With accompaniment from cheerful tones of mandolin, banjo, and fiddle, Laura Mustard’s second album, Treehouse, presents a vulnerable portrait of a woman on a journey toward self-acceptance. Mustard was born with birth defects that affect her digestive tract, among other things. By the time she was 2 years old, she’d had 14 operations, and she still has to make occasional visits to the emergency room. With this album, Mustard shares her medical struggles publicly for the first time. She spoke with Tricycle about how her Buddhist practice influences her music and how it helps her appreciate the present moment and accept her feelings of anger, frustration, and shame.

What is your Buddhist practice, and how does it influence your music? I’ve been practicing Buddhism since 2014, when I was 26. One day in Barnes and Noble, I wandered into the religion section and started to look at Buddhist books. I felt like I was having my life changed. After that, I mentioned to a friend that I was trying to practice meditation at home, and he said, “You should come to this Shambhala group.” I started going regularly. I read a lot of Buddhist books, too. Ethan Nichtern’s The Road Home is one of my favorites. I try to listen to it once a year. Those ideas get into my thoughts and therefore into my lyrics, down the line. And I think Buddhism has helped with self-acceptance. Just the idea of basic goodness has been an important philosophy for me.

In the music video for the last song on the album, “Nobody’s Road,” you show some of the medical supplies you use regularly, including a catheter and a syringe. You’ve mentioned that this is the first time you’ve shared that part of your life publicly. How did you decide to do that? I was born with a set of birth defects that impacted my urinary and digestive tracts, among a lot of other things. The music video for “Nobody’s Road” is a collage of my life. It’s made up of a bunch of pictures and objects, and it felt disingenuous to leave that part of my life out. I’m at a point where I’ve stopped caring what others think, partly from getting older and partly from the body positivity movement. I’ve joined a few groups on Facebook for people who have medical issues similar to mine, and it’s comforting to know that other people are going through the same struggles that I am.

As a kid, I felt like I was the only one in the world who had a latex allergy, a catheter, and all the other things I was dealing with. That was before social media. I know I have a unique story to tell, and I’m at the point where I’m not afraid to put it out there. I’m hoping I can either help other people who are living with the same kinds of medical conditions or demystify them and break down stigmas by using my platform to talk about them openly.

In her music and her life, Mustard spreads a message of body positivity. | Photo courtesy Matt Hoots with Who Gives A Hoots Films

Has anyone picked up on Buddhist influences in your lyrics? The line in “Nobody’s Road,” “The sun is always there behind the clouds,” was definitely influenced by Buddhist teachings. One person said, “That sounds Buddhist,” but in general it’s a line people point to as a positive way to think of things that is inspired by Buddhism. It’s kind of like the Pema Chödrön quote “You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather.”

A lot of your lyrics remind me of some of Pema Chödrön’s teachings where she reminds us that we can beat ourselves up about hardships we can’t change or we can be content day to day. Exactly. But I think it’s also okay to say “This is hard” or “This is annoying” or “This sucks.” If you do talk about something that’s hard—especially when it’s a medical thing—I think there’s pressure to put a brave spin on it or talk about it in the past tense like, “This was hard, but now I’m doing really well.” It’s cool when you have those moments, but it’s also okay to sit in the dissonance and tell yourself “It’s okay to be frustrated,” rather than shooting that second arrow the Buddha talks about—beating yourself up for feeling bad.

In “Teach Me How to Lie,” what does the line “there are parts of my fate I can’t change” mean to you? Do you tend to frame that positively, negatively, or neutrally? That line specifically refers to my medical situation. It’s something I was born with that’s always been there, and there’s no real cause for it. It just randomly happened during my development. But as a kid, it felt to me like a weird, fated thing. I think everybody has that in life, whether it’s your family, mental health, physical health, money, whatever. We all have stuff that’s hard, and we can’t always change it. I’m not sure if it’s negative or just neutral.

Can you talk about the role anger plays in this album, specifically in the song “She Must Go”? In “She Must Go,” the “she” is more like shame, but I think shame and anger are closely related. The song is a personification. It goes “She’s been following me for a long time. She breaks my locks, lets herself in.” It’s like a shame monster coming in the middle of the night to tell you everything bad that you think about yourself. I think that kind of shame can have an anger to it.

But if you strip down underneath that anger, it’s just hurt. The line “The only warmth comes from her own tears streaming down her cheeks” shows just how sad the picture actually is. If you strip all the anger away, it’s just this little kid crying on the bathroom floor. So I’m trying to learn to have compassion for that anger and also not to be mad at myself for feeling it.

Ethan Nichtern talks about compassion as a skill we build. We know that someone like Michael Jordan trained for years to get as good at basketball as he was, but we assume someone like Mother Teresa was just born like that. Really, compassion is a skill you need to practice having for other people and also for yourself.