Chris Bullard is the executive director of the Sound Mind Live Festival, scheduled for May 20 in Brooklyn, New York.
A former touring musician. Bullard performed with acts such as Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Subsequent to receiving his MBA, he oversaw portfolio management at Acumen, a global non-profit impact investing fund focused on poverty alleviation.
Bullard created the festival based on his personal experience of overcoming mental health stigma after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his mid-20s. Prior to founding Sound Mind, Chris also founded a music support group program for those affected by mental illness with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New York City.
He holds a BA from the University of Southern California and an MBA from Fordham University.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Karin Jervert: I am here today with Amy Biancolli for what is going to be a really wonderful conversation about music, musicians, the music industry, and mental health.
Amy and I will be at Sound Mind, and I will be on a panel on lived experience with Chris and the musician Langhorne Slim. The festival will address important issues within the music industry, like youth, lived experience, marginalized communities, stigma, and social justice.
Amy Biancolli: I am Amy Biancolli, family editor for Mad in America, and I also report and write for MIA. I am excited to be part of this discussion, particularly because I am a musician myself. I play some amateur fiddle and I’ve also written articles specifically on music and mental health.
Jervert: So happy to be here with you, Amy. And I am Karin Jervert. I am the arts editor here at Mad in America. So, Chris, Amy and I are excited to have you here today for this conversation.
Thank you for being here, Chris.
Chris Bullard: Thank you for having me. Such an honor and pleasure, and I just love the thoughtfulness of everything you’re doing and how much you all are building such an important dialog in the world.
Jervert: Thank you so much for that. I think this conversation is going to be a real wonderful exchange, and Amy and I have been looking forward to this.
Biancolli: Music and art are something that really is important to both of us. So, I’m very happy to have you here. Perhaps you could start off by describing the origin story, the backstory, to the Sound Mind Festival. What inspired you to start it?
Bullard: Yeah, it’s a great question. So much was built around my own personal lived experience. So, when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, like many in their first episode, I spent 72 hours in the psych ward. One of the most beautiful parts of this experience was the way music was part of healing. I’ve always been a musician, and music was such an important way to connect and work through things, and there was a moment in the psych ward where I picked up a guitar and started strumming and playing. The song that always resonates in my memory was Sublime’s “What I Got”—“love is what I got.” There was this moment of everyone coming out of their rooms and in the courtyard, and joining together in song, in the middle of the psych ward.
I think what really hit me was: These were people with very different life experiences. From people who were homeless on the street to bankers, to consultants—and both mental health and music were these unifying forces. We were all experiencing the emotions and feelings and thoughts, as well as being able to connect to it and to each other through music. So that was a standalone moment that didn’t really hit me as an inspiration until much later.
Like you mentioned in the intro, an artist that I had the pleasure of playing with a few times was Willie Nelson. He and others started Farm Aid, which is an annual festival for family farmers. They do such an amazing job of using music as a connective force to bring people together around an important issue. It’s not just going to a festival to party and escape, which obviously can be such a joyous way to dive into yourself and others, but also for there to be an expressed purpose of supporting family farming.
As I look back on my own experience with music and how healing it was, and how it brought people together in that moment and many others—and seeing Willie do that with Farm Aid—I wanted to create a music festival for mental health. Like what had been done with Farm Aid, like what Global Citizen does every year for poverty and mental health. Music is such a powerful vehicle for expressing what’s going on within us. I had started this music support program in New York City. I just thought you know what, I’ll put on a benefit show.
It felt like a huge feat to put on a show with 250 people attending—and that feels small, now that we are going to have 5,000-plus at our festival this year. And what was amazing was just the evolution that it’s had over the years. We did it at this small event with the vision of building it into a festival, and then now, it’s a full-day event that also hosts panels and holistic healing options like yoga and meditation. And each year we’ve done it, it’s grown in terms of the number of partner organizations that are providing resources—and really, the goal is using music as the bridge to bring people together to open up these conversations with artists speaking about their own lived experience, and then elevating all the amazing resources that do exist.
And as you both know, there is no one simple path or option for healing. It’s what resonates with you and your own experience—and how do we have a two-way dialog about this? Bringing people together through a festival has definitely been amazing, to see that happen year after year. Even during the pandemic, we did it as a livestream event and had about 10,000 people tuning in on YouTube.
A big question in my mind, then, was how are we going to have this dialog component? And then you had in the chat people talking back and forth about their own experience and connecting offline after, and I think that’s been the biggest impact for me. Obviously, we’re elevating the resources where people can get support. But we’re also just opening up the conversation in a deeper way—with music’s ability to just open all of us to conversation, to connect. If you’re just going into a support group, for example, sometimes it can feel a bit stiff and tough to really open up and connect, especially for some people, and music has this unique ability to do that.
So the festival has evolved in size and, I would say, also in depth, over the years—with how we’re expanding on the experience to bring people together to both talk and do activities together in a great community format to build deeper connections.
Jervert: Yeah, and I also want to just note: When you were talking about your personal experience playing music in a mental hospital, I have a similar story with a piano and the Moonlight Sonata, which my grandmother taught me. And I remember just being alone. For me, just being alone in that room with a piano and music—and just remembering that engagement with the sound and the playing—it was just like an oasis of peace in a really, really horrific environment for me.
So, your way of connecting to the diversity of experience, and how music brings all of that together and can have the potential to bring in people with varied lived experience together in one experience of comfort and peace, and healing: Thank you for sharing all that. And so glad that that festival has gone from 250 to 10,000 over the pandemic. Wow, it’s amazing.
Bullard: It really has been. And thank you for sharing that. There are so many stories like that, of both musicians and—with things like music therapy now becoming more common—a lot of people who don’t consider themselves musicians are also using music as this tool for healing. I think music can also be a huge source of broader social change, as well. I mean, you look at the civil rights and social justice movements of the ‘60s and events across the country, integrating music as an important form of poetry and ways of connecting to the soul. Not thinking people as separate but, really, what commonly connects us. I used to and still do read a lot of philosophy, and there is this beautiful quote by Plato: “When the modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state change with them.”
Biancolli: Both of these stories were so beautiful, and they spoke to me as well. Because just as an amateur musician, I’ve always felt that when I’m making music, I’m opening myself to—however you want to define it—to the universe, to other people. And there is an element of vulnerability when you’re making music. Both of you described that peace, but also that sense of connection with something larger. Then, when you make music with other people, it’s a way to communicate non-verbally, which is incredibly freeing—and you form bonds with people, potentially people you don’t know from all walks of life.
So every time I read the latest piece of research—and there are reams of it showing the healing powers, the way that music can help children learn, and help people with Parkinson’s, and how it helps mental health—my response is always, “Well, yeah.” So, I just want to thank both of you for sharing those stories, because that’s it. That’s music. That’s the beauty and power of music in a nutshell.
Bullard: Yeah. It’s really incredible. I love what you said about opening up yourself and collectively to something greater—it’s such an amazing part of it. I love working more closely with the musicians our organization works with. It’s amazing how much I hear that: “I’m not writing these songs. I’m just opening myself up to this higher power, or whatever you want to call it, and the songs are speaking through me.” That’s what many musicians find. It’s the way that they are writing. I think it’s so true what you’re saying. What science shows when you look at the brainwaves of people is they start to line up more when they are playing music together—or, really, doing anything together. For me, that’s almost like a scientific mirror of that phenomenon of just tapping into something that’s beyond our individual selves, which is so beautiful.
With the lens of people’s mental health journeys, that’s an important phenomenon to be aware of—what are you tapping into beyond what you realize was possible. That’s important to listen to, and important to tune into with others.
Jervert: Absolutely. And something I’ve thought about a lot is when the label of mental illness is put onto a creative being, an artist, that there are real ramifications in the political and social justice sense, and historical senses. You were saying, too, that music has a great way of changing the world, changing history, changing social environments.
So, for me, I want to deepen our understanding of artistic diversity as it relates to the labeling of mental illness, and how often that has been for marginalized people. Artists can be very marginalized in their experience, and that the diagnosis has served as a silencer over time for many artists. And when you open up this conversation, it starts to bleed into the thought or the discussion of your right to be diverse and creative and innovative, and different in the world.
Bullard: It’s such an important point. The right to be creative and different—the way you put it, I think, was great. The artist Langhorne Slim, who is actually playing our festival again this year, said something—I’m not going to quote it exactly—but something along the lines of, “When you look at an artist on stage, it’s like looking at them flailing about and performing and going wild. They are crazy.” And in a way, at least for many artists, it reflects these deeper aspects of ourselves that we are so often taught to push down in modern-day society—and really, society at large for quite some time. That’s both why it looks wild and crazy, but also why you identify with it in this deeper way, and why it connects.
It is so important for us to be mindful of that. And on the one hand, I do think the discussion around artists being open about mental health, being diagnosed with mental illness, has made a lot of people very comfortable in opening up and starting this conversation—which is definitely a positive I want to acknowledge. At the same time, the danger is, like you were saying, that creative expressions are being pushed aside because they are coming from someone with a mental illness or something like that. I think we need to be careful even in the language, especially artists of any type—again, music, writing, dance, any artist with influence, and that doesn’t mean you have 100,000 Instagram followers. It’s really us all. We all have so much influence, and just being so cognizant of how we’re labeling ourselves and labeling our work is tied to that.
What happens a lot in the music community, too, is sometimes it’s put on a pedestal to be struggling with things—the idea of the depressed artist, for example. You need to be depressed to create, or you need to be hooked up on a lot of drugs to be in that world.
Jervert: Right. The old “pain creates great art” kind of trope, right?
Bullard: Exactly, and I’m not denying that it can create great art. But you don’t need the pain. They are related, perhaps, but you don’t need to be living in pain for that.
And if you talk to anyone who’s gone through a recovery journey, they would definitely agree with that. I mean, I haven’t talked to anyone who said, “I was in a place of great pain and I was able to move through that, and now I’m clean and sober, but I miss my creativity.” You don’t hear that story. You hear, “I realized that I didn’t need it, and I can still tap into that creativity.”
Biancolli: That’s part of this conception we have of musicians and artists in general. But there is a paradox, also, isn’t there? We’ve been discussing how music is so good for you on so many levels, and you do not need to be in distress to create significant, beautiful music, to have a career. But at the same time, so many people who do pursue it as a career—they struggle.
The Sound Mind website cites a statistic, that 78% of musicians live with mental health issues, and I was curious about that. So, I Googled it and I found that statistic in a recent Swedish study of independent musicians, specifically.
This one study also showed that the numbers for young indie musicians were even starker, with 80% of them citing negative mental health issues related to their music careers. Could you speak to that a little bit—that paradox? That music is so good for you, but if you pursue it as a career, you can run up against these hurdles that can really affect you?
Bullard: It’s such an important phenomenon to really dive into, I think. There are so many aspects of it. Obviously, it’s not music that’s causing these mental health issues. But the way that the industry is set up—and our society is set up around music and really, all of the arts—makes it very difficult, especially now that touring is such a large aspect of revenue for artists. Touring can be extremely difficult on mental health, where you are constantly changing your environment. You’re likely getting less sleep than you normally would, and add on a culture that, at least historically, has been very heavily focused on drinking, partying, drugs. I think there’s more of an acknowledgment around that, and awareness around that, but there is still a long way to go.
And then, finally, in order to make it as a musician, you continue to bring on people around you to support you, so you can focus on the art. Then you have your manager and your agent, and your touring crew. Pretty soon, you are like the owner of a huge company—where all these people, at the end of the day, are relying on you and your creative output for their financial well-being and their livelihood. And that can be a lot of pressure.
That’s what you hear from a lot of artists who are canceling tours, or perhaps even not canceling tours due to mental health. They feel the pressure of “Yes, I can cancel this tour, or this album, or this date, but that not only impacts me, it impacts everyone around me.” Just having a family or loved ones could complicate your own decisions, because you’re worried about how this impacts everyone around you. That can be really tough. And as a result, especially for artists in the music community, it’s really important to tap into what you need—because you can’t take care of anyone else unless you can do what you need to be healthy.
Biancolli: Is this where some awareness within the music industry itself could play a role? What could help implement change? Does the music industry itself need to change—and is there a sense of any movement in that direction?
Bullard: Yes and yes. It does need to change, and there is a sense of movement and momentum. In the five years that Sound Mind has been around, we’ve been a part of a lot of discussions, both with labels and managers, as well as others trying to do similar work specifically for the music community. A number of organizations and consulting firms have popped up to try to help the music industry with context-based therapy, educating companies and employees of the companies how to take care of their mental health.
Especially in America, with our high-productivity mindset, with our careers being tied to our identity in many cases, it can be really tough. And this has to happen in all industries. As far as Sound Mind goes, we’ve really focused on: How can we start with the music industry, and take it from where it historically has been to a much better place? For me, that really just starts with leadership at all levels. It means people speaking up when they feel like their mental health isn’t being supported, whether that’s artists or crew members—sometimes crew members are working 16-hour shifts—as well as leaders saying this is a priority and we want to take care of everyone’s mental health.
For example, one of our board members runs an artist management company. They have little mental health retreats with their artists every now and then, and have regular policies in place to support the artists’ well-being. So, I think just sharing these examples is really important—and then, the leadership from every individual around making this a priority.
Jervert: Does the current narrative of mental wellness exclude states like what we call psychosis, hearing voices and things like that, from the category of wellness? It’s always using that language of wellness versus illness. Does this give us the path to actually de-stigmatize those states?
Bullard: The problem is that binary views in general are going to have this effect. It’s like black/white, queer/straight, mentally ill/well. I think what we’re coming to as a society, or at least what I believe is true, is that these are spectrums—and to acknowledge that within the spectrum, there is a shared humanity. Whatever we can drop back into that language—that connection of humanity—we’re able to really heal on a deeper level. And sometimes, we live in a world where there are binaries: black/white, up/down. But those are all constructs so that we can understand the world, and we have to remember that they are all just constructs that we invented.
So, I think the disease framework can, for some, help reduce stigma around talking about these things and make people feel less of it—because they might even feel a bond with others who share a diagnosis, for example.
I know for me, at least, there was a point where I identified with the disease framework. At the same time, I think a lot about shamanistic cultures where, if you’re experiencing altered states or things that are deeply troubling, there is typically a guide that has experienced these states and gone through them—and recovered. Support groups can be that or could be that, but so often in our society, sadly, the disease framework is often a very rationalistic one—where it’s this right/wrong and “we need to fix you.” Rather than, “Let’s incorporate and integrate this experience into that deeper sense of yourself”—and what we’re calling “illness” or “unwell” might be states that are less healthy for you to be a whole individual, or perceptions of the world that might be less healthy or whole for you to live your best life. And I don’t think those necessarily need to be held within a disease framework. It could be a spiritual framework.
So my answer is, I think it’s possible to do—but there is a lot of restructuring around the way we support people and talk about this, and educate people.
Biancolli: I’m just curious, if you are open to talking about it, to hear your a-ha moment. Did you have one? Did you have an epiphany when the light bulb went off and you started to question this binary framework for the world and the usual psychiatric drug-based treatments? Did you have a moment like that, and if so, could you describe it for us?
Bullard: It’s a good question, and I don’t know if there was a singular moment. A few different ones come to mind. I know from the second I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the feeling that it wasn’t a two-way dialog of learning was really counter to the way I thought things should’ve gone. It felt very much like, “This is what you have.” It was just, “This is the label of what this is,” and I felt my experience is so much richer than a label. I realized it’s just a word. It’s just a label.
I struggled with that response from the very beginning, and I think for me, it wasn’t until I started reading psychiatrists, and medical researchers, and philosophers who really had a different view of this—and people who would traditionally be not “woo-woo,” but considered accepted by the general rational society within which we live.
One of the first was Stanislav Grof. For people who don’t know, he did a lot of research around altered states, LSD. He founded Holotropic Breathwork and just saw that the spectrum of these are all related to what people call mental illness as well. These are all very similar states, and what we call mental illness might be actually a spiritual emergency or something emerging from deeper within. People like Carl Jung have talked about this and even William James, one of the founders of American psychology. And then, I also saw an amazing documentary that I recommend to folks, called Crazywise, that followed a number of individuals. It’s well-done. They paint a very full picture of the beauty and the struggle of people who are facing these deeper challenges. Some of what they talked about was the shamanistic culture, and how this is viewed from other societies.
It was, for me, a lack of exposure prior to my diagnosis of so many other ways to view this—that aren’t just me in my own head, rationalizing something. When I was first diagnosed, it was “Okay, I can think this was a beautiful experience of psychosis. I can think that there is deeper meaning here, but no one else around me is reinforcing that worldview.” Now, I have a whole community that agrees with this worldview and is trying to bring these worlds together and help educate others through lived experience.
So I think just that moment of awareness that other people share this worldview is really validating and really important.
Biancolli: Doubling back to the festival itself for a moment, you were just speaking now about the openness of many musicians to talk about this stuff, to be authentic and tell their own stories. So, the lineup that you have is really cool. It includes Iron & Wine, which is the stage name of singer/songwriter Erwin Beam. And then you have the folk band Hiss Golden Messenger. You had mentioned Langhorne Slim, the singer/songwriter. Then you also have singer and rapper KAMAUU, and then indie grunge band Pom-Pom Squad, featuring frontwoman Mia Berrin.
I’m just really interested: Why those acts? Does it have to do with their own experiences in the music industry, their own openness in talking about all this stuff? Was there something specific to maybe even the music itself—how they express things through their music?
Bullard: I mean, first and foremost, it’s artists who want to help support this cause of opening up dialog and deeper dialog. And most of those artists we’ve worked with in some capacity before. Mia from Pom-Pom Squad has been on our podcast. Hiss Golden Messenger, we did a prior event with. So, one, we have seen just the beauty with which these artists talk about these issues and care about these issues, and from very different angles. And part of that different-angles-and-perspectives aspect is really important, especially when we think about music. These are artists coming from multiple genres and viewpoints, different backgrounds of where they grew up, and music can speak to people in such different ways.
The music connects with people in such different ways. So, moving from folk to grunge to hip-hop to funk—whenever we program our events or even our digital programming, we’re trying to also be very cognizant of reaching everyone, and reaching them within different ways. Not only with what the artists themselves experience, but also the form in which they are experiencing it, which is usually their genre of music. So, that’s some of the thinking.
Biancolli: Are you thinking as well about the people who go to the festival? Whenever I go to any kind of a concert, or live music event, or festival—no matter what genre, there is this bond even among the people themselves. For instance, this weekend I went to hear Beethoven’s Ninth performed by the Albany Symphony and the choir Albany Pro Musica, and they were amazing. This sense of connection just among the people in the audience was profound, and I was dwelling on it even as I listened to it. I thought, “What is it about music?”
I actually interviewed an archeologist once, Steven Mithen, who talked about how innate it is for humanity to sit around a fire outside a cave during the Ice Age. Someone is making music, and the group bonds around it. Is that part of what you’re trying to do with Sound Mind? Not just the message of the music itself and the musicians, but to create that sense of bonding, of community?
Bullard: I love that you brought up the ancestral history of music, because that’s where my head was going. We’ve done this for centuries and millennia—as long as humans have existed and gathered—and used music as a way to connect and build these bonds. And that’s definitely a huge part of what we’re trying to do. So much of the narrative around mental illness can sometimes be divisive, even if it’s not trying to be, even if it’s trying to be helpful. And a huge goal of the festival, using music as a vehicle, is this is also a celebration. This is a celebration of all we go through, and how despite the hardship and different perspectives, that’s what makes life beautiful. That we get there.
You can’t have the light without the dark, and it’s okay to express these things—and that is a very big part of it.
Last year, we did it in Central Park in New York City at Summer Stage, and it was a beautiful event. At the same time, one of the things we saw that we really wanted was more experiential elements, where the audiences co-mingle and interact with art and interact with each other. And that’s why we’re doing it on the streets of New York this year. Last year, a lot of people were mixing, but it felt a little too much like there was a stage and then everyone else—as opposed to having so many different elements of an event where people could mix and mingle, and leverage the arts and music as a way to connect deeper in so many other ways. And build new bonds and friendships, hopefully, as well.
Biancolli: What do you want people to know? What should people know about music, about the music industry, about what it means to be happy, grounded, well, human, all of that? I mean, these conceptions that you’ve been discussing of mental health and recovery—is there anything else that we haven’t touched on in terms of what you hope are the takeaways, both from this conversation and from the festival?
Bullard: What I really would love people to walk away with is this idea of breaking down boundaries and barriers, and the classic example of the diversity of a rainbow is what makes it beautiful. When you go to a music festival and you hear all sorts of different genres in music, and types of artists on stage, and different stories being told, that’s what makes it beautiful.
Sometimes, if you go to an event that is just all the same thing, or very similar things over and over again, it becomes monotonous, and it doesn’t help you expand your own consciousness and experience and meet new people, or expand the way you’re viewing the world. For me, that is very tied to what we’ve been talking about in terms of our own experiences related to the framework of mental health, and that it’s not a binary issue of I’m well/I’m unwell. What are these experiences that I’m being faced with, or people I’m being faced with, and how can the diversity of this really add to the flavor of life? That reframing around mental health is really the potential music has in the conversation, and I think music has that potential across the board.
Even coming to perform with other people, the reason it’s so beautiful is because people have different voices and are playing different instruments—and we need to think in a similar way about different perspectives around viewing and interpreting the world. And as long as people are living healthy lives filled with love, and really can take care of themselves and others, we should be able to uplift all those different points of view.
Jervert: I love that so much, Chris. Thank you so much, and I love how you’re saying to just use these experiences, the diversity of this experience, to expand our compassion for one another and our understanding of each other’s wholeness. That’s just beautiful.
This festival—I am looking forward to it And Chris, you’ve done such a wonderful job with it. Thank you so much for founding it and putting it together. I admire how much you’re bringing in different voices and different perspectives, and trying to hold all of what we are as a community of people with these experiences. So, thank you for your work.
Bullard: I enjoyed this so much. You’re both so wonderful to talk to—and thank you for this opportunity, and again, for the work that you all are doing. I’m just so excited we all got to connect. Thank you so much.
Header photo credit: Hannah Cohen
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from The Thomas Jobe Fund.