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Francis Arevalo, Musician

Francis Arevalo, Musician

Francis Arevalo is a Filipino-Canadian artist, producer, consultant, and UBC alum based in Vancouver, BC. Known for his personal storytelling, clever lyricism, and colourful production, he makes music to uplift, inspire, and energize himself and his community.

Can you tell us a little bit about your story?

So when I think about my stories, specifically for this conversation, I think of the fact I'd been an artist in different forums. Mostly as a poet, and as a musician, from 2010 to 2015, I was starting to really work into projects and develop that craft stepping into being a performer. That was also a very difficult time in my life. I'd experienced different forms of depression over that decade, but it then evolved into bipolar disorder, and manic with psychotic symptoms. There was a very long episode of mania and psychosis between January 2015, and April 2015. That led to my life kind of going one way and then quickly stopping and then having to pivot a very different way in my life. I went through a very difficult time with my mental health learning to embrace it and moving through it to heal with it. I was able to do this due to the music community, getting in touch with my culture and moving through psychiatry. I feel different modes of healing, not only got me to a place where I feel I could live my life again. But also, we're here having this conversation, what, five years, six years later, and I'm in a very different place that I quite honestly couldn't have dreamed of.

How has your relationship with music changed after getting your diagnosis?

I think after getting my diagnosis, music was three things for me. First, it was a place of deep joy. It was also a place of fear and where I felt the most at home. Music was the way I engaged with the inner child in me. Music isn't simply entertainment, for me, music is wrapped up in allowing me to connect with myself in the community and the world around me. I attribute music to being equally as important as the counseling sessions I used to attend, as important as the medications that I took and I'm still taking. I think being able to make music in the height of my most ill has shown me the effects that it has to keep me grounded. Especially communicating through music and communicating through lyrics, has helped me process my feelings, traumas and experiences. It's helped me communicate what I am going through to other people, whether it's like finding really specific words that help me translate my experience or expressing how these chords make me feel. The last piece is that again, beyond survival, is kind of what keeps me going through the days. If I wake up, and there's music somehow a part of that day, that's a good day to be awake. My life, my work and my playing are all surrounded by music and that's a very different place from where I was two years ago, or even five years ago. So I feel very grateful to be living on this path now.

Being a Filipino-Canadian artist, how was mental health perceived by your community and family?

There wasn't really a conversation around it. There were many countless instances where I just knew something was off. Like, I don't feel good today. I feel sick, but I didn't know how to describe it. Oftentimes, it would be received with questions like “What are you talking about? You're making it up,” or “there are worse problems than that.” I remember there are even times where I'd have to lie and say I think I just like I have food poisoning or something else that made it easier to understand that to me it felt like it was a sickness or something. I also think in my family, there's elements of shame, because I was raised Catholic. There is this sentiment of just praying it away. Solely praying it away without any other practices or rituals to kind of help you through that time. It was quite harmful. It didn't get better. In that time of crisis between 2015 and 2016 it became very apparent that this was really serious. It had to become extreme to be taken seriously. I was hospitalized, and I stayed in a psychiatric ward for a month. My life was totally thrown off course and it wasn't until then my family saw that oh, maybe this isn't nothing he's not just sad. Maybe there's other things happening here. And I'd say that the middle of that decade was probably the clearest of it where the guards dropped. It was less about combating my experience of myself and more of them asking questions, learning to take care and learning to support me. It was also a time where I learned to trust them in that they wanted to support me; they just didn't know how and that isn't their fault. That's systemic. There's generational and colonial factors at play and knowing that individual lack isn't a personal fault, it's a product of the systems that we live in. Realizing that kind of helped us come together and be like, Okay, how do we learn to take care of this together? So I'd say I think in summary, like the decades was, the last decade was a very transformative time for my family, in relation to our understanding and willingness to discuss mental health.

Your work seems to be centered around the ideas of connection, creation and collaboration. How important are these ideas to you in creating art?

When there's negative or harmful energy around me, it takes a toll on me. Part of that might be around bipolar disorder, but I also think this is part of me as a person. I need to harmonize the world around me so that I can feel good. If I feel tension, or distances, I'm not in a good place. It's like, I'm a ball of anxiety and I don't want to talk to anybody, and I can barely move through the day, let alone socialize. At its core for me, that's just something that I do to stay alive. I have to connect with people. I have to collaborate. Collaborating to me is one of the most intimate and sacred forms of connection. It's literally co creating a reality together, how beautiful is that? To do that with my loved ones, my peers and my community that's a better way to move through my day. At this point, music is again, like I said, less entertainment and more a way to string together realities, string together art, and string together people. Maybe on a less serious answer, it's just more fun. Making music is more fun with people like last night. So last night I played a show, it was supposed to be just me and my guitarist. Then throughout the night my friends started to join in. So by the end of the night, we all sang together, and it was totally spur of the moment and, but that's the kind of magic that I could ask for. As soon as we stepped into the building together, we're like, this night is already amazing. You know, anything beyond this is extra but the fact that we all get to connect and make music together is everything. Even if there was no one in that room, the six of us would have an amazing time. Nothing lights me up like co-creating with people especially when it's music.

How does it feel to talk openly about having bipolar disorder and your experience with mental illness? How has healing out loud helped your healing process?

Yes, it helped. At some point in that journey, I realized that it didn't feel good to not talk about it. It had to be out loud. In my family, in our culture, there's so much shame wrapped up in that. Not in even just living with mental illness, but in all of those sides of life, all the consequences of that period. At that time, I didn't have a job, I hadn't finished my degree, I was in debt. I mean, there's layers on layers. I could feel what I was experiencing from other people that were judgment, shame and guilt and it quieted me. When I bring up that thing, I feel like I'm quite sensitive or like, you know, in touch with the space around me, a person that sought to feel that tension and that dissonance right. So I had to put it out to change the energy around me like I just didn't want to step into a space where I wasn't welcome. I didn't want to step into a space where people misunderstood me, I didn't want to step into a space where people were guilting me or shaming me. So rather than swallowing the negativity, I decided I'm just going to put all of it out there. And if it scares someone, if someone feels some kind of way about it, that doesn't resonate anymore with our relationship, and they want to leave our friendship or our being family members, by all means, do it. But if it means that I get to stay alive. I mean, it's not even a conversation like, you know, so yeah, I think part of being spoken beyond like, community and public advocacy, but just like the direct family to friend, family and friend advocacy. Yeah, I learned that need to stay alive taught me about boundaries and taught me about stating what I need taught me about. Yeah, learning to communicate. Around conflict.

What is some advice you can give to others who might be struggling with their diagnosis/consequences of their illness?

I always struggle with this question. The way I heal or continue to heal might not work for somebody. Someone could watch this or listen to this and be like, I don't know what he's talking about, none of that makes sense. All of these are all suggestions and this is my experience. Take what works for you and just leave what doesn't. There is no one way to heal. I think that's the core takeaway. If I were to leave someone with love, maybe an affirmation is that somewhere our bodies are always telling us what it needs. It's always communicating if we feel safe, or if it feels in danger. I would be in countless doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, rooms, and not all of them would be mindful of this, that part of it. We know what we need and sometimes it's a matter of gently pulling it out and being aware of our needs. I just wanted to invite that into the conversation as well. Not dismissing the natural and inherent wisdom that our minds are aware of but in our bodies and in our hearts are capable of telling us things our brain might miss. I think that has to be considered when we think about taking steps into different kinds of support services. We have more agency in our healing than sometimes we think we do.

Photo by Jon Chiang