Tony Cummings quizzed Belfast-born singer KAYLA KAVANAGH about her music and battle with a mental health condition
Yorkshire-based singer/songwriter Kayla Kavanagh may have the track "Fallen" currently being aired on Cross Rhythms radio but her biography isn't usual by any standards. As well as being a critically acclaimed artist who has played the Edinburgh Fringe and whose debut album has been described as "an eclectic mix of electronica pop rock with hints of Imogen Heap, Nerina Pallot and Eva Cassidy," Kayla is also a sufferer of a mental health condition known as borderline personality order and has been interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour about the condition. She was quizzed by Cross Rhythms about her life, music and strong Christian faith. Belfast-born Kayla started by telling about her childhood.
"I was brought up in a family which was extremely open about faith, hope and Christianity. My parents were both Christians and as a baby I went with them on evangelistic missions around the UK. As a young child I was involved in many Christian events; I remember at the age of four standing at the dinner table saying grace, and at the end of the prayer finishing it off with '. . .and please can I ask Jesus into my heart so I can be a Christian, Amen.' And that was that! When I was 14 I was baptised."
Music came naturally to Kayla. She remembered, "My first instrument was the recorder, which I began playing age four, then took up the flute at seven, the piano at 10, the guitar at 12, the tin whistle at 13, the violin at 14 and vocal studies at 17 - all of which led to me (rather unsurprisingly) studying music at University."
But despite Kayla's impressive musical abilities and her Christian faith, all was far from well in her life. She explained, "The symptoms of my personality disorder began in early adolescence, as I quickly became aware that I was not like my peers. My main symptoms were separation anxiety, acute fear of abandonment, a reluctance to be away from home, self-harm and extreme emotional instability. This prevented me from experiencing what should have been the typical life of a teenager. Instead of the usual road of self-discovery that I watched my friends taking, I spent my days in isolation, not understanding the overwhelming emotions that attacked me from every side - often crying myself to sleep wondering why the feelings just wouldn't go away, and why I couldn't put a name to them.
"Throughout my teens I failed to develop an identity, falling behind academically, socially and emotionally. It felt like I had got 'stuck' at age 11 when the problems began, and that my body and mind were developing but my sense of self and capacity to regulate emotion lagged way behind. It wasn't until I was finally diagnosed with BPD that I began to realise what all these symptoms meant, and I was finally able to start unpicking my past in order to understand the present. There are mixed opinions on how helpful or pejorative the label of personality disorder can be, however for me it was a crucial means to discovering a lost part of my identity that I could begin to work with."
Kayla is often asked by journalists and broadcasters to describe a "day in the life" of living with borderline personality disorder. She commented, "That is a nearly impossible task as the very nature of it is so unpredictable that every waking moment is completely unique. BPD is one of the most stigmatised and misunderstood mental health conditions and its devastating effect is found in a thousand stories that have never been told by those who live with it. Jerold Kriesman and Hal Straus refer to borderline personality disorder as 'emotional hemophilia; [a borderline] lacks the clotting mechanism needed to moderate his spurts of feeling. Stimulate a passion, and the borderline emotionally bleeds to death.' BPD manifests itself in many different ways. Most people begin to experience its effects in their early to late teens, often following a childhood marked by some form of neglect, abuse, over/underparenting, their genetic predisposition or traumatic events. The symptoms of my condition exhibited themselves in ways which those around me found difficult to understand. The explosive anger, intense anguish or wild elation seemed completely inappropriate for most situations - however I was unable to see past the feeling."
Despite her struggles, throughout her teens Kayla was involved with various bands and musical groups that she fitted in around her studies. Following her degree, she began writing her own music. She explained, "I found a unique Masters course in Yorkshire in 2005 which taught me about the use of live looping technology, allowing my solo performances to involve many instruments playing simultaneously. After graduation, I continued learning more instruments including the hammered dulcimer and new instrument the Eigenharp - and to this day I continue to add more and more to my stage setup! Following my MA studies, I decided to remain in Yorkshire and began preparing and touring the stage show with my partner Nigel, who is also my producer/engineer. As we wanted to do something a little different and I had just bought a VW campervan, we decided to tour my show literally from the side of the van! Over the course of the summer I performed at 17 festivals, turning up in the vehicle and setting up the PA and instruments by the side. The tour culminated in my first appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where we performed 23 shows in nine days in various locations - an incredibly exhausting but truly unforgettable experience!"
In 2010 BBC Radio 4's renowned Women's Hour programme decided to broadcast a show on the topic of borderline personality disorder. Kayla was contacted by a researcher who was looking for someone who would speak about what it was like living with BPD. Kayla spoke very positively about the programme. "The interview was fantastically structured and I felt completely respected both by the presenter and other guests on the programme. Following the broadcast, I received a lot of emails from people with PD and their families which was truly humbling. I have always hoped that my music would provide the opportunity to create a positive image for mental health, and the opportunity provided by Radio 4 was absolutely amazing."
Kayla went on to talk about her debut album 'Stranger Than Fiction'. "Nigel and I have worked as a partnership since my graduation, combining his expertise as an engineer/producer with my writing and performing. Following the successful tour, we had been inundated with requests for an album to be released, so Nigel set up his own label (Selva Sound) and we started recording. Over the course of 18 months I wrote in excess of 20 songs, which were all recorded and eventually edited down to the final 12 which are now on the album. The process was a long and arduous one, as it's always difficult working on a budget of £0 and music is so personal that tempers can easily get frayed after a 16 hour day locked in the studio! I wouldn't change a second of the time taken as the result is an album which I am incredibly proud of, and I was fortunate enough to have some top quality musicians giving their time to appear on the instruments that I haven't managed to pick up yet."
Kayla spoke about her unexpected turntable hit "Fallen", the opening track on 'Stranger Than Fiction'. "'Fallen' was originally written for a theatrical production which was based around the theme of someone who was an outcast, bullied and turned upon by their friends. As we have all experienced this to some level in our lives, I was inspired to write about the concept of all of us being 'fallen', captured in the chorus lyrics, 'And if you have fallen too, then you will know/It's only when you let it go.' The idea behind the lyric is that we have to first accept that we are imperfect, that we have all made mistakes, and that once we work through them we need to let them go in order to move on."
Another track on the album, "Colour Me In", has proven to be Kayla's most popular song at gigs. She commented, "The music itself is quite simple as it's based on a four chord loop, as I wanted to focus on the words. I wrote this song about six years ago and didn't realise what it meant until I was diagnosed with the personality disorder - part of which involves having a lack of sense of self/identity, and feeling very empty inside. Combined with that is the perpetual sense of abandonment, felt in almost every relationship. Once I re-read my lyrics, I realised that the chorus had been part of my illness expressing itself - 'Draw an outline on an empty page/Colour me in the middle/Shades of scarlet, blue and crimson red/Just please don't leave me.'"
Of all the songs on the album, the oldest is "Better This Way", written just after Kayla left university. "It's a simple piano ballad, with a lot of lyrics reflecting the difficulty of having to walk away from things in life - whether they be unhealthy relationships, a job, or where you live. The words talk about the theme of becoming freed by the strength found in moving on, part of which is a reflection on my mental health causing difficulties throughout my life. Lines such as 'My flesh is all torn, I am skin and bone' refer to episodes of self-harm and eating disordered behaviour, and the chorus 'So this is my story, and these are my tears/Lost in the silence breathe release/And these are my reasons I choose to be free/Give back the apple from the tree' references back to the opening track 'Fallen' with the image of Eve being able to metaphorically give back the apple in the Garden of Eden. There is a lot of spiritual symbolism found within the lyrics on all of the songs, as my own faith is such an integral part of who I am that it permeates each and every song - but perhaps not in the most obvious way, so it's the sort of album that needs listening to a few times to find all the themes!"
Responses to Kayla's album debut have been entirely positive. She said, "My hope is that through my music I can continue to challenge the stigma that surrounds mental health, and that the words in the lyrics resonate with some listeners. For anyone who is interested to read more about the music or BPD, my website www.kaylakavanagh.com has a blog section which you are welcome to comment on. We are all lost children seeking to be found, and I am so thankful that we do not have to go through this journey alone."
Kayla wrapped up her interview with Cross Rhythms by reflecting on a spiritual lesson she continues to learn. "It's the same lesson I keep learning over and over again, which is reflected through most of the songs on the album. Throughout my life I have been tormented by my own inability to be the kind of person that I know I should be, compounded by the fact that I live with a disorder that makes identity and decision making so very difficult. I spend most of my days in regret, wishing that I had done such and such a thing differently, and wanting to go back and do things over again. My life lesson is that I am so grateful that we have a God who forgives, and gives us the freedom to be new every day. I am constantly overwhelmed by the grace of God that is evident in those who follow him, and am thankful daily for the mercies that he blesses me with, despite my inadequacies. We are forgiven, and that is something to rejoice about."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.