Talk about a tough room.
Two summers ago, Twin Cities singer/songwriter Katy Vernon returned to the hospice care center in London where she last saw her mom alive at age 12. She went there to perform for teens with terminal illnesses, not long after coming to grips with the deep-seated sadness and self-medication she had grappled with throughout her adult life.
“When you’re going through recovery, you learn that doing things to help other people helps you get out of your own way,” she said, marveling at how the seemingly unenviable gig “felt so beautiful” in the end.
“It completely changed how I felt about that place, creating something positive out of something so negative.”
A ukulele-strumming tunesmith who now calls White Bear Lake home, Vernon has often wittily billed herself as “a singer of sad songs on a happy instrument.” She did not realize until a few years ago, though, just how truly sad she was after losing her mom to lymphoma and her dad to a heart attack five years later.
A quarter century later — and now a mother herself to two teen girls — Vernon finally sought help for her long-undiagnosed depression and accompanying alcoholism. Her rebound led her to not only write a hopeful new album, “Suit of Hearts,” but to follow her passion and play music full time and use it as a vehicle to help others.
Part of the Twin Cities music scene going back to her early-’00s rock band, the Camdens — which she formed after meeting her ex-serviceman husband on a train in Europe and eventually following him home — the London native enjoyed a good local buzz off her prior solo album, “Present.” Surprisingly, though, she didn’t enjoy its rollout.
“I was actually hung over the day of the release party,” she recalled with a wince.
“When I looked at my behavior and my moods, I realized I was medicating with alcohol and had been for a long time. So I thought if I stopped drinking, I would feel better. And stopping did help, but I realized a lot of the heavy stuff was still there.”
The heaviness, of course, had a lot to do with the lingering trauma of losing both parents before her 18th birthday. She finally sought treatment and was formally diagnosed with depression — which, she said, “was almost a relief.
“For 30 years, a big part of me thought: ‘Get over it already.’ But I couldn’t get over it on my own.”
All of this led to many of the songs on “Suit of Hearts,” which she’s promoting with a digital/national release celebration May 18 at the Aster Cafe in Minneapolis. Dramatic but uplifting tracks such as “Latest Disaster,” “Pink Cloud” and the title track — produced with Minnesota music vet and fellow recovery advocate Kevin Bowe — reflect her turn to mental-health assistance.
“You might never save anyone’s life in this life but your own,” she sings in the title song, “but that’s more than most of us can.”
At her sold-out album celebration last month at the Parkway Theater, Vernon showed off her new efforts to help others by promoting the local mental-health arts organization Dissonance, for which she is also a board member.
Just as being a woman in the music scene has its challenges, she said speaking about recovery sometimes involves sexism.
“As a society, we kind of look down more at women with drinking problems — especially mothers — whereas men seem to be able to speak about it more with a certain sense of romance about it.”
These newfound efforts follow Vernon’s long-standing support for the Arc Minnesota, which is the beneficiary of the annual Uke Fest she organizes every October in honor of the oldest of her two brothers, Peter, who was born with cerebral palsy and still lives in London.
Katy often sings to Peter via Skype, and she visited him during the six-week stay in England that included her return to her mom’s hospice facility and gigs all over the country. That’s also when she wrote many of the songs on “Suit of Hearts.”
“It was a big leap of faith, because it was the first time in my life where I got to be nothing but a musician, at least for a few weeks,” she said, noting that “Undertow” was influenced by the seaside location. “It’s so much a metaphor for recovery because you have to give up all control and trust that you’re going to be thrust back out and make it to shore.”
Her record closes with “Somebody’s Daughter’s Daughter,” a stirring finale featuring the Prairie Fire Lady Choir and sound bites from an interview Vernon tracked down of her mother, Juliet, speaking on a U.K. news program about raising a child with disabilities.
“Her voice didn’t sound at all like I remembered it,” Vernon admitted, “so that made it all the more sad at first. But that, too, became part of the healing process.”
That upbeat new outlook extends to ABBAsolutely Fab, a new tribute band that Vernon fronts. about which she said, “It feels great to just get up and sing happy songs like theirs,” she said, “and to step out of being a songwriter and just let go as a singer.”
It feels even better having her own happy songs to sing now, though.
“Part of me, as a songwriter, wanted to write a more miserable, woe-is-me, cathartic kind of record,” she said, “but I’ve spent way too much of my life being sad.”