We are thrilled to feature Ms. Irma Thomas as February 2020’s Music for the Mind Artist Spotlight campaign – and hope you’ll wish us in joining Ms. Thomas a happy February birthday! Read on to hear some of Ms. Thomas’ thoughts and experiences gleaned from her music career, mental wellness journey, and more.
How would you describe your music using only three words?
Well, it's difficult to describe what I do in three words because I don't sing any one particular genre. I enjoy singing songs that make sense, have a storyline to them…if it's not making any sense, I just don't sing it.
What was the earliest memory you had that made you think, “I’m going to do that”?
Well, honestly, there wasn’t one, because I never thought you could do this and make a living. I sung around the house, we sung to keep each other company, I sung to keep myself company. But, I never thought about it as something that you could do to make a living even though I'd be watching people on TV singing… I just thought those people had second jobs. Even when I started singing, I had a day job. I had kids to feed!
Speaking of hard work, you’ve had such a prolific career, with many honors bestowed upon you. But, you also worked to finish your associate degree over the course of almost 15 years, and you were a young, working mom at a time when that was frowned on. How have your life experiences influenced the music you sing, and vice versa?
Usually I'm drawn to songs that I can relate to in some aspect, whether personally, or with people I know. Maybe they were in situations that hit close to home, or I was around for them. And, of course, the time that I grew up in, so many songs relate to the events that were going on during this time. I suppose that would best describe how my experiences influence what I sing.
Allen Toussaint, who we know happened to be a dear friend of yours, once said, “Music is everything to me shorter breathing. Music has a role to lift you up, not to be escapist, but to take you out of misery.” With this quote in mind, how has music helped you through difficult times?
Well, it has helped me to keep from cussing my husband out! (Laughs heartily). But really, when I sing, I get my aggression out on stage and in the music. It helps me go back to the situation and be just a bit quiet. Because…if I say what’s on my mind, I would probably have been divorced a long time ago! (Laughs). Music has a way of being my therapist.
What are some other outlets or tools that you use to manage your mental well-being and your mental health?
Well, I’m very blessed to have good friends I can call, and let it all hang out. My faith has also been a large part of me being able to get through any difficult situation. I learned some years ago, that worrying won't fix it. So, I pray on it, and let it go. That has helped me a lot. I see people who are struggling that have handed themselves situations they can't control, which end up controlling them. And instead of realizing that if maybe they just won’t be able to control it, then maybe they are better off to let it go.
Also, I don't drink so I don't rely on any substances to relieve stress. Because, when you get through and sober up, the problem is still there. So, I believe it’s best to stay sober and solve the problem.
One thing I do want to bring up, coming from a female perspective, is how menopause can affect your mental health. I saw it with my mom, and at the time, she had no one to tell about how it was affecting her. If you’re in that stage of your life, and you don't have anyone who understands, you can wind up in an institution thinking you’re crazy. Watching my mother go through menopause, she almost had a complete breakdown, and she never really was the same after. So, for me, I believe it is especially important for women in their late 30’s and older pay attention to the mood swings. It’s easy to say the physical changes and the mental changes, in that time of your life, are from working too hard. And, you think you’re too young. Well, I was 41-years-old, and it was just the funniest thing because I thought this only happened to older folks. I even bring this topic into my shows now, with a song I re-titled, “Hold Me While I Cry.”
One more thing – I think it’s been important for me to be optimistic about the bad things have happened to me. I look for the good coming out of the bad, what lessons I can learn. I learned how to be a survivor early on in life, and that mindset has helped me to keep surviving.
What is a message you hope others receive, and have received, through your music?
Well, I'm told that I have gotten listeners of my music through some rough times. I’m glad about that, and that the key word is “through” it. If I got you through it, then I’m okay.
Irma Thomas is a legendary New Orleans-based vocalist and performer, beloved for such hits as “It’s Raining,” “Ruler of My Heart,” and “Wish Someone Would care.” With a prolific musical career, and a lifetime of achievements, Ms. Thomas continues to perform all around nation and record musical features. You can find more on Irma Thomas at:
Official Website: http://www.irmathomas.com/
Performance Dates: https://www.bandsintown.com/en/a/47776-irma-thomas
All photos by Jose Cotto for the Brett Thomas Doussan (BTD) Foundation.