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Chris’ Story – ‘A Different Light’ by We Are Willow

I’ve often thought that people don’t really want to know how you’re feeling. You ask a person how they are and they say they’re fine, then they ask how you are and you say you’re fine – everything is fine. I’m aware that this is a generalisation and that sometimes people don’t want to dig any deeper. The surface can be much more appealing than drowning in a shared therapy of deep emotions, but once in a while I don’t think there’s any harm in…

“How’s it going?”

“Pretty s**t actually”

“Oh, okay. What’s up?”

On World Mental Health Day 10 October 2018 I launched my most ambitious creative project to date ‘A Different Light’ in collaboration with Manchester Mind. Developed over two years to raise awareness of male mental health, the work involves a range of artists featuring four film commissions, spoken word and a 12-track album of music. When I say ‘I’ I actually mean ‘We’ as everything involves the help of others. I owe the success of this project to everyone who was willing to believe in my idea and contribute creatively, physically, emotionally and financially.

‘A Different Light’ stems from a passion for human nature and the internal battles we face on a daily basis, combined with the deeper emotional struggles we all endure as individuals. Through this work my aim was to challenge and inspire the audience and celebrate the creatives involved. I wanted to make people realise that through creative outlets you can increase awareness of sensitive issues that affect us both directly and indirectly. The project has been a huge success and consequently nearly broke me. Ironically, after finishing a project on mental health I got quite depressed, completely underestimating the gravity of the topic and the effect it would have on me.

When you’re told to ‘man up’, we must remember mental health affects us all regardless of gender, and that being a man (or the perception of what it means to be a man) is not a barrier to finding a healthier, happier self. As an artist and songwriter I use creativity to express myself, and the world around me in a way I cannot always achieve through social interaction. There are elements of life that we all find difficult to broach in regular conversation, yet remain simmering beneath the surface – a combination of the beauty and struggles in our everyday. These I attempt to tackle through lyrics, music and aesthetics. The need to escape the familiar to better understand oneself can be vital. To clear my head I move, be it a few miles cycling or a thousand flying. Moving and experiencing other places outside of my day to day provides clarity, alternative perspectives, along with a new sense of self and fresh inspiration.

Anyone who knows me will likely say I’m laid back and intense, a good person and a pain in the backside – a contradiction of sorts. I’m passionate, I overthink and love to collaborate. By working with other artists I believe I gain a better understanding of myself. I’m classed as the ‘front man’ of art collective We Are Willow, yet in my mind I suppose I see myself as ‘the driver’. Be it me or a fellow artist that has the initial idea for a project, I’ll strive to make the vision a reality. It’s not easy and there lies the challenge. I really don’t like letting people down and admire the incredible talents of others, so if I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do my best to do it. My self-confidence is generally a façade for my self-doubt, but I stand by the motto that you either ‘do it or don’t do it’ – nobody is missing what doesn’t exist, so you have to make it a reality to have an impact.

I find human nature fascinating and the fact that we all see the world differently is one of the defining reasons I collaborate. During the making of ‘A Different Light’ I was given the opportunity to work with all male amateur choir ‘Chorus Of Others’ through Manchester International Festival. I’d been struggling to find the final lines for a song I’d written called ‘Ignorance’ and remembered a poem I’d written when I was 18 (21 years ago now, as I’ve just turned 39) which I thought the choir could sing. Their enthusiasm and positivity overwhelmed me. They’d never been in a recording studio before and their harmonies sounded better than we could’ve hoped for. It sparked something in me that I’d not felt for a while – an honesty that was infectious, reminding me why I do the things I do. If someone had told me when I was 18 that the poem I’d just written would end up being sung by a full choir 20 years later for a project I’d devised, I wouldn’t have believed it. The best bit is that for some reason I’d always remembered those four lines and they proved their worth, reaffirming that perseverance, self-belief and hard work can pay off.

So that’s it, a small insight into how and why I tick.

I’ll leave you with the lyrics for the four songs that were the starting point for ‘A Different Light’ – some of the most honest songs I’ve written. You can find them here.

You can also see a video about the project on our Vimeo channel.

If this has even slightly stirred and inspired you to find something that shakes the weight from your shoulders and forces a smile it has been worth it.

Dedicated to the Dads and the Lads,
The Mums and the Sons.

Chris Butler – Artist & Musician
co founder of UK art collective We Are Willow