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Teen spirit: Kurt Cobain's lessons for kids coming of age

From left to right, Liane Balaban, Kathleen Munroe and Nicola Spunt are co-founders of In Bloom.

In March, a celebration of teen spirit and the arts called In Bloom culminated in a youth-led multi-arts show at Daniels Spectrum. Next week, as part of Canadian Music Week (May 6 to 10), In Bloom holds a concert to raise funds and awareness for youth mental health issues and the arts. The concert features all-stars such as Hidden Cameras, July Talk and members of Sloan covering the songs of Nirvana. We spoke to actress and Web producer Liane Balaban, one of the three founders of In Bloom.

In Bloom is the title of a Nirvana song, and the benefit concert for the Delisle Youth Services is dubbed Come as You Are, another Nirvana song. Can you explain the project's connection to the band and Kurt Cobain?
Kurt Cobain is the inspiration for the whole project. The idea began a year and a half ago with co-organizers Nicola Spunt, Kathleen Munroe and I discussing and realizing that April, 2014, would mark the 20th anniversary of Cobain killing himself. We began reminiscing about the impact of Nirvana's music on our own coming of age, as an artistic icon for us. We wanted to do something to commemorate him, and to involve youth and also to be community oriented. Eventually the idea grew into a project involving Delisle Youth Services and two high schools, Etobicoke School of the Arts and Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute, my alma mater.

Did Cobain's drug history and suicide give you pause for thought, as far as attaching his legacy to the project?
We didn't want to shy away from the complicated nature of his identity and his fame. We wanted to use his emotional struggles as an opportunity to have a conversation about what it means to come of age and the difficulties we all face with emotional well-being and the role of the arts in shaping teen experiences and young identity. I think not talking about Kurt Cobain's life in its entirety and putting him in a drawer because he had these struggles is part of the reason mental health is so stigmatized and awkward.

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You were a young teenager when Nirvana broke big with Smells Like Teen Spirit in 1991. What was your reaction back then?
To me, Nirvana was expressing the zeitgeist of my adolescence. There was a glee, but also an anger and confusion. There's this false cheer to high school. It was a real difficult time for me. My parents had undergone a horrible divorce. I was trying to figure who I was and where I fit in, in a new school. My world was coming apart from underneath me.

False cheer makes me think of the satire in the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, with those less-than-cheerful cheerleaders.
That's it. They were morose cheerleaders. That's what adolescence is, a combination of excitement and newness and discovery, and then gloom and despair and boredom.

And so, with In Bloom, you encouraged young people to tap into those emotions and to create something artistically, right?
Absolutely. For Kurt Cobain, I think his music was an outlet and a haven. There's huge stigma still about mental health. So, making a painting or writing a song is a healthy way to express the struggles one is facing. They can always talk through art.

Come As You Are, May 6, 8:30 p.m., $20. The Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. W.,

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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