DEMYSTIFYING SOUND HEALING: ALYSHA BRILLA ON HER ALBUM CIRCLE
By: Tia Julien | Art by: Michael Rancic
When I first listened to Alysha Brilla‘s latest album Circle all the way through, the concept of balm immediately came to mind. There’s a softness to the instrumental tones and mantra-like lyrics that act like a salve for thick skin, renewing what’s been weathered by hostile climates. In a phone interview with Brilla, we discuss the concept of sound healing and its place in the making of Circle. Beyond exploring the layers of instrumentation, vocal tone, rhythm, creative intent, collaboration, and production that all affect the listening experience, our conversation addresses Brilla’s desire to create healing music for herself and the broader public that is both accessible and moving.
Brilla is an incredibly thoughtful, self-produced female artist on a mission to promote healing through music. She is internationally active, producing “Overcome” in 2020 with four other international female artists, representing Canada in Midem Artist Accelerator in Cannes, France in 2016, and winning UK Songwriting Contest Co-Writing prize for her song entry “Never Gonna Get Me Back” in 2015. Brilla is a three-time Juno Award nominated composer, writer, multi-instrumentalist, and participating member of Keychange, an international movement advocating for an inclusive and equitable music industry for all genders. Circle is the latest of four full-length albums since 2014, and several EPs and singles since her teenage years. Unique within her rich discography, “[Circle] has been the most rewarding one because I created it with the least amount of thought or concern about its outcome[…]beyond it just coming out and that being the goal,” Brilla says. The stress of the pandemic contributed to a uniquely difficult time for artists who could no longer perform or collaborate, which contributed to the process of introspection and experimentation that went into Circle.
Healing was part of the intention behind Circle, “prominently in the mixing process, as well as informing the instruments that were used,” Brilla says. Collaborating with bansuri player Hasheel and veena player Radhika Baskar, she incorporates traditional Indian instruments known for their therapeutic tones. The bansuri is a side-blown flute made of bamboo. Its rich and breathy tone has an enchanting quality that can be heard on “Healing.” Similar to sitar, veena is a traditional zither or lute instrument used in Indian classical music that can be heard interacting with the vocal melody on “Love.” This ancient instrument’s construction and use varies depending on region but is generally known for its use in spiritual music. Using live veena in the mix was among Brilla’s goals as a producer, representing a connection with her ancestral history. “Those instruments naturally live within a sound healing realm,” Brilla reflects, “and so integrating them is how I brought that into the music.”
Circle also involved collaboration with Lavanya Loganathan on violin, Sarah Thawer on tabla and drum kit, Gerima Harvey on djembe, and Sammy Duke on cajon. Brilla says, “the spirit of collaboration for a lot of this record was everyone’s incredible patience, devotion, and investment to making art during what was a very difficult time to make art.” The blending of genres on Circle is part of what makes it so inviting. The rhythmic presence grounds the mix while the softer instruments and vocal embellishments wander through melodies.
Beyond the arrangement of instruments, Circle is rich with frequencies that Brilla attributes to sound healing. “A lot of it was by ear based on what I felt was therapeutic sounding,” Brilla states. “I wanted to feel certain things when I was creating the music and give that feeling to the listener when they receive it.”
There’s a line that artists often straddle between creating art for the purpose of self-actualization and creating art for an audience. Both angles have value and ultimately only limited scope considering that works of art are living entities. In the case of Circle, Brilla made this album with her sisters, friends, family, musician peers, and young listeners in mind, “people that [she] thought this record would feel like one place they could go to when they need some soothing.” On the other hand, it was her own judgment with the magic of collaboration producing sounds that she determined to be therapeutic for herself. While there is an element of universality in how music can affect the human brain, Brilla expresses that it is “subjective because all kinds of music are healing, [and] it’s so vast and varied for each person.”
Brilla has an ear for drawing together stylistic influences and balancing a variety of tones and timbres. Reflecting on her production process, Brilla says, “I’m pulling threads from my background and tying them together into a language that I feel will similarly be accessed by people I know.” With a mixed background of Indo-Tanzanian and Canadian heritage, Brilla celebrates the musical influences of her upbringing in the lyrics and aesthetics of her music.
Many of the sounds found on Circle are also similar to those found in a lot of meditation music. After hosting combined yoga and music workshops with fellow Canadian artist Desiree Dawson, Brilla has been experimenting with synthesizers and manipulating vocal and breath sounds to achieve a lullaby-like quality. Drawing attention to the somatic relationships at work in her music, Brilla says, “Although this music might not necessarily put people to sleep[…]all those [sounds] were used with the intention of bringing a soothing energy to the nervous system of the listener.”
Part of what makes projects like Circle so important in the canon of music healing is that it’s a commonplace way for listeners to begin thinking about the role of sound in their own lives. Many of the songs are mellow, with affirmational lyrics, while also being rhythmic and danceable. Brilla shared Circle for free on YouTube in addition to her website with the intention of bypassing financial barriers for listeners. A cynical but legitimate concern is that capitalism is doing its thing by co-opting music healing by institutionalizing, privatizing, and gatekeeping services. Sound baths, guided meditation, and music therapy often come with a high price tag and limited resources. Like a lot of holistic healthcare, such resources only reach a fraction of the people who most need them. For Brilla, the goal with sharing music is to subvert capitalist essentialism and draw attention to the ways humans experience sound healing naturally in our everyday interactions. “It’s something we can all engage with and offer each other in small ways,” Brilla says. “As we talk more about sound healing and music as medicine, we will start to appreciate just how potent those more accessible, smaller interactions are.”
Part of broadening the conversations around sound healing involves partnering with other leaders in the field, including neuroscientist Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary. Brilla partnered with Chaudhary for a workshop on sound healing in 2021 through her online Frequency Portal, where members of an online community could connect through her website to learn about sound healing, songwriting, and music production. As a result, Circle emerges from a point of intersection between the scientific, spiritual, and social approaches to music as medicine. Brilla’s goal is “to cross pollinate with people who do have what the western world would look at as credentials, and then take the findings and the knowledge and again, subvert, reiterate, and strip away the pretense and what could feel intimidating about it, and bring it back to what it is.”
“What it is” can be interpreted in boundless ways, as we are knowingly or not engaging in forms of sound healing all the time. “Even if we’re not cognitively reacting to the song,” Brilla explains, “our bodies do naturally, whether it’s just lifting a single finger and tapping it or even less visible, the waves of energy and pulsation actually going through our bodies and naturally making ourselves respond to rhythm.” The fact that sound affects us in invisible and inaudible ways really deepens the waters of not only sound healing but more generally our relationship to vibration. A few commonplace examples Brilla provides include “when a mother sings to their child[…]when someone is upset or anxious and another human uses a calming or dulcet tone to reassure them[…]when a cat’s with a human and the cat’s purring.” As a devoted dog person, I’m skeptical of that last one, but the takeaway is that everything that occurs in nature serves a function, and by the nature of life on earth, that function is relational.
The nuance and generosity Brilla brought to our discussion reminded me of the importance of having these conversations. There is power in making music not only for healing but for accessing joy. “In every iteration of the world when there’s been extremely challenging moments including where we are now,” Brilla reflects, “we always find artists, and humans who use art regardless of whether they call themselves artists or not, who find meaning [in processing life’s challenges].” I believe that the process of interpreting, creating, and sharing meaning is a large part of what makes music healing in the context of everyday life. Music moves with us through life, affecting our senses and taking on different forms and contexts. In celebration, worship, mourning, protest, and entertainment, music is a tool for processing the human experience.
The healing properties of music have long been known, studied, and practiced in many cultural traditions around the world. More recently, neurologists of the colonial western world are joining an international conversation about the psychological and physiological benefits of therapeutic sound practices. Music’s role in medicine is gaining momentum with the development of standardized Music Therapy in Canada, a discipline in which certified music therapists use music to address cognitive, communicative, emotional, musical, physical, social, and spiritual human needs. It is now commonly accepted knowledge that certain frequencies affect the brain in ways that can treat conditions including Alzheimer’s, anxiety, depression, and others. Several studies published in the academic journal Music & Medicine have determined the controlled use of sound to be effective in improving relaxation, comfort, and connection among patients in palliative care as well as healthy individuals in randomized controlled trials. The Healing Forces of Music: History, Theory, and Practice is another great resource for understanding the scientific principles of music and sound healing.
In many ways, this research is catching up with and confirming what Indigenous knowledge systems have known for thousands of years. While the clinical applications of sound healing are incredible, sound and music are also being used to process emotions, soothe stress, and promote relaxation which can improve overall mental health. In my experience, interim healing from the demands of late capitalism is made possible by connecting with body, mind, self, others, and environments, and music prompts those connections. By observing environmental sounds, listening to music, or playing my own music, I’m able to slow down racing thoughts and process the busy world around me. Brilla hopes that by listening to Circle, “you are able to enter the space and the meaning that [she] found during that time.” Circle is a sort of placemaker for feelings and experiences that are phased out of social spaces, for both the artist in the process of making it and in turn for the listener. In this instance and many others, music is a portal to a world where we can express and observe what is naturally occurring. As Brilla recommends, “we should be dancing, crying, laughing, [and feeling] all the human emotions.”
People (plant, animal, human… extraterrestrial) are constantly inputting and outputting sonic information. Without digressing too far into what is and isn’t sound, I’ll suggest that sound is a naturally occurring constant in a precarious world. There is no one way and no right way to tune in. Sound can be received without perception, sensed through touch and sight as much as hearing, and has served a therapeutic role in civilizations long before western medicine caught up. However, as more research is being done to investigate the causal relationships between sound and wellness, scientists, artists, and listeners can all benefit from joining the conversation.