Johnny Solomon had nothing left to lose when he checked himself into rehab in 2010 after a 15-year struggle with addiction. The lead singer for Twin Cities indie rock group Communist Daughter had lost his band, his business, his wife, even his ability to write music.
“When I was struggling, I didn’t really know of musicians who had gotten sober,” said Solomon, at right, who credits his time at a Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation treatment center for saving his life. “Things weren’t so open. Nobody was really stepping into the issues back then.”
Seven sober years later and with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, Solomon is part of a community of local musicians whose members are having frank discussions about addiction, depression and mental health. They’re making their private struggles public through social media, podcasts and live appearances, hoping to stem the loss of artists to these afflictions, most recently Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell.
A key event that makes the local support scene unique is HazelFest, a sober music festival taking place Saturday at Hazelden in Center City, Minn. Organizers say HazelFest might be the only festival in the country where 100 percent of the talent and audience is completely sober.
Performers and fans who might typically encounter booze and drugs at festival gigs will instead find a temptation-free setting where they can celebrate recovery and overall wellness.
“HazelFest is part of a swelling social consciousness in the Twin Cities music scene around mental health and wellness,” said Jeremiah Gardner, manager of public affairs and advocacy for Hazelden. “It stands in stark contrast to many other music events and cultural stereotypes. Hopefully, it makes wellness cool.”
The stakes are higher than ever for musicians who often face increasing pressure to tour frequently, accept booze for payment by the bars they play in and keep up with the endless demands of fans and social media.
These factors make musicians three times more likely to suffer from depression than the general public, according to new research by Help Musicians UK, a charity supporting the mental health of musicians.
“There is a high correlation between high creativity and high neuroticism as a personality trait,” said Sarah Souder Johnson, a licensed therapist who treats many local musicians and artists. “When that is combined with the lifestyle of most musicians who tour or play shows in bars at all hours, it can be a perfect storm for the development of mental illness.”
Local musicians and mental health experts say it’s time to challenge the myth of the tortured artist, the idea that without depression or drugs, artists will lose their creative edge.
“We sanction the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and nearly expect our favorite artists to be in great pain to make it big,” said Souder Johnson.
With hopes of shattering that stereotype, Souder Johnson co-created the Twin Cities nonprofit Dissonance to support local artists facing mental illness and addiction. The group facilitates conversations around mental health and recovery and creates social events aimed at artists who often feel isolated due to their lifestyle and schedule. Last December, the group held a social event called “Unhappy Holidays” for creative community members who struggle to get through the season.
Minneapolis musician Katy Vernon turned to Dissonance when she realized a year ago that she was in a downward spiral of numbing her feelings with alcohol.
“I needed to reach out to people who could talk about addiction issues and depression without judgment,” Vernon said. “Dissonance was a safe place, a life line.”
Vernon said the group helped her to find resources that eventually led her to Alcoholics Anonymous. After taking a few months without alcohol, Vernon said she realized drinking was a symptom of a larger issue: depression.
“I was probably depressed all along and I didn’t know it,” she said. “Now I’m on antidepressants and I’m doing better.”
Vernon then turned to social media to share her personal battles with alcohol abuse and depression, a move that more musicians are starting to make.
Artists like Kanye West, Demi Lovato and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon have been outspoken about personal mental health issues, reflecting the industry’s cultural shift toward stars taking better care of themselves. Former Minneapolis singer/rapper Lizzo, who was set to headline Saturday’s HazelFest, canceled with short notice, explaining the reason on Twitter: “Gotta take some time to get my mind & body right.”
Social media was also the public forum for fans and musicians alike to discuss mental illness following the suicide deaths of beloved rockers Cornell and Bennington who suffered from anxiety and addiction, respectively.
Locally, the Honeydogs’ Adam Levy is another example of a musician turned mental health advocate.
Levy lost his son, Daniel Levy, to suicide in 2012, and devotes considerable energy to speaking at mental health conferences.
On Andrea Swensson’s Minnesota Public Radio podcast “The OK Show”, local musicians — from Gary Louris of the Jayhawks to Davina Sowers of Davina and the Vagabonds — have candid discussions about mental health, addiction and wellness.
“It does seem like their message is more urgent now than ever, for a lot of societal factors, particularly with young people and all the stress they have in their lives,” said Adam Wahlberg, the founder of Think Piece Publishing, an imprint dedicated to mental health advocacy through the arts. “The good news is I think people are talking about it more openly now than in any time in history.”
In addition to music from some of the Twin Cities’ biggest names (Hippo Campus, Har Mar Superstar, Communist Daughter), concertgoers at Saturday’s HazelFest will hear the personal stories of musicians and speakers who’ve struggled with mental illness or addiction, including Solomon, who proves that even without drugs or alcohol, the party goes on.
“As a recovering addict I thought music had to have alcohol or drugs. I just couldn’t even separate them,” Solomon said. “It’s a music festival without a craft beer tent on every corner. It doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything. It just feels right.”