[Interview] TWLOHA Founder Jamie Tworkowski On The Heavy And Light Tour, Tattoos + His Love For U2

Photo: (Getty)

To Write Love On Her Arms has evolved over the past six years from a post on MySpace to a non-profit organization dedicated to “presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.” Since last week, founder Jamie Tworkowski has led a caravan of tour buses toting musicians, TWLOHA team members and a slam poet across several state lines for the HEAVY AND LIGHT tour.

On Tuesday, I arrived at the House of Blues with an hour or so to spare before doors opened on the tour stop in Houston, Texas, the sixth show in a 17 city tour set to bring a night of “songs, conversation and hope” to thousands of people across the US. I sat down with founder Jamie Tworkowski to find out how HEAVY AND LIGHT evolved from one night in Orlando to a cross-country tour, why it’s so important to have honest conversations about difficult things and why music plays such a big role in the movement.

+ Interview with Jamie Tworkowski

Photo: (Flickr)

ACT: As of today, TWLOHA has more than 1.3 million likes on Facebook and almost 250,000 followers on Twitter. Did you ever imagine having this kind of following when you first started having conversations about depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide?

JAMIE: No, definitely not, because it really wasn’t intended to be a charity or a movement. it started about as small as it could in terms of trying to help one friend and tell one story. But I think that has a lot to do with why it’s grown, because people identified with that story and related to it…We certainly didn’t have a one year plan…It’s been a big surprise, but I think there’s been a lot of freedom because I didn’t grow up wanting to run a charity or start one or even knowing much about that.

And even though we are now a nonprofit, we probably see our work through a different lens than the average one. I think more and more there’s a lot of charities that look and sound and feel different than our parents’ generation…we treat it more like a creative project; we’re really just trying to move people…We really see the work we do as something really different. We’re not asking for people to care about something that’s not in the room; we believe these issues affect everyone in the room in different ways

ACT: For those who don’t know and aren’t in the room tonight, why is a non-profit bringing musicians from different bands and a slam poet across the United States?

JAMIE: HEAVY AND LIGHT started as our annual event, and up until a week ago, had only happened in Orlando at the House of Blues. Music has been a big part of our story since the beginning, not only in people finding us from musicians wearing our shirts and supporting us… but beyond that we think music has this unique ability to be honest. We think that shares a lot of common ground with the conversation we’re trying to invite people into because when it comes to a lot of things that songs are written about — pain and questions and difficult circumstances. These guys are able to write songs from that place, but for the rest of us, we aren’t sure that we’re allowed to talk about those things or ask those questions.

We think there’s something really healthy about putting all that in one room and the cool thing is it’s very much a show. It’s primarily music, but there’s some tweaks and added elements of speakers or a poem or even the pamphlet that everyone will go home with so just a couple things…to make it more than a night of music.

Photo: Jamie at the HEAVY AND LIGHT tour. (Flickr)

ACT: When I think about TWLOHA, the one word that really stands out to me is community: the idea of a group of individuals coming together and telling their stories, brave and honest. Why do you think it’s important to bring a group of strangers, essentially, in and have this experience about pain and hope? 

JAMIE: It’s interesting because I think in some ways there’s a tension between tonight and what we’re really hoping that people find. We’re not pretending that everyone in the room is suddenly best friends; we do hope they can share and experience together. What we’re aiming for is more than just a room full of strangers; what we’re really aiming for is that these people end up having coffee or having a meal with a friend and keeping those honest conversations ongoing.

Tonight is an attempt to bring people in to a conversation that would continue long after we leave. What we hope for people is that they have a real support system in the city they live in with friends, with people they look up to, with professional help, if that’s what they need. Tonight is meant to be a catalyst. Really, when you talk about the goal of moving people, you talk about moving people to a place and for us that place is honesty and community and professional help.

Photo: Jamie after winning one million dollars for TWLOHA at the American Giving Awards in 2011. (Getty)

ACT: The tour will go to 17 cities in the US this year. In your wildest dreams, what does next year look like? Is there another tour?

JAMIE: In our wildest dreams, for sure. It’s cool to hear that question because wildest dreams give you permission to dream. I’d love to see it continue. I think all of the artists would love to see that. I’m already preparing myself for the end of tour because this is such a dream come true and so much is wrapped up in it for me personally that it’ll be hard when it ends. Certainly to have next year and future years to look forward to would be amazing. We really believe in the format and even though it’s simple, it’s different. We hear that from people who work at the venues and they’re at shows every day but they go, “Wow this room really felt special.” We missed the Northwest this year, so we’d love to hit Seattle or Portland or both. Wildest dreams, we hear from people around the world, so with that aspect, there’s no reason it’d have to stay within the US. We’re taking it one day at a time, though, really trying to be present and focus on and enjoy these shows and try and make them great.

Photo: Jamie posing with musicians from the HEAVY AND LIGHT  show in 2012. (Carra Sykes)

ACT: Jon Foreman is here tonight, and I know he wore the first TWLOHA shirt almost seven years ago. It’s safe to say music has always been a part of this movement. In the last six years, if TWLOHA was an album, what songs would be on it?

JAMIE: “Dare You To Move” by Switchfoot. That’s one that comes to mind. “Fix You” by Coldplay, which was the encore that first night (in Anaheim). Those two really jump out at me. I think we all have those songs that move us or remind us to be hopeful or remind us what’s true. It’s different for everybody, depending on who your favorite bands are or what your favorite songs are. Jon, to me, has a lot of songs that are written at that intersection of pain and hope and we say that’s where tonight is meant to exist; to me that’s a really honest place where those things collide. It’s heavy AND light; it’s not meant to be just one or the other.

ACT: On that same note, if TWLOHA was a band, what kind of music would you play? And who would you like to open for on tour?

JAMIE: That’s a tough one… I suppose we’d be a rock band. U2 is my favorite band, so we’d open for U2. I was hesitant (to answer) because it belongs to so many more people besides me so it’s whatever floats your boat… for my sister, it’s country music. For somebody else, it’s hip hop, so I think we want it to be music that moves people. Tonight is kind of a stripped down interpretation but I think the goal is the same: to make people feel something. In some ways I think there’s something in pop music that feels very shiny and not necessarily authentic and tonight is meant to exist in a very different space. I hope people walk out and know it was very authentic and honest. It’s a BS-free night.

ACT: I wrote for MTV Act about getting tattoos in support of your favorite cause — I have one for TWLOHA. How do you feel when you run into people who have tattoos that stemmed from this one post you wrote on MySpace?

JAMIE: It’s really humbling; honestly it reminds me that this thing is so much bigger than me. And in a way it’s a reminder not to screw it up, to try to make it great. Because if someone has a tattoo, it’s forever and so on behalf of them we want to make this thing great. It’s a reminder that I hope in ten years they’re still proud of that. It reminds us that you got that because it was personal for you; it’s that our story collided and related to your story. To me, when I see that, it’s a reminder of how people are connected and how we’re sort of all in it together.

ACT: Is there anything else you want to tell our readers about tonight or TWLOHA or the rest of this year?

JAMIE: Most people who struggle with these issues don’t get help for them. Two out of three people who struggle with depression walk through it alone and that’s really the thing we’re trying to change. We think so much of that is built on lies and built on the stigma and the shame and (people) aren’t sure if they’re allowed to be honest. Tonight, and hopefully all the work we do, is about inviting people to believe it’s OK to be honest and it’s OK to ask for help. And for someone who might be reading, we just want you to know you’re not alone. There are great resources out there; there are people who have devoted their careers and a big part of their lives to be part of the solution of helping someone else through the hardest part of their story. One of the unique things about the tour is that everyone in every room and every city will leave with a list of resources where they can get help.

Photo: Stage view at the HEAVY AND LIGHT tour. (Carra Sykes)

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