Healing Creatively with Music : Interview with Katherine Redlus
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
For this month’s “I AM” Interview, our founder, Yuko Kudo, connected with multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Katherine Redlus to discuss alternatives to the suffering artist narrative, developing a strong mental foundation, spirituality, doubt, and so much more. The full interview is below!
YUKO : Your article for The Soundshop, "Rethinking the Narrative of the Suffering Artists," speaks to so many artists, especially in New York. It was so beautiful. What does "Mental Wellness" mean to you?
Katherine: To me, it is similar to building a skyscraper in NYC! Just like a skyscraper needs a strong foundation and a resilient structure, the same goes for our minds. To cultivate true mental wellness, we need a deep, strong mental foundation and a resilient mental structure that helps us cope with life’s many ups and downs. If you lose your temper anytime something unexpected happens, but you meditate everyday, something isn’t right! The core foundation of mental wellness is to have a mind that is balanced and healthy, and to do whatever is required to achieve that. For some, medication is required. For others simply developing healthier practices like meditation, exercise, eating more whole foods, etc. is enough. I’ve found a combination of eastern and western approaches has worked very well for me, but everyone’s practice is different.
I like the term “mental wellness,” because I think we need to continue de-stigmatizing medication and therapy. We’ve come a long way, but even among people who feel medication is fine for other people, they sometimes feel like it’s “giving up” to admit that they need it. Unfortunately, many of us (myself included), have turned to new age spirituality, getting lost in the trappings of green juice, tarot cards, and crystals, while our minds remains traumatized and unbalanced. To me, this is like spraying perfume on a septic wound - it’s making the wound smell better temporarily, but it’s actually making the wound itself worse. If you have experienced real trauma, there is nothing worse that treating yourself with “self-help.” “Self-help” is like performing brain surgery without wearing the correct prescription glasses - your viewpoint is so skewed that it’s impossible to do meaningful work. After developing a strong mental foundation, there is nothing more helpful in ongoing care than cultivating your own mental resilience strategy (which may very well include new age spirituality and green juice!).
Developing that foundation requires a period of trial and error in terms of what works for you. There are so many different types of meditation and healing modalities. In terms of a basic starting point, I advocate for meditation (of some type) and journaling. As a bonus, it’s very helpful to develop an “emergency plan” for what can trigger you to spiral. For many people, this might be a bad audition or performance. What can you do if that happens? Create a framework to help yourself recover and thrive before that happens.
YUKO: You mentioned that "There's a distinction between using your pain and letting your pain use YOU." A lot of artists translate that into "If I'm not suffering, I'm not making good art". That very idea of "Struggling artists" has been ingrained in our body generationally, culturally and historically at this point. Even in striving to create. So can you share why you create?
Katherine: One of my main concerns when I went on anti-anxiety medication was that I would lose all my creativity. I truly believed that my “illness” was fueling my art and that I was doomed to feel some combination of depression and anxiety forever - just because I was a creative person. Post-medication, I realized that I create music for the same reason that I breathe - because I must do it to survive! In terms of processing pain - both culturally and individually, I believe art is an alchemical process that transforms pain into beauty. I think you can either let your pain eat at you from the inside, take it out on others (which is how pain gets passed on generationally) OR release it into beautiful art that brings joy to others. Suffering doesn’t make you a good artist, but your response to that suffering can make you a great artist. It brings to mind one of my favorite quotes by Mark Twain, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” We can decide to hold onto suffering, or let it be used up in our art.
As natural empaths, we are also sensitive to pain everywhere. I am a vegan and an animal rights activist, and if I allowed myself to, I’d be in bed crying every day. Instead, I use my empathy as a force to do something better in the world. To make a difference.
We all have different and unique types of inherited and cultural pain. The good news is, we get to decide how to respond to our pain. Your life is your statement of what you believe, and your art is your response to how you feel about those beliefs.
Yuko :"Perfectionist and over-achieving" that's something you speak about. How do you overcome your self-doubt? Are there any tips that you can share with fellow artist?
Katherine : This is such a big one for all of us. My big “breakthrough” was realizing that I will never, ever stop doubting myself and being a perfectionist - it’s just one part of me, and that’s OK. For the longest time, I held onto this illusion that with a certain degree of success, I would stop doubting myself altogether. What a joke! Now that I’ve realized these negative voices never go away, I have had to change how I interact with those parts of myself. I’ve learned to understand my perfectionist/self-doubting tendencies for what they are: a fear voice that is desperate to keep me safe and protected. Fear serves a useful role - it helps us prepare better for performances, go the extra mile in creating better products, and prevents us from doing all sorts of harmful things.
The problem arises when we let our fears run our lives. I personally love how Elizabeth Gilbert writes about fear in her book Big Magic (and if you are struggling with this issue I highly recommend it). She says something along the lines of “fear can come on the road trip, but it doesn’t get to decide the route or pick out the snacks.” Somehow, viewing fear and self-doubt this way, I am able to greet those voices with a lot more love and understanding.
YUKO: Your journey with mental wellness and spirituality started rather early, I believe that was as a teenager. How important is it that we start educating artists to take that journey holistically? And what do you think the benefit of doing so as a community?
Katherine: It makes all the difference in the world. I’ve known so many people who quit doing whatever their art was because of crippling anxiety, depression and living a life out of balance. It’s sometimes easier to turn on your art and lash out at it in anger instead of to deal with what is actually going on inside. The issue is that being an artist demands that you mine the depths of not just your own pain, but other pain as well - you actually need to be very healthy mentally and physically to do this as your job and thrive in life.
I believe that mental wellness needs to be explained as a mandatory component of any arts education program or practice. In terms of approaching it as a community - there is so much power in positive “peer pressure” and people realizing they aren’t alone in whatever they are dealing with. If we build a new culture in the arts that is dedicated to mental health and wellness, the barriers of “no one will understand” and “I’ll be ostracized” begin to fade away very quickly.
Yuko : Last question: "I believe art is the closest thing that humanity has to actual magic". That's such a beautiful sentence. Why is it important for you to share about mental wellness through your music? And what magic are you creating now?!
Katherine: I wanted to create an album about my own journey from darkness into light to encourage others to go on their own journey and to feel less alone in the process. My own experience of unlearning all of the negative beliefs I’d accumulated over the years about myself, as well as developing higher quality thought patterns was pivotal to every good thing currently present in my life. It’s so important to me that people understand that everything begins in the mind - for better or worse.
We all face difficulty, but my hope is to help people realize how much agency they have over their own lives regardless of their circumstances. I hope my songs spark the desire in people to question what they think and to question whether or not those thoughts are helping or hurting them. We have so much more control over our minds than we realize, and if anything I’ve written gives someone the chance to pause, reflect and reconsider - then it was all worth it.
More recently, I’m doing more writing and speaking and I’ve started a bi-weekly blog on my website about all of these topics. I’m so thrilled with the conversations it has sparked in my growing community about how we can lead better, healthier lives. I’m starting to perform my album a lot more this summer and fall and hope to spark some joy and thoughtfulness in the music scene here in NYC as well as connect with more people in person. Long-term, I’m hoping to create a concert-speaking hybrid event around spirituality and wellness. We’ll see what happens!
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You can next see Katherine Redlus live on August 27th, 2019 at Pianos - 8pm in Manhattan, NY.
Katherine Redlus is a NYC based singer-songwriter, speaker and writer that works with electroacoustic harp and electronics. She released her debut dream-pop/avant-garde album, BRUTAL WALTZ, on January 21, 2019 after having successfully funded the project through Kickstarter in 2018. Her first single off the album, “Kingdom Come” premiered on Our Culture Mag in 2018, and was featured on the radio at Hot 103.9 (SoCal) Local Artist Spotlight. Her second single, “Welcome Home” premiered on Atwood Magazine. Recent performances include The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where she performed a large private show of songs off her album and gave a speech about her mental health journey. She has also performed at RISE in NYC in collaboration with Einnovations & The Soundshop this past spring and summer. In addition to performing, she continues to blend her unique combination of writing, speaking and performing to raise awareness around mental health and wellness. You can find her and join the VIP community to receive a free download of her album and bi-weekly blogs dedicated to the intersection of spirituality, creativity and mental wellness at www.katherineredlus.com.