Derek Hough Talks Mental Health, Shares Emotional 'Hold On' Video: Exclusive Interview

Derek Hough "Hold On"
Courtesy Photo

Derek Hough "Hold On"

Derek Hough has stepped out of the glittery haze of dance floor on World of Dance to shed light on men's mental health through his music career. In his latest single and video, "Hold On" Hough pushes a message he feels strongly about - the staggering statistics surrounding suicide rates and unspoken mental health struggles - into the forefront of conversation. 

The video for "Hold On," which Hough directed, follows the story of two individuals interacting with their own mental health struggles. Hough plays a young war vet struggling with adapting to everyday life and PTSD, alongside Kayla Elwell of The Vampire Diaries, who deals with the trauma stemming from losing her daughter at a young age. The two somehow meet at their breaking points, and are able to help each other  hold on to life. 

Hough has teamed up with the Movember Foundation for this first single of his solo career. The organization, which aims to initiate public conversation surrounding men's mental health similar to Hough's own project, is celebrating it's tenth anniversary in 2017. 

Hough was eager to discuss his passions and this project with Billboard in the exclusive interview, below. 

[Trigger Warning: This video contains sensitive imagery, including pill/alcohol abuse, and suicide attempt.]

Why did you choose to focus on mental health right from the start with your debut single? 

You know for me, it was something is very important to me, it's very personal to me. What happened was, I wrote this song about five years ago for a friend of mine. He was going through a difficult time and I recorded it. Years passed, and I just found out recently that Chester [Bennington] from Linkin Park took his life and I had met him at the Children's Hospital in Utah and we had talked together briefly and I met his kids. So it really affected me and it brought up a lot of emotions, 'cause I had also lost an uncle in London to when he took his own life and I witnessed that firsthand. To see what it did to the family and the people around us, it's very traumatic.

So I was driving in my car when I had learned about Chester and this song came on my playlist, this song that I had written five years ago and I just... it got me. I got very emotional about it and I just immediately called my friend and say, "Hey listen, I really want to record this song and redo it and create a video and go out there and talk about this." Because it seems to be something that's becoming more common and, especially with men. When I actually dove into the statistics of it, it was even more staggering. 500,000 men a year are taking their own lives, and three out of four suicides are men. It just got me motivated, it got me inspired, and it got me to talk about this. 'Cause I think it's a very important subject that I think, especially men, we shy away from talking about and we don't really want to talk about and we have to carry the burden or we have to sort of tough it out. So I think, for me, being a performer, it's about sharing. Whether it be choreographing or creating a routine, whatever I am basing it upon, a subject or personal experience or somebody else's personal experience, for me it makes it so much more. And so for this, it just was very important to me. It's a very important subject that I feel like is important to talk about, especially at this time. 

When I was actually thinking about releasing this song, it was important to find an organization that offers guidance and support and programs around mental health and suicide prevention, which is why I'm working so closely with the Movember Foundation. It's been wonderful to partner up with them with this. 

You've previously performed with other groups, from your band with Mark Ballas and your sister Julianne, and later collaborations with both of them. How did these acts affect your next steps into a solo career?

Well you know what? Here's a great example. I've always loved music and I've always played music and I sing, you know, we grew up being in these little bands and that's why for me, to answer your question earlier about why this subject, why this song now, is again because it's about the subject. For me the strongest currency is emotions and if I can share, if I can move somebody in some way or encourage someone to talk about what's going on in their lives, that for me is my meaning and my purpose.

I think earlier, when I'm younger, it's about being on stage, you know what I mean? It's about all those different types of things, which is fun. I think that being older now and, honestly, having such an amazing career that I'm so grateful for, I'm fortunate enough to be able to work on things that I'm passionate about and are meaningful to me, and that I feel are important. Even with my tour with my sister, with Move Live On Tour, you know, we just want people to move, but we wanted to move people emotionally.

For this, I just witnessed it firsthand with my family members or friends around my life and I could just see the struggling and going through difficult times and most of the times holding it in. I think as well, again, I have four sisters and I witnessed firsthand, it's a lot easier for them to talk about their emotions and to talk about their feelings and to let it out, and I could see how it benefits them and I could see how it helped. On the flip side, I could see how men around my life, we don't want to talk about our feelings. We want to keep them to ourselves, and we want to tough it out. We want to be the heroes. We don't to portray like we're weak and vulnerable. I think that's the traditional masculine mindset that we need to sort of be rid of, I feel like, where we can actually feel like there's a safe place for men to go out and talk and not feel ashamed. I feel like that is the word, I think that's the soul crushing emotion that can consume a lot of these men is that shame. I feel like once they can talk about that, that will shrink. It's like taking a big breath in and holding it, and I'm just saying "Let it out, let it out. Just exhale."

With this video actually, I just recently went to the Invictus Games with our Wounded Warriors and service men and women out there who served all of our country and it was incredible to witness and I learned a little bit more about PTSD and about how not all injuries are visible and to hear their stories and hear what they go through and what they've gone through, and a very important part about that is talking about it and to share it and to let it out. Again, I just feel like it's an important time.

I think in general things come up in culture, in society, and we kind of talk about things and then they kind of go away and the next one comes up, the next one comes up, but I feel like this one seems to be increasing and it seems to be something that is getting worse before it's getting better. When I learned about the statistics it's pretty frightening, so for me I just wanted to put something out there that hopefully will trigger a conversation. I go back to this sort of analogy, when someone breaks their arm a doctor puts a cast on it and they know in a few weeks they'll be fine. But when someone is struggling with depression or a mental illness where there might not be a tangible fix, it can be a pretty scary topic to talk about and one that we shy away from, which to me is the biggest problem. 

Did the track change at all, whether sonically or within meaning, in the five years since its first recording? 

Yeah, definitely. The song definitely sounded like a track that was five years ago, which was great, which I still like. I still like that version. But I wanted to update it and I wanted to make the tone a little bit more emotional to where when I listen to it, it matched the subject essentially. I think the original version was a little brighter, a little more uplifting, I guess you could say. Whereas this one I wanted to sort of really capture the emotion of which the person struggling is going through. So it definitely changed a lot, actually. But I'm very happy with the outcome and I feel like the song with the video that we shot and the story that we're telling fits well and I feel like it hopefully will move somebody or encourage somebody or be a catalyst for conversation, or somebody might reach out to somebody else.

The video for me, it's about these two people going through very difficult times who are basically still alone and are hopeless and have reached their breaking point and who are kind of wandering the world on their own and eventually they find one another and they save each other. I feel like that when we're here to serve and here to help others, it's something bigger than ourselves. I think that when given the opportunity to be there for somebody else, I think we all have that within us to help and to be there for one another. 

Do you have any other upcoming projects you can tell Billboard about?

I do, actually. I just recorded a song with one of my favorite bands of all time, Breaking Benjamin. I've been a fan of theirs for years and they actually reached out and we recorded together and it was honestly a dream come true for me. It was very cool, so that will be coming out later next year. But yeah, I definitely have intentions to create more music and just create more content. More things that... being a performer, I'm a servant. I'm here to serve. Even if it's just fun pure entertainment where I'm being silly or if it's a serious subject or if it's an emotional subject, whatever it might be, whatever color that I'm sort of giving out, for me it's all about getting it and sharing it. If I can evoke emotion from somebody, whether it be a happy emotion, or laughter, or something more serious or more emotional or personal, then for me that's what I'm here to do. That's my purpose. Whether it be writing a book or choreographing or dancing or music, that's what I'm here to do.