Who on earth are you? 

I’m Helen, I think I’m 4ft 11in, but my kids are convinced that I’ve shrunk. I’m often described as quirky and a bit mad due to my anarchic sense of humour. I studied Theology at London Bible College (now known as the London School of Theology), and music at Middlesex University (where I met my lovely friend Rachael Forsyth who write and performs with me).  I’m a musician, artist and writer living in Buckinghamshire, and I’ve taught singing and piano to children and adults since 1996. I’m obsessed with creativity and I like to write songs and music, create abstract acrylic paintings, and spend hours thinking about blogs I might write.   

Tell me a secret about yourself… 

I once applied for a job with MI5 and got an interview! I didn’t go for the job in the end because the security checks took over 6 months to complete, and quite frankly I needed a job immediately so that I could buy cereal and ridiculous shoes. 

When was your first performance? 

When was three years old, I told my parents that I wanted to sing at church. I think they thought that once I had sung in public it would put me off, however I sang at an Easter meeting and that was the beginning of many performances! I was so small that they had to stand me on a stage so everyone could see me. I started to play the piano when I was five years old, and I wrote first (terrible) song when I was about six (I didn’t release it).  

What’s your greatest creative achievement? 

A music teacher once told me that I had no talent and that I should stop wasting everyone’s time, so in 2011 when my song Do You Seek An Answer reached number one in the New Christian Music chart (in both the UK and Europe, I might add), I was pleased that the teacher was wrong and that I’d stuck to my plan! I learnt that you shouldn’t ever let anyone define you or limit what you can achieve, only God can define who we are and the possibilities of what we are called to do.  

Tell me about your influences… 

Too many to mention! But probably Karen Carpenter, I do think her best work was her solo album which she recorded with Phil Ramone. We can hear the real Karen, an artist who has matured and found her own style. Unfortunately, it wasn’t released until 1997, fourteen years after her death so she never saw the public’s fantastic reaction to it. 

A love of music by female singer-songwriters and finding that I had a voice of my own has greatly influenced my work. When I was 18, I fell in love with Alanis Morrisette’s lyric writing and that gave me the impetus and confidence to write my own songs. Her brutal honesty inspired me and her ability to make just about any word rhyme, makes laugh a lot! 

Judith Owen is an amazing songwriter and musical interpreter. Some of her arrangements of well-known popular songs are incredible and she loves to take traditionally male genres and add a female spin to them. Julia Fordham is also an incredible performer and songwriter and knows how to take the listener on an emotional and musical journey. The two albums that she collaborated with Larry Klein are amazing and are well worth a listen. 

What do you think is your mission in life? 

Well, that’s a big question. It has taken me a long time to work out what I should spend my life doing. However, I feel that the Lord has called me to lead a creative lifestyle, and to be an example of how to foster the routine of creativity in everyday life. Artists have a mission to represent God’s love and truth in artistic and diverse ways. What we create today, can help someone find hope tomorrow.  

If you want to find out more about my creative projects or join me in this journey, check out my Patreon page. You can join from as little as £2 a month. 

Tell me a something I don’t know about you… 

I was born with six fingers on one of my hands. The finger was deformed and had no bone in it, so it was removed. I always wonder what my piano playing would have been like if that extra finger had been viable! The again, it might not have made any difference at all… 

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One of the questions that I most commonly get asked is “when will I be a proper musician/artist/writer?”. In the artistic arena there is no defining moment when this happens. Unlike a lot of other professions, artistry isn’t just a job, it’s tied in with our identity. It’s part of who we are as well as what we do. Our reasons to create go beyond salary and career prospects; we feel compelled to create, make and perform: to shine a light on the issues that we are passionate about. This desire bubbles up inside of us until we satisfy our need to create.  The artistic spark within connects with the divine in order to channel the power of spiritual creativity.  

Sometimes you have to see yourself as an artist so that you believe that you are one. If we believe that we are made in the image of God, and he is the master artist, then we must reflect the artistry back to him. David had to see himself as king long before he ever was king, and Abraham had to believe that he was the Father of Nations long before he was a father.  Sometimes we have a sense of greatness within, but we don’t how or when that will be achieved in our lives. This calls us to trust that our sense of who we are will be filled during our life time. 

We must set aside other people’s views on who we are and what we do. To not be defined by the atmosphere and clamour around us. Someone else’s opinion can leave an imprint of a false belief on our identity, which can become a barrier to our artistic output. How many times have we believed that we’re not good enough to create? When imposter syndrome sets in, it steals our vision and denies our personhood. We can fall into the trap of needing to be ratified, commended and accepted by the creative community, rather than being able to do those things for ourselves. The best artists are those who have a sense of self coupled with independence; they are more likely to take risks and try new ideas whilst maintaining their integrity. 

Creative insecurity is driven by fear, in particular fear of opinion and failure. Mistakes and failures although painful can lead to being a better artist, they develop our character and help build a stronger resolve in us through wisdom and experience. Public and peer critique can also have benefits if we learn to filter out what isn’t necessary, and act on what is good.  

We can be under the illusion that money determines whether we are an artist or not. Yet some of the of greatest musicians died in poverty, case in point Handel who died penniless and largely unknown for his work. The Messiah was only a success after his death, and it written during a time when his friends supported him financially. Money is good for helping us create and access resources, but it can pollute our work if we are driven by financial gain. 

Creativity is a calling. There is a responsibility in everything we do that we represent and share the truth in an honourable way. Lots of people can create but those who accept the calling to “disturb the peace” and highlight different issues to the world through art have an undeniable vocation and position in society. The world needs those artists who undertake a journey of discovery and exploration for the sake of educating and helping others. They are the risk-takers, the pioneers, and mothers and fathers of new movements.  

It doesn’t matter whether you started being creative from the time you were small or if you find your stride during retirement. The artist DNA is part of you from the beginning; it comes to life at the right time to offer you healing, fulfilment and also bring hope to others. The truth is, you’re an artist from the moment you are born, from the moment you create, from the moment that idea germinates in your mind. You’re an artist from the moment you take that first breath… 

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Many moons ago I started writing a series of blogs about being a resilient artist but the time never seemed right to publish them. I even wrote out an idea for a business called Resilient Creative but life took over and the idea stayed in a notebook. Then the pandemic hit, the world turned upside down and changed the arts arena as we knew it. One evening I was chatting to my long time colleague and friend Rachael Forsyth about the state of the arts and we pondered on how we might recover as an industry. She mentioned some thoughts she was writing about, I mentioned the previous blogs and voilà, we had a book idea. 

If you’re struggling to get back into the rhythm of creating, then How To Be A Resilient Artist is for you. You may be looking to boost your creativity in some way, to find a new way of working or regain some areas of your art that have fallen apart. You’re not alone, many people go through a “wilderness” period with their creativity. It’s all part of the artistic journey. Life is full of difficult twists and turns; recession, divorce, death, illness, failed businesses and of course, the unforeseen pandemic. All of these situations are tough for anyone working in business, however the unpredictable nature of the creative industries can make this a lot tougher. For others it could be that boredom and lack of direction has brought you to a halt and you’re now not sure how to kick start your enjoyment of playing your instrument or picking up your paintbrushes. These “wilderness” periods can be confusing, disorientating and draining. They also give us the opportunity to assess where we’re going and what we want out of life and ultimately, our music. The trick is not to let the “wilderness” journey overwhelm you but redirect you. 

This book is designed to give you some hope that your setback is only a season and not a life sentence! Better times will come and eventually you will feel stronger from what you have learnt through this experience. There are plenty of ideas to get the creative juices going, and stories of how we overcame obstacles and found a new way to make things work. It’s always possible to recover from the pressure and regain a rhythm of working and performing. 

Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, this book has insights and tips on how to reinvigorate your creativity and regain your focus. Whatever season you are in, you can make a fresh start and discover the creativity within you. 

Here’s another instrumental I composed for Jazz Community Church for the reading Mark 15:21-29 for the online Good Friday service on 1 April 2021 (that’s me reading the passage too). Thanks to Gunter Hauser for mixing the track to Adam Sanders for creating a video.

Instrumental written & performed by Helen Sanderson-White. Copyright 2021 music by Helen Sanderson-White.

I always knew that I would be a songwriter and artist right from a very young age. And I think, if I’m honest with myself, I always knew that I probably wouldn’t have an easy life because of that calling to artistry and creativity. Artists generally experience life at a deeper emotional level than others, and this informs and guides our work. Our hearts gets broken and we pour the emotions into our work. But is there any other purpose to this?

Every artist dreams of profoundly connecting with their audience, being able to move someone is a great privilege, and if it helps them on their healing journey, even better. I learnt that the greatest way to connect with my audience was through compassion, if I understand what someone has been going through, I am then able to express these emotions better in my work. 

A long time ago, I asked God why I was suffering so much in life. A series of devastating events had taken over my life, rejection, discrimination, abandonment, rape, domestic abuse, unemployment, debt, housing insecurity, divorce; it never seemed to stop. It was at this point, the Lord was clear with me that he didn’t make those things happen to me, but he allowed me to learn compassion and to soften my heart towards others in the process of dealing with these situations. Learning to be a better artist meant learning how others felt and walking the same path as them. If I wanted to connect with my audience on a deeper level, I had to experience that deeper level. I am not in anyway advocating going out and getting your heart broken to improve your work, but what I am saying is that there is more than one purpose in the pain. 

But God does not leave things there in the ashes. He treats our lives as works of art. Whatever has been broken or stolen from us, is eventually restored to us. If we can walk with others and give them hope, we take them further than just identifying with their pain. God creates a beautiful story out of a desperate situation. Whether we have received restitution or are still waiting for it, the Lord always completes our story. Everything happens for his glory, so that he can reveal his love and compassion for us through our lives. 

And this is why artists often go through more challenging times than others; we’re being prepared to create greater works that reach much further than we have gone before. We are to reflect the glory of God through our work. It is important to share the pain as well as the triumphs with our audiences. Christian life and also the artistic life, isn’t all successes and victories; often the best work is born out of painful journeys. Even if you’re not an artist, there is purpose in every life situation that you face. A failure sometimes has more value than a success because we gain so much through learning how to navigate through the disaster. 

And by the way of example, I wrote You’re So Hard On Me when I was facing opposition as a single mother, I painted Walking Into The Light when I was emerging from the nightmare of domestic abuse and I wrote If That’s The Way when after a miscarriage. None of these projects were easy to create but they connected with my audience in a profound way and were cathartic for me as well. 

So when your heart is broken, remember that there is purpose in the pain. You may not see it yet, but you might produce some of your best work and also help others along the way. We never fully know the impression that our work leaves on someone, but if we handle our creativity well, our calling to be an artist might just save someone’s life…

Parenthood and artistry...My hands smell of bleach and I’m wondering if I remembered to register an ISRC code with PPL.  My son is waving a school form in his hand and I’ve just received an email from a radio station about airplay. This request then makes me have a slight panic as I realise that I haven’t prepared the EPK (electronic press kit) for the single. There’s laundry everywhere and I haven’t done my invoicing. This is the day to day reality of being an artist in 2019. I’m a mother, a singer-songwriter, a friend, a painter, a daughter, a writer, a sister and my manager all rolled into one. Everyday I spin plates to make things work at home and at work. 

There are lots of romantic notions about artists and how they live. As though we spend our days drinking coffee and pondering life’s realities whilst creating something beautiful in a loft apartment. For me, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes I do drink a lot of coffee and I do spend a lot of thinking, but my life is surrounded my other elements as well. I’m a single mother of two children, I live in a terraced house in a market town, I have a job as well as running a business. I’ve learnt to be creative in small pockets of time, whilst cooking the dinner or after I’ve put the kids to bed, while there’s an hour of quiet or while I’m sat on a train to town. In fact, large spaces of time seem intimidating now; they have no structure, no deadline to spur me on. That one hour slot of time makes me seize the day and be decisive in my work and thinking. Before I had children I could waste hours on projects that didn’t really go anywhere. Juggling family life and work has made me more focused on what I want. 

From the outside, my day must look haphazard and chaotic. Sometimes as I’m being creative, other ideas spring to mind and I have to shelve them so that I can get on with my day. I used to find this frustrating but more recently I’ve found that it makes me hone in on what I really want and what will work. It makes me work savvy. The chaos adds to the creativity; it’s a constant stream of ideas. 

Sometimes you have to be forgiving of situations that arise that you have no control over. Sometimes projects get delayed, or they change. Sometimes things just don’t get done. Life will take over. The secret is not to be too hard yourself and ride the wave as it comes towards you. 

If anything I want to encourage you to create and work in whatever circumstance you find yourself in. There will never be a perfect time to create. An idea has to lift off the ground at some point. If you wait for that perfect moment, you will miss an opportunity. I used have have an office to work in; over time that office has become a bedroom for one of my children. This morning I answered my emails at a small workspace in my kitchen; it’s also where I paint. Yesterday I worked on a recording of a new song; no fancy office, I curled on the sofa with my laptop. It’s less than ideal, but if you want something bad enough, you will find a way to make it happen. It takes resilience and tenacity to work through the challenges, but it is worth it in the end. It is possible to balance family life and work space. 

All dreams start from small beginnings. A humble seed may take years to grow, but it can grow into a mighty oak tree. So while I’m writing this blog, my hands smell of bleach from cleaning the sink, I’m uploading a song to a music distributer and the washing machine is on in the background. It’s all in a day’s work and I love it! Don’t let the excuses stop you from creating. 

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Artists Have Big Mouths… And we have a responsibility to speak out about issues that concern others as well as ourselves. Art is about creating something beautiful, but sometimes it can also be about reflecting the ugliness, injustice, unfairness or the fractured nature of the world. An artist should represent the world as they see it. It’s about using our gifts to help others as well as entertaining. 

I’m always looking for new and creative ways to use art to promote causes or make a statement in the public arena. Back in May of this year, I was asked, along with a group of other artists, to create some art for a political protest that would highlight the differences in the gender pay gap for ministers in the Baptist Union. The project was presented to the Baptist Council at the beginning of November and was installed in secret before the meeting started so that no-one knew that it was on the agenda. The art installation was a response to a survey of salaries and benefits across the national ministerial spectrum.

All the artists were asked to create a leaf in any medium or style that represented one of the respondents from the survey: I was given the profile of a senior male minister on full benefits and salary. None of the artists knew what what the rest of the team were creating; this meant that each leaf was unique and distinct from the others, highlighting our individuality and the uniqueness the Lord has given each of us. The project was well received and provoked conversation about how to further the study and conversation of equality within ministry. Each member of the council got to take a leaf home with them to remind them of the discussion. 

It’s been an interesting and challenging project and not one that I would have have naturally gravitated to, but it’s allowed me to explore art in another arena and make art that speaks out for other people. Initially I found the protest element intimidating because of the possibility of rejection. However once I got past that I could see the true value of the project. It’s taken me outside of my comfort zone and made me think about other ways to use art writing, and music in society. Who knows where it will lead? I’ll keep protesting… the creative way.

 

 

Yesterday I hit a wall with the lyrics for a new song. I stared at the same piece of paper for two hours. I played the same part for two hours. NOTHING. Typically the week before I’d written 90% of the song and then got stuck on the last two lines. For many songwriters, this is the point that is “make or break” as to whether a song will be finished or not. I played the song over and over in the hope that something would materialise, but no. In the end I did a Facebook Live session about my frustration (you can watch it here) and it turns out that many of you have been through the same frustrations.

There seems to be a perception that songwriters just write a hit song in ten minutes and its complete. In reality, there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears behind each song. There’s more than an element of truth in the saying 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. Often with lyrics, the version that lands up in the published domain will have had umpteen rewrites and edits to get to the final product.

So a morning was wasted. Or was it? It’s in these times of perceived lack of growth that our giftings really develop. We learn perseverance, tenacity, patience; all good fertilizers for creativity and art. We learn how to how practise our gifting: we can have all the talent in the world but if we don’t practise songwriting, our talent will never grow and flourish. We look for new ways of doing things, we try new techniques and we seek to understand the purpose of the barren season. We also learn to make the most of what we’ve got; I got two hours of piano practise out of my wasted lyrics session. That’s two hours of practise that I hadn’t planned but happened anyway.

So how did I break out of this lyrical dead end? A change of scene always helps; I went for a drive and a walk and cleared my mind of all the clutter. I pondered on what the song was really about… Had I conveyed the theme adequately in the current lyrics? Was there more that I needed to say? I also have several notebooks and cloud storage with ideas for songs which I plundered through looking for inspiration. Sometimes something that I scribbled down three years ago has relevance for the current song topic, so it’s worthwhile keeping old ideas for future projects. A couple of days later I wrote down a random idea that turned out to be the missing lyrics. Once the pressure was removed from the situation, there were the words waiting for me.

What I’m trying to say here is that all experiences whether bad or good can lead to growth and development. It’s the ability to keep going through barren seasons that lead us to have expertise in our field and the tenacity to deal with whatever our craft throws at us. Although we may want to quit and have an easy life, we gain more from continuing and seeing the task through. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about the “daily pages” where she writes down everything on her mind each day. I can’t say that I’ve ever had the time to do this, but I can see the value in practising a creative art form daily. If you are in the habit of writing, then you are more likely to prioritise it, and it becomes part of your daily or weekly routine. The same is true for any art form or project that you’re working on. So as I said in my Facebook live video, don’t quit, keep going, deal with where you are, find a way to make it work and the rest will follow.

You can listen to the new song You’re So Hard On Me here.

In 2015 I was in a dark place when I had this vision from the Lord. Two years on and life has changed dramatically and is slowly getting better. I believe the vision was to encourage me and others in this position. I still need to finish the painting so feedback is welcome!

 

Helen sunDo you remember when Mike and the Mechanics sang Over My Shoulder? I used to sing along to that song in bedroom, standing on my bed, yelling into a hairbrush. I was eighteen at the time. Twenty one years on, nothing has changed, except now I repeat the same performance with my eight year daughter. One the sad things about the song is that it is full of regret and hankering after the past. I was driving to work the other day when this song came on the radio and it got me thinking the consequences of looking back when we should be concentrating on the future. At the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife looked back and she turned into a pillar of salt. She was told not to, but a fleeting moment of curiosity ended her life. I don’t do regret, it’s a lens that distorts the reality of the future. It leads to nothing and makes us focus on our failures.

If we constantly have our eyes on the rear view mirror, we repeat the cycle of who we were and not what we could become. Time allows to move forward but never back. We are given a gift of moving  forward and it’s up to us to choose how we react. We can meet the future with hope and expectation or with fear and sadness.  Even when we pass through seasons that are not what we want, every day moves us closer to something much better… even when we don’t feel that way. When Alanis Morissette sang “the only way out is through”, she hit the nail on the head. Sometimes we have to grit our teeth and believe that there are better things on the other side of the season.

A few months ago I hit a wall with the whole music thing. Everything I had built up came crashing down and try as I might I could not rebuild it. Truth be told, I was too knackered and broken to fix it. Years of being a freelancer, performer, teacher, composer and everything else had worn me down. I kept looking in the rear view mirror and what I had lost and wondering whether there was any point continuing in music. But the law of life is that as something dies, something else is born and new shoots begin to sprout. Things are already moving on and I’m getting back some of the music opportunities that I lost a long time ago. I have opportunity to reinvent my music and in turn myself. Life constantly evolves and we should take every opportunity to grow and develop.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s don’t look back over your shoulder, face the future and reinvent yourself. Reinvent yourself