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."

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RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Chad Lawson doesn't care if you start to zone out while listening to his music. In fact, that's sort of the goal. The pianist and composer is releasing a double album today. It was recorded at Abbey Road, the London studio once used by the Beatles. Members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra joined Lawson on some of the tracks. The release falls during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and Lawson says he wrote this music as a way to help people who are struggling. He also hosts a podcast called "Calm It Down." Chad Lawson took the time to come into our studios in Washington, where I got to ask him about his music, but more importantly, I got to listen to him play.


CHAD LAWSON: This is a song called "Irreplaceable." And it's not a void that you're trying to fill; it's something that you're trying to cherish, and so, like, the idea of remembering what's irreplaceable in your life to get us through those hard seasons.

MARTIN: That was beautiful.

LAWSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: It's also just been so long since I got to be in physical space with someone making music like that.

LAWSON: Right?

MARTIN: It's almost like I didn't want to talk because you just want to hold the moment of those last few notes. That was beautiful.

LAWSON: Thanks.

MARTIN: Tell me where you were in your life when you wrote that.

LAWSON: I'm not one of those composers that write every day for 45 minutes or see a sunset - be like, oh, I'm going to go write about the sunset. Normally, I get a melody in my head. And then I have my pencil and my manuscript paper, and I write out the melody, and then I craft the song around the melody. I still have no idea what the song is about, but the song will eventually tell me what the story is.


LAWSON: When I record an album, I actually take a break after the recording for about a month and just completely clear my mind, clear my head, whatnot. And then once that month is up, I'll go back, and I'll sit down, and I'll read literature. I'll read poetry while I'm listening to it in the background. One song in particular, it's called "Fields Of Forever," sitting in Abbey Road, recording the song with a cellist named Peter Gregson and a violinist named Esther Yoo. And so 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 their everyday moments, be it a picnic or maybe just driving on the parkway - right? - those moments that just continue to plant the seed of who they were as a couple.


MARTIN: But those images didn't come when you were writing the piece.

LAWSON: Correct. It was when I was recording. And to the point where, like, I was almost literally in tears, like, recording this.


MARTIN: How do you describe your music? Strictly classical? Is it meditation music?

LAWSON: I think the music that I do is something that's going to be able to calm someone with whatever they're going through. I've had some people say, oh, this music helps me fall asleep.

MARTIN: That's not offensive to you?

LAWSON: Not at all.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LAWSON: Not at all. We have to have that balance of everything. And so I do, you know, joke that I need to have a warning sticker on it - you know, do not operate heavy machinery while listening to it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) It may put you to sleep, and that is a good thing.

LAWSON: But, you know, I mean, music is meant to heal.



LAWSON: I think it's amazing that it took a pandemic for us to actually stop and realize, wait - what life am I living right now? What am I doing? And so that's the whole purpose of the idea of it being called "Breathe" - exhale.

MARTIN: So this makes sense because this is the other part of you. You're a musician, but you're also a meditation teacher, breathing coach.


MARTIN: Is that fair?

LAWSON: The amazing thing is that our breath can control our emotions, and then the other way around, our emotions can control our breath. We're now much more open. We're now much more able to say, you know, I'm going through a difficult time in my life. This lady emailed me. And I will never forget. It was 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning. And she goes, I'm sitting here listening to one of your songs, and the tempo of it matches the pacing of my husband's breath as he takes his last one.

MARTIN: So you start hearing from all sorts of people about what the music means to them. And during the pandemic, you decided to start your own podcast?

LAWSON: I couldn't tour. I still wanted to stay relevant with my listening audience. And so, you know, I came upon this study by Oxford Press and Harvard where it was listening to calming music for three to five minutes raises what's called BDNF levels, which is a nickname for just happy hormones, basically. So I was like, you know what? Let me go ahead and just create a podcast centered around emotional health. It has taken on a whole life of its own that I had never anticipated. And I hear almost daily, everything from sexual abuse to suicide. This morning I had a message - a friend of mine is actually incarcerated, and he listens to your podcast, and it helps him get through the day.

MARTIN: These are big things, not just keeping someone company while they're incarcerated but questions about sexual abuse and mental health and suicide. You're not a therapist.

LAWSON: I'm not. And I - (laughter).

MARTIN: You're not a psychologist.

LAWSON: No. And I think it's one of those things where it's like, you don't have to have a Ph.D. to be able to talk about this conversation.

MARTIN: Are you worried that you might steer someone in the wrong direction?

LAWSON: You know, I've got - I have a co-writer that has a Ph.D. She is a professionally trained psychologist. And so for, like, the heavier stuff...


LAWSON: ...I run the stuff by her. And for instance, the sexual abuse episode - it's called "Scars" - I say, look; this is something that might activate some memories that may be troublesome. So please, before you go further, maybe sit with your therapist or with your care provider or someone really close, that you're not going through this alone. It's heavy, but I also think it's incredibly encouraging.


MARTIN: Chad Lawson. The new album is called "Breathe." Thank you so much for coming in and sharing your music with us.

LAWSON: Thank you, Rachel. It's so nice to see a smiling face in person.

MARTIN: Oh, my gosh. It was just the best. Thank you.

LAWSON: Thank you.


MARTIN: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Just those three digits - 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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