Australian Music to Calm and Nurture with Dr Megan Burslem


If you listen to ABC Jazz or ABC Classic FM, you’ve no doubt heard the voice of Dr Megan Burslem. Megan — a music researcher and tertiary educator — presents the Mornings program. And while her worklife keeps her deeply connected to the Australian community of music lovers and makers, Megan is filling her personal time with a mission to further connect us through beautiful and calming compositions. She has curated a playlist called Australian Music to Calm and Nurture, and it’s nothing short of inspiring.

As Australians continue to endure lockdowns, isolation, and a changed way of life, our collective mental health wanes. For musicians whose entire lives have been upended, this mental health impact is particularly significant. This is where Megan’s playlist holds its power, addressing a dual need of the general population to find a moment of peace, and the music community to remember their work remains essential.

In this interview, Megan tells CutCommon about how, with the help of our community, she curated a soothing playlist celebrating the works of more than 30 Australian composers.

Disclaimers: Megan’s playlist and opinions are her own. While our interview discusses topics surrounding mental health, it doesn’t offer formal medical advice. If you need help, contact your GP, Lifeline on 13 11 14, or the Support Act Wellbeing Helpline on 1800 959 500.

Cover artwork for Megan’s new local playlist. (Supplied)

Megan, you’ve just launched a new playlist and it’s very much related to the experience of COVID on our collective mental health as a nation. Before we dive into this though, talk us through the impact COVID has made on your life in 2021.

Today as we are chatting, Naarm/Melbourne is in her 203rd day of lockdown. Like many people, I am mostly separated from those I love and that separation presents itself in different ways at different times; there is frustration, panic, sadness and this kind of foggy insular feeling, like I am going numb. I think this is a very normal response.

I am also very aware of a feeling of guilt that comes and goes. Y’know, I am someone who is firmly entrenched in the creative arts industry, who has a stable job, and that sometimes difficult to digest, knowing that many artists have lost income and employment.

These lockdowns are also allowing me to garden a lot. That beautiful sweaty feet-and-hands-in-the-soil, get-sh*t-done-outside sensation. It’s pretty great for venting and processing. And I have learnt how to play 500 with my very funny housemates. There are positives wherever I look.

That’s a lot of variety! And now, despite being so deep into lockdown yourself, you’ve started to think more broadly about how lockdowns are affecting the people around you, especially those who make or love music. This is reflected in your playlist. At what point did you realise you wanted to take broader action to help support others?

It was obvious very, very early on in this pandemic that the creative arts would be disgustingly overlooked for funding and support. I mean — patterns!

I am a radio host, so it is my job is to keep people company. For many, I am the friend you have never met. It’s a strange and wonderful job to be in — in ‘regular’ times. But when there is a pandemic and a series of long and painful lockdowns, loneliness is everywhere in our bodies, thoughts, and feelings. I noticed more people reaching out, saying hello, DMing me, asking for music they loved, letting me know what music helped them through their day. It’s really magic.

So how did you come up with the idea of creating a playlist of “music to calm and nurture” as a way to help contribute something positive to all of our daily lives during COVID?

I have had many conversations with friends about the music they turn to when they need to foster calm within themselves.

The conversations usually go like this:

Them: I put on a calming playlist on Spotify or like … y’know, soft piano music or something.

Me: Do you have any favourite artists or anyone in particular you like listening to?

Them: Ahh yeh I think like someone called Eric Sattie [sic] or something I dunno, I just find a playlist.

Me: Do you play any Aussie artists?

Them: I don’t think I know any. I definitely couldn’t name any for you!

If that isn’t a sign to get some Aussie content as front-and-centre, I don’t know what is!

Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s works appear on Megan’s playlist. (Credit: Bruria Hammer)

Classic! So Megan, in what way do you feel music can nurture us? That is, why is it something we can always turn to for help when we’re feeling hurt?

What it is with these amazing questions! I love this interview. Okay, serious now. I wish I studied music therapy, I really do. Then I could perhaps give you some qualitative and quantitative data as a response to this.

For me, listening to music is like having a conversation with a therapist. It’s a space that you can curate yourself, and feel completely safe in. It’s a space that says: ‘Now is your moment to mourn, to cry, to bliss out, to distract, to think, to breathe, to feel beauty, to be you.’ And I say space, because music isn’t a thing. It’s created by one or a group of humans. They made this for you. They made it because those artists feel those things, too. It’s shared experience and connection. But I think, for me personally, this space is emotional validation. And we all need that.

During the curation of this playlist, you put in a lot of thought as to the types of works you wanted to include. And they are all Australian. What was behind this decision?

If not me, who? I mean, the creative arts industry here in Australia doesn’t need one little playlist to continue to nurture you. It needs everyone to be thinking about one little thing they could do so that this is possible. And that is because the creative arts industry is a complex ecosystem of tiny, small, medium and large organisations, communities, projects; the list goes on!

So if every person played a tiny, tiny part in supporting that ecosystem, it would flourish. David Attenborough, eat your heart out.

How did you find the works you felt would fit on this playlist?

I had a list compiled for myself of music that did not make me feel big emotions; music that felt to me like that moment before you properly woke up. So for me, that was nothing with too much dissonance or huge climaxes.

I had around 12 artists or albums in my little sub-collection here. Not nearly enough! So I put the word out to my superstar music-loving community, and they threw some great suggestions my way. Now, there are over 30 Aussie artists on this list. Nearly all of them making music today.

It was a really cool little project. How wonderful when you can create a playlist of music your own little community turns to? It’s not my playlist, it’s everyone’s playlist.

What are some of the pieces of music on there that calm you the most?

I am most familiar with the music of Nat Bartsch and Luke Howard. Luke is one of my oldest friends, and his collaboration with Nat led me to her music as well. Sometimes, it is familiarity that ‘gets you’ the most.

But I do have a real soft spot for strings and that glorious warm middle register stringy goodness [read: violas]. And a surprise to me, I always tended toward classical music or contemporary classical, but there are some lovely little jazz-leaning compositions in there that hit that sweet calm spot!

Megan discovered the music of Nat Bartsch (above), and shares it with Australia through this playlist.

Outside the way this playlist nurtures listeners, it also nurtures artists. On Spotify, you have guided your listeners through a note that says: “Please consider seeking out and purchasing music directly from these artists.” Talk us through this advice.

This was a really hard one for me. I have a personal rule that I use Spotify to listen to artists who don’t need my 0.003 cent per stream — I mean, c’mon, Rihanna is a billionaire — and instead buy music from local artists who would need my support, and buy it direct from them if I can.

We all know that Spotify does not give back to the artists on their platform. If you are Mariah Carey at Christmas time, you are gonna make some cash. But if you aren’t, this platform is useless for income.

But, Spotify exists and a lot of people use it. To my knowledge, there is no other platform that houses all of this music that is accessible and has a playlist option, so there it is.

On the plus side, it’s the only Australian Music to Calm and Nurture playlist on the platform. If one person sees this message and buys music direct from the artist, it was worth my time.

I can’t break the Spotify wheel, but what I can do is gently and consistently encourage you to buy direct from your local artists if or when you can.

To accompany the music, are there any words you’d like to share with readers of Australia during this time?

Only that you — yes, you reading this — are sensational, and you are getting through these lockdowns and changes in a way that is right for you.

If this playlist helps you feel calm and nurtured, I am stoked. And reach out if you need a friend. I am on your radio and just a DM away.

Listen below to Australian Music to Calm and Nurture, curated by Dr Megan Burslem, on Spotify.

You can also read on to view a complete list of the Australian works in this playlist, and explore them further on external platforms or support through music retailers.

Playlist (artist/track):

Nat Bartsch, Breathing In And Out

Nat Bartsch, Little Possum

Richard Tognetti, Spirit Voice of the Enchanted Waters

Tim Shiel, Spirit Home

Grace Ferguson, Petomani

Luke Howard, Portrait Gallery

Mirla, In Search of Lost Time

Chistina Higham, Melting Icebergs

Riley Lee, From Within My Storm

Frederick Septimus Kelly, Elegy ‘In Memorium Rupert Brooke’

Ross Edwards, Dawn Mantras

Fia Fiell, AI.A.O.

Sophie Hutchings, Billow Gently

Luke Howard, In Metaphor, Solace

Slava Grigoryan/Leonard Grigoryan, Pan

Nat Bartsch, Forever, and No Time At All

Ross Edwards, Veni Creator Spiritus: 1. Puro e tranquillo

Brenda Gifford, Plover Bird

Tim Shiel, Between Ends

Belle Chen, Morning Post Rain

Antelodic, The Last Word

Calvin Bowman, Three Night Songs: 2: Solitude

Sophie Hutchings, Not Alone

Elena Kats-Chernin, Lullaby for Nick

Nigel Westlake, Hilltop Farm

Band of Brothers, Moon Beam

Nadje Noordhuis/Luke Howard, Bluebird

Natalie Nicolas, The Rain Will Go Away

William G. James, Australian Christmas Carol

Fia Fiell, Amend

Tony Gould, A Little Folk Song

Monique diMattina, Wish It Full

Slava Grigoryan/Leonard Grigoryan, Mourning Dress

Elena Kats-Chernin, Eliza Aria

Luke Howard, Dappled Light

Olivia Bettina Davies, Crystalline

Sophie Hutchings, Tail Lights

Katie Noonan, A Song Of Hope in A Major

Matthew Hindson, The Stars Above us All

Andrea Keller, Solitary

Nat Bartsch, Searching For The Map

Sally Whitwell, She Walks In Beauty

Sally Greenaway, Poem II

Luke Howard, Open

Ade Vincent, A Drunken Fingerprint Across The Sky

Kristin Berardi, Begin Again

Nat Bartsch, Guy Smiley

Images supplied.