You describe yourself as a singer/songwriter who hears voices, sees visions and has ongoing conversations with the nature of reality. Could you tell us a little about how your musical practice intersects with your experiences of madness and distress, and the role(s) that music has played in your life?
When I was a child I kept so much inside me – the trauma, the visions and this deep sense of being ‘wrong’. I felt so much and yet I didn’t speak it. Music was one of the few spaces that felt real to me, back then. Listening to it helped me feel less weird and less alone. I first joined a band when I was fourteen. I played guitar (badly) and sang. I had no idea what I was singing about. I just opened my mouth and stuff came out. Looking back at the lyrics now I can see so many breadcrumbs to my inner world, so much symbolism. It was as if all of the stuff that I held inside just needed a space to be expressed and song writing gave me that opportunity. Not that I had any idea about this at the time. I remember being sort of surprised at what was coming out of my mouth but quickly moving on and not giving it much thought. It was a bit like hiding stuff in plain sight. My early songs were constrained by rhyming and structure, though. After hearing Alanis Morissette I had this realisation that music doesn’t have to be neat, that it doesn’t always need guitars and I could just sing and let the story come out in its own way. I began to write some A cappella songs that had even more explicit links to what was going on underneath my surface.
When I was my most distressed, in my twenties, I stopped writing. Maybe it was the medication, maybe there was just too much going on for me to process it through song. I listened to music, though, as if my life depended on it. I began to find music had an impact on the voices I heard and the chaos in my head. Some styles intensified things, making it feel like my mind was fragmenting. Other styles soothed me and helped me find some solace. Strangely enough back then it was the more intense forms of metal and rock that had a soothing effect. Fear Factory, for example, was my chill out music that enabled me to sleep. I reconnected with my love of writing and playing music through a Hearing Voices Group. The other members encouraged me to play a World Mental Health Day gig. I remember being on stage and loving the feeling of sharing my songs with others. It felt deeply connective. I practically ran off the stage and hid after I finished though. I wasn’t prepared for people to actually like what I did. Despite this it helped light a fire in me that I began to tend to. I started looking around for music lessons and ended up on an Access to Music course in Leicester. This was a huge step for me as I’d been out of society for so long I wasn’t sure how to be alongside people. But it helped give me another identity – Rai, not Rachel. The singer/songwriter who happened to have experience of madness. I gigged on the local music scene and my life began to stretch. I still struggled. I remember doing a gig and being really freaked out that my drink was poisoned. But when I sang all that faded away. It was like an anchor.
Do you feel there is a difference between creating music – especially music that comes from a place of exploration around what we call mental health – as a solitary activity, versus sharing it with the world?
I’m not sure. I guess I’m not sure because when I create music I’m not sure it’s ever a solitary activity. Sure I’m on my own, but I’m always speaking to somebody – a part of myself, maybe, that’s listening … or maybe an imagined other. I carry relationships with me so I’m not sure I’m ever really alone. Having said that, though, there is something that feels almost risky in sharing my music with other people in the world. I wrote a song a few weeks ago and played it to my husband. It felt like exposing something so deeply personal, like I was telling him something about how I’m experiencing the world that I couldn’t take back. Like I was presenting a window to something that I had little control over. Then, playing it live took it to a whole other level. I sometimes wonder what people listening will think of me as they get to hear things about my life and my relationships that aren’t carefully curated images, but raw snapshots. Then I remember people rarely listen so intently to the lyrics and remind myself not to take my stuff so seriously. I think if I thought too much about it I might not play at all. And yet, it’s also true that I love playing live. As self-conscious as I sometimes feel I also feel strong in my vulnerability. I feel connected with parts of myself that I often gloss over, and that connection extends to those who are generous enough to listen and be with me as I share.
Could you tell us a little about Mad Tunes as a project – including what motivated you to launch the podcast?
Mad Tunes came out of a conversation I had with my husband on my birthday. We were talking about how my life had become quite narrow since giving birth – parenting and work have taken up so much of my headspace, with madness dancing around my edges. I’ve had a hard few years – having times where I’ve struggled to keep on breathing and been overwhelmed with fears and beliefs that may sound unusual. Creating music hadn’t been a part of my life for a while and I missed it, yet I felt completely uninspired and unable to pick up my guitar and play. I had the idea of creating a podcast where I talk with other songwriters about their music and how it intersects with the very broad field of mental health (emotions, relationships and stuff like that). I hoped that the conversations would be of interest to the guests, to the listeners and also that they’d help reconnect me with something that was missing from my life. It also allowed me to combine my love of hearing people’s experiences with my love of music. So I started it a year ago – inviting musicians to join me in conversation, to play a few of their songs and see what comes up. I’ve done one season and am preparing a second season to launch later this year.
When hosting guests on Mad Tunes, what role does music play in shaping the space and acting as a medium through which experiences and stories of madness and distress can be told?
Music is the anchor of the show. I ask guests to choose two or three of their own songs to play. We listen to each one of them together and then I ask what was coming up for them as they listen. Each guest responds to that differently. Sometimes we talk about what was going on in someone’s life as they wrote the song. Sometimes it hinges upon particular lyrics and what that evokes listening to it now. Sometimes we talk about what it is to take something so personal and share it with others. I’m happy to go wherever the guests take me – all of it is meaningful. Songs are, I think, so emotive and rich with meaning that there’s always something to talk about.
You describe creativity as essential to life as breathing. Could you tell us a little bit more about how this feels for you?
That sounds a bit dramatic, now I hear it back. Yet there is something that still resonates within me about how essential music has been – and still is – in my life. Back when I was struggling more intensely and had no voice (or at least felt it wasn’t safe to use my voice) song writing was my outlet. It allowed me to do something with all of the stuff that was bottled up inside me. On stage it gave me a place in the world at a time when I felt lost. Now, on difficult days, I cling to the creativity of others – watching YouTube videos of my favourite songs on repeat as an anchor as I try and weather the storm. Music and creativity weave through my life in different ways – each of them have helped me continue to exist in a world that I can find really overwhelming. I’m grateful for it.
For many, music is very linked to memory in its ability to record and remind the listener (or creator) of a particular moment. What are your thoughts on music and memory, particularly in relation to periods of processing particular memories that may be difficult or painful?
I think, for me, it works in different ways. As a songwriter there’s something about capturing a moment in a song – either a specific memory or a feeling – that can be incredibly cathartic. It allows you to dive into that particular feeling or memory, give words to it and – sometimes – narrate it from a particular angle. There’s also something about it not needing to have concrete and simple links to the memory that can make it easier to explore, too. The use of metaphor, for example, means I can find a way of talking about something painful that doesn’t overwhelm me. Then, as a listener, songs have provided a soundtrack to some of the most challenging aspects of my life. Maybe it’s a song that is playing at a particular time that gets forever linked to that memory. Maybe it’s the mood or lyrics of a song that resonate in some deep way with something I’m surviving (or enduring). Songs can be devastating, at times. There are songs that I no longer listen to because the associations are too raw. At other times they can be like a warm blanket that helps me feel less alone in my particular shade of distress.
What does community mean to you, both as a singer/songwriter, and a survivor?
Community both feels foundational and a luxury that I deeply appreciate. Finding connection with others, as a survivor, has helped me find myself. I exist as I am because of those connections and the way our lives interweave. Having been so isolated years ago, I do know I can survive without a sense of community – hence it feeling like a luxury too, it’s something that I haven’t always had. So much of how I have come to see and understand myself and the world is bound up in the stories and experiences of those I’ve connected with. I can’t separate it, and I wouldn’t want to. As a singer/songwriter I am also fortunate to feel community with other musicians in my local area. As with the survivor movements there’s something about supporting one another, being there and lifting each other up. Playing live isn’t always easy so having people around who have your back feels so important. Having people who listen, just as you listen to them. Being there for others is as important as trusting that people will show up for you.
This blog is part of our series on creativity and mental health. You can find the other pieces in the series here.
Rai is a survivor, practitioner, writer, trainer, researcher, designer and activist with experience of creating and managing innovative peer support-based projects in a range of contexts (including youth, prison, forensic, inpatient and community). She has personal experience of hearing voices, psychosis, trauma, self-harm and hospitalisation and holds lived experience (personal and collective) as a compass that guides all she does. Currently studying a PhD in Survivor Knowledge at Nottingham Trent University, Rai is also Chair of the English National Hearing Voices Network and a board member of the Intervoice (the charity supporting the international hearing voices movement). She is enthused by creative and rights-based approaches to mental health and distress, and the power of communities. She’s the mum of a wildling and, when not engaged in mental health work/campaigning, she tries to spend as much time in nature as possible.