Chad Lawson knows people don’t party to his music. When the classical pianist and composer checks streaming data on platforms like Spotify, he sees a steep drop-off on Friday. The numbers climb again on Monday. Lawson’s listeners seek out his music for serene and serious moments.
“One lady in particular, she wrote, and I’ll never forget this,” Lawson remembers. “It was a Saturday morning at 7 a.m., and she was like, ‘I’m sitting here listening to one of your songs, and the tempo of the song matches the pacing of my husband’s breath as he takes his last breaths.’”
Lawson often receives such messages. Listeners let him know how much his work meant as they grappled with traumatic events like sexual abuse and suicidal ideation. At first, he was taken aback by how much they were willing to share with a stranger. “I’m like, OK, so what do I do with this?” Lawson says. “If I’ve been given a microphone to hold people’s hands through something, then I’m going to take that and run with it as much as I can.”
He started to investigate the marriage of music and mental health, which now encompasses all aspects of his work. He hosts guided meditation and breathwork sessions before concerts around the world. In 2020, homebound in Charlotte, he launched a weekly podcast, Calm It Down, to connect with listeners when they could no longer attend concerts.
In 20-minute episodes, accompanied by his piano, Lawson alights on issues like anxiety, loneliness, and fear, and he encourages listeners to slow down, reflect, and prioritize their well-being. More than 2.5 million total downloads and an average of 60,000 listeners each week suggest that Lawson’s show has resonated.
Lawson, 47, hails from Morganton, where his family ate dinner together every night. “I grew up in a very loving environment,” he says. “I grew up in the church. I grew up with my mom and dad wanting to take care of each other.” But dinner conversation seldom turned to mental and emotional health. “It wasn’t that I grew up in a family that didn’t want to talk about it. I just don’t think it was on the radar.”
He took up piano at age 5 after he saw the band Sha Na Na on TV. Aided by his first keyboard, a Korg M1, he came to write music, too. Lawson eventually aspired to be a studio musician, a supposedly unserious goal that led his dream school, the Peabody Institute, to reject his application. He studied jazz performance at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but with steady work in studio bands, he dropped out after two years.
Soon after, in the late 1990s, he moved to Charlotte, where he formed the Chad Lawson Trio and released his first albums. To support his music, he waited tables for 15 years.
“With waiting tables, your whole role is to serve that person,” he says. “It’s to accommodate their needs without them even realizing that they have a need. As a waiter, if someone were to ask me for something, then I missed my opportunity already.”
Far from just a career helpmate, Lawson’s stint as a server fundamentally shaped how he relates to others and reflects how he thinks about his art’s purpose. (What Lawson calls his “biggest education” changed his life in other ways, too. He met his wife when they both worked at uptown’s Capital Grille.)
“There are two types of artists,” he says. “The visionaries that want to create something unbelievable and they don’t care if you come along or not—and I think we need those—but I also think that you have these artists who are like, Our role is to educate, to facilitate what people are going through. And I find myself in that category.”
So, toward the end of 2019, he set out to investigate music’s profound effect on our minds.
“We’ve always known that music has the power to evoke emotions to make us feel certain ways,” says Brian Harris, a board-certified music therapist who specializes in neurologic music therapy. “Now, we can really answer these questions through purely the lens of objective neuroscience.” He explains that the brains of 97% of the human population—regardless of age, culture, or ability—respond the same way to music.
“When we just passively listen to music that we like, it engages the parts of our brain that are responsible for movement, language, attention, memory, emotion, executive function,” Harris says. “There’s no other stimulus on Earth that engages our brain as globally as music does.” Music therapists like Harris harness the medium’s unique power to aid mental, emotional, and physical rehabilitation.
Lawson’s independent research into music, neurology, and mental and emotional health captivated him. Though Lawson is not a trained therapist, he saw an opportunity to start a conversation. The podcast he developed occupies a middle ground between licensed therapy and mere music, which, despite its affective power, can’t heal us by itself.
Lawson’s interest came at an opportune moment, just before 2020 birthed twin health crises—physical and mental. The pandemic underscored that “we really, as a society, need to focus on humans holistically,” Harris says. “We learned that we are connected beings. We need others, both physically and conceptually. We need to support each other through all of this.”
Lawson, at home in Charlotte, understood this. At the time, he was composing his latest album, breathe, which he went on to record at Abbey Road Studios with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and release on Sept. 23 last year. He could no longer tour, but people craved the connection of live music. He met the need almost before it materialized.
Calm It Down catapulted into the top 1% of podcasts worldwide and was nominated for an iHeart Music Radio award in 2021. When it launched, he thought the project might be temporary, but now, Lawson can’t picture giving it up. In September, he launched the show’s third season to coincide with Suicide Prevention Month. Speaking engagements and international tours crowd his calendar.
In November, Lawson and Harris presented together at the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine, the biggest rehab conference in the world. (Harris’ company, MedRhythms, works with Universal Music Group, Lawson’s label.) Lawson performed and discussed his connection to music, and Harris showed videos of patients to illustrate how music can help people with brain injuries and conditions like Parkinson’s to recover movement, language, cognition, and emotion. The combination brought members of the audience to tears. “What he has is not something you practice,” Harris says. “He has a gift.”
It’s a gift Lawson cultivated in Charlotte, as he clocked in at one steakhouse so he could play gigs at another. “If I’m not able to understand the needs of what someone’s going through, or if I’m not able to sit and listen to hear where someone is emotionally,” he says, “then what’s the point in creating art?”
ALLISON BRADEN is a contributing editor.