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Interview: Claudia Balla, doctor, singer

10 June 2022

‘I believe that I sense the disorientation and pain of others around me’

I am not sure whether becoming a singer was a decision that I made at a certain moment in my life, or something that happened to me gradually, with time.

With ten-to-12-hour days at the hospital, at least five days a week,
it is not that evident how to build a career in music. I have to choose obligation over passion on a daily basis.

I must get up every morning and do my job properly,
because, if I fail to do so, there will be consequences for the patients and my colleagues — whereas not putting out a new track, or not doing a show, will not have a negative effect on others, only me, but I can live with that.

I always felt a bit aloof, like an outsider, since I was a child.
I was never popular with other kids, and always ended up observing instead of participating. This alienation worsened as I became a teenager: I was bullied and made fun of for many years, which made me lose trust, fear people in general, and keep a distance.

I suppose I never managed to recover from this state,
and perhaps that’s why people notice a theme of dystopia in my music. I believe that I also sense the disorientation and pain of others around me.

I do have previous songs that have dealt with climate change, like “Miracle”;
or the situation of women in our society: “Perfect”. But I wouldn’t say that these questions trouble me the most right now. I am more concerned about other matters that have appeared on the horizon lately, like the war in Ukraine. Switzerland, where I live, is a nice, calm country. It is horrifying and unfathomable to learn what is happening in Ukraine, and I pray for the bloodshed to end soon.

I think it is important to not confound culture with politics and thus penalise people,
artists for example, who have nothing to with a certain situation, like a war.

Most of the time I do not intend to discuss heavy subjects like dystopias,
just everyday, girlish things like falling in love, falling out of love, heartaches, and longings.

is the title of my third album. The name is a reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The concept is that Alice, or at least a contemporary version of her, is the narrator of the songs on the record.

I come from a background of classical music.
You might start throwing stones at me now, but I have been influenced by great Russian composers like Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninov.

As I have less time since I have been an adult,
I mostly focus on catching up with the current trends in pop music while I am on the move. When I have a chance to sit down and listen to music recently, I have put on something by Bartók.

I think my approach to song-writing is really traditional and old-school:
I write with the piano or the guitar, I record the demo on my phone, and send it to producers who are much more tech-savvy than I am. As for the visuals, I work with a group of artists who make visual content for a living.

I enjoy performing and recording for different reasons.
I like the intimacy of recording, and the possibility of redoing something if I am not satisfied with the results. As for live settings, the spontaneity, the uniqueness of each event and the audience make performing very exciting. Recording is close to writing for me — it’s a more pensive, meditative process, while a show requires more adrenalin. Instead of staying mostly in your mind, your heart and instincts move to centre stage. I have not been performing lately, unfortunately, mostly owing to the pandemic and my day job.

I work in a psychiatric hospital.
We kept going on while most of the other professions were isolating, as we needed to meet patients face to face in order to treat them. I believe the workload has only augmented since the pandemic. The pandemic has both created new problems and made pre-existing ones even less supportable.

I was born in Budapest, and now I live in Geneva.
I do not believe that my childhood was particularly eventful or out of the ordinary. I am the only child of hard-working and conscientious middle-class parents who are biochemists, and I continue to live a simple and quiet life. The multiple national languages here — German, French, Italian, Romansh — mean that the music scene is small and fragmented, which can be a challenge for artists.

My parents were adamant about my going to medical school,
even though I was not too excited about the idea. My true passion lies in the arts, and this has not changed since I was a kid.

I was about five when I got involved with the piano.
I started writing songs at the age of eight. Before that, it was pretty much gibberish that I composed.

I started out in surgery, and planned to do hand surgery,
but the road leading to that specialty required more investment and sacrifices than I was ready to give. After three years, I abandoned this project and decided to something entirely different. What can be more different from working with unconscious people than listening and talking to them all the time?

As a Christian, I try to be the best person I can be,
the best version of myself: to put and keep the needs, interests, and well-being of others in front of mine. This can be a challenge, sometimes, especially when others try to use you as a means to their end.

I do not think I remember a first experience of God.
I must have been quite young. Since then, I believe there have been ups and downs, as in every relationship. I try to listen more and talk less — as a good therapist would do, although, in this case, the roles are inversed.

I sometimes put some allegories into my lyrics,
but the listener has to pay close attention to notice these small hints.

I appreciate nature very much.
I love to take a walk in a forest, a botanical garden, or even a regular park. I love to observe plants and animals in their natural habitat.

I do not get angry easily,
which can be inconvenient in everyday life, as it is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, a lack of character or self-affirmation, even though it is not the case. I just simply accept the fact that the other person is being inadequate or unreasonable.

I’m happiest when things are going smoothly in the way I was hoping they would,
without any conflict, tension, or pressure.

The sounds I love?
Birds chirping in the morning. Crickets chirping during summer nights. The waves lapping the seashore. The sound of the rain. The crackling of fire in a fireplace. To name a few.

I hope to believe that mankind is fundamentally good,
and, in the end, we will figure out how to preserve our planet and sustain our species in the most peaceful, ethical, and just manner. That is what I pray for most: that things would go in this direction. I am trying to do my best to live in this manner myself, but I still have a very long way to go.

If I was locked in a church and could choose to be with any companion,
it would probably be the Buddha. I believe he came to understand the essence of existence better than most of us have, or ever will. If only I knew how. . .

Claudia Balla was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Listen to her album Alice here

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