Surrey-based singer/songwriter KAT MILLS writes about the challenges of her life and her new album 'Work In Progress'
From a young age I found that music connected with me in a special way and I loved playing the cello, piano and singing. As I grew I became aware that I was "different" and wondered if there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I stuck out and was bullied and felt isolated. This culminated in a breakdown at the age of 15 and it was then that I started to pour myself into writing songs and poems. When I couldn't seem to speak to others about what was going on and felt so misunderstood, I wrote and sang, and it felt like I found a voice.
As the years went by life was still challenging but I was grateful for the God-given gift of creativity and music and endeavoured to use it to encourage others. I released a couple of Christian albums in 2015 and 2016 with songs that shared the hope that I had found in God. Shortly after this my son was diagnosed with autism and it felt like a light bulb moment as I could suddenly see all the challenges I had faced in a new light. Finally, at the age of 30, I was diagnosed with autism, ADHD and SPD. It was such a relief and it allowed me to make sense of why life had felt like I was always running up hill, why small everyday things felt like daunting mountains. I finally had an understanding and started to receive the invaluable help that I had desperately longed for.
It was at this time that I felt the album which was to become 'Work In Progress' coming together. As I started to write and develop the songs for this I felt led to write honestly and vulnerably about my life - coming to terms with being autistic and learning how to overcome the challenges but also celebrating the truth that I haven't been made wrong and to see the beautiful way God has designed me with music flowing in my veins. I recorded this album at the Old Chapel Studios in Chichester, with producer/engineer Paul Burton. It is always exciting to see a project grow from within your own four walls, to see it coming to life as other musicians all come together and production begins. Here are the backgrounds to each song.
I find it very hard to function in hectic and busy environments and I can find myself retreating within myself, panicking and shutting down. It feels like my whole life is surrounded in "stuff", and busyness, and it makes me feel so claustrophobic and cluttered. I wanted to create the feeling of pressure, how it feels like you are running at a million miles an hour, so the song starts with car noises and loud sounds and busy fast music as I sing about our demanding lives. In contrast, the chorus brings space and the gentle sounds of nature as I voice that my soul longs for peace and simplicity. As the album name suggests I am very much a work in progress. I know that living more simply is a journey that I'm on. I don't want to be defined by material stuff, de-cluttering both my life and my house means that I can find a place where I can just stop, think and breathe freely and just be - a place of simplicity.
This song paints the picture of how uncertainty feels for me. I need structure and clear boundaries - when they're not in place it feels like I'm adrift at sea, tossed by the waves of insecurity, trying so hard to keep my head above the water. The chorus of the song is my cry for rescue and there have been many times in my life when I cried out for help. I am so grateful that God has provided again and again, leading different people into my life just at the right moments to take me by the hand and lead me back to safety. I am a testament of how someone's kind action, support and understanding can turn a life around.
As a child I was constantly told by teachers and adults that I wasn't listening. I was, but my brain could only break down the information one bit at a time, so I had to go back and ask again. It was frustrating being accused of this when I was trying my hardest. This song voices the years of frustrations of being misunderstood as not trying or not good enough and relates the words I wish I could have said in these situations. I need people to be gracious, help me, and not get cross when it looks like I have got it wrong yet again. It's not about dwelling on the pain or frustration of being lost in translation or stuck in slow motion, but vulnerably explaining the struggles and asking for help. When I have done this people have been so understanding and gracious and have seen my heart and given me the help I need.
"Not Invisible To You"
Have you ever walked around feeling like you are completely invisible? That you are told that you have to be "important", and "well known", or "rich" to be worth the time of day? This song is about that journey and how I started to realise that there was one who that even when I felt totally invisible saw me, and loved me and knew me by name. That I mattered to someone! That I didn't need money or fame to be worth something in his eyes. And that transformed things for me. When you come from a place of acceptance and being loved it truly changes the way you see and approach things. It helped me see that if I was being faithful with developing my writing and singing and doing my best to share those songs, even if no one else thought I had worth he does and that makes my heart content.
"Not Made Wrong"
I joke that this is my "coming out as autistic" song. When I shared with some friends that I was being assessed for Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) they recoiled at the negative language. The word autism has helped me understand the challenges I face, but the word disorder sends out that message that I am somehow faulty. But this is not the case and I felt my eyes being opened to a different perspective. This song shares my relief in finally understanding the years of challenges and learning to embrace who I am and the way I have been made. I can sing loud and proud that I am not made wrong! Challenges are there to be overcome and who I am is the way that I bring a different and unique colour to this world.
After years of being bullied and feeling overwhelmed by the world I retreated within myself and was encircled by fears and anxiety. As I grew up, the more I became a spectator watching the world from a safe distance, becoming lonely and isolated in the process. This song is about realising that I can be safe even when I am miles away from home. The hope I find in God has changed things so dramatically for me as it helps me push my fears aside. I feel the Lord has given me the strength to be brave and step out of my comfort zone, knowing that I am safe in his loving arms.
"The Words Won't Come"
Whenever my friends would say to me "I love you," I didn't know how to respond, what was expected. Was I meant to reply the same? Or did I just show them my love by my actions? This song expresses that struggle I have to decipher, explain and display expressions of love and affection whilst being honest that sometimes the words elude me. It's about finding my way of showing love and helping other people understand it even when the words fail me.
"Diamond In The Rough"
I have always known I have so much within me to give, creativity to share and encouragement and love to pass on. With the challenges I face it can be easy for this to be missed. I often felt like the diamond in the rough that needs some help with a polish. The song encourages the listener to be willing to dig a little deeper. I'll never forget one pupil I taught - her teachers and parents had said she didn't really shine in anything, but as I encouraged her in drama and music, I saw glimpses of beauty. I invested in her and was delighted when she astounded people with her role in a big school production. We need to be willing to uncover the beautiful treasure that is not so easy to find and show others that we believe in them.
"Present In The Moment"
As a child I found it so hard to connect with other the children around me and soon realised I could escape to the world of books and films, living in the safety of my own imagination. Although these things are great, it made it much harder for me to have meaningful connections with others. I'm trying to get better at this by engaging in conversation and not being so lost in thought in my own head. I still have a long way to go, but I am starting to get the blessings when I am present. I'm being open and honest that I need help to connect.
This song tells the story of how the piano became my way of communicating and expressing myself. When I felt so misunderstood or unable to say what I was feeling, I would sit at the piano and play - I felt understood and heard. The frustrations and worries melted away as I processed my emotions through the music. I have made my first ever music video for this track - showing me playing at the piano as the years go by, and that although things changed around me, the piano was always a place of retreat, something that stayed the same, allowing my heart to be heard.
"Work In Progress"
This album is a vulnerable and honest journey of the struggles that I face, and how I am learning to overcome the hurdles. This track reminds that I don't need to try and be perfect because I will never reach that! I am learning to delight in the journey and embrace the unique way God has made me.
My hope is that this album gives some insight into how it can feel having such difficulties with communication and overload from the world around me. I hope that it also helps people to embrace who they are, see things from a different perspective, and know they have been created so wonderfully no matter how different they seem to be.