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03 Apr 2023

Melissa James X SANE Spotlight

Singer-songwriter Melissa James has been a SANE ambassador since 2016. As well as producing music, Melissa works and volunteers in care homes, hospitals and communities, helping spread the power of music to people with mental illness.

In our spotlight interview, we reminisced with Melissa about her fundraising Sing4SANE events and found out what’s in her mental health toolbox. 

Melissa James joined SANE staff at our offices to catch-up.

Hi Melissa! Let’s catch up. How have the last few years been for you?

It was a really difficult time for me, not just with the pandemic but with the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. The impact of seeing a Black man murdered on camera, and really reflecting on that – and the aftermath that ensued – it was really hard. That time activated me and I became engaged with many likeminded others. Having the opportunity to share how I felt with others who looked like me and who were deeply impacted and affected by what had happened was a crucial part of me processing what was happening. It created a very supportive community with us all coming together. Even though this took place online, it was really powerful. 

In those moments of anxiety, what do you do to look after your own mental health?

Really, it’s anything which keeps me in balance and grounded as much as possible – whether that’s singing, walking, being outside, my mindfulness practice, meditation or yoga. Those practices are fundamentally important to me. It’s useful to have a toolbox, and I’ve built up a body of tools that have come from working with different people and engaging in different practices. It’s just finding a way to manage, because life throws all sort of things at you, and I can be just walking down the street and who knows what might stimulate me into a place of feeling panicked or fretful or unstable. Recognising I feel that way and going into my toolkit and trying to use those in that moment – that’s what helps me reconnect and steady myself.

Melissa performing at Rye International and Jazz Festival by Tony Ham

You mentioned how important community is to you. When you started the Sing4SANE events, we all felt a part of an incredible community. For those who might not be aware, please can you tell us how Sing4SANE started?

I was just going to record my songs for my second record, and in particular there was this one song, “Live Again”, which I had written a couple of years before making the record. I was running a weekly singing group and, as part of the album launch, I decided to ask the group if they would join me in singing backing vocals on this song, and they were completely up for it. So we performed it, and I just remember in the middle of that performance really enjoying the experience of having so many people singing together and simultaneously thinking, “I’m going to invite people to sing this song with me in a public performance”, it felt a bit crazy really! That was November 2015, and the first Sing4SANE Big Sing happened in February 2016.

The song you rerecorded, ‘Live Again’, is such a beautiful song. What inspired it and why did you choose to raise funds for SANE?

I had written the song, ‘Live Again’, about the situation of a close friend of mine who was going through a really mentally challenging time and it was just my way of processing the difficulty of what I was seeing her go through. But, in the process of recording that record I realised actually, this was a song that I was needing – I was writing about myself and my own challenges. Then, after deciding to record it with lots of people in a big sing, I remember thinking, “okay, but who would I be doing it for?”, and I turned on Desert Island Discs, and Marjorie Wallace was on it talking about SANE! So I looked SANE up and called the team – the rest all slotted into place.

Melissa performing at the Rye International Jazz and Blues Festival captured by Ryan Laity.

How has rerecording ‘Live Again’ or the Sing4SANE events helped people in these communities?

About 30 people came to the first Sing4SANE and the most powerful thing was that when they came they did share their experiences; they said the reason I came was because I struggle, or my sister, or my brother, or whoever. Even at my own gigs, people will come up to me and tell me how certain songs of mine have helped them. For example, someone came to one of my gigs and came and stood at the back, and he’d arrived late. So I carried on with the gig, and at the end he came up to me and said, “I’m so sorry I was late, my flight was delayed”. He’d flown all the way from LA because his secretary at the time hadn’t known he was suicidal, but she’d sent him two of my songs, and these two songs basically prevented him from taking his own life. And wow, when you hear a story like that, it just stops you in your tracks and helps you appreciate fully that what I’m doing isn’t just about me.

What else can we look forward to from you in 2023? Is another Sing4SANE on the cards?

Every time I think Sing4SANE has maybe reached a natural conclusion, something else comes and just speaks to me. Particularly now, having come out of lockdown I thought it would be a really good idea to organise a concert performance which culminates in a last performance of a big sing. I want to do something which enables people who don’t get the opportunity to be seen or heard, and it’s really important that I make the effort to engage with lots of different people and communities. So it’s bringing all of these groups together for one big performance, which I’m hoping will be early next year. Planning SING4SANE is such a huge event, and it takes up so much time, but it is really important for me to keep my own performances going as well so I will be scheduling my own concert performances around this.

Thank you Melissa for your continued support and positivity in fighting for mental health. Find out more about Melissa’s music and her upcoming gigs at her website Melissa James | Singer-Songwriter | Official Website.

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