He’s speaking to these people in his newest album, Fire Escapes. “A lot of these lyrics are things I wish I’d said,” Hartman says. “You feel so helpless when somebody kills themselves. You think, ‘Surely there was something I could have done.’”
He can empathize because it hasn’t been easy for Hartman to open up about his own battle with depression. “It’s embarrassing, in a way,” he says. “I’m just coming out of the closet as a total neurotic, perfectionist, OCD guy. I feel kind of like I’m putting my junk on the table and everyone in the room has a hammer.”
This album has been a long time coming. Hartman began writing it nearly 10 years ago after the original band members of Mur split up. Alone in Los Angeles, where the band had moved in 2004 after finding some success in Dallas, he was struggling to figure out his next move.
“I was miserably depressed,” he says. “I remember just being like, ‘That’s it. I’m giving up. I’m quitting. It’s too painful to keep trying to (make music).’”
Hartman felt like he was in a hole and he didn’t know how to escape. “When depression comes over you, you can’t really point necessarily to, ‘I’m sad about this.’ It’s like, ‘My whole life seems like it’s in a ditch. I don’t know why,’” he says. “Then I’d come out of it and be like, ‘Man, what was wrong with me? I need to write myself a map out of this, for next time I get in this ditch.’”
During one of his low points, Hartman found himself driving to a music shop to buy a piano. “It was like my body just made me,” he says. Urged to keep writing music, he sat down at the keyboard and started playing and singing whatever came to mind. The result surprised him.
“A lot of the same messages kept coming across, which was, ‘Pick your ass up. Go. Climb out of the hole. Keep going,’” he says. “It really helped me. I guess I was writing pep up songs for myself and for anyone else who goes through that kind of stuff.”
And that was how Fire Escapes came about, which will be featured at a release party at The Kessler on Sept. 10. Although the music is catchy and generally upbeat, the lyrics delve into themes of loneliness, isolation, loss of motivation and creativity, and heavy drinking.
“His depression and the struggles of this record, it’s just so personal,” says Mur bass player Chadwick Murray, who has been friends with Hartman for upwards of 15 years. “It was uncomfortable and it touched on some seriously raw emotions for him, over the process of it. It has been the most intimately connected record that we’ve done.”
Because the content is deeply personal, it took years of editing and re-editing before Hartman felt comfortable with releasing the album to the public. He moved back to Dallas and was supporting himself through acting and other music gigs while he worked with producer Paul Williams.
“Max is very introspective,” Williams points out. “He likes to really deliberate about things, which I think is great. So the record took a bit of time to make, but because of that I think it sounds really good.”
Despite a positive reaction to the album so far, Hartman admits he’s nervous about the release. “The more something means to you, I think the harder it is to finish and put it out there,” he says, but it’s all for a good cause. Proceeds from the album sales will benefit the Deep Ellum-based group Foundation 45, which aids people who struggle with suicidal thoughts, mental illness and addiction, as well as provides support for people who have lost loved ones to suicide.
“They started the foundation to offer counseling and group counseling,” Hartman says. “I just think that’s awesome because so many people don’t have access or even know where or how to get help.”
In particular he hopes to reach young adults.
“The younger you are, the harder it is, that first time you have a full meltdown,” Hartman says. “When you’re in your 20s and you just think, ‘This is it’ — you haven’t lived through it enough to realize it’s going to be OK.”