"Achieve your wildest dreams": Jessica Irwin is using ground-breaking music software that allows people living with high-level physical disability to use only their eyes to make music

Steve Balbi with Jessica Irwin. Image by Russell Cherry

Steve Balbi with Jessica Irwin. Image by Russell Cherry

By Fenella Henderson-Zuel

There is no way you could keep up with everything Jessica Irwin does; just writing it down could make you weary. An accomplished musician, author, illustrator, photographer and web designer, she has established her own business, the appropriately named DARE2BU, specialising in landscape photography, portraiture, prepress design, website design and website development.

Irwin's Cerebral Palsy means that the only parts of her body she has full control over are her eyes and mind but she’s not daunted. By anything. And now she’s got the technology to make even better use of her talents and determination.

Dr Jordan Nguyen and his team at Psykinetic, a company aimed at creating inclusive, futuristic technologies, have developed the ground-breaking program ATMOSPHERE. Operated entirely through eye movements, the software allows people with high-level physical disabilities to create music with eye power.

ATMOSPHERE gave Irwin the chance to accompany the Australian Piano Quartet at the Sydney Opera House, TEDx Salon and Telstra Vantage 2017. With the software she can create music in real time, add instruments, play individual notes, chords and layer tracks to produce complex musical creations. Now Irwin has collaborated with Steve Balbi to create Winners (Psykinetic Mix), the first single to be released and recorded with ATMOSPHERE. The track is a reimagining of Winners, from Balbi's debut solo LP Black Rainbow.

Irwin can now continue to expand her repertoire and pursue her musical dreams. Far from being held back by her disability, Irwin is thriving. She spoke to Music Love about her music, her business and how she manages to do it all.

You’ve just released a fantastic single with Steve Balbi, Winners (Psykinetic Mix), using the revolutionary ATMOSPHERE technology.

Can you tell us about how the ATMOSPHERE program works and how you use it?

Psykinetic ATMOSPHERE is eye-controlled music creation software that allows you to produce and play music in a live setting. The program works by tracking your eye movements and blinks using an external eye tracker and a Windows PC or Tablet. On your screen, there is a pie circle that is divided into twelve segments. Each segment represents an individual note or a sound sequence that musicians can preload to create their own unique musical creation. To activate a sound you look at it and blink. So in theory, making an individual sound isn’t that hard, but to do an entire performance requires an extremely good memory because you can't look away from the screen whilst playing with your eyes! Furthermore as I have athatoid cerebral palsy, physically playing in time takes an extraordinary amount of energy to attempt to control involuntary muscle spasms whilst keeping count. It is like running a marathon every time I perform! But that is how it should be…I believe you should give everything you have when you are on the stage, especially when that is with Steve Balbi!

What was it like to hear the results for the first time?

I remember when I first triggered a sound on Psykinetic ATMOSPHERE, our software engineer Nick Temple, quietly recorded some electric guitar chords. Nick placed Psykinetic ATMOSPHERE in front of me so I could do the initial tests. So, I looked at a key and blinked and all of a sudden a gnarly electric guitar chord shook the table and I thought, “Yep Nick, this is definitely my type of sound!”

How did you get involved with Steve Balbi and Psykinetic? What does it mean to you to be involved with such a ground-breaking first in music production?

I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have an army of the greatest mentors behind me. One of these amazing humans is Steve Balbi. I attended a Led Zeppelin tribute show five years ago where Steve was performing. Every time he came on stage he had the audience’s sole attention. However, I could definitely tell there was so much more to him than what I was seeing during that set.  At first I saw this bizarre, energetic rockstar bouncing around the stage, then as I got to know him more I loved listening to his stories, admire his honesty, and strive to be such a good human as he is.

Steve and I always entertained the idea that one day I would join him on stage, however, realistically we both thought that wouldn’t be physically possible. BUT… Then Dr Jordan Nguyen, Founder and CEO of Psykinetic, attended a gig and saw first-hand just how strong my desire was to join Steve. So, Jordan went away and made it his goal to create software that could allow me to perform with Steve! And he did!!

Psykinetic is a social business that aims to create a more inclusive society through creating empowering technology. I am really passionate about my involvement with Psykinetic. Technology truly means freedom when you have a severe physical disability. I first became involved in Psykinetic when I received a phone call from Dr Jordan asking me if I would like to be involved in Psykinetic’s eye controlled music project. As you can imagine he didn’t even get to finish that sentence before I cut him off with “YES!” As well as being a musician with Psykinetic, I am also part of the team as a website developer and photographer.

Psykinetic ATMOSPHERE will unlock so many more hidden musicians that now have the opportunity to let their inner musician shine! I am really keen to spread the word about this software because it has the potential to have a wonderful impact on so many. To give somebody the ability to play music is something really special! I can’t wait to jam with more eye-controlled musicians and see what they bring to the table. Music is not just about a cool groovy beat … when you add a piece of you to that beat suddenly your inner voice takes the stage. It truly is an awesome moment.

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Dr Jordan Nguyen, Steve Balbi, Jessica Irwin and team. Image Russell Cherry

Dr Jordan Nguyen, Steve Balbi, Jessica Irwin and team. Image Russell Cherry

Why did you and Steve decide to reimagine Winners, a song from Steve’s 2014 debut solo LP, rather than create a brand new piece?

Both Steve and I have a really strong connection to his song Winners, so it was only natural that would be our first song. This song symbolises how sometimes you are forced to fight with everything you have just to survive, then when you do finally win you are too exhausted to realise you have done so!!! I have to fight the same fight everyday, to prove to the public what I am capable of because of my cerebral palsy and it does get exhausting. However, then I turn around and see Steve with boxing gloves on too fighting his own completely different fight. That encourages and inspires me to turn back around and tackle my round #96587 with full force!!!!!!

You accompanied the Australian Piano Quartet at the Sydney Opera House last year using the ATMOSPHERE program. What was that performance like and what has changed for you since then?

My first performance with the Australia Piano Quartet at the Sydney Opera House was back in 2016. Everything was extremely new to me at this stage, and my introduction to playing music was classical with an instrument that nobody had witnessed before.

The weeks leading up to that performance I was thinking “Yep… We are going to make this work… We always do!”. On the day I was sitting on stage in a nice elegant dress confident that I had given everything I had, and we received a standing ovation! Then I proceeded to sleep for a week after that performance!

I feel it has been really valuable to play with both the Quartet and Steve because in many ways they are polar opposites, so I have been able to build two completely different skill sets! The Quartet have a very traditional style that taught me discipline in the classical environment. And then there’s… Steve!!!! Steve and I are really similar, I don’t even need a communication device when I am with him – he just knows. Steve is extremely knowledgeable with the tech side of music production, I love collaborating with Steve which has given me more of an insight into music production and I have had a lot of fun embarking on the ProTools journey and creating performances with him. We did this at the launch of Psykinetic on April 11th, as I started our set completely with my own composition. Hearing our creations bellow out on stage has the ability to shake the whole room! And plus I really love my skull skirt and leather jacket!!!!

In a changing world where music can be created in so many different ways by people with completely different visions and skillsets, what does music mean to you?

Music for me is the freedom to let my inner voice escape! As humans we tend to bottle emotions up, but when you are creating music, whether it is writing lyrics or laying down a groove, your emotions finally see the light. Then other people hear your songs and take ownership of the story because it is their tale as well.

You’ve created your own business, DARE2BU, which specialises in a variety of visual design platforms from landscape photography to portraiture and web design. You’re also recognised not just as a musician but as an illustrator, author, photographer and web designer. How do you have time to pursue all your passions and is there one you focus on more heavily?

I don’t sleep… EVER!!!!! I am a really creative person, music and photography are my passions, while my web development pays the bills. However, lately the music side of things have really taken over. Two years ago playing music for me was physically impossible, and today with Psykinetic’s creation it has become my reality!

Together with Psykinetic and Steve I really would like to push this as far as we can, showing other people in my situation that it is definitely possible!

You are going to be inspiring countless other musicians and performers to pursue their dreams and you’re showing them a way to do it. Who are some people in music who inspire you?

I have a handful of musicians who really inspire me: David Bowie, Mi-Sex, Steve Balbi, Pink and Keala Settle!!! Keala Settle’s version of “THIS IS ME!” is the bomb!!! Keala puts so much raw emotion into that particular song!!! When I am fighting nerves before a big performance, Keala’s voice pops into my head “When the sharpest words wanna cut me down, gonna send a flood , gonna drown ‘em out… I am brave, I am bruised, I’m who i am meant to be, THIS IS ME!”

What comes next for you?

That is always a really interesting question!!! I would love to grow my knowledge using ProTools, and collaborate with Steve so much more. Create our own songs together!!!

I would love to perform with Steve, Keala Settle and David Duchovny on one stage, that would be really interesting!

In all honestly I just want to set an example for the younger generation, to keep fighting the good fight and you will be able to achieve your wildest dreams!

Winners is out now and has been added to Music Love's Mod. Playlist