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Maxim talks to the singer-songwriter about getting comfortable with change, creating healing music for all ages, and why she traded in club crowds for live yoga and reiki classes.
You’ve released a number of lullabies, such as your latest single, ‘For Everyone’, and the ‘Until the Light of Morning’ project. You specify that this is aimed at both children and adults - what drew you to creating this form of music, and what inspired you to aim it not only at children but at adults too?
I was a nanny for many years, working as a musician and looking after a bunch of really cool kids when we lived in New York. My friend Anne said to me, "Essie, your voice would be perfect for singing to children.” I think there was a certain softness that had come across in my work that she just felt would be a really good pairing. So it was really inspired by this group of children. All the parents were saying they were driven completely bonkers by children’s music - it seemed so simplistic, in-your-face and sometimes sort of aggressive. I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to bridge the gap and make it palatable and listenable.’ If you have a lullaby album that’s on repeat in your children’s lives, you don’t want to be driven bananas listening to it! I have full songs for the first part of the record, and then I take it down to instrumentals using a lot of humming work, and then it just falls off the map. The idea of the album was that it would come in sweet and thoughtful, and then it just drifts away. The thinking is that you could step out of the room and leave it playing with your child, and then the child would fall asleep after a certain point, and then the rest of the record wouldn’t impact it. Some of the music was quite meditative towards the end of the project, and that sparked the continuing journey that brings us to today.
You’ve said previously that your 2020 single, ‘Hold Us’, was written “amidst a wave of rising, changing and uprooting times in the world”. To say the least! During 2020 in particular, people leaned on music more than ever. How has music has helped you, whether through creating or listening?
It was an interesting year for me as an artist, because at the end of 2018, before we moved to LA, I had finished the album, ‘As I Return’, and I had a feeling at the time that that was going to be a little bit of a pause button. It was a really intense album to make. Then I was pregnant with my daughter, and no matter what anybody says about it, that really does take over your life, and can take over your creativity as well. So I spent more time playing and singing music with her. She’s now old enough where we can be separated more, so I’ve been able to dive back in. I thought the only thing I can really do is a series of singles, before I start work on a new album, so I embarked on that. I think for me, I then leaned on other artists that I loved that were making beautiful work and used that for both my daughter and for me. Our house got filled with music, just as I’m sure my music filled other houses. But things got more live, like you’d sing around the house and do more of that kind of stuff.
When listening to some artists’ meditation music, I think it can be quite easy for your mind to wander and get off track, particularly it’s just a repeating tone, for example. I find your music particularly conducive, because there always seems to be a focal point. ‘Opening’, for example, is relaxing, but there’s also a sense of energy and movement about it. Is it a conscious decision to give it this vibrancy, or does it flow naturally out of your songwriting?
Being in this field, I also found a lot of music in the healing arts had tipped a little bit too far into background music. I think that was quite conscious to bring more of a journey and an arc, so that it wouldn’t disturb you, but you ride the wave with it. You’d be surfing the wave continuously, you’re not going to get knocked off the board! I’ve had that feeling throughout almost everything I’ve made of some kind of travelling and channeling, I’m always dancing between worlds. I think when you’re a songwriter it’s hard to make flatline music, you’re always trying to bring magic in somehow. Patrick, my husband, plays the guitar and we’ve worked together for about 20 years, so if I have something on the table and invite him in, he’s really seamless about bringing tuneful aspects with his playing that doesn’t interfere. The theme of mothering has been extremely consistent in feedback from adults, families and people who used the music to meditate to. In a sense, it mothers the mother. I’ve had a lot of interesting dialogue with people about feeling like they were comforted in some way or held in a space.
I think there’s a big theme of travelling within mental health, of having to deal with change, whether it’s moving house, getting a new job, and so on. As you’re often in that space musically, would you have any advice for getting comfortable with change and being in that space between spaces?
I think I’ve learnt in time to see that space as being full of possibilities, because change is always constant, so every moment that’s difficult is replaced in two years with the most magical things. You can’t see ahead of you what's happening, but everything is working with you. There’s a presence with you that’s rooting for you even when things are difficult, because then down the line you can look back over that time and realise all the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle that were coming together. I think it’s important to really try to understand the lessons when things are difficult as well, and really feel all of the feelings. I think that’s probably the biggest thing for me, when it is difficult, painful or complex, just to really sit and be still with that, allowing the feelings to move through the body. As a musician, you might fumble around trying to work out how to put a piece together, but then the next day in ten minutes, it just arrives.
You described your 2018 album, ‘As I Return’, as a ‘medicine album’, which I love. As is the case with a lot of your work, you weave therapeutic practices into the music. Could you shed some light on how you do this?
I had been starting to get emails from people talking about the way that the music had filtered into their lives, and it got very, very deep. I had emails from nurses on terminal care wards, hospice care workers, people talking about loss they’d experienced - the emails I was getting said how my music completely changed their field. I even had emails about its use in micro-dosing and for PTSD. I remember sitting there, absorbing the type of emails that were coming in, writing back to these people, and engaging in this dialogue. So when I began ‘As I Return', all of those emails struck a chord and gave me permission to get quite 'out there' and be improvisational in the work. I felt a strong presence of four very different energies that came through for the four pieces, and going back to what we were talking about before, the trick is sitting still long enough to allow it all to come in. With that record, I just allowed this spontaneous thing to come down and through, and just began recording. With all those people in mind and all those areas of the healing arts that I knew the music was going into, it gave me this incredible freedom. I knew I was making this for something way bigger than me, I’m merely a human who happened to be able to catch it at the right moment.
Some people that read this might be sceptical of practices like reiki and energy medicine. Given your vast experience in a number of the healing arts, if you were going to recommend that someone who is sceptical tries just one, which one practice would you say is the most helpful and accessible?
I think I would probably go to the body first, because the body holds everything. It holds experiences in your organs, in your knees, etc., and I think that part of you has to be undone first. I would recommend an energy worker that works strongly with undoing the knots in the physical body. I remember when I started with a friend of mine who did body work on me, and I think that was the beginning of uncovering the journey of things that had been stuck in me. Then I think I started healing as that undid itself. Then after that, you can start to work into the mind and the spirit.
You recite the mantra, namaha, in your song ‘The Blessing’. I’m a big fan of mantras, and I’m fascinated by how there seems to be such power in the combination of sound and words. What would you say distinguishes a mantra from everyday language?
Definitely the intention behind it, I think that’s probably the most important part. Anything can be a mantra if it resonates and comes out of you in voice and in thought. Whenever there's voices present, I think it's really important to listen to them. Mantras have started as a thought or idea, and then they’ve been brought together and the repetition of them is what gives them their power, and allows your nervous system and body to absorb them. I think if you’re going through something difficult, sometimes words can just come to you if you’re still enough to listen, and you kind of carry a personal mantra around. I have a friend who sticks them on the fridge, things that have just arrived in her, and maybe they don’t make sense immediately, but then she starts to absorb them. I think she just looks at them, as opposed to trying to express them in any way, but they have that same impact. Sanskrit is really so poetic, it’s a beautiful language, so it’s nice to drift into that and have this mantra, and even though it’s not in English for some reason you’re still absorbing it. That’s the power of language.
The titles of your albums ‘As I Return’ and ‘To Love’ follow on nicely from one another, to the extent that they could combine to make the phrase - ‘As I return to love’. Is this intentional, and when can fans expect a follow-up project?
As I Return was titled that way because it was me coming to grips with the fact that I was going to embrace working in this field. It’s all a little bit of a happy accident, because a friend of ours who teaches yoga in New York, she said, ‘Why don’t you and Patrick come and play some music and we’ll see what happens.’ I remember feeling at home there. Everything about it felt right and natural, and my husband felt the same, so we really dug in and made the album ‘To Love’, and at the same time carried on playing for yoga classes. So it was kind of like, ‘Oh, whoops, we’re suddenly doing this!’ Then of course the emails had begun and the record got put out, and the journey between the two of those albums was me getting really comfortable with my work and seeing that it was totally cool to come from having an indie background, and to make a jump into this really incredible field. It was much more ‘me’ - I didn’t like playing clubs and going on at 11:30pm, I was always too delicate and sensitive for all of that. It really wore me down. Playing music for live reiki and doing shows at 12pm was just way, way more my vibe! I just embraced who I was and what was happening.
I’m currently working on two projects, the first is a series of instrumental works. Then there’s another album which follows on a little bit from ‘As I Return’, but it is a bit more mantra-focussed, but done in English. It’s really cool to work on two projects at the same time, when you’re working on instrumental work on the piano and then you’re working on voice-work they complement each other.
Are you planning on bringing your new projects out on vinyl?
The lullaby album is probably going to do a vinyl print at the same time, so that’s in the works. The albums might arrive digitally first - with vinyl you have to put it all together, you don’t want to be doing it in pieces, so it’s really got to be a moment where the catalogue gathers together and you can do a series of issues. The artist who did the lullaby album has this beautiful, full piece of artwork that opens up, so the idea would be to sell some artwork within the vinyl, which could be put up in a children’s nursery.
Finally, a question we ask all our interviewees is to name their top 3 songs with a theme of mental health - what would be yours?
1. Priyagitah - Benjy Wertheimer and Steve Gorn
2. Someone To Watch Over Me - Keith Jarrett
3. Golden Voice - Bhagavan Das
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