Jessica Risker is an experimental singer-songwriter and a licensed clinical counselor. After the COVID-19 pandemic sent Chicago into lockdown in March 2020, Risker merged those pursuits for a podcast called Music Therapy, where she speaks to artists, industry professionals, and fellow therapists about their work, creativity, and mental health. She initially imagined the podcast as a community resource during a difficult time, and as COVID restrictions have loosened, she’s expanded it into the offline world with Music Therapy: Group Session, a series of loose variety shows at Cafe Mustache that includes interviews with full bands in front of live audiences. Risker is approaching her 100th episode of Music Therapy and fleshing out the songs for her next record, which features material written during and inspired by her pandemic experiences. She and her band head into the studio this fall.

You can find more info about Music Therapy at, and at the bottom of this interview, Risker shares tips on dealing with pandemic burnout. On Wednesday, August 10, Cafe Mustache hosts a Group Session featuring Chicago punk weirdos Spread Joy.

As told to Jamie Ludwig

Music was something I wanted to do ever since I was in college, but I wasn’t really sure how to make a career out of it, financially speaking. I moved to Chicago [from Missouri] to go to graduate school at Northwestern in their master’s in counseling psychology program, but I was always very wistful about wanting to do music and trying to figure out how that would fit into my life. Over the years, I found a way to have my day job and also do a lot of open mikes, work on music at night, and develop bands. So I’ve pursued these two paths side by side. They probably informed each other, in that my personality is geared towards being introspective—my majors in college were psychology and philosophy. 

A lot of therapists are drawn to the field because they do a lot of work on themselves or maybe they have their own things they’ve gone through. I’ve never, for example, written a song about a client, but I think my tendency towards introspection and using music as a way to cathartically release melancholy—or sadness or joy or whatever kind of emotion—has been very effective and satisfying. I personally find music therapeutic in that way. 

At the start of the pandemic, I was living my life as usual and things were kinda stable. I have a little boy who was about two at the time. So I have a family now, and by extension, life tends to be pretty routine: Getting up at the same time, taking care of each other, and all of that. And I had shows scheduled, and I was working on music with the band.

Jessica Risker released this single digitally in October 2019.

When the pandemic happened, it was a scramble for therapists, and it was impressive how quickly everyone pivoted and figured out how to do the telehealth thing. It was weird at first, but now everybody wants it, which is great. 

Musicians were caught up with the pandemic as well. I talked to so many, especially at the beginning, who were like, “We were about to go down to South by Southwest” or “I just had this album release and all my shows were canceled.” So many things got disrupted, and people were turning to social media—specifically Instagram in my community—to do live performances or to just connect and share. I felt that I wanted to be part of that conversation. 

One night I had the idea, “What if I combined my music and my therapy, and did my best to offer some sort of experience that I have as a therapist to help people get through this really stressful time?” So I started doing live guided meditations. I did tips on how to structure your day or how to be careful about substance use, all that kind of stuff. It quickly turned into interviewing other musicians about their experiences. At first, it wasn’t meant to be a podcast. It was just something I was doing, but I kept [all the recordings]. After a while I realized, “Oh, this is basically a podcast,” and I started thinking of it that way.

I don’t have any formal experience in journalism or broadcasting, but I sit and I talk with people that I don’t know that well all week long. So it’s not a big leap for me to have a conversation with a musician, whether it’s a friend or someone I’ve never met before, and ask them questions and sort of pull at threads if they say something interesting. Over time I’ve tried to evolve it in a way that I’m very much keeping the audience in mind, and thinking of what would be useful to listeners. Like the recent one we did on imposter syndrome. We also did one on performance anxiety

YouTube video
Therapist Lincoln Hill appeared on this June 2022 episode of Music Therapy for a discussion of imposter syndrome.

I want this to be helpful for people. Sometimes it’s this sort of direct psychoeducational material, where I talk with another therapist. Or as a musician myself, I’ve struggled with things like “Songwriting is hard—how do other people do this and have an amazing finished product? How do they balance having a baby with going on tour?” 

I’ve always found resources that talk to me about how other artists do their day-to-day so inspiring. They normalize everything—the frustrations and the journey. Part of the podcast’s goal is to get a peek inside what the working of an artist actually looks like, including the struggles and the messiness. 

[The local focus] developed really organically. It made total sense to just reach out to my community, and most of my community is made of musicians in Chicago. Chicago is a big city and there’s lots of pockets of musical communities, but I think everyone is really friendly and willing to work with each other and support each other. We could hear each other’s stories while we were all feeling so isolated. 

We have expanded it a little bit and gone outside of Chicago. There are so many artists to choose from, and I’ll probably try to keep a Chicago focus but also reach out to others to see if they are willing to talk to me. There’s so many stories, and levels of outwardly what you might think of as success for an artist—even though an artist’s success can really depend on how they define it for themselves. So it’s kind of finding where people are in their different steps of their journey as an artist, and that could be in Chicago or beyond.

When I invite someone to be on the podcast, I have them fill out a form, which helps me stay organized. One of the questions is “What do you want to talk about?” I definitely suggest we keep it to mental health, creativity, and music careers. There’s a lot you could talk about in there, but really, I’m open. With the therapist episodes, I’m more intentional—like, if I want to talk about performance anxiety, I’ll find a therapist who specializes in that. But the artist episodes tend to be more about what the interviewees want to share and what they’re comfortable talking about. 

Joshua Wentz, who’s my longtime friend and bandmate, engineers all the shows. He really trims up the ums and ahs and all of that. But the content of the conversation is intact. There was one time where someone reached out and they were like, “Hey, I realized that was maybe a little further than I wanted to share publicly.” I was like, “No problem at all.” 

Certainly people have revealed things on the show that are pretty personal, whether it’s regarding their own mental-health journey or substance use. Adam Schubert of Ulna was incredibly candid about his addiction issues and all the recovery programs he’s been in. I think most people understand the show’s purpose, and tend to go in knowing they’re going to share something, hoping it will be helpful for a listener. People have shared deeply personal and heavy things, but it’s not always heavy. By and large people are happy to share. They want people to know they’re not alone.

I always touch base with people after we talk, and I frequently hear things like “That was so therapeutic.” On the whole, the reception to the podcast has been overwhelmingly positive. Obviously mental health has always been important, but I feel like culturally we’re really recognizing how important it is, and maybe people aren’t keeping things to themselves as much. Musicians often don’t have access to health insurance or therapy, and this is not a substitute for therapy, but if it can be a resource that helps people and supplements their mental health or helps them learn more about themselves, then that’s what I want to do. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the podcast gave me structure and something to do. It gave me a reason to take a shower so I could look decent in front of the camera, whereas I could see how that could be really easy to skip when you’re just at home all the time. So even though this is meant to be helpful for listeners, all these questions are questions that I have too. “How do people become a musician? How do you keep going? How do you fold regular life into it? How do you come to terms with where your career is at versus where you might want it to go?” 

I’ve learned so many things from people in all points of their careers, and how they think about it. It’s just really given me a more rounded view of what it means to be a musician, rather than just an interview with somebody who just put out a really great record. I’m always like, “But how did you do that?” 

The demographic that [a therapist] might work with is often just geographically determined. Before the pandemic it was always “Where is your office located?” And then there’s the issues that you might treat—I work a lot with anxiety, and a lot of musicians have anxiety. But as far as working with musicians or creative people in general, I have, even before making the podcast, been very interested in that, because I can relate so much to it and I can bring something to it. I’d say that’s definitely been enriched after hearing all these artists on their different journeys and what it looks like for them, and bringing that kind of knowledge back to working with other creatives. 

YouTube video
This May 2022 installment of the live show Music Therapy: Group Session features Chicago band Boo Baby.

Sullivan Davis, who produces the podcast, used to be the talent buyer for the Hideout, and now he has his own production company [Local Universe]. I brought the idea for Group Session to him right when he was starting his production company, and the timing worked out perfectly. We wanted to stay true to the show and touch on mental health, but we also wanted it to be a live experience that’s entertaining and maybe more intentionally keep it fun and light. 

We will “go there” with bands, but we also have a lot of fun too. We’ll also show music videos, and local comedian Mike Knish has a segment where he plays a character called Leslie Tanner, who is also a therapist type, which is my favorite part of the show, honestly. And then the band has a live performance. So we definitely try to keep the show more upbeat and not like this heavier thing, even though sometimes we do touch on band dynamics—and sometimes bands fight, or sometimes there’s tension. But usually they’re willing to talk about it.

Tips to take the edge off pandemic burnout 

Whether we recognize it or not, we’ve all experienced prolonged stress over the past few years. For some, it started with the pandemic; for others, COVID just added to the challenges they were already facing. All the sources of stress in our lives—personal traumas or loss, racial injustice, climate change, threats to bodily autonomy, ascendant fascism—can really stack up, which harms our minds and bodies. 

Jessica Risker shares some of her favorite tips for coping with and powering through periods of prolonged stress:

1. Tune into your baseline 
Think about how you feel when you’re in a healthy place. Now think about how you feel when your stress level goes up. For example, do you feel less focused and energized? Self-assessing your emotions allows you to tell the difference between tolerable, manageable, and difficult, so that you can begin to face them before they stack up.

A stylized fuchsia-and-gold illustration of a noticing eye
Credit: Kirk Williamson

2. Remove stress through emotional hygiene 
If you clear emotional residue, you can get back to baseline, or as close to it as possible. Pinpoint some small things you can do that have a great payoff for your mental health, such as spending time outside, taking a shower, or doing something creative. Build those activities into your existing routine so that you’re able to prioritize them without willpower—relying on force of will is a short-term strategy that isn’t helpful in times of stress. 

3. Focus on what’s within your control 
Create structure and routine, such as waking up at the same time each morning, but be flexible with yourself rather than seek perfection. 

A stylized fuchsia-and-gold illustration of a paintbrush
Credit: Kirk Williamson

4. Get creative 
Whether you like to draw, sing, or write, creative expression can benefit your mental health. However, stress can impact executive function, which can make it hard to get started. So lower the bar and just promise yourself two minutes. If you want to keep going, keep going. If not, you’ve already hit your goal. 

5. Get physical
Move your body and spend time outside. Physical movement sends a signal to the brain that says “I am not stuck,” which is especially important for people experiencing trauma. Adding intention can boost the benefits of your activity. For example, go on a mindfulness walk while taking note of beautiful things around you.

A stylized fuchsia-and-gold illustration of a close circle of people, represented by their heads seen from behind and linked by lines
Credit: Kirk Williamson

6. Recognize and validate your struggles
We often feel like we have to choose between “this is really hard” and “I can do hard things,” or “this is hard” and “others have it harder.” But we can recognize our challenges without invalidating our feelings about them. As soon as we name an emotion, we’re able to start working through it.

7. Build social support, but establish boundaries
Connect with family, friends, or a qualified therapist, but be mindful that you don’t overcommit yourself while your energy reserves are low. 

8. Maintain your sense of humor
Laughter creates connection and releases positive chemicals in your body. When was the last time you had a great belly laugh?