Reduced By Johanna Elina Sulkunen

The soundtrack to a reduced frame of mind and an expanding resource to encourage better self-careExplore the archive.

Students of early hip-hop may be aware of the small print on the back sleeve of LL Cool K’s 1985 album Radio: “Reduced by Rick Rubin”, in homage to his pioneering minimalist arrangement. It’s with Rick’s same approach to musical minimalism that this series emerges: stripping sound back to its most transcendental, restorative and atmospheric textures to block out the noise and aid focus, attunement and relaxation. 

Discussions have come a long way in recent years, but there still remains a taboo around not being okay. To accompany each audio presentation, we’ll speak to the creator about their experiences with self-care and, if they’re comfortable sharing, mental health. We’ll unpack personal processes, explore the nuances of self-care across cultures and raise awareness of charities with a personal connection. We hope this will grow into an evolving resource of knowledge and experience to provide solace, inspiration, reassurance and company in difficult times.

Copenhagen-based vocalist and producer Johanna Elina Sulkunen speaks of music as a tool for relaxation. For her, drums and vocals are the most meditative instruments and can help to evoke ‘acceptance, calmness, and joy’. The latter instrument, as with her previous work, is a core part of her forthcoming LP Terra, on which she explores how the voice resonates with nature and asks the listener to ‘question our modern life and its often destructive relation to nature’.

The album marks the second in a trilogy of releases from her solo project Sonority. A follow up to Koan, an LP based on field recordings from Japanese Buddhist temples, the original plan was to record the new LP in Iceland, using sounds from the surrounding landscapes as the foundations of the compositions. But she was forced to ditch these plans when lockdown hit, instead crafting the release based on imagined scenery; the results of which weave together her voice with elements of electroacoustic, ambient and minimalism.

It’s these sounds and live recordings that make up her Reduced mix, which she dedicates ‘to anyone who is going through a hard time’. She pieces together elements of her catalogue that induce calmness and stimulate concentration, and invites the listener to play it through headphones or good speakers, at home or whilst walking in a peaceful place. This sits alongside a candid interview about her relationship with self-care and mental health. She’s chosen to pair her mix with Psykiatri Fonden, a local mental health organisation in her current home of Denmark.

We now premiere all our mixes a week early on Mixcloud. Subscribe to our channel to listen first, download all mixes, and ensure that the artists included in each one gets paid. Read more about our decision here.

First a nice easy one: what does self-care mean to you?

Nourishing the balance between body and mind. 

What does your daily or weekly self-care routine look like? 

Optimally my daily practice includes yoga, a short or a long walk, vocal exercise, and meditation. I try to do at least one of these per day during busy periods and while touring since it can be challenging to find the time.

Can you tell us about the self-care spot at home you’ve photographed and how have made it an optimum spot?

My meditation/yoga spot is away from my work desk in a place where I can move and daylight from the windows. (It gets very dark in the winter months here). I believe dedicating a special place for those practices helps to gain a routine and enter the meditation.

Can you tell us about the outdoor location you’ve photographed where you go to find tranquility.

It’s my (almost) daily walking route, close to home and by the seaside. As I am originally Finnish, I miss some wild forest and access to nature and sonically quiet surroundings. In Copenhagen, the sea represents something that has a calming effect. Sea has always also presented some freedom for me, which I appreciate a lot.  

What benefits has self-care brought you over the years? 

The deep respect and thankfulness for mental health, awareness of my limitations and pitfalls, and how to tackle those. The connection of your body, mind, and their power to wellbeing.  

Are there any specific techniques you favour or come back to more frequently? 

Obvious things like sleeping enough, eating healthy, and doing physical exercise make a big difference. While studying at the conservatory years back, I took lessons in Indian Dhrupad singing at some point in my life. I didn’t get very far with the ‘repertoire’, but that opened the door to a singing practice where I sing single long tones for a long time. Preferably one tone for 45 – 60 min or so… at one point I was going deep into this practice. The challenge here is to use my ‘work tool’ the voice, as my meditation ‘tool’ and connect to my voice without setting any aesthetical connotation to it. Also, all kind of physical exercise is helping me to get away from the mind.

Are there any self-care techniques that are native to your community or heritage and how are they viewed in the global context of the self-care movement?

In my native country in Finland, I think going to Sauna is a great self-care technique. As a child, I took it for granted, going to Sauna and swim in a cold lake afterward in nature surroundings. It feels like a total luxury that I aim to do every time I visit Finland. In winter, a Sauna combined with jumping into a cold lake or hole in the ice makes you feel good. I was fortunate to spend some weeks of the last year’s lockdown in a cottage in Finland by a lake and dipping every day to a hole made in the ice. It was a lot of snow and ice and bright weather. It felt somehow very surreal after being isolated in the apartment in Copenhagen.  

What advice would you have for anyone who is either sceptical about the benefits of self-care, or is new to it and feels intimated by the wealth of options available. 

If you feel good, you’re probably already found some of the self-care practices suitable for you. If you feel that you could feel better or are suffering from mental difficulties, I think giving it a try shouldn’t harm.  

Unfortunately, there is also people and organizations taking advantage of people feeling bad fragile or in need of help. The risk might be that you both can get lost along the way and lose your money – so I get the skepticism. I would recommend forgetting all those and start by meditating or relaxation like feeling your breath for 10 minutes a day, making long walks or other physical exercises, eating healthy food, sleeping early, and going from there. That is all free and also quite undoubtedly beneficial. There are also a lot of courses, communities, or spiritual guidance that can be great for some, but often there is some kind of institutionalized agenda behind it, which I don’t feel the need or will to enter.  

What was the idea behind your Reduced set?

It is a hybrid of live recordings and tracks from my upcoming TERRA album, and the previous KOAN album. I chose tracks from my repertoire that I find somehow ‘meditative’, calming or increasing the concentration. I also made two new all-instrumental tracks, and there are some parts of a live session with a saxophone player. As a vocalist, it was challenging not to include vocals for the tracks. Therefore there are vocals in a lot of the tracks.  

Also, I think vocals and drums are the most meditative instruments there are. I sometimes go to my rehearsal room just to play drums exactly to get relaxed and in sync with myself. 

How would you advise listening to your set?

Be open to whatever comes. I would recommend listening with headphones (or good speakers) either at home or taking a walk in a peaceful place and listening while walking. 

Listening to the details or just letting the music flow without paying too much attention is all fine.

What does good mental health mean to you?

Optimally, just being present and accepting life as it is. Easier said than done… Whatever challenges I face, I try to remember that staying on a good balanced path requires continuous work. But also recognizing that getting back on the right track is more important than never failing or falling into the unconstructive patterns. I’m constantly trying to adjust and find a balance with my own expectations and lower your goals expectations to meet the reality.

Are there any experiences with mental health that you’d like to share to provide comforts or connections with others who are/have suffered? Dark times you’ve left behind you, or difficult moments you still struggle to overcome?

Times of being very low, stress, and post-traumatic stress are all something that I have experienced. I feel very good at the moment, so maybe that’s something to keep in mind; those periods tend to pass. There are things and incidents that you can’t control, so making peace with that somehow can take time, but things will get better. 

In all its beauty and brutality, life is worth experiencing. The more you dare to give to it the more it gives back.

What advice would you give to people who are suffering from poor mental health and either can’t understand why or don’t know where to turn? 

I have myself used extremely much time on the question why. Once I learned to let that go even a little bit and concentrate more on accepting and tolerating the difficult times with meditation, I started moving forward. But it’s not all up to you either Sometimes, some mental health issues require medication and professional help. So never doubt to ask for help from a doctor or a friend if in doubt.

Based on experiences where others have helped you, what advice would you give to those who are close to someone who’s suffering but doesn’t know how best to support them. 

Never blame them for what they are going through. Most probably, they are blaming themselves so much harder than you can ever imagine already.  There is a lot one can do for good mental health, but there are a lot of times where help is really needed. Listen, and don’t push your advice since you can never really know how another person Is feeling. But offer to help if there is anything to be done. Be, and stay there.

How is mental health viewed in your own culture or immediate surroundings? Have you faced challenges getting support if/when you needed it from your community?

I think mental health issues can be seen as weakness, and also natural reactions like sadness or stress can be treated as mental health problems.  So I guess emotions, in general, could be more appreciated and allowed. Generally, I think it’s important to show that you are happy, strong, and fine in this culture. And negativity or sadness is something to really try to avoid. But without those there wouldn’t be positivity and joy either. I think all the emotions are part of life and we all go through them at some point in our lives, so why not talk about it and be open. Luckily, I have good people to talk to and be open and share, though the feeling of loneliness can be very strong when you are not well.

Do you think being part of the music industries has had any implications for your mental health? If so, what have you done to cope with it?

For sure, it has. Maybe mental health sounds quite strong, or at least I would like it not to have such a big impact. But in a way if you think of any other workplace, this is a really tough business to be in. You need to be a musician booker, manager, administrator, performer, promoter …  24/7  and most of it is unpaid. Doing all those well, it will require five lives and a proper salary. I try to remember to be proud of what I do as an independent artist and define the areas that I can’t manage to do and find help for tasks which I don’t have the time or try to remember that it would be a different case with a team of people working for your case. 

I remember a lot of conversations within a tone of “you are way too old to ‘make it” (when being over 25! ), or “if you don’t have a big label behind you, (meaning his own big label) you have no chance, no chance at all”. Not to mention the monopolies around booking clubs and festivals, power of press, radio and the stylistic genre ideals that are mostly kept constructed because of the economic profit. In many cases, you see that somebody has done a great (musical) job but won’t get recognition for it. Everybody who releases music knows how much that process requires and how you need to put yourself in it fully. Those people sitting on the ‘other side’ don’t have this valuable experience of being a musician, but their preferences are connected to many things mentioned above. 

Everything in the business is always connected with the power structures in society.  We luckily live an era where awareness and power structures are in change. And things are changing constantly. It is good to look at history and see the currents and developments in the music business. Right now, it’s ruled by the rapidly changing platforms and ways to sell your music and reach the audience on digital media. 

To cope with all this I try to remember that the business is always running with other parameters than your own artistic expression, which should always come first. 

There are a lot of musician-driven clubs and festivals also, which is great and powerful and I wish I had the time and energy to curate more concert series. This is something I want to do more in the future. It is great if music can also reach people who are not musicians themselves or not familiar with experimental music.  Making and listening to experimental music is already some act towards more diversity, awareness, acceptance, and curiosity.

I try to keep focus in the things that I find essential and inspiring, define my own success and do my best to aim to that. 

Right now, I can actually live by making the music that I love, and I’m very thankful for it.

Are there any changes you’d like to see to help look after collective and individual mental health in the music industries? 

There are a lot of chances to be done,  and luckily there are good organizations and people here in Denmark working on better conditions for musicians. Personally, I think support for experimental and new music in forms of clubs, more frequently changing bookers and people who rule the funds, festivals and clubs.  More diversity in general in every genre is important and every genre is in its own way important. It is important to get paid properly for your work and more funding, and better work conditions for musicians, but it’s a bigger cultural-political question of how to make all the changes happen.

Are there any initiatives or sources of knowledge doing important work in mental health that have benefited you, that others should check out?

I would like to encourage people to try to use and connect, experiment and play with their voices. Also playing an instrument that you normally don’t play can be really great. 

A few years ago, I was teaching courses called ‘free your voice’ that gathered all kinds of nonmusician people, who never really dared to sing, but were willing to be more confident with their voices. Lot of them believed that they are singing ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ etc. Simply doing exercises, where you add some vocal sound when breathing out, can help many self-acceptance, calmness, and joy. Experimenting and sharing it in a group brings another good layer to it.  

Can you tell us more about your selected charity, the work it does and why it holds a personal significance? 

I wish that everybody would understand the importance of mental health and reduce the stigma around it. Anyone can suffer from mental health problems, become ill after a life crisis or other incident. I want to dedicate this mixtape to everyone who is going through a hard time. Since I’m currently living in Denmark, I chose local organization, Psykiatri Fonden, to support the case.

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