Some fall into a Stepford Wives kind of world, trying to be the perfect Mormon. When they fall short, many get hooked on antidepressants trying to achieve the impossible. It's also extremely difficult--almost impossible--to be LGBTQ+ and be an active member of the church. They are taught in Sunday school and at home that being LGBTQ+ (and acting on it) is a sin. For these members of the church, once they are old enough to date, it's just not reasonable to live a life of celibacy and never be able to know love like everyone else.
Due to the stigma around leaving the church or having a different sexual orientation in the deeply religious culture of Mormonism, many parents are confused about how to deal with their children. To fill this need for education, a growing community of Exmos (Mormons who have left the church) have cropped up. The #exmo and #exmormon hashtag on TikTok have over a billion views to date.
Courageous Mormons like Matt Easton announced that he was gay and proud of it during his BYU Valedictorian speech in 2019. Carah Burrell, who was once employed by the church to manage their PR efforts, lost her faith and found an audience on TikTok to share faith journey experiences, create safe spaces for others, and turn her grief into a comedy routine. Former member Allan Mount is in a mixed-faith marriage, where he's now out of the church but his wife is still an active member.
Reynolds got a taste of the consequences associated with breaking the rules when he was kicked out of Brigham Young University in Utah for violating the Honor Code by having sex with his girlfriend. The Code includes abstaining from any sexual relations outside of marriage. This also means holding hands (romantically) with someone of the same gender will likely result in (if not ceased by) disciplinary action or expulsion.
Students and faculty at BYU are instructed to turn in students who they suspect, or have evidence, of misbehavior for ecclesiastical investigation. The Mormon church's top leader and senior apostle, Jeffrey R. Holland recently received harsh backlash, according to The Salt Lake Tribune, for statements he and Dallin H. Oaks made attempting to rally faculty who were being too sympathetic to the LGBTQ+ community on BYU campus. Holland called for "a little more musket fire from the temple of learning"--a term loaded with meaning from early church history.
Young people in these religious homes often struggle to feel safe enough to speak their truth for fear of losing relationships. While many families like Reynolds's have chosen love and empathy, there are many more who never speak to their children again because their kids announce they are gay or decide to leave the church. Reynolds doesn't mention details about this directly but he alludes to being "angry about it a decade ago." It's clear to me that even after all this time, it's still a sore spot and something both Reynolds and his parents (especially his mom) are grappling with separately.
The reality is that it's incredibly sad and difficult for both sides, who are likely playing the long game of hoping the other party will see it their way. Active church members like the Reynolds family has to reconcile the church doctrine that states they will be separated for eternity from people like Reynolds who have chosen to leave the faith. People explain that it's like grieving the loss of someone who has died, but in this case it's a spiritual death.
If committed Mormons leave and want to continue their family and church relationships, they have to get over being labeled as apostates and possible bad influences on faithful members. They also must face the possibility that, despite any level of commercial success, they might still be a disappointment to their friends and family.
The trauma is real and this, combined with Reynolds's history of mental health, may shed further light on the lyrics in past and present Imagine Dragons songs. At the very least, I got the impression that Reynolds and his family are trying to build bridges and heal hearts where there have been a lot of hurt and division.
Same-sex attraction issues are still a hot topic of debate in and out of the church. In April, The Washington Post reported on reputable Mormon sex therapist Natasha Helfer, who publicly challenged her church's teachings on sexuality and was ex-communicated in 2021.
Reynolds and the team at LoveLoud are trying to create peaceful change in a system and establishment that hasn't changed in a few hundred years. Reynolds mentioned in our interview that he believes the church will eventually need to find common ground and evolve. Many young people cannot accept this hard-line stance against the LGBTQ+ community that is putting so many perfectly amazing young people at risk of losing their families or harming themselves.
What Exmos and LGBTQ+ members of Mormon and non-religious families need is unconditional love. It turns out that the phrase, "I accept you" is a pseudo-supportive statement similar to a hollow apology like, "I'm sorry you feel that way." It's insufficient and judgmental. We should simply love and celebrate our little ones. Let them be who they were born to be. Full stop.
"I have dealt with a lot of self-hatred," Reynolds says. "Because of that, I feel a responsibility to share my truth because of this platform I've been given. I'm on a stage in front of millions of people a year when we're touring. So for me, I feel like if I'm going to die at some point and I'm here for this allotted time, what am I going to do with this amount of time? I just want to speak my truth."
It's truly admirable to see the way that Reynolds has handled his mental health journey and the way he's made, and continues to make, himself vulnerable publicly. He's crushing the stigma that equates mental health struggles with weakness, and that men can't be emotional and also be strong. He's a huge proponent of therapy and people getting the help they need. But he's got a realistic attitude about how people will get to where they need to go.
"Two things have saved my life: music and therapy," he says. "So I believe in both, and I live both every single day. That being said, I also think sometimes you just have to go on a path, and everybody goes on a different path ... I could have had a million therapists tell me, 'No don't do this.' And maybe I'm just going to do it no matter what. I'm not saying you can't save a life by saying, 'Hey, go to therapy.' And that person goes to therapy, and it saves their life. But on the same note, some lessons can never be taught, they can only be learned. I've gotten to where I am also just by failure ... a lot of failure."
For Reynolds, part of that journey was the evolution of his personal life and his marriage. To see him now in his mid-30s as a family man, it's hard to imagine a time where he was out being a wild rock star partying. His home is visibly filled with family love. There are kids running around with healthy snacks, there's simple sheet music on the family piano, a clear sign of his children learning to play. It warms the heart to see, but Reynolds took a very long and circuitous journey to get to where he is today and it's one he doesn't shy away from talking about.
In his early 20s before the band had really made it big, Reynolds and the Imagine Dragons crew found themselves opening for a rock band. That was where he met his wife Aja--who performed with the main band. At the time, Reynolds said he was having a crisis of faith. He was raised a very religious Mormon but by the time he was in his 20s after returning from a two-year mission, he started to doubt the teachings of his church as absolute. He wanted certainty about if there was a God and what happens after we die. Part of what attracted him to his wife was her desire to explore those kinds of thoughts with him.
"My band opened for her band in Las Vegas," he says. "She was the singer of a band called Nico Vega, a really heavy rock band--kind of the antithesis of everything I had been raised in. So there I was with fresh, clean, vanilla Imagine Dragons--a church kid lost and looking for truth. And then we opened for this heavy rock band that was dark and magical ... And that was very alluring to me. I stayed after the show and then we talked for a while ... All the other guys she'd met were sitting down with her and wanting to sleep with her, and my first question was, 'What do you believe?'"
Reynolds says the connection was pretty instant. The pair soon became best friends and then fell in love. And he proposed. They got married and had a child. Their life together seemed set in motion. It feels a bit like a Cinderella story but amidst falling in love and having a family, Reynold's depression was still there, lingering behind the scenes, waiting for an opportune moment to strike.
"I was gone all the time," he says of the time when the band first hit it big, and he was out on the road touring. "I was playing gigs all over the world away from my home and newborn baby for three months. We grew apart in some ways. But also, I was just so depressed that I just felt like I wanted to run away from the entire world. [I was] kind of feeling like, you work so hard to get somewhere and then you get there and you're like, 'Oh this is the last place I want to be. This is everything I don't want.' And then you're kind of stuck there because you've built a tower, and there's a lot of people who are involved with it. And there are pressures that come with it and livelihood based on it. I just didn't want to do it, so I just became very self-destructive."
Reynolds tells me that he wanted nothing more than to leave the entire world behind and start over. And that's ostensibly what he did for himself, at the risk of losing his marriage.
"One day I just called her from Europe and was like, 'OK, I'm done,''" he says. "Which is the worst thing you can ever do to a person. I just needed to be self-destructive for whatever reason. I don't really have a good reason for it to this day other than I just was really depressed and angry."
Reynolds and his wife didn't speak for seven months. On the eve of their meeting to sign divorce papers, Aja reached out and wrote him a love letter of sorts that was peppered with a litany of personal and spiritual insights she'd had from an experience taking the plant medicine Ayahuasca.
Recalls Reynolds: "She sent me a text message on the way to the meeting that was very lengthy ... I hate calling it a text message because it just sounds so trite because of technology ... But she wrote magic to me that spoke to me on a really deep level, and she said all these truths that were so profound. As if she had reached up into the heavens, figured out everything I needed to hear, figured out everything she needed to say, and said it perfectly."
Reynolds says that the insights his wife presented to him were enough for them to get up and leave the meeting where they were slated to sign divorce papers. They reconciled and just a few months later, discovered they would be welcoming a fourth child into their family.
Reynolds talks about his experience with plant medicine gently. His wife experienced it first and then they did the Ayahuasca ceremony together. He credits this experience with helping to not only shift his mindset into a healthy place and create some major healing, but also in having lessened his depression.
Reynolds is not anti-medication. He says he's taken antidepressants himself and had some positive experiences with them, and he's also known others who have. But he also wants our medical system to be more open to natural and plant-based remedies that can be incorporated into mental health practices and psychiatric care.
"I just think there's a big difference between drugs and medicines," he says. "I think that there are some therapeutic things that have not been legalized that might be really helpful for people. I found Ayahuasca to be very healing for me, pretty life-changing, actually. And we live in a world where you can sit down and be given all kinds of medications, and they're fine and they're not faux pas and they're seen as completely OK. And some of them save lives ... But I also think that we should be open to exploring everything that the world has given us to heal."
More of my fantastic chat with Imagine Dragons' Dan Reynolds here: