Psychologist turned Songstress Miel de Botton reveals the links between her two careers.
She has such a busy performance life that few would guess that, for years, she conducted therapy behind closed doors.
Now, Miel de Botton breathes new life into her beloved French chansons – we caught up with her to ask about the relationship between counseling and singing.
You’ve been a clinical psychologist – and now gigging singer in your 40s. Why now?
I believe in following the ‘now’ of life. There was a moment for me to be a clinical psychologist and now all the doors have opened to me in my wish to be an artist, which is fantastic. Of course it does mean that there is a certain feeling of time pressure, but I think that if you relax into a situation the time pressure is alleviated and you actually perform better and thus gain time.
Some people emphasize ‘talk therapy’ but can too much talk be tedious? Does music itself sometimes resolve our challenges without talking?
I think an essential element in resolving our challenges is having insight. The insight that one has into a certain situation, that ‘ah-ha’ moment when you think, ‘Oh, that’s what happened with this person’. Now, that can happen in talk therapy and it can happen listening to music.
But you’re feeling the call to music now more than psychology?
I definitely found that at one point I’d had too much talk. Of course, music also has words, and I agree that sometimes it is best for the meditative process not to have words at all, but to have classical or ambient music; that way one is not distracted by words but can fully let go into the melody, which is a very freeing, relaxing thing to do.
So Music IS Therapy?
It is really a very personal question; some people find that they are better sorting things out with a therapist one-on-one and some people can actually talk for years without effecting any change because they are not opening themselves up to insight and emotional vulnerability. Music can be a very freeing exercise but, again, one has to be open to change and open to vulnerability.
Do you think that by singing you are actually performing a psychological function in a better way than when you were counseling?
The process is very different for both careers. As a therapist you put yourself much more in the background, although obviously you have to be very active in your listening and you do put aspects of yourself in the process. In singing, for my personality, I feel more fulfilled being able to give more of myself and hoping in a very natural, free way that people will resonate with the emotions that I felt and that I have expressed.
Let’s move into the psychology of fear – a reality for most of us who attempt a performing career. What are your biggest fears?
That I am putting a lot of time, effort and money into it and, of course, I do wake up in the middle of the night thinking “are people going to like this?” and “am I going to reach them?”
Singing is such a vulnerable act – there is no inanimate instrument to hide behind when facing an audience. How do you handle the self-doubt?
There is the mic – an inanimate instrument that does help me to feel supported! But generally on stage when I get nervous I think about what my healer said to me, which was:
This is not about you. It is about reaching out to people, healing people, so just do your best.
There’s fear in live performance and in the studio – are they the same fears?
I would say that there are different fears in live performance and the studio. In live performance there is an unbridled, uncontrolled fear that suddenly jumps on your back and you have to control it any way you can, by breathing and staying connected as I explained before. In the studio it is a much calmer situation and I think the fears are generally about perfecting the songs to the best possible standard, which means singing them again and again – but not too many times or you risk losing expression due to tiredness.
What strategies do you employ on stage to release your best performance – self-talk, a talisman?
Of course, I have many strategies before I even get on stage, which are having a healing massage, doing some stretching exercises, eating protein rich food, having vocal coaching and having as much rest as possible.
What about on stage?
It is funny that you talk about talismans because I actually believe in the power of crystals – it may be a placebo effect, but I do find that there is as difference in the general grounding feeling that I get when they are present.
What about strategies in the studio?
I make sure that I have plenty of food, typically chocolate (85% cocoa), nuts and water. I generally have my two vocal coaches present for support and intervention if needed. I make sure to ask for breaks when I need to as I know myself and when I am feeling tired and I want to make sure I stay productive.
What advice do you have for young artists who find themselves paralyzed by fear?
Fear is something we all have to overcome daily in the music industry, or in anything one is facing or doing in life. I would suggest a spiritual route. Thinking of what one is doing in universal terms, not in narcissistic terms of ‘who am I?’, but thinking, ‘what can I give to the world that is going to be useful and beautiful?’
How does this strategy work?
I think positivity is crucial, down to every word that is used in one’s life, so not to concentrate on words like ‘fear’ and ‘doubt’ but instead on ‘trust’ and ‘faith’ and to always have that transformative process going. It is amazing how well it works in calming oneself and also in projecting a calm and confident image to others.
What is your final piece of advice for artists wanting to share their music?
I think enthusiasm is a big part of success. I always find that when I have been very enthusiastic about projects, doors have opened because people have thought, “wow, that does sound like an amazing idea and this person seems really engaged and we want to help because it must be a worthwhile project”. I think asking is always a good strategy; asking people around you who love you, especially those closest to you, for help. I find that all the doors that have opened for me are because of the people closest to me, who had resources that I had no idea about.
Miel de Botton, sister of the philosopher Alain de Botton, is a former clinical psychologist and therapist turned singer/songwriter. She extols the healing power of music.