Letting the music heal your soul with music therapy.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
What I’ve really grown to admire about the generation below mine, the seemingly-ubiquitous and animated Gen Z, is their capacity for content creation, and their ability to name and face the issues that have plagued all of us as individuals, such as mental health. In many ways, 21-year-old Acksharaa Balaji, known by her artist name of ARAA, has embodied this generational spirit, using music as a therapeutic outlet for herself and others. Born in Chennai, India, but raised in Bangkok since she was two, Acksharaa went to Bangkok Patana School growing up, which is where she got the opportunity to learn to be “culturally sensitive and respectful of others’ backgrounds” but also to “artistically flourish.”
“I’ve always been interested in the arts,” she recalls. “I grew up being in school choirs and musicals, and Patana gave me plenty of opportunities with its big productions and choral festivals. I’ve also been dancing since I was five years old. Training in Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical form of dance, and completing my debut at the age of 15, dance has been a massive part of my life and has allowed me to express myself from a very young age.”
It is this quest for self-expression that led her to music, and she released “What You Need,” her inaugural single, in November 2019, and subsequently her extended play record (EP), I Wish I Never Met You, an album of melodious vocals and powerful emotions that channels the likes of Sara Bareilles, on both Apple Music and Spotify in February 2022.
“I’m inspired by the experiences I go through,” she says. “I see songwriting as an outlet – I always try to be as honest as I can when writing so that I can tell my stories and hopefully have at least one person out there that resonates with it.” This vision brought her to Berklee College of Music, where she’s studying Music Therapy, in the hopes of “bringing music therapy to communities that don’t necessarily see music as a career and help them experience the power of music through a therapeutic lens.”
Acksharaa speaks candidly to Masala about how music has helped her process her emotions, anxiety, and even toxic relationships through the years, and how she hopes to use the power of music to help others to also process their trauma and positively impact people.
What started your interest in music, and what has your musical journey been like so far?
Music has been a major part of my life ever since I was a little girl. My mom teaches Carnatic Music (an Indian Classical form of music) and I grew up listening and learning through her. She was my first musical inspiration and has continued to be ever since.
In school, I was an active member of the music department in school choirs, musicals, and through private instruction. I studied music at an academic level in IGCSE and IB, as well as took exams through ABRSM. Outside of school, I dabbled with songwriting and teaching myself the guitar. I wrote my first song when I was eight and I still remember what it sounds like. I remember feeling really lonely at school and came home wanting to express how I was feeling and songwriting just did that for me. Now, here I am about to graduate with a degree in Music Therapy.
Every journey needs a support group to help them along the way. Tell us about yours.
My parents have been my number one support throughout my entire musical journey. They recognised something in me at a young age and allowed me to explore music however I wanted to. Obviously being from a musical family and background, I had the chance to learn a lot from people within my family. Both of my parents would attest to how obsessed I was with music from before I could even talk. I am so grateful to them for constantly encouraging the music in me and allowing me to get to where I am today.
There have been a few teachers in my life that have made a lasting impact on me, such as Laura MacRitchie and Christiane Karam to name just a couple. Ms. MacRitchie had faith in me when I didn’t have faith in myself. She encouraged me throughout high school and always saw something in me. Without her support, I probably wouldn’t have taken music as seriously as I do now. She gave me the opportunity to be a part of the Chamber Choir at school and that changed everything for me. It made me feel special and I hope she knows that wherever my musical journey takes me, I will always be grateful to her. Christiane Karam is one of the greatest souls I have come across in my life. She saw me for who I was completely and enriched my learning of myself through music. She was one of the first people I got to play my original music to, and I became so comfortable with my writing after learning from her.
Tell us about your EP. There’s a lot of emotion packed into that one album – what was the inspiration behind the songs, and how have they helped you process your experiences growing up?
I Wish I Never Met You has been in the works for about three years. It’s my story of different relationships in my life – whether it be with people or with emotions. I wrote about some of the most difficult moments that I have gone through and had experienced so much peace because of it. “Mrs. Robinson” was written with my friends, Diego Cortez and Mark Mongilio, about my battle with anxiety. I wanted to encapsulate in a song that feeling of having something that is supposed to protect you, to look out for you, only to realise that it’s depriving you of all the good things in life. We took the original metaphor of the Simon & Garfunkel song and turned it into this story of a young person and their anxiety.
“What You Need” came to be during a time of my life where I felt that I didn’t have a lot of myself to give to anyone. After pulling myself out of a really bad situation, I felt drawn to a new person. But I felt like there was barely anything left of me for this person to know.
“You can take all that is left of me if you need” allowed me to accept who I was at the time. I made sense of the fact that it’s okay if I wasn’t completely ready to try new things but that it mattered that I was willing to give a part of myself at all.
“Halfway” and “Closure” are stories about a toxic relationship. These two songs gave me so much freedom upon writing them and I knew that they had to be in the EP. They bring out the consequences of being in a toxic situation but also show that you can pull yourself out of it and make it a moment of the past.
Since releasing the EP on two of the biggest streaming platforms available, what has the response been like, and are you hoping to keep releasing more music professionally?
Since then, it has felt really freeing to have these songs out, and to have people tell me that they love it and connect to it has made everything so worth it. All I’ve ever wanted is for someone to connect with my music, and I hope to continue to make meaningful and honest music in the future and make an impact whether that be through songwriting or music therapy.
For others my age who have a dream like mine – I would say that the most important thing is to be honest with yourself. You know your passion better than anyone else and if it makes you happy, that’s all that matters.