Arts & CultureCampus & City

A Q&A with artist and mental health advocate Natalia Chai

The ever-experimental solo artist is busy finding her sound and defining her lane

Natalia Chai is an Edmonton-based solo artist and mental health advocate. Since debuting with her 2017 EP Connections, Chai has experimented with her music and her voice, often mixing genres like R&B and neo soul.

Chai released her first full-length LP Connected in 2018, followed by four singles in 2020. She also contributed the instrumental song “Breath” to Massive Wellness YEG, a Dance Movement Therapy platform based in Edmonton.

Chai recently partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Commission and serves on a provincial panel to help Asian immigrants access mental health resources. 

The Gateway reached out to Chai to talk about her music and the importance of mental health.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Gateway: Tell me about your transition from practicing pharmacy to embracing your musical endeavours. What were some struggles you encountered? 

Chai: I’m technically still transitioning between the two fields, as I am still a full-time community pharmacist. The struggle started in high school because I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in music — I never wanted to become a pharmacist. In my second year of undergraduate studies in sciences, I had no idea what to do. At that time, the pharmacy applications opened and I applied on a whim, but I knew deep down it wasn’t for me.

The struggle to just get up in the morning to attend class is the same when going to work. I know I’m helping my patients by providing medical care, but I know I could be making a bigger impact through my music. 

What would you tell your younger self about your journey with music? 

I wish I started sooner, but in the grand scheme of things, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. My pharmacy job allowed me to finish my Connections EP, my Connected LP, and my four singles that were released in 2020. As a solo, completely self-funded artist, pharmacy funds my music. My experiences in the healthcare field and as a manager have given me the discernment skills that I can apply when representing myself in the music scene.

Your Connected LP is a confident and distinct foray into the album format, with tracks like “S.O.S (Social Support)” presenting a sonic identity that is distinct from your earlier work. How would you describe your experience making Connected compared to the Connections EP?

Think of an EP as a snapshot of an artist’s full-length album, such as an LP. My EP and LP were more experimental projects as I was just entering into the music scene. Connections had a steep learning curve, from maneuvering the industry, the steps to recording, networking, performing, writing, and much more. A year later I wrote Connected and experimented with more genres — R&B, pop, and even a Latin-inspired track. Then in 2020 I released four singles, marking the beginning of my true sound.

In 2020, you released “On A Walk,” a track that you described as taking the listener through your personal journey. How does this track represent your philosophy on mental health? 

This song was inspired by our past year. With the partial lockdowns we experienced, the only activity we were allowed to do was go out on walks with friends and families. I am both an introvert and an extrovert, so I’ve found a lot of comfort in being with myself, but there are times when we are not meant to be alone. 

I know a lot of people found the pandemic very difficult. My [pharmacy] team and I noticed that there were a lot more patients of all ages being initiated on antidepressants and sleeping medications.

I was trying to get at the idea that something as simple as going on a walk can help a little bit. As cliche as it sounds, it maintains a sense of community, a sense of support, love, and belonging with one another.

You’ve touched on the importance of mental health not only in your music, but also in your activism. Where is your passion for mental health rooted?

2017 was a bad year for me. That was the year that my mom attempted suicide — she has severe depression. Coming from an Asian household, we never talked about anything like that. Even just talking about our regular days and what we did was extremely awkward. I was lucky to have my twin sister to talk to, along with some school friends, but there’s not a lot of camaraderie that exists with Asian parents.

I also have anxiety. It got worse when I started working and became a manager, but it has gotten better since seeking professional help last year. From then on, music has played a huge role in my journey, especially Connected, which I often refer to as my therapy. 

These events showed me that my music is not just my outlet, but a platform. All of my songs are rooted in personal experiences and issues that I see in society today. 

What are some new norms you wish to see around mental health and the stigma surrounding it?

Speaking from the Chinese culture, I hope that parents in subsequent generations are able to talk to their children openly. I envision education, health, and government systems at all levels creating a centralized platform to allow accessible and affordable mental health services for all Canadians. The biggest challenge is to encourage and empower struggling Canadians.

You’ve described Natalia Chai Music as more than just a music platform. How would you describe your platform and how you utilize it as a means for activism?

A lot of the subjects that I touch upon when writing are about societal issues that we’re not talking about. There is a lot of power in words and the way that a song can rally the masses.

We’ve seen how music plays a huge role in monumental movements in history. As an artist, I feel that Natalia Chai Music is a platform to touch upon these social injustices. I hope that the songs I write get people to think, talk, and to create understanding and unity. “S.O.S (Social Support)” is an example of how my music opened up advocacy opportunities to share my stories and experiences with our youth. It’s a testament to what I’m building for Natalia Chai Music and I do not intend to stop any time soon!

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