Beyond art therapy: the studio helping neurodiverse musicians record, release and book shows | Music

MMusic has been “very special” to Nina Gotsis since she started writing guitar songs 15 years ago. The folk musician, who also plays drums, enjoys both the recording process and the performances — “it’s exciting when there’s a crowded audience,” she says.

Gotsis has Down syndrome, which prevents him from vocalizing. Before performances, she writes down what she will say between songs; sometimes she sings too.

Gotsis is one of 18 neurodiverse artists who write, record and stream music through Club Weld, a free program run by Parramatta’s Arts + Cultural Exchange (ACE) that pairs neurodiverse songwriters and musicians with established artists, who collaborate on their music and help develop their skills. Club Weld’s latest EP, What the World Needs, was released last week: six songs helmed by six neurodiverse artists, backed by Western Sydney Symphony Choir, River City Voices.

Musician Sam Worrad writes and performs with Sydney band The Holy Soul and Kim Salmon – and now, through his work as a host at Club Weld, with the Nina Gotsis Band. He was drawn to Club Weld as a non-therapeutic studio, which is primarily focused on music.

“Music therapy is great, but there’s a misconception that when a musician with an intellectual disability does something, it’s a therapeutic business,” he told the Guardian. “Went in mid-2015 one day for a jam, loved playing with these guys, and that was it.”

The program was originally developed for people with autism, but has expanded its remit to accommodate anyone with neurodiversity who wants to make music, including people with Down syndrome and brain damage. “The animators have some knowledge of clinical diagnoses, if any, but the studio is all about finding the best ways to work with individuals and make them feel comfortable – as any good studio would be,” says Worrad. “With a lot of musicians, there’s no reason to get into the clinical side of things. We just work together to find a way to give them what they need.

The sessions are led by neurodiverse musicians, who work at their own pace in their own style — but they all share an “unwavering tenacity,” says Worrad. “A lot of musicians here have had to deal with ableism; some places act like they are doing you a favor by booking you in. Neurodiverse musicians may also face some assumptions that they won’t need to be paid for their work, which is quite odd.

For this reason, he says, “a lot of people hadn’t had a chance to show their stuff [until Club Weld] …it’s also a great place for musicians to socialize, compare notes, and collaborate.

River City Voices in rehearsal with Club Weld artist Jerrah Patston (center), who has a track on What the World Needs. Photo: Grant Leslie

Gotsis was inspired to learn drums after seeing the Backstreet Boys perform live. A quick study, she caught the eye of Lindy Morrison of Go-Betweens fame, who invited her to join the long-running Junction House Band, a melodic pop group of intellectually disabled musicians, with Morrison as music director. Gotsis played with them for about 12 years, first on drums and later on guitar after teaching herself by watching DVDs. When the band fell apart, she was devastated and turned to writing her own ukulele songs.

At Club Weld, Gotsis was once again able to collaborate musically with industry professionals who could help with all aspects of music creation, from songwriting and recording to booking shows. Her debut EP Music Colors was released by Club Weld last year, and one of her songs, Frozen River – written for her mother – received the choral treatment from River City Voices for the What the World Needs EP.

Worrad co-wrote with her. “Nina shows me the lyrics, strums the chords, and I’ll sing until she likes the sound,” he explains. “It usually doesn’t take long, as the chords and words suggest the melodies.”

Toby Martin, lead singer of indie rock band Youth Group, also worked on Frozen River, which he describes as “really beautiful”. “[Gotsis’s songs] are so clear and pure and crystalline, in terms of what they’re trying to say. Nina has a way of stripping everything down to its simplest essence. It’s such a powerful thing,” he says.

Youth Group's Toby Martin performing with Nina Gotsis.
“His songs are so clear, pure and crystalline”: Toby Martin of the Youth Group performing with Nina Gotsis. Photography: Lyndal Irons

His upcoming album Art Colours, due out next year, is inspired by the natural world. “Near my house, we have a forest down the road. It’s beautiful, and I sometimes write about it,” Gotsis says. One song, Lord Howe Island, is about a swim in the ocean. “It’s a beautiful place. We got on a boat and I sat on the edge and put on a life jacket…years later I wrote it all down in a song because it was a special moment for me.

Until then, there’s the uplifting and symphonic What the World Needs, on which the musicians of Club Weld are joined by the River City Choir. Aria-nominated producer Chris Hamer-Smith painstakingly mixed hundreds of tracks from the 43 backing singers – “an incredible and sometimes horrifying experience” considering he had never recorded a choir before. But he loves working with Club Weld: “The artists approach songwriting from a refreshing perspective and with lyrics that I never would have thought of but are super cool…there are so many good artists .”

This Sunday, these artists will meet the choir for the first time to launch the EP in Parramatta – the culmination of an intense process for the choir, which overcame logistical challenges and blockages while retaining the authorship of each song. in the foreground. “It started a lot of conversations around neurodiversity,” says Sarah Penicka-Smith, artistic director of River City Voices. “I think it made us more accepting of each other’s little individualities.

“Programs for people living with neurodiversity or a disability are often categorized as art therapy, which is more about what the artist gains from the process rather than what the audience might gain from their art,” she says. . “I really hope that work like this helps people rethink that attitude.”

What the World Needs by Club Weld launches at the Granville Centre, Parramatta on 11 September at 4pm.

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