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Out & About: Gina Chavez backs mental health help on music scene

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Austin musician and SIMS supporter Gina Chavez

Without ceremony, she makes the sign of the cross. Then Gina Chavez tilts her head to say grace. Before digging into lunch at El Alma restaurant on Barton Springs Road, the Austin musician makes another quick gesture of reverence.

Chavez, 30, is a devout Catholic.

The church, especially St. Austin’s parish near the University of Texas campus, has provided the native Austinite with pastoral guidance — from counseling on her identity to help on the path to rewarding service. In 2009, for instance, she lived in El Salvador with nuns to teach English to local schoolgirls.

When they returned to this country, Chavez and her partner needed another kind of counseling. So the couple turned to SIMS, the Austin nonprofit that provides mental health care and addiction services to local musicians and, now, their spouses.

“My partner and I felt strains on our relationship,” she says. “We were readjusting to the First World, to the musician’s lifestyle and to health issues. It was great to talk openly with someone who could be objective, to have someone who could see the other person’s point of view.”

The couple stuck with counseling for three months, enough time to find a new equilibrium.

If Chavez hadn’t praised SIMS to the skies before, she did after that. That’s one reason she is spreading the word about Femmes for SIMS, a benefit starring chanteuses Jazz Mills, Nina Diaz and Pamela Hart at Scottish Rite Theater on Saturday (simsfoundation.org/events/femmes-for-sims).

“They are introducing a new focus on women’s mental health,” Chavez says. “It’s still a male-dominated music scene. They want to give women a chance to navigate their own experiences within the larger scene.”

Despite the presence of powerful women in the Austin music, some things are slow to change, Chavez says. During the day, she works at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a think tank that advocates for low- and moderate-income families.

The descendant of a family from Saltillo, Coahuila, Chavez grew up without much sense of her Mexican heritage. Her father, Gene Chavez from San Antonio, is a photographer and kitchen tools salesman. Her mother, Gail Butzberger Chavez, grew up in the Dallas area and now writes citizen proclamations for the city of Austin.

“I was a product of the Memorial Day flood,” she says about the deadly 1981 disaster. “Mom stayed home to fix up the house, then they decided to have another kid.”

Chavez worked her way up through Gullett Elementary, Lamar Middle School, McCallum High School and the University of Texas, where she earned a degree in journalism. Slight and agile, she remembers being well-behaved yet something of a performer as a child.

“Dad always told jokes,” she says. “I’d learn them and wander off at restaurants and tell strangers the jokes. I was pretty goofy. Had a pretty level head, though. When they said ‘no’ I understood why.”

On family road trips, she cottoned to cassette tapes of Lyle Lovett, Michael Jackson, Little Richard and the Judds. She modeled some of her songwriting and percussive guitar style on Ani DiFranco, with influences welcomed from Patty Griffin, Nickel Creek and Latin artists like Mercedes Sosa and Silvio Rodriguez.

At age 18, she was riveted by a performance at the Continental Club.

“Hey Dad, don’t you have a guitar in the closet?” she asked when the family got home. “Little did I know he had a 1954 Martin. He taught me the Travis pick. I was too lazy to learn other people’s songs, so I just wrote my own.”

Chavez’s local breakthrough came with the introspective “Hanging Spoons” in 2007. She’s working on a second album with Michael Ramos, the front man for the irresistible Charanga Cakewalk.

“I thought leaving the country would be bad for my fan base,” she says of her sojourn in Central America, which did interrupt her musical career for almost a year. “But we kept up through my newsletter. When we got back, we raised money for scholarships for two of the young women in El Salvador. It provided a platform for the marriage of music and social justice. Fans loved being able to come along for the journey.”

While Chavez will not appear in Femmes for SIMS (pronounced, in this case, as if the words rhymed), she has performed for SIMS audiences and, in 1011, helped with its Latino outreach project.

“The Latino community tends to be harder to reach with mental health services,” she says. “It’s very hush hush. You don’t talk about mental health or if you are suffering from addiction. A lot of families just don’t talk about these things.”