POSERS – May 23rd
IT’S OK TO BE AFRAID – June 23rd
PŌHARA BEACH – July 23rd
SINGLES for August 23rd 2022 – May 23 2023: In studio being created
On sitting down to write this piece for my first (self-produced) single release in seven years, my blood pressure and heart rate have shot up. I have some discomfort and tightness in my chest, and the nerve pain and loss of sensation on my left side is more intense. Fair to say, my central nervous system is popping this morning. It’s unpleasant but I’m grateful to be present enough now to be able to feel these body sensations after a lifetime of dissociation. After seven years of not being able to write any songs, I found myself unable to stop during lockdown. Lockdown provided opportunities to learn how to record and produce music at home. And in a nutshell, that’s how my fourth album, Into the Wonder, came to be. But I want to share why it holds so much meaning for me, and to do that we need to travel back in time thirteen or so years.
After almost a decade in the mental health system, on being discharged I chose to take my music to Queen Street to busk and pay off the last of the bills of my debut album, Seems I Might Be Human. It’s still quite unbelievable to me that it happened, not once even, but for five years. Which is how I self-funded my next two albums.
The year before my music career began (busking Queen Street and eventually other corporate and bar gigs) I received a Like Minds Like Mine Mental Health Media Grant. If I’m completely honest, while I’m forever grateful for the grant that made my debut album possible, there were times when, if I spoke about it, it was in a quieter voice and I moved on fairly quickly. And I did that because, unfortunately, it was necessary. For many years I had faced stigma and discrimination, often in general health services or with acquaintances and ‘friends’. My choice to protect myself was wise, it was what was needed at the time.
After leaving the support of the mental health system I began in psychotherapy and It wasn’t long before those wonderings about stigma began to bubble away more.
Perhaps the catalyst was when I was censored at a gig. I was pulled aside moments after performing and before an interview. I was told not to talk about my history of mental ‘illness’. It all happened so quickly but there was a moment in that interaction when one of my eyebrows rose slightly and I almost had time to wonder why that was requested – or perhaps ‘instructed’ is a better choice of words. It had been a number of years since I had been censored, and like then, my gut response was, “No, I don’t think so”.
So when the reporter asked if I was comfortable talking about my experience of mental distress, I said, “Yes of course, I’d love to!” And so we did. We briefly talked about this ordinary fully-human experience. And to this day I don’t understand what the fuss was all about, but as a consequence, I was personally introduced to one of the biggest myths of mental distress for women, which is that we are all ‘just a bit neurotic’. In terms of a strategy to shut down and silence women who talk about their lived experience, labeling and treating us as if we are neurotic is actually very effective. It disarms us, leaves us vulnerable and alone. It censors us. It fortunately also gives us much to think and write about, and so I did. I’m a songwriter, that’s what I do. It’s what I’m meant to do. So even though I felt strongly that it was not ok to be told that conversations about mental distress were not acceptable, I still wanted to be accepted as just a singer-songwriter and musician, and not be labelled.
In hindsight that was still a wise decision. The stigma and discrimination faced by people who use mental health services is alive and real. I have no doubt this created a lens when it came to my music. So between being labelled neurotic and seen through the harmful lens of the myths of ‘madness’, I feel confident that my fears of being treated less than a musician, less than human, just less than, were warranted and significant. Because that’s what I experienced at times.
After I released my third album, Finding Your Way Home, I found myself unable to write. Each time I picked up my guitar I felt nauseated and highly anxious. So as I put my guitar down, I picked up paint brushes and I painted my way through those next seven years. Still in psychotherapy (I suspect I’m a lifer) I travelled the road of wonderings and the findings and feelings of the unknown. I began to slowly dissociate less and be inside my body more. With that, though, came more terror, horror and distress than I thought was possible to physically and mentally tolerate. But I did, and do, tolerate it because I have grown and there is space now to be afraid. There are opportunities to lean into the darkness of distress and open up into arrivals of kindness and light. The work to get to that place was the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done. I am grateful to each person who walked, and now walks alongside me during this work, especially my partner.
My new album, Into The Wonder, is a collection of songs that bubbled up during that process of healing and growing, hurting and opening. They are dear to me for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s the first time I’ve self-produced a collection of songs – that in itself has been a massive process and not one I ever dreamt possible. I took everything I learnt back in the studio with audio engineer Andrew Buckton, and sat with the music and the words over the last year. Words that seemed to just arrive some days. And secondly, because I stand proud alongside this collection of songs that I don’t feel I deserve to have but am grateful to have been able to create. And that includes a sense of pride of where I’ve been, where I’ve come from, and the crucial part my history of mental ‘illness’ plays in this. Trauma and ‘madness’ have always been woven into the fabric of my song-writing. Whether I knew that at the time is fairly irrelevant as song-writing is such an oddly wonderful phenomenon. We get to take credit for a process we have little understanding or control over. So this new album is very psychoanalytic. I’m very happy that it is. The songs come from within me, and that is enriched by my lived experience. Mike Riddell once described my music as “stemming from a journey into the fragile dignity of humanity”. His words still ring true for this new collection of songs.
The plan is to release a song on the 23rd of each month for the next year. I chose the 23rd as a nod to the late Mike Riddell who passed away in March a few days after his 69th birthday. It was a shared favourite number. Mike was a kind and thoughtful mentor and friend. He stood up to the bullies and had my back. He was a constant validation and he believed without a doubt that I could write, produce and record this album. I hope to make him proud, especially with the song we co-wrote, Pōhara Beach. I’m so sad he is no longer here. When he left I felt the kindness of the world leave with him, but I’m also so happy and blessed to have known him, and each time we move closer to releasing these songs I can hear and see him: “Fantastic! What a wonderful treatment and arrangement, your confidence comes from within, and the integrity of your work, try not to doubt yourself in the face of %#*&@$%’s”.
I’m also very happy to have Andrew Buckton on the team, this time mixing and mastering the songs as we go. Thank you Andrew! Your experience, talent, and knowledge is inspiring.
So that’s it really, in a nutshell, how we got to be here. It’s both terrifying and exciting, and I take these next steps knowing I have a wonderfully kind group of people that support what I do, including NZ author and friend, Judith White, who I’m about to send this to for a read and edit.
Thank you for reading and come visit me on Facebook and Instagram at ‘Sam RB Music’ and ‘Sam RB Art’. Go well and may we all find a time and place to wonder xx Sam RB