For someone with the varied background of Helen Gillet, New Orleans, with its mix of cultures and musics, seemed like a natural place to call home. The 40-year-old singer, cellist, and songwriter was born in Belgium, raised in Singapore from the ages of 2 to 11, and routinely shuttled between the homelands of her Belgian father and American mother. She has recorded, toured and performed with musicians Jason Marsalis, Kid Koala, Dr. John, Arcade Fire, Steve Earle, Iron and Wine, Marianne Faithful, Psychedelic Furs, Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Summers, Jeff Coffin, Nikki Glaspie, Hamid Drake, Cassandra Wilson, Johnny Vidacovich, Ken Vandermark to name a few... She’s known for her eclectic palette – which includes avant-garde jazz, French chansons, funk, alternative rock, and the bohemian flair of the Velvet Underground. The core of her work is solo performance with live looping, layering cello parts and vocal lines. Rhythmic figures emerge with bowed or plucked ostinatos or a variety of rubbing and slapping on the body of the cello, then enhanced with melodies played or sung in her haunting alto. Gillet has performed at a wide array of venues all over the world including The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Festival International (Lafayette, LA), Copenhagen Jazz Festival and Hindsgavl Festival in Denmark, Nikodemuskirche Festival in Berlin, Mirano Oltre Festival in Italy, the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., MONA Mofo festival in Hobart, Tasmania, Darwin Music Festival in Australia and Lincoln Center in NYC.
The BTD Foundation sat down with Helen Gillet to discuss music, mental health, and various topics in between in a candid and thoughtful interview.
Describe your music in three words
Three words is really tough. Maybe it's tough because what came to mind was 'a sound archaeologist.' I know the elevator pitch is supposedly important in describing one’s music and I've tried a lot of things like 'the whirling dervish of the cello' because of my looping or ‘taking the cello on a joy ride’ but I like ‘a sound archaeologist’ It came out of an interview for the Boston Globe where I was talking about layers. Anyway I feel like that one's going to be more useful for a mental health conversation.
I like that. A sound archaeologist. You've also said you've studied anthropology. How do archeology/anthropology and music tie in?
Archeologists dig up layers of objects and weave together a narrative hypothesis. Excavating sound, and all the things that make me human is my practice as a musician. Hopefully I can weave it all together to make some music or art or whatever we want to call it.
Anthropology is the study of humankind, so it looks at all the different aspects: sociological, historical, physiological… of being a human being, regardless of where you come from, what you look like, how you live.
I thought I was going to go into ethnomusicology after getting double undergraduate majors in both Anthropology and Music. I had solid passions for music and for traveling, meeting people with different backgrounds because of my own experience being raised in Belgium, Singapore, Japan and Midwestern USA. I've always been very curious about the science of being human and the very open-ended college major also appealed to me. As an anthropology major, you study all types of fields, from language to science to sociology, psychology, philosophy, it's all in there.
After my undergraduate studies, I quickly realized ethnomusicology would confine me to a world of academia and I was passionate about performance and reaching people more directly.
I was looking to treat music kind of in the same way as this holistic field of anthropology. Even electronic musicians are human beings after all. There are no boundaries to what music is, especially in the world of jazz and improvised music. I used to joke about free jazz and how it's not free anymore. It can be just as formulaic as trying to learn any genre. If you want to improvise in a totally free manner, you're still within the constraints of your own experience and what you are perhaps imitating from recordings you admire... but if you let yourself explore all of who you are and let that live when you're in your music, when you're in the moment, that is joy, that is free. Happiness to me is taking whatever's going on within my being, putting it into my music, and letting that music go anywhere it wants to or needs to.
I guess the anthropology part of all this is embracing, studying and reflecting on all aspects of my nature as a human, including mental health and bringing those things to light through music, allowing yourself to excavate deeper layers of your own being and of the music that speaks to you or that you want to speak.
I remember when I went on my own historical jazz cello excavation through music stores, like the Chicago Jazz Mart looking for cellists in the genre, my curiosity exploded.
What made you want to pick up the cello and say 'Hey, I want to do that!'?
I was a very tall girl. I was just freakishly tall. My parents are both musical, and my parents, brother and I were watching an orchestra on TV, and they said, "What instrument do you want to play Helen?" All children in both sides of my parents families seem to have gone through the rite of passage of picking a musical instrument to study. I was lucky in that way. I looked around the orchestra; everyone was seated except for the bassists in the back standing up with these seemingly giant instruments. I thought, "Well, I am a tall girl." So, it seemed like the right place for me in this orchestra was in the bass section with the ‘tall’ people…which were just those standing up! We went to the music store… my mom, she loved her Jacqueline du Pre album on Vinyl and told me later she had thought, "Gosh, the bass is so close to the cello." - so had me sit down, hold the cello and then after a moment, I asked the store owner, “This is cool, but when do I get to stand up?" And my mom interrupted, and said "Oh, that'll come later". So, basically, my mom tricked me into playing the cello (laughs)
You know, she was kind of right. It's kind of the best instrument, plus I figured out later I could still play bass lines on the cello! I really fell in love with the instrument thanks to my amazing first cello teacher… a Phillipino cellist from the Singapore Symphony, she had me hooked. I was nine, and I loved the sound. It's an instrument that vibrates against your chest with a deep, rich and very human vocal sound. Then later, as I went through traumatic events in adolescence, I had my cello and found that when I practiced I would feel better. It helped me express a lot of the pain that I was going through without having to use words. In hindsight, this was a very useful tool for my trauma as many events took years to be able to process and put into words. That use of music is what made me realize, during college, that playing music was going to be with me my whole life. It continues to be a very therapeutic vehicle. I always feel better after playing a show.
Practicing allows me to focus in on one thing and do it over and over. You know, like reading a good book, or doing laps in a pool and jogging, just doing something repetitive and focusing on it and nothing else. Also expressing emotion through and instrument that sounds like a voice is great. I was really thinking about how a lot of times I'm singing in French to an English speaking audience who may not get what I'm saying but they can feel the intention. Even if you sing in the same language as your audience, everyone's going to get what they get out of it anyway. It sometimes doesn't matter what the words are…just the intention and knowing someone's emoting them sincerely. Even for me, my songs can and do change meaning and become like the mantra of the moment, defined purely by the unique singularity of each performance… all of its environmental qualities, emotions and intensities. The social, emotional and energetic aspects of music are just as important as lyrics, technique, tone and all that.
When I’m composing, sometimes the words come out first and then the music just takes over. Sometimes just a few words spark the music…
I've been thinking a lot about this idea… if you're anxious, or sad, or angry, or all the other "bad feelings", just exploring what they feel like, allowing them to just exist. The more you let yourself sit with these things, the more you allow space for creativity. It's like, "Wow, this feeling feels like this, and this and this". As you explore it, then you start thinking in metaphors and new ideas emerge. At least, my mind works that way, where the more I allow a feeling in, as uncomfortable as it may be, it leads me through this journey of allowing and knowing, craving and creating something…I tend to lean more on the piano while creating at times like these.
I think the creative process is healing because it is simply put an outlet, a place to process, explore, to accept and transform, reflect, challenge and let go. If you let yourself accept that you need to take care of these emotions that you're having and let them in, as scary as they may be, and allow yourself to feel them, to accept them, and not fight them or hide from them or numb them, then you can move forward in life. There's just so much beauty, music, visual art, poetry, literature, science, so much discovery and invention that comes out of the process of knowing yourself more and more and allowing that person to exist freely in the world.
Getting together and talking about your feelings just hasn't been as encouraged as it could be in our society, and ironically, in the culture of the music business. Unfortunately, we have the problem of toxic masculinity which has led to all types of people having roadblocks in allowing this self awareness/healing to exist. I do see a lot of change in the last decade, a move towards accessible mental health care and a destigmatization of the concept of therapy, and actively improving self worth and success amongst non white male musicians. More is needed, and hopefully more will continue to happen. Thanks to the BTD Foundation for doing your part!
Allen Toussaint once stated, "Music is everything to me short of breathing. Music also lifts you up not to be escapist, but to take you out of your misery." Reflecting on that sentiment, how has music gotten you through hard times in your life?
My mother, Christine, passed away six years ago of ovarian cancer. It was a big shock when she got diagnosed with stage four.
My mom was an amazing person and a great, supportive mom who encouraged my intellectual pursuits. My parents separated when I was 12 years old… and then divorced soon after but we were basically living with my mom, a now single parent, raising two kids through divorce. She held things together for us and also really relied upon us for support. I was always a very empathic, emotionally aware child so I did end up taking care of those emotional needs at a time where I needed some serious emotional support. When I went off to college, I was very excited and ready to go but was very worried about my mom being okay. She never remarried and I was always very concerned about her. She had four master's degrees, and she was doing fine in a lot of ways but for companionship, I think I had been very tethered to her so I was often worried about her.
In winter of 2014, it was a big shock to get her diagnosis one day and 2 1/2 months later, she was gone. It was very, very intense and I was just at the point in my career where things were really intense. I had a tour scheduled and was going to play a week of shows in Tasmania in the summer. She got diagnosed in December of 2014, and February 2015 she passed. I had two albums coming out that year and I didn't know how to finish them. For the first time in my whole career, I gave the complete 100% reins to my sound engineer, in this case Mark Bingham to mix a record without my input. It ended up sounding awesome, of course because well…it’s Mark Bingham!
I had a tour planned and was thinking, 'Do I cancel this or do I do it?' And I just thought, 'Mom would want me to do it.' So I didn't cancel. My first show was a week after her funeral and it was in Chicago, she was from there and that's where her funeral was. I thought 'I'm going to be a mess.' But a lot of the people that were coming to that show were my high school friends and my family. I thought, 'I think I just need to do this show and if I break down there's going to be people out there that love me.' I broke down no less than six times during the show, like full on weeping tears and it was the first and probably only time I've ever let that happen… I remember I just let myself sob. The first sob was the biggest and the hardest but people were like "We love you, Helen!". Then two or three songs in, I start crying again. The audience erupted with, "We're here for you!" and then I had a friend bring me Kleenex. Then a couple more songs, again waterworks, and then a friend said, "You want a whiskey?" I said "Sure!" 100 to 120 people came with me on this journey through the grief of losing my mom. That was very healing. I'm glad I did the show, allowing myself to be vulnerable.
As a performer, you're supposed to hold it together. I was trained as a classical musician and remember a couple times after bad breakups I had to perform and was thinking "I can't go on." My coaches said "Helen! Part of being a good performer is just taking all that energy and putting it through the cello, you're going to be great tonight, go out there play your heart out!” My New Orleans friend, neighbor and father figure Smokey Johnson used to say, he died 6 months after my mother. He used to call my name loudly to join him for a chat on my front porch and after telling him about my upcoming shows or recording sessions… he would say - “Lay in on ‘em” and “go get ‘em killa”
These few years were such a difficult time for me, with a few more great losses following the loss of my mother…I was dealing with what I learned through therapy as being called “complicated grief”… I was learning how to let go of expectations, how to let people help me and appreciating the blessing music is in my life.
My take on Toussaint’s sentiment as a musician is that it's such a gift, honestly, to be able to have a way to express oneself and share that gift with others.
What does the phrase 'Music for the Mind' mean to you?
I think about the book, "This is Your Brain on Music" and I think about neurology and music. I think about left brain, right brain hemispheres, and how music can connect those two. I also think about the metaphor that is music for the mind, of any therapy that you might choose in life can be like music for your mind, a way for you to process your feelings and get them out. Meditation, exercise, eating healthy, cooking, any hobby. Whatever it is you're doing with your life to feel better, that can be music for your mind.
We all need to take care of our minds. Maybe music is the part of your brain that allows you to process emotion. The mind is going to go and go and go and go and go as it tries to resolve every single problem, because we're neurotic, anxious human beings. That's how we've evolved, we started walking on two feet because our minds thought 'we have to solve this problem' …then as bipeds, we ran into many more problems and we're always trying to solve these evolutionary dilemmas. Left unchecked, the mind can busy itself to the point of insanity trying to solve every problem…it needs a rhythm, a fluidity, a harmonic organization to let go on the neurosis and allow itself to get back into the body…then you can get back to the part of living that is not the cerebral cortex always trying to solve everything. Take breaks from computer screen time, get into your body. That could be music for your mind, whatever brings you back into the physical self. The body gets a bad wrap…as if it was the less intelligent than the mind.
What kind of coping skills have you been using? What do you personally use outside of music?
Walking. I love bike riding too, but walking is even better because of the bilateral motion. I also try to listen to and take care of my body because I beat it up quite a bit by being on the road and carrying all my gear, plus cello playing is repetitive motion and with that comes little dings, pings and pains. Yoga, stretching, meditation, breath, learning, listening and Self compassion. When things get really hard, and no one's around to comfort you, you can comfort yourself. It is possible. I think that's a skill I feel like everybody should learn. Eighth grade health class should include how to give yourself permission to feel your feelings and say, 'I'm sorry, you're feeling bad.' If somebody is making fun of you in eighth grade, and you have that shame or that feeling of like, "Oh, I suck". You can be like "I'm sorry, you feel like you suck right now. That's an awful feeling. You don't deserve to feel that way." Learning how to do that for yourself could alleviate some deficiencies in emotional support from family, friends, teachers… I certainly wish the previous generation before mine and the generation before that had learned some self compassion. I imagine we would all be carrying much less baggage.
I am so hard on myself and my internal dialogue can be so harsh… ‘why aren’t I finishing the things I have started?’ ’What’s wrong with me?’ etc.. It is a constant practise to quiet those negative voices and tell myself there is nothing ‘wrong’ with me. I am human, I have a brain that will always be neurotic so get back into my body, play some music, go on a walk… I can’t stress that enough!
There's not a day that goes by in my life where I don't think actively about mental health care.
As far as my challenges go, I had a family history that involved mental illness and I ended up taking care of both my parents at an age where I needed being taken care of. It's been a very difficult lesson to unlearn as an adult. My challenge is not to fall back into that role, that learned way of thinking… of being somebody who takes care of others and who falsely thinks that ‘I don’t deserve to be taken care of’ That remains a hard mental hurdle for me with the people I have around me in my life who do in fact love me and want to take care of me. I am blessed with many of these amazing people! I falsely think to myself, 'Oh, cool, you know, this is working' but deep down inside, there can be this feeling of, 'I'm never going to be able to count on anyone.’ That is obviously not true and have lots of people who have proven that false narrative wrong. But it is somehow always there because of how my brain was wired at such a young age. I was exposed to a family member with suicidal ideation and attempts for years as a child, and having suicide presented to me as an “option” or coping mechanism during such formative ages has no doubt affected me as an adult. Has left me feeling a void in trust that there can be a stable loving presence in my life. That’s a tricky reality to deal with… But like all traumatic events, it can and does get better with time and good help.
Useful tools …let’s get to that! I was lucky I found therapy early in my life. The good part about being an empathetic emotional human is I am transparent when things are not going well! I’ve been in and out of talking therapy at different stages of my life. I recommend trying many different things and seeing what works for you. I’m a big advocate for all types of therapy, talking is good, getting it out but also getting in your body! Getting a massage is great - it releases both physical and emotional pain as we carry a lot in our bodies. Whatever 'getting back into your body' looks like for each of us, I love a good dance party with friends, or just breathing… Turn off your phone - like COMPLETELY OFF - turning completely off is good for the phone too, not to mention us human beings! Sleep is so important. After your phone is off, sit with your breath until you can hear what your body needs. Then seek it out…tears, laughter, a good friend to talk to, write your thoughts, music, art, a film, party, cooking, whatever!
If you have a good music teacher, they tell you 'Don't worry about playing this passage you are struggling with for now. Work on this easier thing that will lead to you being able to play that other thing you are striving for' It's the same way with mental health care. If you're not comfortable talking about your struggles, mentioning abusers by name or you are not comfortable telling someone, 'I'm struggling with sadness, abuse, trauma and may have PTSD' if you're afraid of these words; there are still ways of being kind to yourself, and honoring the feelings you are having.
As we wrap up this interview, what are some final thoughts you'd like to leave with our readers?
In the music world, mental illness is still very much stigmatized. With social media, everybody is in the public eye and I think it's so dangerous to compare yourself and think, 'Oh, everybody looks great and I'm feeling like shit.' I mean, the truth is, everybody's feeling like shit at some point. It's really important to take care of that space and not feel like you're the only one going through it because you're not. We are led to believe social media portrays humans as they are, as if we are all granted the gift of being a world class biopic film maker or documentary photographer at birth… ha!
I know a lot of women musicians including myself who have struggled with sexism in the music industrial complex. That can lead to anxiety and depression. I have heard women say and have also at times felt this way — ”Well, if I start talking about sexism, then that's all anybody's going to want to talk about during interviews and I'm just trying to get my music heard, earn the respect and inclusion of my peers.” Yeah, well it’s important to know you are not alone, you are not crazy, and you deserve to vent, live life to the fullest and thrive! In short, go get ‘em!
To learn more about Helen Gillet, check out:
Official Website: https://helengillet.com
All photos by Jose Cotto for the Brett Thomas Doussan (BTD) Foundation.