Beyond Art Therapy: The Studio That Helps Diverse Neuro-Musicians Record, Release, and Write Shows | Music

MGreat music has been “so special” to Nina Gotzis since she started writing songs for guitar 15 years ago. The folk musician, who also plays drums, loves the recording process and performances—”it’s exciting when there’s such a crowded audience,” she says.

Gottsis has Down syndrome, which makes it difficult for her to speak. Before performances, you write what you are going to say between songs; Sometimes she sings too.

Gotsis is one of 18 diverse neuroscientists writing, recording and releasing music through Club Weld, a free program run by Parramatta Arts + Cultural Exchange (ACE) which brings together diverse songwriters, musicians of the nerves, and well-known artists, who collaborate on their music and help develop their skills. Club Weld’s latest EP, What the World Needs, Released last week: Six songs led by six diverse band artists, accompanied by the Western Sydney Symphony Choir River City Sounds.

Musician Sam Ward writes and performs with the band Sydney Holly Soul and Kim Salmon – and now, through his job as a facilitator at Club Wild, with the band Nina Gutsis. He was drawn to Club Weld as a non-therapy-based studio, which is first and foremost about music.

“Music therapy is wonderful, but there is a misconception that when a musician with an intellectual disability does something it is a therapeutic task,” he told The Guardian. “I went on one day in mid-2015 for a jam, loved playing with these guys, and that was it.”

The program was originally developed for people on the autism spectrum, but has expanded its remit to welcome anyone with neurodiversity who wants to compose music, including people with Down syndrome and brain injury. “Facilitators have some awareness of clinical diagnoses when necessary, but the studio cares a lot about finding the best ways to work with individuals and make them comfortable — as in any good studio,” Ward says. “With so many musicians out there, there is absolutely no reason to get into the clinical side of things. We are just working together to find a way to give them what they need.”

The sessions are moderated by diverse, nerve-wracking musicians, working at their own pace in their own style — but they all share “unrelenting perseverance,” Warrad says. “A lot of musicians here have had to deal with ability; some places act as if they’re doing you a favor by booking you. Musicians with neurodiversity can also face some assumptions that they won’t need to be paid for their work, which is very strange.”

That’s why, he says, “not many people have had the opportunity to display their stuff [until Club Weld] … It was also a good place for musicians to socialize, compare notes, and collaborate. “

River City Voices in rehearsal with Club Weld artist Jara Batstone (center), who has a track on What The World Needs.
River City Voices in rehearsal with Club Weld artist, Jeera Batstone (center), who has a track on What the World Needs. Photography: Grant Leslie

Gotsis was inspired to learn drums after watching the Backstreet Boys play live. In a quick study, she caught the attention of Lindy Morrison of Go-Betweens fame, who invited her to join the long-running Junction House Band, a pop music group that includes musicians with intellectual disabilities, with Morrison as music director. Gotsis played with them for about 12 years, initially on drums and later switched to guitar after teaching herself by watching DVDs. When the group collapsed, she was devastated and turned to writing her own songs on the ukulele.

At Club Weld, Gotsis has once again been able to collaborate musically with industry professionals who can help with all aspects of the music industry, from writing and recording to booking shows. Club Weld released her first EP Music Colors, and one of her songs, Frozen River – which was written for her mother – received choral therapy by River City Voices for the What the World Needs EP.

Buddies are wanted with her. “Nina shows me the lyrics, plays the chords and I’ll sing until she likes how it sounds,” he explains. “It usually doesn’t take long, because the chords and the words suggest the melodies.”

Toby Martin, lead singer of the young indie rock band, has also worked on Frozen River, which he described as “really beautiful.” “[Gotsis’s songs] Very clear, pure and crystalline, in terms of what they are trying to say. Nina has a way of stripping everything away from the tiniest kind of substance. It’s a powerful thing,” he says.

Toby Martin from the youth group plays with Nina Gutsis.
“Her songs are clear, crisp and crystalline”: Toby Martin of the youth group plays with Nina Gutsis. Photo: Lyndall Irons

Her next album Art Colors, due out next year, is inspired by the natural world. “Near my house we have a forest on the road. It’s beautiful, and sometimes I write about it. One song, Lord Howe Island, is about swimming in the ocean.” It’s a beautiful place. We got on a boat and I sat on the tip of it and put on a life jacket… Years later I wrote about everything in a song because it was such a special time for me.”

Until then, there’s the high-profile “What the World Needs” music, in which the River City choir has joined forces with Club Weld musicians. Arya-nominated producer Chris Hammer-Smith mixed hundreds of tracks from the 43 choral—”an amazing and sometimes horrific experience” since he’s never recorded a choir before. But he loves working with Club Weld: “The artists come in to write songs with a refreshing perspective and with words I’d never thought of but so great…there are so many good artists.”

On Sunday, these artists will meet with the choir for the first time to launch an EP in Parramatta – the culmination of an extensive process for the choir, which has worked through logistical challenges and shutdowns while keeping the writer of each song front and center. “I’ve started a lot of conversations about neurodiversity,” says Sarah Benica Smith, artistic director of River City Voices. “I think it made us better at accepting each other’s little individuality.

“Programs for people with neurodiversity or a disability are often categorized as art therapy, which speaks 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 doing something like this will help people rethink this situation.”

Launching the “What the World Needs” program from Club Weld At the Granville Center, Parramatta on September 11th at 4pm.

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