Mentally In Tune: Booka Nile

While I was in the flurry of post-Unify writing and editing, an idea floated into my head. I liked it, and I decided to run with it: I wanted to have conversations about mental health with musicians, whether from the perspective of how music has helped them personally, or how they cope in the music industry by supporting their mental health. A new article series called “Mentally In Tune” was born.

Understandably a delicate topic, I sought to have open and honest sharings with people who were comfortable to share their experiences and what works for them personally. I hoped that this could see associated stigma begin to fade, as we’re reminded that musicians we admire can also go through really rough times, just like the rest of us.

The first person I reached out to was Booka Nile. As well as playing keys and singing for Perth heavies Make Them Suffer, Booka is a mental health professional who is passionate about helping people recover and find strategies to cope. Booka loved the idea and shared important mental health contacts and information with me (see the end of this article), as well as agreed to share her own experiences.

A week later, I was with Booka at Half Way Records; a recording studio in South Yarra, along with Shontay Snow of Saviour who was (beeeaaautifully) recording vocals at the time, with the skillful hand of producer Luke Yeoward who had it sound amazing as he recorded live to tape.

As I wanted to conduct my interviews without throwing musicians into the deep end when it came to their mental health, Booka gave my ideas for questions a once-over. In between recordings we then started to explore these topics. Under the umbrella of mental health we covered things like moods, mindset, self-identity, and coping, whether from the perspective of a touring musician or a music fan. Sitting on a couch in the studio, Booka excitedly shared with me her thoughts as well as her personal experiences about the different challenges of mental health she has come across in her own journey.

Discovering Music

Looking back to how music arrived to Booka’s life, she shared that her parents had organised piano lessons for her from 8 years old. “They thought it would be good because it would help me be better with math. There are studies that suggest knowing how to play a musical instrument helps in developing your brain that makes mathematics easier.” Her parents are also in the creative field, with her dad being an historian and her mum a creative writer, and both keenly backed creative endeavours.

It was when Booka was around 11 or 12 years old that she discovered blink-182. “That was my introduction to liking a band that was a little bit weird, that wasn’t like.. The Spice Girls or whatever. The first song I ever heard of theirs was “All The Small Things” and I was so obsessed. I thought they were so funny. From there I got into that whole little world of emo-pop-punk scene and I started to identify with that person. I was wearing black shirts, and I dyed my hair black when I was 14.

“It’s so cliche, but I got super super into Nirvana when I was about 13 and that’s when I started listening to songs and lyrics that were more serious, and had darker lyrical content [instead of “If you wanna be my lover..”]. In doing that, I idolised Kurt Cobain and thought he was so amazing. But I sort of felt like you had to be this really damaged person to be amazing. So like ‘Okay: Drug use, being damaged, having like addictions and things – that’s cool’. And ‘I don’t want to be a shallow, vapid person. I want to be like deep!’. And my 14 year old self thinks this is so cool, like [in a little voice] ‘Anyone have any drugs or alcohol?’. I was so naive. I was such a little kid. But I really wanted to explore that world and be one of those damaged people. I certainly did.”

Booka continued to enjoy the rawness of the Perth punk scene and how it was short, fast, and loud (unintentional but happy shout out to Josh Merriel!). She described going to the Hyde Park Hotel every weekend and how she would watch bands, appreciating these scenes where people would be bleeding from the face. “I just loved that!” she said.

Booka remembers being young and listening to Slipknot and being angry at her family. She’s quick to add that they were “the best family, by the way”, but also knowing at that time she just needed ‘to be tortured’. Going through the hugeness of teenage years and all of the changes that go with that, music accompanied Booka on the ride and was also an outlet for her.  “Music is the reason that I am the person I am today, because it was such a huge influence on me and my life. The artists that I looked up to and admired throughout growing up were so proudly impactful and influencing.”

Through all of the music and all of the phases, Booka continued to play piano. It was at 16, when she no longer had structured learning in her life, that she found a love for writing her own music.

Make Them Suffer

“Being in my own band is life changing. I always wanted for music to be a huge part of my life, and I feel like it’s raised me a lot. It’s always been with me through my life.” Though Make Them Suffer is Booka’s first ever band, aside from jamming in a few other projects, and “playing music to my cats”, she’d dated musicians, and her social circle had become predominantly musicians. It wasn’t a world completely unfamiliar to her.

When the opportunity arose to join Make Them Suffer, Booka was managing a psychiatric hostel; a career that was not music focused. However Booka found that “music was always creeping in somehow”, as she had recently started a music therapy program. When the offer came from the band, it was decision time: “Do I quit this job that I love, and do the thing that I always wanted to do? Because that’s scary and unknown and gives me a lot of anxiety. Or do I just stay where I am now?”

Through her experiences in studying psychology, Booka leaned on the understanding of “We regret our inaction far more than we regret our action.”  She elaborated on this thinking to say that if our actions turn out badly, so be it, but that we’re more likely to regret the things we didn’t say ‘Fuck it, I’ll give it a shot’ to.  “So I gave it a go and luckily I don’t regret it and it’s been the best decision of my life.”  Booka says she feels incredibly lucky, and though she is realistic in that this new life has its challenges and hard days, she feels that her life has meaning, and she’s motivated to continue down this path.

Touring

Summing up the emotional and mental intensity of touring with Make Them Suffer (both within Australia and overseas), Booka sums it up by saying: “Tour is the best and worst times of your life. There’s not been one tour that I haven’t cried on.”  

She shares that as well as often becoming overwhelming and too much, tour can inspire significant positively intense experiences. “Like ‘Oh my god, I could not be more content and happy with my life right now’.”  It’s those times that Booka describes as ‘pure contentment’, and that she exists in ‘pinch-me’ states of surrealness. But ultimately, it’s an experience of extreme highs and lows. Musicians are estranged from their whole world, with relationships suffering at the absence, before having to somehow integrate again when it’s all over.

As an example, Booka would get back from tour and find she wasn’t in Facebook group chats with her friends. She adds “My friends are great and they do try to be conscious”, and she now asks to be included again once she’s back home, and makes an effort to connect when she’s in town.

Rather than something that has required specific strategies, Booka describes it as just something she’s gradually learning how to handle over time; most commonly noticing her behaviour and making decisions on what she’d like to do differently.

“I often found that I ended up in what I called a ‘tour bubble’, where the rest of the world ceases to exist when I’m on tour. It’s me, just the people on this tour party, and that is it. Every day is the same sort of routine, and you develop strong relationships with the people you’re touring with. And the rest of the world can feel that it’s drifting away. I guess I ground myself and bring myself back and go ‘No, these people back at home are really important and you’ve got to put that effort in while you’re away and got to make time for them’.” She’ll now keep in touch with FaceTime or text messages to try and keep relationships going while away, which she’s found makes it easier to adjust once at home as well.

Coping With Touring

Booka admits that it can be really difficult to handle touring emotionally, but that it’s something that needs to be handled by the band as a group as well as individually, as best as they can. “You’re living in a tin can situation with other people and you’re with them every damn day. It’s very rare that you’ll find yourself in a situation where you’re not surrounded by least one other person. If someone is getting angry or upset about something, and they’re not good at hiding that, everyone picks up on it and it can become a whole thing. I think it’s really important to be supportive of each other and to know and be able to detect when someone just needs to be left alone for a second.”

Booka will notice a specific shortness or tone in her bandmates, feeling “I know this tone!” and immediately know that they need for everyone to leave them alone. There’s no explanation needed, and they know it’s not personal. For herself she says “If I need space, I’ll just verbalise it”.

As the only female member of Make Them Suffer, Booka has accepted the fact that there’s no privacy afforded for the band while on tour and that they’ll sometimes need to get changed in front of each other. She describes her band mates as ‘just like brothers’ and is fine with this factor, but also struggles with craving privacy at times, wanting creature comforts, and “time to just be a gross girl or whatever it is that I need to do. You just often don’t get that”.  For Booka, she’ll take every opportunity she can for some time out, even if that’s just to go for a walk.

The long hours are also challenging. It is a LOT more than just standing on stage and playing a show for 20-40 minutes or thereabouts. “I don’t think people realise that you have to soundcheck, and load in usually start about 2pm, and a show usually wraps up around midnight. And then before that, you’re driving there. So it’s a long time. And you don’t get to go home after work. You’re back driving again. It’s not a 9-to-5 job; it’s never ending for one-two months.”

Though tour can have a fun party feel to it, depending on how it’s going, there’s the downside of being hungover the next day in a tour van. “What I’ve learned is to just embrace that feeling and just be like ‘I’m just going to embrace feeling like a piece of garbage today. It’s all part of the experience!’ or you can let it affect you.” Booka feels that there’s got to be balance, and that going too hard in this way on tour will affect your mood and ability to cope when things go wrong. Having a day of break between partying for recovering is a happy medium she’s found.

Post-Tour Blues

While intense, Booka describes that tour is an experience that you become so used to, following the same routine with the same people, that returning home can feel uncomfortably different. This sudden shock of routine change is a common experience among musicians, and Booka referred to as ‘post-tour depression’ or ‘post-tour blues’. Booka puts a lot of it down to the contrast between the two environments/lives: There’s always something happening on tour, perhaps to the point of overstimulation, and then once at home again she finds herself sitting in her room with her cats. “First time back I was depressed. I felt so bored.”

Booka feels that if she was coming home to do further work on her music in the studio that it’d probably feel different, but instead it can feel like the time at home is “like waiting it out until the next time”. This feeling of waiting for something else to happen for the band has the negative impact of ‘normal’ life feeling less meaningful.

She tries to turn the experience around for herself by adjusting her perspective, saying “You’ve got to remember what you appreciate and value at home and make the most of that time. Rather than seeing it as a place you just wait to continue working on your music career.” 

Acceptance

With Booka having mentioned several times through our conversation how she accepts and embraces experiences as they are, it seemed like this was a significant skill/approach for her in being able to cope in the world of music. Agreeing, Booka admitted that early on in Make Them Suffer, there had been some experiences when touring that had not gone to plan that had upset her. Plans would go out the window at the last minute, with nothing that could be done to change them.

“I was like ‘This suuuucks’. But then I was like ‘You know what? You are travelling the world, playing music, and on day two of not showering and plant life in your hair and feeling so gross. Just enjoy it! Embrace the shitness! Own it! Feel it! Because who knows how long you’ll get to do this for and when it’ll be over, and it’ll be the moments like this you look back on and be like ‘God I miss feeling like a piece of shit in a van’.”

In enquiring as to how she has got to this point, Booka shares that she’s always dealt with the negative emotions and negative things that have happened in her life by being with them, and knowing they’re not permanent.  She says “I deal with it by going ‘This will pass because every feeling is temporary and everything will pass. Or it will evolve into a different feeling’. For me it’s like: Sit in the feeling of discomfort and feel it and experience it. Ask ‘Is it as bad as I think it is?’ and ‘What is so bad about this situation?’

“It’s going to go, so you might as well experience it while it’s there. That’s really helped me to turn some of the more negative parts of touring into things that are almost now nice little novelty experiences that can go into the ‘experience bank’. Remember that I’m lucky. Are you really going to be a little princess? Or remind yourself what you’re doing and how lucky you are.”

Reframing

These reframes are important to Booka as much as acceptance, describing how focusing on the positive in life helps to strengthen the neural pathways for positivity. In reminding oneself to make the most of something and enjoy it, both Booka’s personal and professional experience has found that we reprogram the whole way we take in and perceive the world around us.

Booka had noticed herself coming off stage and responding to “How was the show?” by listing off mistakes, problems, all the reasons it sucked, and how badly she played. A band mate had said to her “People don’t want to hear that” and suggested for her to share the good things about it. It was an important shift that she needed and benefited from. “In doing that, I actually started to enjoy the shows more! I unintentionally rewired my brain by doing so”.

Social Anxiety

As an extrovert, Booka shared that she still experiences social anxiety, despite those two things seeming at odds with each other. She had noticed how she would have a sensation of nausea before going out, at first putting it down to stomach uneasiness about a big night of drinking ahead. “In hindsight, I think it was a social anxiety that I was not identifying. I think I was having a physiological reaction. Because I’m an extrovert and I love being out and about and being around people. But especially before I knew who I was and because I was very susceptible to other peoples’ opinions of me, I think that was my body having a physiological response to emotions that I hadn’t actually identified that I was experiencing. ‘Oh my god, they’ve got to like me’. I didn’t realise there was an anxiety.”  Since feeling like she knows who she is as a person, Booka notices this sensation of apprehension about going out doesn’t show up anymore.

Talking more on the topic of extroversion/introversion, Booka shared the misconception that extroverts don’t like time alone, and similarly touched on the myth that introverts don’t enjoy being around people. “It’s not the case. I’m loud and I do silly things like wear wigs. I’m not a subtle person. I sometimes say I’m a drag queen stuck in a lady’s body. That doesn’t mean that I don’t LOVE my time alone. Oh my god, I’ve turned down many nights out to just sit at home alone and write music. When I get home from tour.. Oh my god! Let me just sit by myself for days on end. Sometimes I will literally go three days and just hang out in my bed and watch Netflix. It’s heaven. And it’s not that I’m feeling sad or anything. I just want to be by myself, but that’s because I like my own company now.”

Booka shared that she used to hate being alone, describing how she had no identity and craved being around people to “tell me who the hell I am, and reaffirm that I’m good, and don’t hate me please, because that will affirm there’s something wrong with me”. Now thoroughly enjoying her time alone and feeling comfortable with “me, myself, and I”, Booka makes it clear that extroverts can enjoy time alone, and introverts can enjoy being around people.

Wondering out loud where I personally fit and how someone could define that to understand themselves more, Booka shared “It’s sort of more about who you are when you’re out. If you’re introverted, perhaps you’re the quieter person who likes to sit and have a conversation one-on-one with somebody. Whereas if you’re extroverted, perhaps you’re dancing around in the centre of the room, carrying on.”  Booka shared how within Make Them Suffer how there’s band members that are the ‘life of the party’ and others that are quieter, and yet they all enjoy being out and spending time with people.

 

YouTube Comments

Booka is endlessly grateful for the fact that negative YouTube commenters have appeared in her life when she is at an age where she is unwaveringly certain in herself and who she is, and doesn’t look externally for approval. While unaffected by it, she found the whole concept really strange. “I realised that if you’re the kind of person who sits on the internet talking shit about other people that you’re probably kind of cooked. And I really don’t value or take seriously anybody who has that as a hobby.”  She’s grateful to have people in her life whose opinion she respects, and looks to them and definitely not YouTube randoms.

Booka mostly feels sorry for commenters who are clearly troubled, but also empathises with younger musicians being confronted by this harsh/extreme feedback and the potential rollercoaster of taking these sentiments on as their success or failure. “It would be very different if you were starting out in a band at 18 and feeling great about yourself when you read a positive one, and feeling really badly about yourself when you read a negative one.”

She likens releasing a piece of music to releasing a part of yourself, and just doesn’t pay attention to comments who attack it. Preferring to consider opinions of reviewers when it comes to Make Them Suffer’s music, Booka sounded both amused and perplexed about the idea of someone “sitting on YouTube raging at how shit a song is. A normal person just wouldn’t listen to that song again – that’s what we’d do! But if you have to go out of your way to write a big angry rant – What’s wrong with you? Just don’t listen to it again. Stop being so crazy and angry. Calm down. Do some meditation. Take some deep breaths. Go for a long walk.. whatever they have to do. Understand that that’s weird that you have to take time out of your day to write about your feelings on this song and how it made you so upset”.

Booka sends her best wishes to the furious commenters: “To all those people out there, I hope that when audio stimuli isn’t to the standard that you enjoy, that it makes you less angry in the future, because it can’t be easy being such an angry person. Good luck to you all. Thinking of you.”

Impostor Syndrome

Booka replaced Louisa Burton as keyboardist for Make Them Suffer in 2017. She acknowledged that coming in new, she felt inadequate and experienced ‘impostor syndrome’ a little bit. She was at that point not a professional musician and had come in to a well established band as a rookie. Owning this, Booka dubbed herself ‘Rookie Bookie’.

She continued to learn as she went, but did at times feel like she didn’t deserve to be there, that she wasn’t good enough to be there. For example, at her first show (in Belgium!), she was asked how her levels in the monitors were. “My response was ‘What’s a monitor?’. So like, that’s how rookie I was. I didn’t know how we heard ourselves on stage.”

She gave herself credit for being dropped into the deep end, and worked hard to be the best live musician version of herself that she could be. At first fearing that people would say “This chick doesn’t know what she’s doing” and then boo her off stage, this thankfully didn’t happen and she’s no longer scared.

As far as handling impostor syndrome, Booka puts a lot of it down to self-acceptance and owning flaws rather than hiding them or thinking of them as negatives. She takes the perspective of “I’m good at a lot of things, and I’m working on improving other things”. To Booka, this owning of shortcomings is a means of becoming insult-proof; “No one can call you out for something you’ve already owned”.

Booka recently demonstrated this in making a video about stringing a guitar to make fun of how bad she is at guitar (and then “fucked up really bad and tuned it so badly”). She takes the approach of laughing about it, and not taking yourself too seriously. Describing perfect as ‘boring’, reiterating that “Embracing your imperfect self has you unaffected by criticism.”

The Tortured Artist

From her early days of idolising Kurt Cobain, as well as her professional work with mental health, Booka is familiar as to how dark and tortured mental states can become an identity. “We’ve got a lot of artists that we love singing why they’re troubled and why they’re broken. It can really be worked into their entire identity; being this really tortured troubled being. When your whole identity is wrapped up in being unwell and having poor mental health, it can be really really hard to change that or to want to have any desire to change it.”

Because it has become an identity, it can provide comfort and safety to remain sad. “A lot of people don’t want to stop feeling sadness, because who are you if you’re not that person/that sadboy or sadgirl anymore? It was like how I wanted to find a reason to be totured because all of the artists and musicians I looked up to were broken. They’re amazing and how could I be like them if I was happy and adjusted?”

Over time, Booka has realised it’s not about being a tortured person, but more about being who you are and not trying to be anything else. “Feeling strongly can be perhaps what you’re about, as opposed to being a sad person. Feel intensely and feel strongly and embrace all of your emotions. They’re all functional.”

Booka reinforces that we’d all be robots if we did not feel our emotions. She also appreciates anger (as do I for its change-making fire!). “I definitely find it easier to write music when I am feeling sad or angry about something. Anger is super fun to write hate lyrics. It’s great if you channel it into something.”

To take a challenging experience and create something out of it is also something that Booka appreciates, considering dark music to be something ‘positive and beautiful’ to come out of something awful. “This wasn’t in the world, but now exists because of my painful experience. That awful thing that happened at least created something that I’m proud of.”

Really neatly tying Booka’s two ‘worlds’ together is the connectedness of music that has us know we’re not alone in feeling something. Put simply:

“Music has a really important role to play in our mental health and our emotions.” – Booka Nile

The Not-So-Glamorous Music Industry

When it comes to the music industry and mental health, we talked about the fact that something that might seem so glamorous can be very much not, but it’s just a matter of being real about it. “Sure, if you’re Beyoncé I’m sure it’s quite glamorous. But it’s long hours. On tour you get dirty as hell. I’m my grossest on tour and I’ve learned how to be someone who does not get creature comforts at all and can just rough it completely. It’s totally character building. There’s something really nice about waking up and being like ‘Ughhh this is gross, everything’s gross, everything smells like feet’. As weird as it sounds, it’s all part of the experience and just not glamorous at all.”

Booka has found people have put her upon a pedestal and she didn’t appreciate it at all. This is when things like impostor syndrome flare up for her at times, because the glorified version of Booka isn’t who she truly is.

Swiftly swinging between sharing pros and cons about her role, Booka talked about getting a lot of love and also a lot of hate, as well as misconceptions. “It’s the best thing ever but definitely not fancy. I don’t get foot rubs.” She says that to be in her position requires people to ‘develop a thick skin in order to handle touring and not go batshit crazy’.

Creative Breaks (and Break-Ins!)

As a creative who finds it easy to get stuck on a roll of creativity while everything else around me falls apart, I was keen to hear from Booka as to how she handles this for herself.  It was nice to hear it’s not just me. “It’s something I struggle with. I lose entire days sometimes. If I’m on a roll with something, I’ll look up and oh cool.. nine hours has passed and I have to be up in four hours for work.

“Sometimes I just go with it. If I’m on a roll, I’ll just go with it because I don’t know when my next roll is going to come along. I just need to embrace it. But I am also mindful that music is not the only important thing in my life and that I don’t want to go to work, say at one of the psych hostels. I don’t want to go there on an hour’s sleep, because that’s going to affect other people. I’m not going to be able to give people that I’m there to support the best support that I can give them if I’m a total wreck because I’m fulfilling my need to be creative.”

Booka says that she sets alarms for herself when she’s on a creative binge, and particularly does so after a scare she had. Shontay (Booka’s best friend) was in Bali and had sent her a text message around 2am on a Monday night. “It kind of snapped me out of this trance I was in. I took my headphones out. I started to reply to her and I heard this thump noise. I look outside and there’s a man on my balcony, outside my bedroom. And we make eye contact and at the same time lunged for my door which was unlocked. I managed to snip the lock closed as he went to pull the door open. He knew I was in there. He saw me, he didn’t leave and kept trying to get in. He brought a ladder to my house and climbed up onto my balcony. I’m on the second storey, right?”

There in the recording studio, Luke was also listening in (with Shontay) and couldn’t help letting out a “What the FUUUUCCKK”. Booka was understandably shaken by the experience, and shudders to think what might have happened if she hadn’t received Shontay’s message. As it turned out, it was only by coincidence that the message had even happened. Shontay added: “I’d gone to bed and was going to go to sleep. I was like ‘I just can’t sleep right now’, so I just got up and then messaged her.”

But as well as the experience of being five hour’s late to a friend’s surprise birthday party because of a ‘big writing hole’, Booka is well aware of needing to stay relatively present while creating. She doesn’t want her love of writing to have her let other people down. And ultimately, she knows that the creative roll comes back. “It always does. It might be months before it does, sure. But it will come back eventually. As well as that, if I’m spending too much time in my life trying to write, I get blocked.”

Important Contacts

At this point we’d spent a couple hours together and it felt like we’d covered so much. I left the studio feeling really excited to start the series and share it widely. Booka has been an incredible help, sharing so much knowledge professionally as well as being open with her personal experiences. We had even conducted some of this interview in my car when we needed to be quiet for the recordings. Glamorous indeed!

Booka has provided the following resources within Australia for anyone who requires them.

Headspace
For people between the ages of 12-25 and their families and friends. They offer an online chat and group chats as well as over the phone support. They also offer awesome services to young people with a mental health diagnosis. This is the link to their over the phone and e services: https://headspace.org.au/

Beyond Blue
Beyond Blue offer the same type of online and over the phone support service but with no age restrictions: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/get-immediate-support

Blue Knot
Support for adult survivors of childhood trauma there’s Blue Knot Foundation: https://www.blueknot.org.au/

Mental Health Plan
Those people who want to start seeing a psychologist in person can go to their GP and discuss their concerns with them and ask to be put on a 10 session mental health plan. This plan provides 10 subsidized clinical psychology sessions per year and your GP can refer patients to a psychologist if their not sure where to find one. People will have to pay the gap between the subsidized payment and the hourly rate of the clinical psychologist but it usually doesn’t work out to be much more then $50 or so.

Emergency Support
Those people experiencing a mental health crisis (i.e. are at risk of suicide, are experiencing a psychotic episode or are in a heightened state of distress) can call 000 and be taken to hospital. This is actually an option that a lot of people don’t realise exists! Hospitals are for those experiencing mental health problems as well as physical health problems though. For those who are unsure whether hospital is necessary or not, they can call Lifeline 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 and ask for further advice. They have people working 24/7, 365 days a year across Australia.

[Image by Rowan Donohue]
Kel Burch

Creator and caretaker of Depth Mag, Kel uses her superpowers of empathy, word-weaving, and feeling everything deeply, to immerse herself in music before returning to reality to write about her experience with it.

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