Wellness Wednesday: Navigating the music world when you're in recovery

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Johnny Solomon performs with Communist Daughter in Collegeville, Minnesota in 2017. (Nate Ryan/MPR)
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Today's topic was inspired by a tweet I saw a couple of weeks ago from the band Bully. We're going to talk about substance use disorder, we're going to talk about returning to regular life for some who have entered the world of recovery.

Before we start, I do want to mention that substance use disorders can affect anyone. They're serious, but are also preventable and can be treated: it's okay to need help. You're not alone in this. You can learn more at calltomindnow.org.

Here at The Current we know someone who has been very active in their own recovery, as a musician: Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on Spotify, Apple, RSS, Radio Public, Stitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: So you're in Alaska, for anyone who doesn't know. How are things in Alaska?

Johnny Solomon: Generally, they're cold. I guess everybody in Minnesota understands that. You know, I think that I remember in Minnesota, we used to do the, "Are we colder than Alaska?" During the winter, it runs about the coldest that Minnesota gets...only all the time.

So you're experiencing that firsthand. So Johnny, not only are you in the band Communist Daughter, but you're doing work in Alaska. What exactly are you doing, for those who don't know?

After several tours, I decided I wanted to get into substance use treatment and mental health treatment, and so I came up here to be an itinerant therapist, which means I fly into Native Alaskan villages and do substance use and mental health therapy for...usually it's like, 95% Native Alaskans out in the bush. So you have to fly these little planes to get out there. It's been an adventure.

I would say so! I mentioned this tweet from the band Bully...touring and bars, being on the road, seeing tons of people, you know, those are probably pretty triggering events to someone in recovery. And you've been very vocal about your recovery, and very vocal in helping others. But I'd have to imagine that, you know, being in a band, getting sober getting back on the road, that's pretty difficult.

Yeah, you know, it's basically all one giant trigger for somebody who is struggling with that. I know that when I went through treatment, everybody was really walking on eggshells about the fact that getting back into the music world would be pretty tough. There's a lot of things you have to do to get yourself steady with it.

What advice would you give to a band like Bully? I think it's pretty smart of a band to say, "Hey, I'm going to be facing this thing in my life, and so does anyone have any advice or tips? What advice do you have?

The main thing that I always say is, say it loud, and say it often. I think one of the things that we do in the music industry: you don't want to say something like that, and take away the image. You have to kind of put yourself first, and so I always made a point of telling clubs when we were getting booked that, in our rider, it was like, you know, we need non-alcoholic beverages, we need the backstage to be no drugs, because one of our members is in recovery.

You know, I'll say it even from stage sometimes. I think it's pretty great that she put that out on a tweet, because that's the first thing: you know, just tell everybody because that stops a lot of it. A lot of people are just being friendly. You know, they buy you a beer, buy you a shot, things like that. But if they know, then they don't put you in that situation.

In your experience, were you nervous at all about how are people going to respond? Have you had a good experience with just coming out and saying, hey, this is what we need?

The good clubs are always going to be good. First Ave, 9:30 Club, places like that. They were just really, really great about it, and once you are vocal about being in recovery, once you kind of get to that side of the fence, you realize that there are a ton of musicians, a ton of people in the industry that are in recovery, or just sober in their own way. If you're going to be in a life surrounded by alcohol, a lot of people just make that choice as they get older. The people that are successful, you end up seeing a lot of people that are in recovery, so people go out of their way to help you.

I remember being shocked by that, because I thought it was going to be a lot of trouble asking for non-alcoholic options. You know, I expected them to say, oh, all we've got is water...but people usually do a lot to make you feel comfortable with it.

Were there any other tips or advice for people who may not be even musicians? We're coming out of this pandemic, and there may be folks new to sobriety, new to recovery. What would you say to musicians or even non-musicians who are just trying to transition back to regular life, but a life in recovery?

Some people are real hesitant about AA, because it's an institution...and it's a non-institution in its own way, but it's been around for a long time. But one of the things about it is [having] a sponsor, and I think that can translate to just everyday life: have somebody there with you that is sober. Whether that's a designated driver, or a friend or another band. We toured with Jason Isbell a lot, and Jason's sober. I think, at the beginning, a lot of it was just, "Hey, there's another person also doing this."

You know, the first two years that I was sober, my wife said, "Okay, I'll give up alcohol," just to help me because you're going to be there and it's one in the morning and everybody's drunk, then you're going to have a [hard time]. If even 99% of the people are drunk, and there's that 1%, where you're hanging out, you can do what you do. So I think that's important.

If you're going to go to a show, you know, go with somebody else who won't drink that night or just doesn't drink, you know. It's all about preparing yourself and not just trying to wing it when you get there.

Isn't that a lesson from life? Surround yourself with people that support you, right? Before you go, I just wanted to ask about a little bit about Communist Daughter. What is the latest with your music?

So we put out an album called Unknown Caller that was kind of rolled up in the whole pandemic. It actually kind of worked out for me, because I wanted to stop touring. You know, I've never been a huge live music player. I'm always a fan, you know. So to me, going on tour was always standing on the side of the stage watching the band that we were opening for or opening for us. So touring was hard. So we put out this album, Unknown Caller, in the middle of the pandemic, and actually, I feel very good about it. I don't know what the future is going to be seeing as I'm in remote Alaska, but we're still out there. We're still making music.


Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Christy Taylor and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License.


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