Reduced By Sofie Birch

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.

Sofie Birch‘s music epitomises relaxation. The Danish sound artist and composer’s work is motivated by the healing power of sound. Described as soft ambient, the vibrations are gentle and subtle; like a warm cuddle that makes you feel as though everything’s alright in the world.

These wistful, introspective musings have formed releases for Frankfurt’s Seil Records, Constellation Tatsu, and most recently the inimitable Stroom Records, alongside fellow ambient maestro Johan Carøe. Beyond her recorded works, Sofie’s musical pursuits extend to soundtracking art installations and animations, as well as performing live shows and sharing her favourite tranquil finds through her monthly show on NTS Radio.

In this interview Sofie dives deep into her experiences with anxiety, the joy and meaning that self-care has given her and the importance of just letting go. This sits alongside a near two-hour mix of her favourite ambient opuses and soundscapes, which begins as a meditation that she describes as ‘shimmering and insecure’ before becoming ‘very deep and relaxed’.

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

Self-care means that I put myself first, to be the best I can be to my loved ones and my surroundings. Self-care means that I pay attention to my body and my mind, and treat them as equals.

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

I’m a very stormy person. Everything goes up and down all the time. My temper, my energy, my mood. And therefore, I find it very important to greet my body and mind every day with my full attention. If not for a long time, then just for a few seconds. Time can somehow be irrelevant. I like to get up in the morning and stretch my body in yoga poses. I like to do it before anything else. Preferably facing the sun. I like to sit down afterward and welcome the day with an open mind. Sometimes a word comes into my mind, and I try to make it a theme for my day, some sort of an anchor I can get back to throughout the day. It could be empathy.

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

My photo is taken in my bed. But it could be so many places around my home. Depending on the time of the day and self-care focus. My bed is often where I place myself if I want to focus and get ideas or write things down. My bedroom is device-free. This means that we never take our phones or computers into bed. I like this rule so much because I need a place to recharge and feel decoupled from the world.

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

I find endless tranquility in nature. Especially trees, birds and wind.
I’m always longing outside of the city. I go as often as I can. Visit friends and family. Stay for longer periods to work or record sound. Nature is everything. 

When I can’t go out of the city, nature comes to me in strong weather. Rain, frost, snow, and wind break through the city and force everybody to connect with nature.

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

Meaning and joy.

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

I think I will never stop finding new ways of making self-care. It is a kind of passion alongside music. I always come back to tarot cards, meditation and yoga though. Yoga brings my attention to my physical body, meditation makes me let go of my thoughts and tarot cards help me navigate my emotions.

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?

The Rider Waite tarot deck, which I let guide me, uses a lot of catholic symbols. I think some people might experience this as being too religious. To me, this deck holds so much magic and mystery, and the symbols can easily be associated with the western culture I grew up in. Somehow the pictures remind me of visiting old churches. I love a lot of things about churches. I love the sacred and silent space they hold and I love how it is becoming more normal to use these spaces for cultural and spiritual gatherings.

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

I love the advice that you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anybody else. So if you want to take care of the people you love, you have to make sure you love yourself first.

What was the idea behind your Reduced set?

As this set could be longer than one hour, I enjoyed playing some of my favorite and very long tracks from my vinyl collection. It’s not often that I can include 15 minute long tracks in my mixes.

How would you advise listening to your set?

This set starts out like a meditation: a bit shimmering and insecure, until it gets very deep and relaxed. 

What does good mental health mean to you?

Good mental health doesn’t mean that everything is going perfectly and positively from morning to evening. It means that I have prepared myself to be unprepared for what might come. Because when life surprises you and nothing is what you expected it to be, you need to adapt and still be able to find joy and meaning without hurting yourself and the people around you. I’m not necessarily good at this, but I spend a lot of time thinking about this is the way I would like it to be.

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?

I’ve suffered from anxiety since I was 13. Anxiety in many forms. One of the most damaging forms of anxiety for me has been something as innocent as blushing. As I have grown older it appears to me that it’s almost some kind of reflex in my body, that I blush heavily when I talk about myself or something emotional, and it’s not necessarily something other people pay attention to. But inside me, it eats up all good energy because I let it.

Anxiety is related to so much shame and shame makes you suffer so deeply. I wish that we could talk more openly about our anxieties to take away some of all the shame that weighs us down and holds us back. We are never alone with our fears, but if we don’t speak about them, they grow and become the rulers of our lives. 

I still struggle with blushing and insecurity in performing, but I keep on doing what I love and find the courage to face my fears because I don’t want to let myself down. Courage has become one of my keywords in life. 

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 think the advice that has helped me the most is to let go. Let go of control. Control is attached to the idea of right and wrong. If we want to control everything to be right, so many things will go wrong and we will feel so disappointed and sad all the time. If we let go and accept, we can only get surprised.

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. 

It’s good to meet people where they are and try to gently make them find their own way of healing themselves. Support with love and listening.

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?

Mental health is, fortunately, a topic that gets more and more attention and it’s important to me to support the openness around it in any possible way by listening and telling about my own experiences. This is why this interview is also very important. My experience is that the community around ambient music is very supportive and I feel grateful to be part of the music industry the way that I am. But as mentioned before, stage fright and performance anxiety in every form is not something people talk about. I have spent a lot of time pretending that I’m cool on stage instead of talking about what huge pressure it is to perform and deliver a show.

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?

I think it is tough to be and do everything by myself. For the past six years when I’ve been releasing and playing music for a living, I have been doing almost everything on my own. I’ve been my own accountant, manager, producer, photographer, and whatnot, and I’ve failed in asking for help. Instead, I’ve been doing absolutely everything myself, and that has exhausted me. Now I’ve started involving other people, but at some points, I’ve hurt myself and created stress patterns that are hard to get rid of again. 

Getting help from others is the best you can do. It’s impossible to be alone with your career. And there are more people than you think who would actually love being part of your thing and growing together with you and your dreams.

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

Let’s only do what we love and what we are best at. Let us help each other to reach our goals and build supportive communities that don’t ask for too much. We are only human beings and we need time to rest and process every single day. Nobody wants to work 12 hours a day.

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

  • Pauline Oliveros
  • Corita Kent (“Learning by Heart”)
  • Louise L. Hay (“You can Heal your Life”)
  • Majbritte Ulrikkeholm
  • Marie Bergman
  • Eckhart Tolle

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