Beyond art therapy: the studio helping neurodiverse musicians record, release and book shows | Music

Beyond art therapy: the studio helping neurodiverse musicians record, release and book shows | Music

Making music has been “very special” to Nina Gotsis since she began writing songs on guitar 15 years ago. The folk musician, who also plays drums, loves both the recording process and the performances – “it’s exciting when there is a packed audience,” she says.

Gotsis has Down’s syndrome, which makes it hard for her to vocalise. Ahead of performances, she writes out what she will say in between the songs; sometimes she sings along, too.

Gotsis is one of 18 neurodiverse artists who are writing, recording and releasing music through Club Weld, a free program run by Parramatta’s Arts + Cultural Exchange (ACE) which pairs neurodiverse songwriters and musicians with established artists, who collaborate on their music and help develop their skills. Club Weld’s latest EP, What the World Needs, was released last week: six songs led by six neurodiverse artists, accompanied by western Sydney symphonic choir River City Voices.

Musician Sam Worrad writes and performs with Sydney band the Holy Soul and Kim Salmon – and now, through his job as a facilitator at Club Weld, with the Nina Gotsis Band. He was drawn to Club Weld as a non-therapy-based studio, which is first and foremost about the music.

“Music therapy is great, but there’s a misconception that when a musician with an intellectual disability is making something that it’s a therapeutic undertaking,” he tells the Guardian. “I went in one day in mid-2015 for a jam, loved playing with those guys, and that was that.”

The program was originally developed for people on the autism spectrum, but has broadened its remit to welcome anyone with a neurodiversity who wants to make music, including people with Down’s syndrome and brain injuries. “The facilitators have some awareness of clinical diagnoses where necessary, but the studio is very much about finding the best ways to work with individuals and make them comfortable – as any good studio would be,” Worrad says. “With a lot of musicians, there isn’t any reason to get into the clinical side of things. We just work together to find a way to give them what they need.”

The sessions are directed by the neurodiverse musicians, who work at their own pace in their own style – but they all share an “unmitigated tenacity”, Worrad says. “A lot of musicians here have had to deal with ableism; some venues act as if they’re doing you a favour by booking you. Neurodiverse musicians can also face some assumptions that they won’t need to be paid for their work, which is pretty strange.”

For this reason, he says, “a lot of people hadn’t had the opportunities to show their stuff [until Club Weld] … it’s also been a good place for musicians to socialise, compare notes and collaborate.”

River City Voices in rehearsal with Club Weld artist Jarrah Patston (centre), who has a track on What The World Needs.
River City Voices in rehearsal with Club Weld artist Jerrah Patston (centre), who has a track on What the World Needs. Photograph: Grant Leslie

Gotsis was inspired to learn drums after seeing Backstreet Boys play live. A quick study, she caught the eye of Lindy Morrison of the Go-Betweens fame, who invited her to join the long-running Junction House Band, a melodic pop group featuring musicians with intellectual disabilities, with Morrison as musical director. Gotsis played with them for around 12 years, initially on drums and later switching to guitar after teaching herself by watching DVDs. When the group fell apart she was devastated and turned to writing her own songs on ukulele.

At Club Weld, Gotsis was able to collaborate musically again with industry professionals who could help with all aspects of music making, from writing and recording to booking shows. Her first EP Music Colours was released by Club Weld last year, and one of its songs, Frozen River – written for her mother – has been given the choral treatment by River City Voices for the What the World Needs EP.

Worrad cowrites with her. “Nina shows me the lyrics, strums the chords and I’ll sing until she likes how it sounds,” he explains. “It usually doesn’t take long, since the chords and words suggest the melodies.”

Toby Martin, lead singer of indie rock band Youth Group, also worked on Frozen River, which he describes as “really beautiful”. “[Gotsis’s songs] are so clear and pure and crystalline, in terms of what they’re trying to say. Nina has a way of sort of stripping everything away to its very barest kind of essence. It’s such a powerful thing,” he says.

Toby Martin of Youth Group playing with Nina Gotsis.
‘Her songs are so clear and pure and crystalline’: Toby Martin of Youth Group playing with Nina Gotsis. Photograph: Lyndal Irons

Her next album Art Colours, out next year, takes inspiration from the natural world. “Near my house we have a forest down the road. It’s beautiful, and I sometimes write about it,” Gotsis says. One song, Lord Howe Island, is about an ocean swim. “It’s a beautiful place. We got on a boat and I sat down on the edge of it and put on a life jacket … years later I wrote about it all in a song because it was a special time to me.”

Until then there’s the uplifting, symphonic What the World Needs, on which the Club Weld musicians are joined by the River City Choir. Aria-nominated producer Chris Hamer-Smith painstakingly mixed down hundreds of tracks from the 43 choristers – “an incredible and sometimes horrifying experience” given he’d never recorded a choir before. But he loves working with Club Weld: “The artists are coming at songwriting from a refreshing perspective and with lyrics that I would never think of but that are super cool … there are so many good artists.”

This Sunday, those artists will meet the choir for the first time to launch the EP in Parramatta – the culmination of an intense process for the choir, who worked through logistical challenges and lockdowns while keeping each song’s writer front and centre. “It’s started many conversations around neurodiversity,” says Sarah Penicka-Smith, the artistic director of River City Voices. “I think it’s made us better at accepting each other’s little individualities.

“Programs for people living with neurodiversity or disability often get classified as art therapy, which talks more about what the artist gains from the process rather than what the audience might gain from their art,” she says. “I really hope work like this helps people to rethink that attitude”.

Club Weld’s What the World Needs is being launched at the Granville Centre, Parramatta on 11 September at 4pm.