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For musicians facing mental health issues, Nuci's Space 'has your back'

Nuci's Space is a nonprofit resource and support center for musicians, with a focus on mental health and suicide prevention.
Nuci's Space is a nonprofit resource and support center for musicians, with a focus on mental health and suicide prevention.Luke Taylor | MPR

by Luke Taylor

May 31, 2018

As the owner of the New West Records label, George Fontaine speaks from experience. "Being in the music business and knowing artists at all levels — whether it's an indie band or an established artist like Steve Earle — the one thing that's missing, besides the fact that it's hard for them to get paid at times, is health care," Fontaine says by phone from his office in Athens, Ga. "And especially, what Nuçi's Space provides more than anything is mental health care for the artists."

The city of Athens, Ga., is a musical hub. Not only does New West Records keep an office there, it's also the city that birthed such bands as R.E.M. and the B-52s, and it remains home to musicians and bands today: the Drive-By Truckers, Cicada Rhythm, the Whigs and many others. And in a town with such deep musical roots, the ground is fertile for a place like Nuçi's (pronounced NOO-cheez) Space to exist. "Everyone in Athens loves Nuçi's Space," Fontaine says.

Situated at the base of Oconee Street in Athens and adjacent to what's known locally as the R.E.M. Steeple, Nuçi's Space is a nonprofit resource and support center for musicians, with a focus on mental health and suicide prevention. The center is named for Nuçi Phillips, a musician and student at the University of Georgia in Athens who, in 1996, died after a long battle with depression. "His mother began the foundation to honor Nuçi and to help artists that are struggling with those types of mental health issues," Fontaine says. "So obviously, it's a great organization. I've given to it personally, and we've given to it through our family foundation."

Chris Byron is the operations manager at Nuçi's Space. "Suicide prevention is our main goal," he says. "We're also trying to end the stigma of brain illness, of mental illness, which is coming. It's something that needs to be talked about."

The numbers illustrate just how much Nuçi's Space helps the community. "In 2017, we had 235 clients receive financial assistance through us," Byron explains. "We spent $93,295 for that, with 2,381 appointments total in the year of 2017. As far as people that just came to us for guidance or for help that didn't require financial assistance from us, that was about 431 people. Those were people that didn't actually get financial help, but just came in to figure out the next step they needed to take to get help, but either already had insurance or didn't need the financial assistance."

According to GuideStar USA, Inc., an independent information service specializing in reporting on U.S. nonprofit companies, 100 percent of people who inquired about subsidized mental health services at Nuçi's Space in 2017 received access to those mental health resources, typically within four days of inquiry. GuideStar also reports that Nuçi's hosts nine support groups per month, available at no charge.

Beyond those resources, Nuci's Space offers access to services such as dental care and custom-molded earplugs through its partnership with MusiCares. The center also partners with an Athens-based physician for general-practitioner care. "As far as health goes, we try to do our best to help out with all that stuff," Byron says. "That can be a factor, too, in some mental illnesses — having bad teeth, for example, can cause more stress and more physical pain and things like that, and that all leads down that road. I think just remaining healthy physically and mentally is important."

Opened in 2000, Nuçi's Space occupies what was formerly an automobile engine repair shop. "It just had been empty for years," Byron explains. "They really transformed it into something special."

Inside Nuçi's, one finds an open area with a juice and coffee bar, where volunteers greet those who enter. There's a library of books covering music-related subjects as well as health matters, ranging from mental health topics to subjects like nutrition and yoga. From the main room, a hallway leads to music-rehearsal rooms, each outfitted with a PA system, three microphones and a drum kit; the rehearsal space is available at rates that would make most Minneapolis musicians' jaws drop: the small rooms, which fit three to four people, are $8 per hour, while the large rooms, which accommodate up to seven people, are $10 per hour (GuideStar reports Nuçi's rented 6,203 hours of rehearsal space in 2017). Nuçi's Space also runs a summer camp for kids ages 11 to 17, offering a chance to learn, collaborate and eventually, to perform on the Nuçi's Space stage. Byron says all of these activities support the primary mission of Nuçi's Space.

According to New West Records' George Fontaine, the community of Athens rallies around Nuçi's Space. Fontaine, who also owns Deadwood Guitar Company, put his two interests together and donated an acoustic guitar signed by a number of New West artists (the Drive-By Truckers, Caroline Rose, Randall Bramblett, Lilly Hiatt, Cicada Rhythm, Parker Gispert from the Whigs, T. Hardy Morris, engineer David Barbe and others) then auctioned it off to help raise funds for Nuçi's Space. The effort was part of a larger fundraising event called Athens Business Rocks, where local companies put together bands for a show at the fabled 40 Watt Club, a venue Minnesotans might consider the First Avenue of Athens. "This year, I'm pretty sure they raised over 25 grand for Nuçi's," Fontaine says. "As Bob Sleppy, who's the executive director of Nuçi's, said, 'Just know this — if nothing else, this money raised tonight will save a life.' It was pretty impactful."

Mike Michel is a Minneapolis-based musician and music educator who, inspired by his own journey, works to raise mental-health awareness. Michel recently learned about Nuci's Space and describes it as "revolutionary," adding how important it is to reach out to musicians, especially given the amount of empathy required to create music, write songs and tell stories. "You're absorbing the feelings of others," Michel says. "As earnest and as honest and as cool as that is, it's hard shutting off the valves for that sensitivity. … It takes life skills on how to be empathetic and be compassionate and still be creative and also have it not affect you psychologically where it becomes debilitating."

Michel says an exacerbating factor is the rejection that comes with working in music. "There's so much rejection, even if you're a great talent," he says. "So in addition to being a sensitive being, how to handle consistent rejection is a part and an historic part of being a creative person in the United States.

"With mental health, I see more creative people needing it," Michel continues. "I think for the majority — maybe not everyone — but for the majority of musicians, having some general check-in time with a licensed therapist who can help process or set up your boundaries or develop skills on boundaries and leading a life of balance is quite necessary at times."

A scan of the musical and healthcare landscape seems to indicate Nuçi's Space is unique. "The only [similar place] that I know of that has opened within the past few years is in Boise, Idaho, a place called The Hive," Byron says. "They came to us years and years ago, and they kind of modeled their facility after Nuçi's Space. And we've definitely had people come from other places to inquire about it and figure out how it works and try to copy the business model, but I don't know that they've been successful. Whereas this place in Boise has been, and it's the only one I know of that kind of does the same thing as far as musicians and mental health go."

Michel, who acknowledges what he describes as the very good work of Springboard for the Arts, believes the Twin Cities could support an institution like Nuçi's Space. "We are known — outside of Prince, the Vikings and cold weather — as this cultural mecca for the Midwest. If that brings in interest to the city or business or tourism or even somebody just researching online about it, it can only help this area prosper and grow," he says. "If something popped up like this place in Athens, Georgia, it would make sense for the image of the Twin Cities. It makes sense to support that because that's part of our perception to the outside world."

As for the success of Nuçi's Space, Byron suggests it may come down to the center's simple message to musicians and others who face mental health struggles. "You don't have to suffer on your own," Byron says. "Basically, Nuçi's Space has your back — if you need help, you can get help."


Crisis Text Line offers free help for those who are having a mental health crisis. Text HOME to 741741 (or MN to 741741 in Minnesota). Services are available 24/7. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a toll-free number 800-273-TALK (8255).

Nuçi's Space, Athens, Ga.

New West Records

Deadwood Guitar Co.

Mike Michel Music

The Hive, Boise, Idaho

Athens Business Rocks