Can music improve mental health? Pianist and composer Chad Lawson thinks so.
His new double album, breathe, released Friday to coincide with National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. Recorded at the legendary Beatles studio Abbey Road, it features members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, violinist Esther Yoo and cellist-composer Peter Gregson. These collaborative pieces form the first part of the album, with the rest comprised of solo piano versions of the same works, as well as additional ones.
"Irreplaceable," which came out as an EP earlier this year, opens the Decca Records U.S. release. "It's not a void that you're trying to fill. It's something that you're trying to cherish," Lawson told Morning Edition host Rachel Martin after playing the piece in NPR's performance studio. "The idea of remembering what's irreplaceable in your life to get us through those hard seasons."
It's an invitation to hit pause on the hustle and bustle of life, to reflect. "It's amazing that it took a pandemic for us to actually stop and realize what life am I living right now," Lawson said. "It's all about being able to be present in that moment."
Lawson, who aims to make his music accessible, said his biggest audience sits in the 18 to 28 age group, and his work has already been streamed some 500 million times worldwide. Amateur pianists can even download the sheet music for some of his pieces to try to give it a go at their keyboard or piano at home.
Lawson described his composition process as centered around a given melody per piece, stepping away for about a month, then listening to the music again while reading, which gives him fresh inspiration. "So usually the song will tell me what the story is afterwards," he said.
In the case of "fields of forever," the throughline came to him during the recording session with Gregson and Yoo. Lawson recalled: "The red light is on. We're recording this song. And then all of a sudden, I started getting memories, these images of my mom and dad... just everyday moments, be it a picnic or maybe just driving on the parkway."
When Lawson's performances got cancelled during the pandemic, he turned to his work as a yoga instructor and breathing coach, launching the meditation podcast Calm It Down after fans said his music helped them cope with their anxiety and struggles. "Music is meant to heal," he explained. "The music that I do is something that's going to be able to calm someone with whatever they're going through."
Lawson has no training as a therapist, but his listeners reach out with stories of major mental health struggles, from sexual abuse to suicide.
"Even though I'm not licensed, I'm not a doctor by any stretch, I am conversational," Lawson said. "And I think that's what people are looking for right now. I think they're looking for something that isn't too too heavy, that isn't a burden to listen to, that offers a little bit of hope."