Booka Nile: Making Music From Suffering

Booka Nile’s love for music and for the human psyche seem to come as a twin pair.  Completing a psychology degree saw her explore how humans cognitively process music and melody via her thesis, and her role as management of a psychiatric hostel gave her the opportunity to run music therapy classes for residents.

Though she no longer manages the hostel due to demands of touring with Make Them Suffer, when we spoke with Booka in 2018 for our Women In Music series, she had revealed a project she had been working on at the time with some residents of the hostel. She was recording music with them, describing the process as deeply rewarding.  This project seems to have blossomed further, because she and Asher Iriks (formerly of Good Doogs) are now helping people feel better by making music via their Sonic Minds business.

As someone who lives by the stance of “We regret our inaction far more than we regret our action,” it was a series of events that occurred for Booka that eventually led to Sonic Minds coming into existence, AND it seems to be continuing to snowball positively as time goes on.  The project was initially sparked by the COVID-19 related cancellation of Make Them Suffer’s EU/UK tour with After The Burial.  They’d managed to continue to play some shows, but soon enough, closures of venues and lockdown of cities prevented this from happening at all and they had to return home halfway through the tour.

It was a confronting time for Booka. Due to the risk of overseas exposure, she was forced to isolate for two weeks, and spent this time in the home of her grandmother, who had recently passed away. This in itself was confronting for Booka, being amongst her grandmother’s things as well as being alone, with family and friends only able to leave food at her doorstep.  Booka had also retuned home with symptoms of a cold, so especially couldn’t risk any contact. A visit to a COVID-19 test place confirmed she was safe, but she describes it as scary at the time.

“The thing that got me through it was music.”

Thankfully Booka’s music gear was there at the big empty house with her.  Booka talks about creating music as something she immerses in, to the point of losing hours of her day. She sees it as something positive in the way that it offers a means to “switch off from the world” and simultaneously be in the present moment with your thoughts and experiences.  The process of doing this also provides the gift of purpose, which might otherwise be hard to find.  In comparison to other methods of escape, Booka appreciates the way that creativity produces something from nothing. She says “There’s something so nice about creating something that never existed before,” something she’s extremely familiar with, given that both of her parents are writers.

Booka got thinking “What are other people doing to get through their days when they’re in isolation?”.  She says “I was aware that a lot of countries were in full blown lockdown and couldn’t leave the house and there’s curfews. That’s gotta be hard. What do they do if they don’t have that thing that absorbs them?”  The idea of Sonic Minds stirred.

In the process of finding her own comfort and escape in isolation by creating music, Booka began getting an influx of messages from people who were having a hard time. Not an unusual occurrence, given her openness when it comes to being a mental health professional, there were far more messages than usual, as well as some friends expressing their own struggles.  Due to COVID-19, impacts to businesses and jobs were resulting in lost or decreased income, while pressures of expenses like rent, groceries, and other living costs persisted.  There was also no certainty about when restrictions would ease, no clear direction from leaders, and the lack of a metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel was further cause for anxiety. “I was like ‘Oh my god, everyone’s just falling apart right now. This is wild.'”

Considering that Booka had found her own joy and support in music in a challenging time, she had wondered how to bring that to others in the form of some kind of service.  She was further motivated by the fact that she was financially in a difficult situation after the tour cancellation, which resulted in a loss of money Make Them Suffer.  She says “I’m just a flaky musician; I don’t have savings, I live like a gypsy.  I just didn’t anticipate the situation when I got home”.

Due to the quarantine requirements, Booka couldn’t work for several weeks, and even when she could return to work, she wouldn’t be getting paid for several weeks after that.  Looking down the barrel of five weeks of zero income and nothing to fall back on, and not wanting to lean on her parents, Booka says she was like “Okay, what do I have now that I could do right now, that I could indoors that could make me money?”.

She made a post on Instagram and was open about the way COVID-19 had “derailed” her financially, and listed some things that she could offer, such as writing a song for a fee or doing an online meet and greet.  This went surprisingly well, with Booka saying “I had so much support and I ended up being totally fine because people are amazing and they want to support people through hard times, I feel. And also there seemed to be a genuine interest and demand for the things I was offering.”  With obvious demand, she forged ahead with creating songs with interested parties, using her therapeutic skills in the process.

Eventually this involved Asher, whom Booka invited to the project to work with her for multiple reasons. “He’s had a really rough trot,” Booka explained. “He’s got a lived experience of mental illness, which is why I felt like he’d be really good to do therapeutic songwriting with me. He understands suffering and he understands and knows that music has got him through some of the hardest times of his life.  That personal understanding is very valuable, also he’s a freak of nature.. He’s so talented at songwriting.”

According to Booka, Asher grew up in a very musical family. He was the youngest of 13 children(!), and had dropped out of high school in year nine because all he wanted to do was music.  In his own extremely difficult circumstance, Asher too had leaned on music. There had been an allegation made toward him, where he was referred to as a “pedophile rapist”, which was eventually retracted and proven to be false, but the experience had had a devastating impact upon the musician.  Bullied online, Asher had been afraid to leave the house, and he’d lost his music career and everything that had mattered to him at the time.

Booka had worked to support Asher and help him to get his life back on track. There was a period of time where he couldn’t even touch his guitar, and it had seemed that music as a whole was lost for him. It was so bad that Booka says “I was genuinely waiting to get that phone call, like ‘He’s gone. He couldn’t handle it.’ Because he was physically ill from it. He was throwing up in the first weeks because of the distress and everything.”

“What got him through is music.”

With the retraction of the allegations made clear across media outlets, Asher’s solo music was then more acceptable to be played on Triple J, as well as him having learned lessons of ego and wanting to help others who are in similarly devastated or hopeless places. He is able to do that through Sonic Minds, which combines his love of music with a desire to help people who aren’t in the greatest place. Booka says “It’s a really nice outcome. That for me is really lovely after having watched him go through that last year.”  Booka had invested a lot of herself in helping Asher through it. She had also formed the band Internet Friends with the bass player of Good Doogs as a means of “Your music career is not over,” for her friend, and is happy that they’ve both gone on to do good things.

While Asher doesn’t have much musical training per se, Booka spoke about his ear for music, regardless of genre. He was originally on board in the role of mixing for Booka, and doing other things that she wasn’t capable of.  Recognising how good he was sparked the question of “Maybe he should be a part of this…” and led to deciding to make Sonic Minds into a business with her.

As Sonic Minds, the two now work with clients all over the world so far who have got in touch after seeing posts on Instagram. It’s all conducted over Skype, and though the subject matter that tends to be explored are serious or traumatic experiences, it’s generally lighthearted, such as the unofficial requirement to wear a ‘dumb hat’. “I don’t even know how it started, but it was like a ‘No hat, no play’ rule, so now we have to wear hats during the sessions. It’s so funny, because the sessions will start and we’ll call them and they’re already wearing a stupid hat. It makes it really nice.”

Not everyone wants to go into personal or heavy territory when it comes to creating music with Sonic Minds though, and Booka says some will feel that that they’re in a good place and just want to “make a banger”.  But so far the majority of people have channeled what’s going on for them and poured that into a piece of music. Describing it as satisfying, Booka says that the reactions from clients about the positive impact the sessions have had on them is even more inspiring for her.

“Everybody deserves to be able to do music if they want to.”

Beyond a business, Booka expressed a desire to work with people to make music for free, using funding or crowdfunding to support herself and Asher.  They aim to use their experience and that funding to release music as Sonic Minds on streaming platforms and on Triple J Unearthed.  Reflecting on her own earlier days as a musician and the mystery of getting music to the point of release, Booka says “I used to write music and have no fricking clue what to do. It was kind of a daunting thing. That’s part of what we’re offering as well, if people feel comfortable with that.”

Growing more all the time, Booka shares that Sonic Minds has partnered with Outside The Locker Room, which is a mental health charity run by former AFL player Jake Edwards. She says “He loves music and loves heavy music in particular,” and that he got wind of Sonic Minds and immediately felt like “There’s something in this.”  Booka says they are keen to have Jake’s knowledge of operating a mental health charity on board, especially when it comes to funding and opportunities, which includes eventual face to face work.

Our conversation returns to the benefits that the experience of creating music can bring to someone, and there’s a romanticism to this as well as real world benefits that are grounded in research.  Booka says “When you play it back to them, they’re just like ‘Oh my god, that’s me?’ and they feel so good about themselves. I’ve seen just the most incredible things happen from working in the psychiatric hostels that I work at and what music has done for some of those people that live there has been phenomenal. It’s increased their confidence. It’s increased their belief in their own abilities. There’s such a sense of pride and accomplishment that comes at the end of listening to a piece of music that they’ve written.”

This sense of pride and accomplishment is more important than ever when the state of isolation can mean a loss of identity occurs with the loss of a job.  Booka says “A lot of people self-identify based on their job, and if you lose your job, then who are you and how do you see yourself in the world? The whole thing is ‘Okay, we’re doing music now and that’s going to be the primary focus.’ People get really into it. Like REALLY into it. They’ll be sending us pages and pages of lyrics, or seven minutes of guitar that they’ve tracked. They love it. A lot of them have really taken to it. I get it. I get obsessed with writing music myself. And if I didn’t have music, I don’t know what the hell I would have done through isolation. I really didn’t get too lonely or anything like that because I always had this outlet and this thing that I really loved doing.”

“My suffering wasn’t for nothing because out of my suffering came this little piece of music that wouldn’t have existed without my going through that.”

For Booka, the beauty of making music is the idea of birthing something great from the void that seemed to be there in an extremely difficult situation. The process of creating a piece of music is an opportunity for someone to take a story or a battle and turn it into sound.  Booka describes it as “externalising inner pain” and that it’s “almost like having a baby”, in that someone has “creating this thing from nothing except from your own mind, and that’s really special.”

Other beneficial factors are the connectedness that can come from working with others on the project, and perhaps the process of allowing others into your pain.  Keen to ensure people aren’t thrown into the deep end of talking about their problems, Booka talks about the process, and how there’s an initial ‘banter period’ beforehand. Chatting online or via email, there’s a back and forth discussion with the person about what they’re after, and this experience breaks the ice.  If lyrics are sent through, there can be discussion about these also before the first session.

The first session opens with ‘general chit chat’, which typically is oriented around isolation and the current state of things. Inviting them to open up, Booka will also open up about what’s going on for her so as to inspire comfort. She says “I can’t expect people to spill their guts to me if I’m not going to be an open book as well.”

Then talking about the song with the client, I loved Booka’s simple question and the unity in it: “What is our song about?”.  It’ll be then that she’s keen to understand the message in it and the story that they are wanting to share. This can be from the other side of a dark period they’ve been through, or may be capturing a current struggle. Between sessions, Booka and Asher will give homework tasks to complete, such as having clients hone in on melodies that they like, or picking songs that they enjoy to help with the direction of their own song.  Asher might play several different riffs and the client can pick out their favourites or make suggestions when it comes to speed or other qualities.  At other times there are people struggling with social anxiety who just want to provide lyrics. Sensibly, Booka shares that she proactively makes sure she’s not leaving clients devastated at the end of the session, and that people can message with any questions, but that the sessions are not intended as a substitute for psychotherapy for a diagnosed illness.

The therapeutic element of the sessions is the way in which the client works through their challenge with both lyrics as well as the instrumentation. Booka explained that the process of doing this can reduce severity of symptoms, and that the task to turn a challenge into art transforms it into something the client is wanting to spend time with, because it’s a tool.

Emotions that were felt by the client influence the song, and Booka is impressed that some clients come armed having already considered this kind of thing, saying “They’ve already thought about how their experiences would translate sonically”.  To consider things like chord progression, speed, instrumental dissonance, the client needs to think quite deeply about their challenge. In Booka’s words, they are “putting emotion into audio form”, and slowly but surely, a cohesive piece of music takes shape and form.  At that point of our conversation, Booka remembered the first time she ever recorded music with Make Them Suffer, and referred to it as a gamechanging moment.

Instead of the idea that a good songwriter needs to remain permanently tortured in order to create, Booka prefers to see songwriting as a tool for change. In situations where it’s hard to do anything at all, you can be in bed writing lyrics or humming melodies into your phone and doing something toward future change, instead of doing nothing at all and remaining stuck or sleeping all day.  This idea has been an important part of Booka’s own healing.

With this therapeutic songwriting idea growing ever bigger, Booka has found that Sonic Minds clients are inspired to help others, as in “I know how much this is helping me, so I’m wanting to help you guys to help others,” and donating a little extra. Helping others can also prove helpful in recovery, and Sonic Minds is becoming something of a community, such as in the Sonic Minds Family Facebook group.

Booka says “We’re hoping that Sonic Minds will be more than just a service, but that it’ll become like a community. Because interestingly, I think that people who suffer.. [laughs] ‘suffer’, that frickin word. I don’t want to make anyone suffer, I want to do the opposite. People who suffer often are the most kind and generous people. You see them suffering away and still trying to help others and it’s just so beautiful.”

Saying that her heartstrings get tugged a lot, Booka is keen to keep the community growing. As well as that, Booka hinted at artist collaborations down the track, where artists are keen to work on certain sounds or genres that Booka or Asher can’t nail for their clients.  It all seems onward and upward for this marriage of mental health and music!

Follow Sonic Minds on Facebook:

[Image courtesy of 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. [Loved the read? Shout Kel a latte.]

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.