A Radical Act: Canadian Musicians in Conversation About Being Sober in an Industry Built on Booze

Alcohol abuse is rampant in the music industry. Hollerado’s Jake Boyd, Pony’s Sam Bielanski, singer-songwriter Ansley Simpson and Single Mothers’ Drew Thomson discuss getting and staying sober, how it’s impacted their lives and how they move forward creatively

In the life of a musician, it’s lamentably easy to fall into substance abuse.

It’s a career that comes with a highly social lifestyle. Much of a musician’s work takes place in bars and clubs. The rest takes place on stage, in studios and on long stretches of road. It’s because of this that drugs, and alcohol in particular, have served many purposes — social lubricant, liquid courage, a cure for boredom and, in some cases, a creative muse.

The list of living artists who have recovered from alcoholism or drug addiction is long: Elton John, Lana Del Rey, Eminem, Steven Tyler, Alice Cooper, Tim McGraw, Ringo Starr, Keith Urban, Eric Clapton, Jason Isbell, Joe Walsh, Julien Baker and many more. Yet the list of musicians who have died from or are still struggling with substance abuse is tragic.

In one survey of UK musicians, 45 percent said they had experienced problems with alcohol. Another study of artists in New York found that consumption was “markedly elevated compared to general population samples.” A recent report explored this phenomenon in detail, identifying five main reasons why alcohol abuse is so prevalent in the music industry.

Some have called on the industry itself to do more to support musicians who have quit drinking by taking steps such as providing more non-alcoholic options at concerts and events.

“Musicians don’t drink like normal people,” Canadian singer-songwriter Damhnait Doyle wrote in a Toronto Star op-ed earlier this year. “You drink before gigs, during gigs, after gigs, on your day off, on a travel day, at the airport bar, the hotel bar, in the bus, the back of the van, when the show sucks, when the show is off the hook, when your song is on the radio, when no one’s playing your single. Alcohol is both the journey and the destination.”

In order to get a sense of the struggles with alcoholism experienced by musicians at home and on the road and to encourage more open discussion about how it develops and what can be done to help with recovery, Exclaim! held a roundtable conversation with four Canadian artists: Hollerado drummer Jake Boyd, singer-songwriter and Single Mothers frontman Drew ThomsonPONY bandleader Sam Bielanski and singer-songwriter Ansley Simpson. They shared their stories and talked about what has helped and hindered their own transitions to sobriety.

Exclaim!: So, let’s get this conversation started. First off, can everyone take a turn to tell the group about their journey to sobriety and how you got there?

Hollerado’s Jake Boyd: I really started drinking to deal with social and performance anxiety. Not only was this a good short-term solution to those problems, it also was incredibly socially acceptable. In August 2018, I decided to take a month off of alcohol. That went surprisingly well, and it turned into two months, and then a year, and it will turn into as long as I can possibly keep it up. My relationships improved drastically. Any financial stress I felt previously was entirely removed. I’ve been going through a non-religious version of 12-step, along with the help of a therapist who is a former alcoholic himself.

One immediate benefit is that I noticed it in playing drums almost immediately. Since it’s a very physical instrument, not only is it better in the short term, but the longer-term health benefits rack up, too. The biggest thing I miss is that alcohol is an incredibly effective time machine. Killing time without it is much more difficult. That’s what I’m apprehensive about, really — long van or bus rides where you’re forced to be present and in the moment the whole time, not disassociating with heavy drinking.

PONY’s Sam Bielanski: I started drinking alcohol when I was 13, which sounds so unbelievable to say now. I drank pretty regularly for most of my young adult life, but it didn’t get out of control until I started going to shows here in Toronto and playing in a band myself. I definitely think that so much of the culture that surrounds the music industry almost encourages substance abuse. I tried for several years to get sober, but had almost the opposite reaction from friends and bandmates that Jake mentions. I recall one of my bandmates saying something along the lines of, “Call me when you are fun again.” I think that sort of attitude toward sobriety is pretty common, unfortunately.

It took me several years and tries to fully get sober. When I finally did, it was as I was coming back from a summer tour. I came back to Toronto and could no longer afford my medication, so I tried sobriety as a way to help manage my depression and anxiety. I know this isn’t an option for everyone, but I feel so grateful because it helped me a lot. I don’t think sobriety would have been possible without having multiple other sober people in my life. My health is better, my mental health is better and I honestly feel way safer. I don’t go out as much anymore, and at first, I felt a lot of anxiety about going to shows, or even playing a show, and not drinking. But I actually enjoy performing so much more now that I am sober. My new bandmates are very supportive and respectful of my choice to stay sober. And the friends and acquaintances I’ve lost along the way — I am probably better off without them.

Ansley Simpson: I’ve been sober for more than three years now, and I don’t intend to ever go back again. I started using various substances when I was 15, for fun at first, but after experiencing a series of traumatic events that unfolded in close succession from 16 into my 20s, the substance use and drinking quickly became a way to manage and cope with emotions. Like others who have trauma in their past, alcohol would shut it down almost instantly. For me, it was anxiety that held me back from most things in life, and it kept me from singing and performing for years. Just leaving my house was a huge undertaking most days, so now, when I look at myself and where I am with music, getting on stage, performing, singing, it’s nothing short of mind-blowing to me. It took for me to decide that I was no longer going to let anxiety control what I did in life in order for me to become a musician.

I started to write songs as a first step. Then I took it a step further and decided to figure out if I could sing in front of people, and I worked with Micah Barnes as a singing coach. Micah is sober, and spoke a lot about that; he normalized it a bit for me, and he got me to a place where I could sing in front of people and not be a complete mess, but I still had to drink to perform. Double bourbons were with me on stage every time I played. I tried many times to get sober. Then one day, without much thought, I decided I would only drink if it was in a good way. In my [Anishinaabe] culture, we have a saying, “mino bimaadiziwin,” which means to live life in a good way. After about a week, I knew that meant never drinking again. For me, there was no good way. Once I got two weeks in, I went for longer. Each month I tacked on made it more difficult to ever consider drinking again. So I held steady then and I continue to now, and that’s where I am today.

Single Mothers’ Drew Thomson: My story is probably similar to many others. I was a very shy, awkward and quiet kid. I had a hard time keeping friends. I was raised by a single mother and didn’t really know my dad growing up, but when I was 12, my dad offered to bring me to Ireland with his other family for an Irish folk music festival. I went, and during that trip, my older stepbrother got me to chug half a bottle of whisky in front of some Irish kids to prove that “Canadians can drink.” I talked and made more friends that night than it seemed I had my entire life. I became a different person — I couldn’t understand it. Everyone was paying attention to me, and instead of hating it, I was loving it. I was having a taste of what it was like to be my older, outgoing brother, and it was amazing. I didn’t know where the words coming out of my mouth were from. But the next morning, I was back to myself. The friends I had made the night before wondered why I was being so quiet and weird. I longed for that feeling of acceptance and attention.

I guess I chased that night for the next 20-ish years. I used booze to get through everything social. I started Single Mothers and everyone in the band drank. It was a bad combination of personalities. For a few years, I really didn’t get along with the core touring members, and they didn’t get along with me. It was a few very destructive years. Being on stage, I’d feel the need to drink. But then it became about getting through being in the van, being around people at all. Looking back, I was clearly depressed. The labels, booking agents, promoters, they all drank and bought me drinks whenever we hung out. Being drunk became part of our band’s image, and I accepted it and embraced it.

Eventually I parted ways with those guys, fired our manager and left our label. I took a bit of time away from music. When I got the band back together, none of the new members drank. My girlfriend didn’t really drink. I was suddenly surrounded by sober people and my drinking became overwhelmingly obvious. The last day of recording our second record with the new lineup, I poured my last glass of wine. I was having a hard time getting the vocals right, poured myself a glass of wine from a box and caught a disappointed look from my guitar player. Something about that look hit me, and I put down the glass and never picked it back up.

Bielanski: I’ve got to say, I’m really proud of you, Drew.

Thomson: Thanks, I’m really happy for you and very proud of you. It seems like things are going great. There were some dark clouds over that circle for a while, and it’s really good to see that they’ve parted for some.

Boyd: Sam, I’ve been reflecting on what you said a lot. It makes me feel sad that there were people in your life who were less than supportive. Also, it made me realize how privileged I have been. What was your initial reaction when you had people in your life who weren’t understanding about your decision to stop drinking?

Bielanski: At first, I felt ashamed and somehow embarrassed. It was kind of like that scene in Mean Girls, when they say that joining the mathletes is “social suicide.” I was made to feel like I was really uncool for not indulging in alcohol anymore. I ended up alienating myself from a lot of social gatherings, I felt awkward to be around, and I hated explaining to people that I didn’t drink. I also had people in my life at the time who would try to convince me to drink with them, or encourage me to drink, like it was a personal victory for them to see me cave. During those times, I think I was feeling so desperate to belong, or to be liked, that I would often just crack and do it. I pretty much had to cut those people out of my life completely. It’s unfortunate. But time alone, away from peer pressure, really empowered me to quit.

Boyd: That makes sense. There have been people that I had to take a break from as well, but they just happened to not be the people that I know who work in music.

Ansley, this is a question for you that I’m very curious about: After three years, was there a point where it got easier? I just spent a week touring through Quebec and not drinking was very fucking hard, as kind and considerate as our whole band and crew are being. During a show in Quebec City, I kept imagining myself just getting up from the drums, running to the back door of the venue and leaving and never coming back. I didn’t. We finished the show. It was fine.

Simpson: I think I was expecting that to be the case and it just wasn’t, at least not initially. I was in physical pain, didn’t sleep well, got nightmares and had to very quickly learn how to feel an emotion right to the very end instead of shutting it down with drinking. I learned that last skill is called distress tolerance. Basically I had to learn to sit with a very uncomfortable feeling instead of, as you put it, running out the back door and never coming back. Deep breathing helped. So did identifying the feeling and giving it a visual representation — I feel like a black swamp on fire — and then placing that image outside my body. Or acknowledging that I was actually okay, this is just music, nobody’s going to die. I would literally do those exercises on stage while having to remember the song and the lyrics.

Eventually, I could just use my songs to ground me on stage, focusing on immersing myself into each song, and I think it made me a much stronger performer. Does it get easier after three years? Yes, it absolutely does, and with every day that I stay sober it actually gets harder to imagine drinking again. Probably my biggest fear about sobriety as an artist was the looming question, “Can I still write songs sober?” I wrote my second album sober, and I really pushed myself to prove that I could do it and do a better job. Did anyone else worry about this? I think it’s actually a huge myth of artists, that we create from pain, dysfunction, mental-emotional instability, addiction. I mean, of course we could do a better job sober, right?

Thomson: I definitely felt some anxiety when it came to writing sober. When I would do the lyrics for a lot of my band’s older stuff, I’d get drunk in the studio and write on the spot for 90 percent of it. I’d plan a bit, but most of it would be done in this drunken half-character that I’d put on for the band. I used booze as a crutch for writing, like I did with everything else. Writing sober is fine, it just takes a bit more attention and push. Sometimes I miss having a bottle of wine to let the words come out a bit easier. But I don’t think booze made me a better writer, it just made writing feel easier.

A big thing for me was the live show. But again, I think we’re tighter than we ever have been, and I’ve just learned to deal with my social anxiety head-on instead of running away from it and into a bottle. All other parts of the band, the business side, all of it is 100 percent easier and better now that I’m sober. I could not be making a living off music if I was still drinking like I was. I would have fucked it all up so many times by now.

Boyd: I find the beginning of every set is harder, but the end is easier. The tricky thing now is managing the anxiety at the beginning of the set. Almost always, after one or two songs, I settle in and feel comfortable. Writing wise, I think you can always access the darkness. Life is fucking hard. Even if you get everything in your life together, even if you’re in perfect mental health, you can always still go to the dark places.

Bielanski: I truly think I write better songs now that I am sober. I am more focused now, and it’s way easier for me to stay organized and manage my time. But I do agree with Drew, being at the show and doing the thing is still an adjustment for me. We get drink tickets pretty much the moment we step into the venue, and often we’ll get offered more free booze after that. One time a venue couldn’t pay us money, so they offered to make our drinks extra strong to compensate. How do you all cope with alcohol being such a staple in the culture of live music?

Boyd: On our current tour, our tour manager has been carving out an extra $10 or $20 from the hospitality budget each show just to give to me to make up for the fact that I’m not drinking. Again, the whole Hollerado family has been insanely supportive, and I’m massively privileged. We’re in America right now and surprisingly, a lot of places really support non-alcoholic options. The venue we played last night (7th Street Entry in Minneapolis) even had a new non-alcoholic drink called hop water. I had one. It was fucking delicious.

The “no money but here’s booze” thing is tough. If and when that happens, I just try to be happy for those that are drinking. I feel like I’m getting to a point where I can vicariously enjoy other people’s indulgence, rather than being jealous.

Simpson: I have a foot in both the Indigenous music scene on Turtle Island and the settler music industry here in Canada, and let me tell you, there is quite a huge difference between Indigenous-run gigs and settler industry gigs. In many ways, our Indigenous communities have been having conversations around alcohol for a while now. Alcohol has been used as a tool of colonization, and it’s often used to help cope with trauma, both historic and active. Our protocols around ceremony, singing, dancing and sharing stories require that we are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. As a result, the vast majority of the shows I play in the Indigenous scene are completely sober events.

One show in Thunder Bay was [a music festival called] Wake the Giant. It was an Indigenous youth-led festival that sold over 3,500 tickets as an entirely sober event. There wasn’t one alcohol sponsor involved, no beer gardens, and if your bandmates wanted alcohol, it was delivered to them with the request that it remain out of sight. That meant I didn’t see alcohol pretty much the entire show — and everyone had a great time! Alcohol wasn’t missed. I followed that with the Polaris Music Prize gala, singing backup for a friend. I got off the elevator to two full tables of free wine, greeted by a cheerful bartender in the green room who didn’t even have soda water. Alcohol was everywhere and I wasn’t prepared for it, so it was super triggering. I actually found out later that my favourite non-alcoholic beer company Partake Brewing was one of the sponsors, but I didn’t see it anywhere!

Two days later I played another entirely sober gig that was Indigenous-run, and I was greeted with a cart of sweetgrass mocktails as I entered, offered cedar soda to drink, and again, everyone had a great time. My most recent album requires me to be sober in order to perform it, and I asked that anyone who played on that album remain sober while they worked on it. This is because of the subject matter and spiritual context of the work. I consider what I do to be a form of medicine, especially these songs. I have woven medicinal elements throughout the album, hidden prayers, jingle dress and elements of traditional stories, so I need to respect that when I sing them. I have to say, I feel so grateful that there are so many sober spaces for me as an Indigenous musician. It means I simply go in, prepare myself, calm my nerves and perform. No intrusive thoughts around drinking, no anger to quell… I just get to play and sing.

Exclaim!: Have you made your peace with the way things are, or do you think on a broader cultural level, alcohol shouldn’t be so inherent to having a good time at concerts and events? And what are some examples of gestures — big or small — that people have done to make you feel more welcome and accommodated as a non-drinker?

Bielanski: That is such a hard question to answer. I think that consuming alcohol in abundance is such a societal problem, not just in music. So many artists struggle with substance abuse because of that. For me, it is much easier to cope with this because my bandmates are so supportive. Half of my band are sober and the other half is so incredibly respectful. They will often wait until we have played our set to drink, if at all. This summer we toured across the U.S., and we played a lot of DIY spaces that were either dry or BYOB. It was really neat to see all these individual music communities thriving without alcohol being so significant.

I think a space in Toronto that is doing a really cool thing right now is the Beguiling on College Street. The space in the basement gets converted into a DIY venue for shows, and there is no bar. Playing there and attending shows there feels really comfortable and safe. I think another part of the problem is the lack of dry or DIY spaces in the city, where drinking isn’t such a core aspect of seeing live music.

Boyd: What Sam said is huge, having bandmates that respect you not drinking. On top of that, I find it super important to just have other options of stuff to drink. I personally enjoy non-alcoholic beers. Thankfully, most venues seem to serve one these days. Other than that, I find myself often being the guy who’s drinking coffee at like 9 p.m., and then wondering at 3 a.m. why the hell I can’t get to sleep.

Simpson: I agree with what Sam highlighted about alcohol being a societal problem and not just a problem in the music industry. Alcohol use is increasing, especially among women, and the negative effects are hopefully starting to be noticed so people can make more informed decisions about drinking. I think that providing space where you can feel comfortable not drinking in venues where alcohol is normalized is key in shifting some of these issues.

I love hearing about DIY spaces and pockets of the scene that are starting to do things differently. It certainly does make it easier for me to step into those venues as a performer, or make it more inviting as an audience member. I’m grateful that my bandmates are respectful and supportive of my sobriety, too. I couldn’t have it any other way, and many people I work with are already sober or don’t drink alcohol, so that helps. I was just in the studio over the weekend and the producer, who drinks, had a non-alcoholic spirit there to share with us, which was so lovely. It’s those gestures that go a long way.

Sobriety can be a solitary pursuit but there are plenty of resources to help, including some geared specifically for artists and creative people. If you or anyone you know needs help, please reach out. Here are some organizations that can be of assistance.

Over the Bridge is a Toronto-based non-profit who aim to raise awareness, provide education and build community that supports mental health and addiction recovery within the music industry.

Unison Benevolent Fund provides counselling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music community, including financial relief during severe economic or personal hardship, and counselling and health services

Fit on Tour aims to promote healthier lifestyle choices amongst musicians and artists whose careers put them on the road, from diet and exercise to communicating about mental health and well-being.

The Dandelion Initiative is a non-profit organization founded and led by survivors of sexual violence, prioritizing women, 2SLGBTQ+ survivors, racialized and marginalized survivors. They offer Safer Bars and Spaces Training to help recognize, prevent and respond to sexual harassment and violence.