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Why sobriety can be more complicated for professional musicians

When sobriety is your bedrock, but performing requires playing in bars and clubs, how do you avoid relapse?

Musician Anders Osborne.
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SALT LAKE CITY — “I am not the right person to give concerts,” composer/pianist Frédéric Chopin once told his contemporary, Franz Liszt. “The public intimidates me. I feel asphyxiated by the breath of the people in the audience, paralysed by their curious stares and dumb before that sea of unknown faces.”

If only there was some way to take the edge off.

For generations, that some way (drugs and alcohol) has proven to be a mixed bag — lowering inhibitions in the short term while often fostering long-term addiction. In a recent GQ magazine story titled “Creating While Clean,” Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler put it this way: “What happens with using is: It works in the beginning, but it doesn’t work in the end.”

The end — that breaking point juncture — looks different for different people. It can be an embarrassing moment or a string of moments. For others, it’s when they lose something important. Or it’s when they lose everything. For Anders Osborne, a well-known New Orleans singer-songwriter, his end happened in 2009. Osborne’s sober periods would give way to relapse, and one especially severe relapse left him facing estrangement from his wife, as well as home foreclosure and near-bankruptcy. Osborne’s mentors in the New Orleans music community, Ivan Neville and Dr. John among them, convinced Osborne to get inpatient addiction treatment.

In the decade since that intervention, Osborne has sobered up, continued performing and helped launch Send Me A Friend, a program for musicians who are trying to remain sober.

Send Me A Friend highlights one of the unique problems musicians like Osborne face: When sobriety is your bedrock, but performing — your means of financially supporting yourself and loved ones — requires playing in bars and clubs, how do you avoid relapse? Being in substance-fueled environments is a challenge for recovering addicts. Doubly so when the literal spotlight is shining on you.

At their most unsteady

Named after one of Osborne’s songs, Send Me A Friend pairs sober musicians with a volunteer, who will stay with the musician at the gig before and after a performance, serving as a reminder of their sobriety, a means of accountability and a stabilizing presence. According to program co-founder Bill Taylor, Send Me A Friend has more than 3,000 volunteers nationwide, with two to five volunteers signing up daily.

For musicians, the moments right before and after a performance can be the most unsteady — the pre-show jitters and post-show comedown each often last for hours.

“There’s a ton of anxiety usually, worrying about people’s opinion, if they will enjoy or enjoyed the show,” Osborne told the Deseret News. “And you certainly need to focus and center your own energy, making sure you’re strong and confident, otherwise you won’t be of much use up there. Then after the show you need a little time to come down and ground yourself.”

Osborne will be in Utah Sept. 13-14 for the Park City Songwriter Festival, which has partnered with Send Me A Friend. The festival will include various presentations and resources relating to substance abuse among musicians.

Musician Marc Broussard.
Lucia Media Group

Singer-songwriter Marc Broussard, who has toured with Osborne in recent years, will also perform at the festival.

“Being exposed to his protocols definitely opened my eyes about certain things that were going on in our camp,” Broussard told the Deseret News. “I mean, every crew is going to be different, and have a totally different outlook on these kinds of things. But it’s not necessarily a business that makes staying sober very easy.”

Musicians, he added, often start their careers in their early 20s, when they’re away from home for the first time. That newfound freedom, combined with the presence of alcohol and drugs, can lead young musicians to certain excesses, Broussard said. While Broussard isn’t stone-cold sober, he said he’s learned to take drinking far more seriously as he’s gotten older, especially before a show: “There’s the sense now … that if I’m buzzed at all (when) taking the stage, that I’m not being professional.”

Is it avoidable?

Indeed, being a musician is a real job that takes considerable work. Aaron Benward, a professional musician and songwriter who co-founded the Park City Songwriter Festival, called songwriters “a unique and special group of people, that every single day go up against the odds.” He shared an adage that’s familiar among professional songwriters: It’s harder to have a hit song than it is for a hurricane to pass through a town and assemble a Boeing 747 from the debris.

That’s why performing is so crucial to his profession. The stage, Benward said, is where songwriters can truly gauge their own talent. It’s an essential part of the songwriting job — regardless of the songwriter’s stance on drugs and alcohol.

Rob Butters, an assistant professor at the University of Utah’s College of Social Work, regularly advises patients who have substance abuse issues. He said professional musicians likely run the risk of normalizing the bar/club environment, simply because that environment becomes their workplace. That kind of workplace, he said, also introduces other problematic factors for an addict, like late nights and irregular sleep schedules.

“It’s sort of this recipe for getting an unbalanced life,” he said.

When Butters advises those with substance abuse issues, he typically encourages them to diversify their social environments. This doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning friends who drink. Rather, it’s about spending time with them at places that don’t revolve around drugs and alcohol.

It’s taken time, he said, for medical professionals to reach their current consensus on addiction — that it’s a disease, rather than a character flaw. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says approximately 15 million U.S. adults have social anxiety disorder in any given year, and about 20 percent of people with social anxiety disorder also deal with alcohol abuse or dependence. This co-occurrence, research shows, leads to a “mutual maintenance pattern” that perpetuates each of the conditions: you drink because you’re anxious, and you’re anxious because you drink.

According to Butters, so much of addiction recovery is about risk management, “And when you have to go to a bar every night or weekend, and you’re trying to stay sober as you’re performing there, that’s a tough way to manage risk.”

Since so much of addiction is about the ritual of it, Butters suggested maintaining components of that ritual, but without the drugs or alcohol. For a sober musician at a bar, for example, he said that might involve having an ice-cold non-alcoholic beverage on hand, which also decreases some of the social pressure.

Of course, this won’t completely erase the difficulty. For sober addicts at a bar, the stakes remain high.

“You have these automatic … justifications or rationalizations, and we all do to some degree,” Butters said. “It’s just that people who struggle with addiction do it in the face of sometimes death, or losing everything.”

To create, and to live

In the aforementioned GQ piece, Steven Tyler admitted, “When you’re high and you create something out of thin air, and the whole world is singing your … song that you wrote stoned, it’s hard to think that getting high wasn’t the reason that all that happened.”

An artist’s prerogative — or as some may view it, a mandate — to be uninhibited for the sake of their art is a notion so prevalent that it’s hard to dismiss, regardless of whether it’s true. In Broussard’s estimation, sometimes it is true.

“Oftentimes, the best of their music coincides with some of the worst of their drug use,” he said. “So these are definitely topics that get discussed around the bus dinner table, or around a catering table.”

If GQ’s piece is any indication, musicians who are compelled into sobriety seem to doubt the chaos-equals-creativity ethos. All the musicians quoted in the piece say sobriety has changed their creative process in different ways, but ultimately for the better.

Anders Osborne and his Send Me A Friend organization adopts that stance, too.

“If you’re an artist, then you make your art regardless of how you’re feeling or what state you’re in,” Osborne said. “Happy, sad, excited, in love, depressed, angry, sexy, anxious, melancholy, silly, joyous, peaceful, content, etc. It all needs to be expressed and shared.”


If you go ...

What: Park City Songwriter Festival

When: Sept. 13, 3 p.m.-midnight; Sept. 14, 10 a.m.-midnight

Where: Venues throughout Park City

How much: $80-$600

Web: parkcitysongwriterfestival.com and eventbrite.com