The Congolese-American singer-songwriter wants to destigmatize mental illness and uplift the POC community.
When I call up Texan singer-songwriter and guitarist Christelle Bofale (“bo-fa-leh”), I find her preparing for a move. She’s been organizing her things, hoping to start out at her new apartment with at least 50 percent less “stuff.” Bofale’s drive to declutter makes sense: Her 2019 debut, Swim Team, is all about letting go. On “Love Lived Here Once,” she contends with the disorienting aftermath of an abusive relationship. Caught in a depressive spiral on “Where to Go,” she’s coldly advised to “swallow the pill and figure it out.” The EP, awash in undulating guitars and buoyed by Bofale’s warm, lilting vocals, is a reminder to keep moving forward—no matter how painful that process might be.
Bofale, whose parents immigrated to San Antonio from the Congo, wants to make life a little less painful for people of color and those struggling with mental health. In conversation with AdHoc, she denounced disingenuous “white liberalism” in the music industry and discussed her efforts to find affordable routes of therapy for friends. She spoke to us about her complicated relationship with the Austin music scene, how she manages her mental health at the most challenging moments, and how astrology and an Oracle deck have helped her embrace her spirituality.
Swim Team is out now via Father/Daughter Records. Don’t miss Christelle and Tasha at Baby’s All Right on September 20.
AdHoc: Would you say there’s a Southern influence in your music?
Christelle Bofale: I’ve been writing new stuff, [and] I’ve been calling [those songs] “yeehaw”-adjacent. [Laughs.] As far as Swim Team, I think yes—because the South has so much diversity [in] what comes out of it. We’re known for our country and hip-hop, but if you really look, there’s so many different sounds. If anything, the South has influenced me in a way that’s made me feel comfortable with trying out different sounds. It contributed to my creative spirit.
Do you plan to stay in the South?
I know that I have a year left in me in Austin. It’s known as the blue oasis within a red state, but it’s not really all that it seems, especially if you are a person of color [or] a black person. It’s been hard navigating a space that claims to be super inclusive and liberal but is another example of white liberalism and doesn’t cater to everybody. [They’re] liberal in the ways that [are] convenient for [them]. Part of me does want to stay, because the more that we just leave, the less that we’re able to promote change within those spaces. But at the same time, is that my job? You reach a point of exhaustion.
I don’t know if my qualms are necessarily with the South or just with Austin, Texas specifically. There are groups here in Austin that have been working to put POC artists and queer artists at the forefront; you can find a space for yourself as a musician. [But] at the same time, there are weird moments where there will be a local music festival and the lineup is comprised of mostly white acts, and some of the acts are super new. Then you have to ask, is this based off of hard work and talent or is this nepotism? Austin gets stuck in the garage-psychedelic rock thing, and I wish that more of the different stuff was getting a little more shine. But that is changing.
Are there any spaces or groups you want to highlight?
I really like Brown State of Mind. They do more than just music—they provide free education, [and] amazing music shows [and] art shows. I love them. Raw Paw is a screenprinting shop, [and] they also host events at their space. [They’re] really queer [and] POC-friendly. They do music shows and host poetry nights. The two of them are really doing amazing things in Austin that I really admire.
For a long time, people could only hear your music if they went to one of your shows. What made you decide to record the EP and release it when you did?
The summer of 2017, I worked on recording with a friend of mine, but it just didn’t work out. I was touring a bunch of shows and started getting a band together. I was researching studios and considering self-producing. Then I randomly met Tyler [Andere] from Father/Daughter at a small house show. It all was really serendipitous and unexpected.
Did the songs evolve in the studio?
The songs grew in ways I couldn’t have imagined. For the intro of “Love Lived Here Once,” there’s this weird, aquatic atmospheric sound going on in the background. While we were tracking that song, my guitarist was hitting the body of the guitar and the neck with both of his hands, and it was making this really lush, deep-sea sound. The engineer [decided] we should run it through a delay/echo pedal. That was a really cool moment. It added such depth to that intro.
A big theme of Swim Team is dreams and illusions. What helps you stay grounded and to stay in touch with what you really feel?
I’ll shout out my therapist. I’ve been seeing my therapist for three years, and she has given me so many tools for when I’m feeling stuck. I like counting a lot. I’ll count or make lists, writing out each emotion that I’m feeling. A[nother] big thing is just asking myself what I need in that moment. It’s funny how you’ll intuitively know: Sometimes it’s just [needing to] go for a walk, or sit outside for a minute, or give myself a hug. Little things like that help me stay in touch with reality.
Lately I’ve been trying to be really mindful of the connection between my body and mind. In the past, a lot of my message to try to ground myself [was] strictly in my head. But adding physicality to it has been really helpful: moving my body [or] doing a weird dance for five minutes are ways to recenter.
Does playing your instrument help bridge that gap between your mind and your body?
For sure. It’s really cool being able to create a sound that perfectly describes how you’re feeling. Sometimes I don’t have the words, but [I know] the way that I feel sounds like “this.” Being able to [communicate] that physically is so validating, and helps bring so much clarity to a situation. When I play my songs on the guitar, it’s always a really visceral thing. Sometimes [when playing a show], you’re kind of going through the motions, but I try to be mindful about it and make it a therapeutic moment to be feeling those emotions again.
How has your family responded to you going to therapy?
When I was younger, I definitely stressed needing therapy, and [my family] was very much like, “In our culture, you don’t take your problems to a therapist. You talk them out within your family and you figure it out.” My mom works in the medical field and understands that [therapy] works, but even with that experience, [it was] very stigmatized. Once you’re in therapy, it [means] you’re incapable of navigating the world, [and] there’s something deeply wrong with you. There’s even spirituality involved: the idea of having a demon or something like that.
I had a few experiences a few years ago with my mental health where I had to be checked into the hospital, and I had been seeing a therapist for a few months prior to that. Those experiences have [helped] my family understand that I need it. They’ve seen the improvement over the past few years, how [I’m] much more vibrant emotionally. They know me, and [I’m not] the type of person that [they] always imagine going to therapy, so [they recognized] maybe [their] idea of therapy and who it’s meant for was misguided.
“Where to Go” is about hitting rock bottom even when you’re doing all the right things—like seeing a therapist. How do you move forward at those moments?
In those moments, I try and talk to a friend, though it can be hard for me because I don’t like to be like, “I’m sad! Help me!” I try to just become OK with what I’m feeling: “I’m just going to keep feeding myself and going outside and maybe tomorrow I’ll feel better.”
I haven’t been on medication for over a year, so I definitely still have days that are really difficult due to that. In a way you get—I don’t want to say used to it, but I’ve learned how to endure the waves because I know that it’ll pass. But sometimes the wave lasts longer than you [expect], so you think, “How much longer can I persevere through this really dark moment?” You can get better and have really good days, but it’s like grief: You mourn the loss of something or someone, but randomly it hits you really hard [again] one day.
I feel so blessed to have this privilege of having a therapist that I see regularly. I can’t recommend therapy enough. I’m always trying to find affordable routes of therapy to recommend. I’ve been trying to get more in touch with my spiritual side, too.
I’d love to hear more about your spiritual side.
I started getting into astrology—not as a spiritual thing but as a way to learn more about myself. That was a gateway to connecting with the [Oracle] deck that I have. [It’s] a Gaia deck that’s about connecting to the earth. It’s really healing for me to be in nature, so it’s been cool for me to feel like I’m able to communicate with the energy of the earth. It feels more accessible, too, because it’s tangible. It’s not this abstract idea of God. It’s Mother Earth: I can see it, I can feel it, I can experience it. You don’t need to see, hear, and feel everything; that’s the whole point of faith. But my journey has been getting in touch with the outside world and therefore my inner self.
There’s so much out there that we don’t know. I’ve been watching videos about manifestation. I think that idea is really interesting: the idea of calling certain things into existence. Looking back on my childhood, I feel like I was manifesting a lot of the things that I have now without even realizing it. I would spend hours and hours playing music, writing songs, [and] lip synching in the mirror. That definitely manifested this path of me pursuing music.
What are you trying to manifest now?
This place I’m in now has a lot of baggage—my first serious relationship was here, and the worst of my depression—so I’m trying to manifest a home with more balance and more community. This is like my cave. I want [my new place] to be more of a community space [and] have it be a more harmonious space for creativity. I find when my home is in a good place, I’m in a good place.
I would love to experiment with a newer sound, [to] bring out some synths or electric drums. I’ve written a lot of songs about friendship, [and] a lot of songs about imaginary partners—dreaming up [who they] could be, or what my next relationship [will] look like.