In The Power Of Music We Trust
How Inner Trust's Spencer Hickson combined his love for music with traditional counselling techniques to bring joy, self-expression and confidence to the people who need it most.
Speaking with Spencer Hickson for the first time, you get why he’s a good counsellor. He's affable, easy to talk with; his voice calm, his words measured. But he hasn't always been a counsellor.
The founder of Nantwich-based Inner Trust, a non-profit social enterprise, started out as a DJ back in the 1990s, having been enamoured firstly by the whole rave scene and the excitement of club life. “Being 18 in 1990, my interest was going to clubs and that whole explosion of acid house,” explains Spencer. “We were hearing this music – this almost tribal music – and it was just like woah, where did that come from? Things went from the grey ‘80s to the colourful ‘90s and when I first started clubbing we’d go to a particular place just to see this one guy [DJing] and people being affected like that was just overwhelming. Me and my friend used to stand in queues saying: we need to get involved in this.”
And get involved they did. Spencer and his mate got hold of some decks, though he admits he didn’t know anybody who could teach him. He struggled at first – “you have to be bad at music to get good at music,” he observes – but eventually things clicked and, with a newfound confidence, he got some club work, including a year-long stint in Thailand and gigs in Amsterdam. But Spencer explains that he was always more interested in music production than becoming a superstar DJ who travels the world. Having been writing music and DJing since 1995, he finally opened his own label and publishing company, Tactal Hots Music, in 2010. The label continues to release regular dance tracks and has also found success creating music for TV and adverts, but Spencer admits that it isn’t easy being an independent dance music producer in the age of Spotify: “unless you’re Justin Bieber,” he says, “there’s no money in streaming these days.”
Things were arguably easier for young producers back in the 1990s but that didn’t mean they weren’t still being ripped off; one of Spencer’s tracks was featured on a Gatecrasher album towards the end of the decade, but the company he was involved with went bust and he never saw a penny. Temporarily disillusioned – and understandably so – it was a few years before he came back to the music production side of things, launching Tactal Hots as a tribute to a talented producer friend who sadly died in a car crash in 1996, the same year Spencer’s father also passed away. “Scott [Latham – Tactal Hots Music is an anagram] was one of the geniuses who could make music on an Atari and a sampler and a keyboard,” Spencer recalls. “When he died one of his tracks had recently been played on Radio 1 – he was on the cusp of greatness and, with the developments in technology, he would have been phenomenal.”
Despite his successes in the dance music industry, Spencer’s personal journey has led him to seek out counselling at various points in his life, something he says “has always helped”. Experiencing the benefits and emotional power of counselling first-hand was integral to Spencer’s decision to undertake a qualification in counselling back in 2015 – something he’d attempted years earlier but soon found he wasn’t ready for due to conflicts in his own life. “It was in no way an easy journey,” says Spencer. “Counselling is a really tough course because it’s all about you; you can’t just bury yourself in the theory... you’ve got to get all your stuff out in the middle of the room.” But it was a challenge that he relished, even enjoyed, and completing the qualification proved to be a turning point in his journey and the moment when the seeds of Inner Trust were sown.
Having seen for himself the lack of support for young people during his time spent as a counsellor in a secondary school, Spencer had ambitions to combine the fun and creativity of DJing and music making with traditional, but still worthwhile, counselling. When his degree was finally complete, he began looking into how best to get something setup.
Community & Voluntary Services Cheshire East provided advice and bid writing information but “it was still a minefield” and Spencer ended up hiring a solicitor to finish the job (who initially set things up incorrectly, delaying the launch of Inner Trust). Spencer eventually opened Inner Trust as a non-profit social enterprise in January 2018.
So, what exactly is Inner Trust? Well, according to Spencer, the organisation takes music/DJing and performing arts and incorporates them into “one-to-one counselling sessions and group workshops, with the aim of boosting confidence and resilience and empowering disadvantaged people to grow, understand and cope with life around them.”
In looser terms, this involves Spencer and his qualified staff overseeing sessions in which people, often young adults, are free to mess around with DJ equipment and iPads loaded with music production software to create music, dance and generally let loose.
As Spencer explains, the joy and creativity of the music acts almost as a catalyst for freedom of expression, which in turn has positive therapeutic benefits: “it’s the power of music, it just transcends things – atmosphere, energy, place; in a room it can just give a vibe and it obviously works,” says Spencer. “Some of these people are hard to reach, so they say, but you sit them in workshops with loads of bright lights, faders, knobs and speakers, and they’re off. Our slogan is ‘Stepping Stones of Life’ and that’s what it’s about; music bridges that gap for somebody who doesn’t feel comfortable saying what’s going on inside, or even knowing what’s going on, as young people often don’t.”
Inner Trust’s projects seem to follow rough templates, but the workshops and sessions are generally tailored to each specific group, depending on a variety of factors. For instance, the non-profit’s Musical Minds project aims to provide musical sessions based around disco, singing and dance, during which disadvantaged people with physical and learning disabilities and difficulties can move, dance, sing and express themselves freely without judgement or limitations. In these sessions, the young people get to play their favourite tracks and learn how to DJ; “they’re free to explore and express as they wish.”
This freedom is an important aspect of Inner Trust workshops, with Spencer starting things off – usually with a dance track in 4/4 timing – before allowing the young people to take control, often “putting me on to artists that I wouldn’t necessarily have come across.” Having been through counselling himself, Spencer understands that when young people attend his counselling sessions or workshops they don’t want to be faced with another adult who is telling them what they can and can’t do. “Like in counselling, it’s your time,” he says, “you can be angry, you can be upset, you can swear… everything stays in this room.”
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