The Parliamentary Big Sing: Speech by Melissa James
Posted by Admin
3rd Nov 2017

This is how it all started. This is why we are here in this room today. Though even as I say this, I realise the story begins before this time.

It started in early 2013 when ‘Live Again’ – the key song in question – was first born.

It was a really difficult time. For several months I had struggled as I watched the mental turmoil of someone very close to me who wasn’t accepting and acknowledging that she needed help. And still doesn’t. Questions were raised about what could be done.

I made phone call after phone call to various people and organisations to try to get advice: charity helplines, spiritual churches.

I even spoke to her GP but of course, without authority from her to do this, there was little he could say to me.

Nonetheless I relayed to him that I was worried for her. I thought she might be suicidal. A repeat of something that had happened before, when she had attempted suicide, was happening again.

His response: “Well, she has an appointment to see me tomorrow, so she doesn’t sound as if she will commit suicide.”

Months passed and she came out of her dark episode but there is always the worry of whether she will return. Not ‘if’ but ‘when’. And she has since. She still feels nothing is wrong, feels she is coping fine.

Fast forward two years and I was keen to make a follow-up record to my first release. I was facing my own frustrations as a musician and artist. At not being able to ‘create’. Not feeling ‘validated’. Or good enough. Not able to move forward. This was bringing me down.

Yet in spite of how I felt, my daily tweets and social media posts were kept up. As an artist the pressure to gain and maintain likes and followers can be immense. Not, thankfully, a pressure I subscribe to anymore.

Eventually I would make a recording of six songs, ‘Stripped Back’. Voice and guitar. Voice and piano. Recorded as live, with musicians that I was used to working and performing with. It was to be simple. Except, when that is the plan, it is usually not what happens.

Live Again was the song I thought would be one of the simplest to record. Yet it was the one that I liked least once recorded. I listened again and again pinpointing things in my voice, things that were being revealed to me about myself. This song. Its words. Which I thought had been written about the person I mentioned earlier.

Who was it speaking about really?

Some of the lyrics: “Can someone hear the screams inside me? I’m crying though my face looks smiley.”

My way has always been such that I simply pick myself up and carry on through everything. Struggle or no struggle. Challenge or not.

I had stopped listening to how I was really feeling. In fact, I had never learned to hear what my body and mind were saying to me. Yet somehow this song. With my own words. Was now speaking to me. The lyrics were resonating with me. The Stripped Back recording was finished.

A launch party was held. October 2015 was when it happened. I invited some of the amateur singers (some of whom are here today) who attended an a cappella singing group I run, to join me in performing at this event. They would sing simple harmonies on Live Again.

I remember clearly singing this song with these singers alongside and feeling the healing impact of that performance. Immediately I thought, as I was singing it, I want to perform this song with many more people, others with an empathy for, or an understanding of, what it is like to feel unstable mentally to form connection with others, connection with oneself.

I felt then the power the song could have when singing it with like-minded others, publicly raising our voices together.

February 2016 was when the first of these ‘Big Sing’ performances took place. I put a word out to find people who wanted to join me at Caffe Nero Heathrow one cold Saturday afternoon.

After the performance, I spoke to some of the 30 people who I was amazed had come. Many had stories: they work with youths with mental health issues; they had family members who suffered mental ill health; they themselves had mental challenges; they knew someone who had committed suicide.

I realised then that this simple idea that I had had - which was really more for my own healing - was actually really needed. And it was effective.

For the short time we were together, we had a powerful connection. It was life affirming. And beautiful.

Live Again was recorded Big Sing-style – with an anyone is welcome choir - at RAK Studios in summer 2016.

Around 20 participating professional musicians gave their time and energy to the recording, for mere expenses. Alongside them were members of the public who loaned their voices.

It was an incredible effort on the part of everyone. Mental Health First Aid (an organisation providing first aid training in mental health to organisations) contributed to the project. Caffe Nero donated stacks of food for everyone who came to the studio. Sainsbury’s offered a gift card that could be used to get drinks and other provisions (as they have done for this event).

It could not have happened without this assistance from everyone. And this is also why the project works for me: it reaffirms my faith in humanity. Everyone pitches in. And everyone in the studio got the aims of the project. The single released end of October 2016. And will re-release again next month.

SING4SANE is so called because all the sale proceeds from the single go to SANE. The project supports the work of this mental health charity, and I hope to record the song again but with youth singers this time. The Live Again Singing Project is also now emerging to continue some of the work of SING4SANE… and more. And I am so excited about the plans I have for it. I can now see the value in what the project is doing. It has helped me, and I also see that it can help others.

My final words now are directed to everyone. To make your mind your business. To be more mindful. Aware. To take note of how you think and speak of yourself. To consider your thoughts and your words towards others. Your environment, the company you keep, the food you put in your body, all play a part in affecting your mood and mind health as well as your physical body.

I also want to speak to those who might not feel that mental ill health is real. And those same believers could also be strugglers.

You might only see mental illness as real when someone is seriously “crazed”. Off the spectrum. Acting a bit “mental”, “schizo” or “psycho”. Those people we see in dramatic films, or hear about in the news. They might brandish guns or large knives, killing people. By this point, things have gone way too far. We might want them locked-up. Key thrown away.

But someone like this could once have been someone like you. And me. Perhaps there were signs that they themselves, or others, ignored. Perhaps they could have been helped. These cases are also extreme. They won’t be the story of the majority with mental ill health.

As a society, we do not hear enough about the depression that can rise from coping with the day-to-day. And we haven’t yet normalised how we can manage it. This means there can be little empathy for the challenges that can be faced as a result. We are expected to carry on.

When I am asked in media interviews, “What is your story? What led you to start this project?” the story I give is not enough. They love the sound of the project. Because it’s different. But my story? You can hear their thoughts in their voices. "So no being sectioned? No hospitalisation? No drug or alcohol abuse? No suicidal attempts?"

It’s not dramatic enough for them. The feeling of overwhelming exhaustion. The days when the simple act of getting out of bed feels momentous. Or just doesn’t happen. The listlessness. The anxiety. The real lack of hope. The palpitations. Not so bad. Right? And, I should add: I have had all these experiences over long periods – days, weeks, months, during the planning of this and other Big Sing events.

They form part of my pursuit, over the last two years to become better acquainted with myself, with past demons. Giving them their voices, listening to them, feeling the resentment and illness that they have caused. And making an attempt to let them go. All this can make coping with the day-to-day a mountainous task.

So I have learned to try to feel compassion. And to tell myself that, you know what; it is actually OK not to feel good today. So while not coping with the day-to-day may seem like no issue, no story. It actually is. And these little bumps that crop up daily act as a useful gauge. They can give us an idea of how we are likely to handle some of life’s more unexpected and tumultuous happenings.

So my question to the media therefore: Who are you trying to speak to? Your programme, newspaper, blog or magazine is surely not speaking to the select few? Surely you are trying to speak to a wider majority? These are the people who will relate to my story. Because it is more likely to sound like them. They won’t recognise themselves in the person who has made a mass murder attempt.

Life is difficult, yes. For everyone, yes. And each of us has a mind. Unless we can find better strategies to sit with and understand our thoughts and their influence on our actions, our reactions to things that happen, we are leaving our minds to roam wild without proficient steering or guidance. Like driving a car with no idea how to drive which creates mayhem on the roads, and in our lives.

It is why we get stressed, angrily react to other drivers on the road who slow down to stop at a light, or turn a corner, delaying us on our journey by… a few seconds. But we feel the problem is with them. Not with us. They are terrible drivers.

Without becoming mindful, without understanding our minds, our method for handling the storms that arise is non-existent. When we carry a jacket or an umbrella, we do so in the event rain that might come. When we lock the door to our homes, we do so in the case that someone might try to break in. But our prized possession. Our minds. The very thing that controls our every action, we pay little or no attention to it. Take few precautions in caring for it. We care more for our purchased things than we do for ourselves.

And while mindful practise, and ways of aiding our mind, is becoming more talked about and prevalent now, it is still largely seen as a bit “airy fairy” and “new wave”. But mental illness is real.

 So, as a result I now truly see the value in running this project. I see the power it has. And I see that our voices can become more powerful together - and apart – through group singing.

The project has helped me in learning to Live Again. More freely. Truthfully. And if it helps one other person to do the same then my job is done.

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