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5 sober Minnesota musicians on kicking addiction and rediscovering creativity

Lydia Liza

Lydia Liza Zoe Prinds-Flash

Professional musicians often drink. Sometimes a lot. Some also do drugs.

So do all sorts of people, of course, as a trip to any corner tavern or chemical dependency treatment center will make abundantly clear. But if you love drinking and drugging, the life of a musician is an excellent fit. You do most of your work in bars, where you’re rewarded with drink tickets and surrounded by fans who will happily buy you a round or three. If you can make a career of music, you can sleep off your hangover all day and show up to work well into the night. You’re practically encouraged to indulge in a life of excess.

Very few people can live that way for long, though. Some musicians settle into moderation. Some go off the rails. Some die.

Others get sober.

No news there either. Many rock stars are now as well known for their hard-won recovery as they once were for their drunken antics. But forget about the celebrities, the Eric Claptons and Steven Tylers. What about your musician friends and neighbors? What happens to them when they bottom out, hit the wall, or just run out of options?

To find out, we tracked down five Minnesotans who’ve made their mark on the local music scene. Their ages, the kind of music they play, and the particulars of their lives vary. Some are relatively new to sobriety; one has been sober for decades. Some have struggled; others have changed their lives with surprising ease.

Lydia Liza

Lydia Liza Zoe Prinds-Flash

But they do have certain things in common besides sobriety. No single traumatic event sobered them up, just an undercurrent of daily misery. And contrary to the preconception that art feeds off bouts of mood-altering transcendence, every person here feels far more creative in sobriety.

We can’t generalize about addiction or sobriety from just five examples. But these stories are reminders that for all the extravagant Behind the Music tales we’ve heard, much of the drama for addicts and alcoholics happens on the inside. So here, in their own words (lightly edited and condensed for clarity), is what life was like for these musicians, what happened, and what it’s like now.

Lydia Liza

Sobriety date: 3/1/2018

When she was still in high school, Lydia Hoglund’s band Bomba de Luz was already playing First Avenue and in rotation on the Current. She’s currently at work on a solo album as well as a collaboration with producer Big Cats.

I’ve been doing music since I was 16, and it was just not possible to grow up in a normal way. I felt like a lens was on me and I was defining myself as a public figure rather than trying to learn anything about myself. I was surrounded by adults and I wasn’t sure what my age was anymore. I was in green rooms, around people who didn’t care if I drank, or even encouraged me to drink, or people who thought I was 21 because I was just there all the time.

When I was 19 I moved into a funeral home with my boyfriend, and that was around the time when I really started to struggle with suicidal ideation. But I was 100 percent sure it wasn’t the drinking. I was like, no, I’m just depressed—I mean, I live in a funeral home so of course I’m depressed. And then last January I fessed up and checked myself into the hospital. I was like, “Hey, I drink all the fucking time and I want to kill myself,” and they were like, “Yeah, sick, let’s get you into treatment.”

In the beginning, sobriety was just beautiful. My first weekend sober, I thought I was in a state of mania, I would cry randomly because I just didn’t know life could be like this. Then around three months in I said, “Oh, fu-u-uck. This is a lot of work.” I really thought everything would be figured out. Drinking was my main problem; after that was gone everything was gonna be fine. But if you’re gonna tell a person who’s drinking, “You’re gonna get sober and it’s gonna be a fuckton of work”—I don’t know that you can really get people to do it that way.

Before I walked into treatment, I had completely stopped writing in any capacity. I had lost all sense of self, all sense of creativity. My first thought was, I really hope I can write again. And that was one of the first things that came back to me. I was drinking about hating myself, about hating my ideas. My inner critic got softer and softer, and by month six or seven I was writing pretty religiously again. That’s one of the things that’s made me want to stay sober.

Every negative thing in life, in humans, is fear-based, we’re all just so fucking afraid, and I think there’s something to sobriety, and not having anything to numb the fear, that makes your creative life more rich and valuable. Once I was able to see myself less judgmentally and more compassionately, I could tell my truth easier. Because I wasn’t upset with myself, and I could write about how I felt without apology.

Psalm One

Sobriety date: 1/1/2019

The Chicago-born rapper Psalm One became known locally for her recordings with her former label, Rhymesayers. She’s currently living in Minneapolis and producing an album for Angel Davanport, her fellow MC in the “girl group” RapperChicks.

I haven’t partied in three years, but what I consider my sobriety has been no hard drugs for eight months. My drugs were cocaine and MDMA—ecstasy, molly. Party drugs, the kind that help you stay up all night and promise people dumb stuff. I hadn’t done a hard drug going on three years until this New Year’s Eve, when I had the tiniest bit of cocaine. I was with some people and they were going all night, and right after, I realized I don’t need this at all.

I was in a girl group, guys really liked us, they would... share. When you’re a rapper and you have any kind of clout people want to party with you, and it’s easier to say yes than to say no. And on top of that, for maybe three years there I was dropping maybe $100 a week. Damn, I could have had a tour bus for that money.

Psalm One

Psalm One

In late 2015, I just saw things kinda crumbling around me. It was just seeing a lot of my professional relationships crumble. My personal life was already dramatic, and when you’re partying all the time it doesn’t help. You think, I got a group now so that’s more reason to act a fucking fool. I had some creative differences with my label, so it was easy for me to just say, “Fuck everybody.”

I felt like I was just running in place—you can get caught up in the fantasy of what your career should look like. I felt my sanity slipping. I wasn’t doing as much as people around me, so I could say I didn’t have a problem. But I knew I couldn’t sustain this. We all know when we’re abusing as opposed to just enjoying something.

I was in Chicago, and I came here to work on Angel Davanport’s album. I guess it was my version of rehab. I came up here, stayed at a friend’s house, started meditating, sitting still, doing saunas all the time—just detoxing. I just had to rethink what it was I personally wanted out of life.

I still smoke and sometimes drink. I never really had a problem with weed or with alcohol. I suffer from migraines and alcohol is the easiest way to get them, so I’ll go several weeks without drinking anyway.

I’ve had some songs come back around, when I listen now, just some of the content, I think, “That’s like a cry for help.” Knowing how I write and knowing how my brain works, I can hear it. I’m just not as focused. My creativity was never enhanced by drugs. They helped me stay up for those marathon two-day sessions. What they don’t tell you is that stuff is crap usually. But you can’t tell someone their shit sucks when they’re high.

Katy Vernon

Sobriety date: 3/1/16

Katy Vernon

Katy Vernon

U.K.-born singer-songwriter and ukulele player Katy Vernon calls herself a “singer of sad songs on a happy instrument” and she’s done heroic work redeeming that much maligned instrument. Her latest album is Suit of Hearts.

In my 30s, I began to just drink daily. It was only ever two or three glasses of wine, but it was every day. It was so normal—especially in the past few years, wine has been so heavily marketed to women, to mothers, you see those stupid things on Pinterest. It’s very acceptable to have “grown-up mommy playtime.”

I was very disciplined as a musician, so I really have only a couple gigs that I’m embarrassed to look back on. But when I came home, it was very hard for me to wind down without drinking. I think my tolerance changed—I was getting blackout drunk from less than a half a bottle of wine. I confined my blackout drinking to my home so I didn’t get in a lot of trouble. But I forgot how a lot of movies ended. I forgot how a lot of bedtime stories ended.

It was when I realized I needed to stop that the true addiction was clear. I kept thinking everything would be better if I could just have a drink.

I thought I’d be in control of my life once I stopped. Three months into not drinking I was feeling really bad and now I didn’t have my go-to way of numbing my feelings. That’s when I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I lost both my parents in my teens, and I don’t think I ever knew where grief ended and depression began. That’s been lifesaving to have a mental health diagnosis.

I’m one of the clichéd creative people who thought I needed the highs and lows to make music. I thought I had to suffer for my art. But now I’m much more creative. I don’t throw most of my ideas away because of this inner hatred, I let my ideas play out. I was just a critic of myself. I just thought I sucked, and that’s not a happy, healthy, creative way to be. I definitely let a lot of ideas fizzle out. Now I am so absolutely honest with my writing. I don’t try to change things to tell a story even if I feel a bit embarrassed or vulnerable. That’s the thing about recovery, there’s something about going through it that really fine-tunes your bullshit meter.

I’ve written so many songs about sobriety, none of them are lecturing or superior, but it can be hard introducing them at shows. I just try to be really honest and say, for me, drinking didn’t work. If you’re good at drinking, good for you. I was crap at it.

Mark Mallman

Mark Mallman

The bar scene was always more of a work space for me, though it was hard to turn to turn down the first few drink tickets after I got sober. When people offer to buy me a drink I jokingly say buy a CD instead. They usually don’t though!

Mark Mallman

Sobriety date: 1/1/2015

Renowned for his raucous (and often marathon) live performances, Mark Mallman has been an unstoppable force on the local music scene for two decades now. This year he became an author as well with the release of his memoir, The Happiness Playlist.

I didn’t start drinking till I was 29. Even though I grew up outside of Milwaukee, my parents and my friends never drank. I worked third shift and I took that job very seriously when I was establishing myself as a musician. My drinking career took off when I went full-time into music.

You don’t set out to be a drunk. It’s free and you don’t have any money, so you take the drinks. The audience buys into the myth. You play a show and someone buys you a shot, you take it and everybody cheers. Someone bought me seven shots of Patron in Chicago and I did ’em all and I laughed. I did a great show. It didn’t hurt my career. It didn’t hurt my body.

I had a fuckton of great times on the road all those years. I never hit bottom. Nothing bad had ever happened. I don’t consider myself an alcoholic. And I say that with respect to people who struggle with addiction. My journey is so weird, because I just quit one day, and then I was done. It’s like, remember that episode of Happy Days where Richie gets caught smoking a cigar and his dad makes him smoke the whole box? That was me with alcohol. OK. I’m done. My last drink was a pull of gin from a plastic bottle at Sound Gallery and that seemed about right.

Kevin Bowe

Kevin Bowe

At 40, you rethink a lot of things. I just wanted start a new chapter. I’m kind of health-centric anyway except for doughnuts and pizza. Now I go to bars less, but I go on adventures more. I travel more. I go to lakes more. I read more.

I don’t drink moderately because I’m not that kind of person. I’m either in or out. I’m not gonna drink a little bit, that’s just not worth it. But life feels better sober. Music sounds better. Pizza tastes better. Ok, that last part’s not necessarily true.

This myth of the partying musician was created by record executives to exploit musicians and to sell records. It doesn’t have anything to do with music. It has to do with marketing. Unfortunately it’s been drilled into younger musicians’ heads that they need to be drunk to be good. But now that I’m sober, I still stomp around and throw shit onstage—it’s just a conscious effort instead of an unconscious effort.

Kevin Bowe

Sobriety date: 4/20/79
(yes, really, 4/20)

A fixture on the Minneapolis punk scene in the ’80s and ’90s, Kevin Bowe went on to discover Jonny Lang and also record and produce with his friend Paul Westerberg and the reunited Replacements. He’s now retired from performing but remains active as a producer, an instructor, and a composer .

If you call me the grandfather of Minneapolis sober musicians I’m going to have to kill you.

I started with weed and beer, but the thing that hastened my decline was angel dust. Not to be cliché, but all the kids were doing it. We broke into an animal hospital and stole horse tranquilizers. It wasn’t even fun. But it was cheap.

Right at the end of high school, my family had an intervention. I showed up at school high as fuck, got called to the principal’s office, then I saw everyone and I immediately knew what was up. And I went along with it, because drugs just weren’t fun anymore. If drugs were still fun I wouldn’t be wasting my time talking to you. I’d be doing drugs.

I went off to suburban rich-kid rehab—a duck pond, nice food—but after that they put me in this halfway house; that’s where I realized what I had to do. I’d played in bands before but music had gotten so shitty in the ’70s with corporate rock, so I was only listening to older stuff. But there were some sober guys who played me the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Suburbs’ red EP, Suicide Commandos. And that was it for me. The minute I got out I formed the Dads, a really bad early-’80s punk band. All of a sudden I was playing at the Longhorn and seeing all these amazing bands.

In rehab they used to let us out for these sober teen dances. Some idiot booked the Replacements at one of those dances, for their first show ever as the Replacements. They were great. They were terrible, but they were the best band I’d ever seen. They played mostly Johnny Thunders songs and they got kicked out after one set for drinking.

Sobriety and punk rock are really intertwined for me. I associate old ’70s rock with bongs and long hair and sitting around saying “yeah, dude.” Punk wasn’t about weed, that post-hippie lack of energy, that selfish “fuck everything, let’s go get high” sentiment. For me, from the start, the energy of punk rock matched the energy of getting sober.

Sobriety is something that you don’t do, not something that you do. About 15 years ago, I was working with Etta James, and she was fascinated with the fact that I was sober. She kept asking me, “Nothing?” “Nothing.” “Really? Nothing?” “Really.” “In 25 years, not even a beer?” “Not even a beer.” “So you got one of them 25-year chips?” “I do.” And she said, “I must have gotten one of those one-year chips 25 motherfuckin’ times.”

People think being sober is the end game. But it’s an at-bat, not a hit. Now you have a possibility not to be a complete asshole. That doesn’t mean you’ll take it. I know drug addicts I love working with and sober people I wouldn’t sit next to on the bus.