For the longest time, even during his first go-around with recovery, Sean Scolnick — the artist known as Langhorne Slim — felt a bit like a British explorer from the 1920s, hobbling his way across the Tibetan plateau toward the ultimate summit.
Despite the majestic views of every peak scaled, little else mattered, he said, except for the one in the distance, the Everest by which all others seemed lacking. And as long as that cloud-shrouded crag remained the Holy Grail of his life’s work, there was precious little joy in the beauty that surrounded him along the way, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.
“I was always looking for a mountaintop down the way and thinking, ‘When I get there, I can fix this relationship. I can fill this theater. I can write that song, and if I do that, I’ll be the man I always wanted to be,’” Scolnick said. “I knew that intellectually and philosophically, that wasn’t the answer, but I didn’t grasp that in my heart, so I continued to look for exterior things to feel better about myself, and I continued to fall short. I was breaking, and it was a wretched time.”
When he first got sober eight years ago, shortly after moving to Nashville, he got something of a second wind. The load seemed a little lighter, and the paths before him got a little easier to navigate. But without the compass of the recovery program that points him toward True North today, he soon found himself back in a similar sort of rat race, until an avalanche of self-will eventually buried him in desperation.
That was almost two years ago, Scolnick added, and as it turns out, that desperation was a gift. Today, he’s back on the path, but no longer is there a destination that pulls him inexorably toward spiritual exhaustion. He has his guitar, and he has his songs, and he has his friends and family and fans. More importantly, he has himself, maybe for the first time in his life, and that’s a discovery more beautiful than anything else.
“There’s a term that I’m sure a lot of people in recovery are familiar with, that God-shaped hole inside of us that we try to fill with drugs and alcohol,” he said. “I know that God is a word that scares a lot of people, and I think I understand the reasons for it, but if we can use one’s idea of whatever something more is, that’s just an idea I think is so amazing, and I resonate with it so much. Because to me, I had to realize that whatever I was looking for out there, it’s never enough.
“It doesn’t matter if I get that woman, the one who feels so far away that I wish would just give me a chance. It doesn’t matter if I could just fill that theater. It’s never enough, but what I realized this time around is that our wants are never enough, but our needs are always provided for. That’s mind-blowing shit, and just remembering that helps. A lot of stuff (in recovery) sounded like slogans and bumper stickers until I started trying to apply it to survive, and now it makes a lot more sense to me.”
Langhorne Slim builds a 'Mansion'
The survival is fiercely and wonderfully celebrated on Langhorne Slim’s most recent album, “Strawberry Mansion,” released last January as a two-disc collection that rides both the nostalgia of more innocent times and the rebirth he’s experienced since restarting his recovery journey. The title comes from “the neighborhood in Philly that my grandfathers Jack + Sid grew up in,” he writes about the record on his website. “It’s become a place of myths for me. A place that’s dirty but sweet, tough but full of love. Where giants roamed the earth + had names like Whistle + Curly. These songs and these friends are gifts from the spirits and I’m wildly grateful for em all. It’s a mad world indeed but there’s beauty in the madness. Always + forever.”
It's not a “recovery record,” per se, but without recovery, he wouldn’t have been able to make it. Oh, he undoubtedly had more albums in him, and still does, but the authenticity that resonates so fiercely on “Strawberry Mansion” would sound very different. And even then, Scolnick was reticent to discuss how sobriety had informed it, he added.
“I was hesitant and nervous and fearful to do a whole lot of talking about the mental health stuff and the recovery stuff,” he said. “I was vocal about it the first time, and then with the relapse, I thought I’d better keep my damn mouth shut. But it’s proven the thing I’m eager to talk about the most, and hopefully it helps anybody else who hears it our reads about it.”
After getting clean and sober this time around — more on that in a minute — he wrestled with the same fear a lot of newly sober, or thinking-about-getting-sober, artists do: that creativity, often mistakenly credited to the altered consciousness afforded by drugs and alcohol, would dry up. But a few months into 2020, COVID-19 slammed the shutters down on his window to the world, and like so many of his peers, he found himself forced indoors, where the muse tapped insistently on his shoulder, he said.
“I wasn’t able to run at every impulse, and the songs just started coming,” he said. “I’m kind of a superstitious dude, so I didn’t tell my manager or the record label that I was writing a bunch of songs and that they felt pretty honest and that I thought I might be onto something. My friend Mike (Beyer, known in the industry as “Crackerfarm”), I would write a song and hardly even finish it before I would drive over to his place, and he would film it. I would post it to social media, and that was sort-of a catch-and-release kind of feeling that enabled me to move onto the next song without judging them or getting precious about them.
“In two months or so, I had about 28 or 30 songs, and I got a call from Bodie (Johnson), my manager, who said, ‘We’ve seen a bunch of these tunes, and the label would love to have you record them at your house, just a real stripped-down deal.’ Because it was the pandemic, it was impossible to fly the band in and do a bigger thing, so we recorded it that way, without a lot of bells and whistles, and it just felt guided by the spirit. It felt very easy in a lot of ways — the faucet went on, and it’s been on for a while.”
Ellen Johnson, reviewing “Strawberry Mansion” for Paste Magazine, writes that “it offers a clear look at one songwriter’s experiences during a monumental cultural moment and frames them within his own personal struggles. If a lyricist’s foremost job is to speak the truth — even the ugly, sometimes conflicting truth of hunkering down during a pandemic — then you’ll find no falsehoods here.”
For Scolnick, hewing tightly to that unflinching honesty was a carryover from his sobriety, and just as it’s been essential to getting better, so too has it been indispensable in making a record that’s the high-water mark of a career spent snatching tunes out of the ether.
“I felt guided somehow to just be there as the songs were showing up, and I was kind of in awe that the songs kept showing up,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what was good and what wasn’t good, because I wasn’t trying to write for a record. I was just keeping myself company in my house because we were in lockdown with all the crazy stuff going on outside, and for the first time in my life, I was finding a little more peace in stillness.”
Langhorne Slim finds his lane ... and his vices
Langhorne Slim was waiting to be born even before Scolnick had chosen his nom de plume. As a kid, his mom fixed up a broken guitar, and a cousin taught him some Nirvana songs. Even earlier, though, there was an inner wildness that longed to exist on the fringes of conventional 9-to-5 society. His stage name comes from the Philadelphia suburb in which he grew up, and at 18, he moved to New York, determined to do something with his talent.
He also, he said, took a penchant for chemical enhancement with him.
“I remember that my mom didn’t drink or do drugs, because addiction runs in the family, and she lost a brother to it and saw some stuff that scared the shit out of her,” he said. “I remember my mom said to me, ‘When you grow up, there are three things I want you to stay away from: alcohol, drugs and redheaded Geminis. Well, I ran right to alcohol and drugs, and my first girlfriend was a redheaded Gemini who liked alcohol and drugs.”
His first clear memory of drinking was pouring half a bottle of Goldschläger — or maybe it was sambuca — into a pot of coffee, inspired by the elderly friends of his mother and grandmother who sweetened theirs with a pour of liqueur. He chugged it, but it did not have the desired effect, and while he had smoked weed, he said, it always seemed to heighten his anxiety. But later on — listening to Bob Marley in his friend Justin’s basement, drinking tequila; sharing a six-pack of Yuengling with his high school sweetheart — eventually impressed upon him a deep and abiding association between alcohol and comfort.
“My anxious mind felt at ease, and my heart or my spirit or my soul or whatever you want to call it felt open, felt soft, felt loving,” he said. “It’s like the metaphor of alcohol as the divine dance floor, and I continued to chase that in order to dance on it. I felt good in my skin, and I wanted to go pick up the guitar and sing. I felt I could have easier, deeper, sweeter conversations and connections.”
There were, however, warning signs. Despite its negative effects, weed was consumed in abundance, and it always surprised him when friends would pull out a baggie at a party they’d held onto for a couple of months. In high school, friends introduced him to Ritalin, to Adderall, and it quelled his feverish brain in ways that circumstances couldn’t replicate until he enrolled in an arts school in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
There, prior to moving to New York, the romanticism of chemical excess seem tailor-made for a guy who wanted to make music for a living, and as a troubadour with a ramblin’ man aesthetic, he found a place for himself once he landed in New York’s indie folk scene. He hit up open mics and eventually joined with the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, a self-described “indie-vaudeville conceptual art rock band” that traveled the country as a collection of wandering minstrels, showcasing the cast-offs of American society in a unique series of slides set as a backdrop to the group’s music. The group’s ramshackle, rough-hewn nature proved to be an ideal incubator for the wildness of Langhorne Slim’s music, a hobo’s bindle of American musical and storytelling traditions tied together with charm and dedication to craft.
He eventually struck out on his own, putting out a handful of independent albums before releasing 2004’s “The Electric Love Letter,” the title track of which was selected as No. 5 on the Rolling Stone editors top 10 picks and was also used in the film “Waitress.” A brief stint on the Universal subsidiary V2 Records led to an EP, but he reclaimed his independence for a 2008 self-titled album and has been remained so ever since.
“But what I found myself doing was that I would get my back against the wall so intensely and then fight my way back,” he said. “I was constantly in this battle with myself, but then of course it was a battle with anybody around me — the people I work with, my bandmates, whomever. I would catch some real sweet spots, write some great songs and have some great shows, but nothing was sustainable.”
Getting clean and sober, round one
Eight years ago, after first moving to Nashville, he sequestered himself in a friend’s bedroom on his 33rd birthday and kicked both drugs and alcohol for the first time. Afterward, he was open about his sobriety, but more than that, he embraced the creative opportunities that followed in its wake the first time around.
“I managed to stay off of drugs and alcohol for a little while — two or three years, however long it was — but what I didn’t do was that I didn’t connect with a 12 Step recovery community, and I didn’t seek out therapy,” he said. “When I initially got sober, after the obvious really hard part of physically detoxing and getting off everything, I felt the best I’d ever felt in my life. Things started to open up that were deep.”
And for the first time, he was able to enjoy the view from the overlooks and pull-offs along the routes upon which he traveled. He was, he realizes now, on what those in recovery refer to as a “pink cloud” — a blissful state of relief and freedom afforded by new sobriety. However, as he came to understand, without work, there’s no safety net to catch a wounded soul once that cloud dissipates.
“I was isolated in my own shit, and my romantic relationship at the time was deeply toxic,” he said. “My partner and I at the time couldn’t figure out why we were emotionally battering one another, and everything was just really hard — my relationships with my friends and my family and the way I viewed my career.”
An acquaintance suggested he might suffer from an anxiety disorder, so he made an appointment with a doctor. Looking back, he admits to a certain amount of manipulation, in that he wasn’t upfront about his addicted past, and he didn’t turn down the offer of a prescription for a drug he used to take recreationally. In the beginning, his intentions were noble: Take it as prescribed and let it work, and it did. For a while.
“It gave me that sweet spot where the noise in my head was turned down, and my heart, my spirit. was softer, and I feel good and creative,” he said. “The great irony, and sort of the tragedy of that for me and for people like me, is that I can never maintain that sweet spot. I’m constantly chasing that divine dance floor, that sweet zone, but what I’m doing is adding to my anxiety, my fears, my depression in hopes that maybe I’ll feel better for a little bit.
“But in the end, I’m miserable, and I can’t stand myself, and I can’t connect creatively, and I can’t connect to just love. And that’s what it always was — constantly trying to get back to that place where I felt OK, and always knowing that if I can just stop doing what I’m doing, I bet I would feel OK without this shit. But as we know, it’s so damn difficult to finally surrender.”
By 2019, the wheels were coming off. He was doing more than just the medication he’d been prescribed and hiding the fact that he was using again. His soul — that beautifully tender piece of Langhorne Slim to which so many of his listeners and fans endearingly connect — felt like it was covered in black sludge, and when he ran out of his medication in Norway while on tour, he was forced to take a hard look at what, exactly, he was doing.
“I got myself somehow to a doctor out there and told them what was going on, and he was shocked,” Scolnick said. “He said, ‘We hardly prescribe this stuff at all out here, because it’s so addictive. We’ll give you some, but we really hope when you get back to the States, you’ll get off this stuff, because it’s overprescribed and super dangerous.’ He gave me some to get through that trip, and when I came back, I attempted to wean myself off.”
Getting clean and sober, round two
The withdrawal of benzos, however, proved mercilessly cruel, and he went back to his doctor, then to another, always plotting and planning on how to maintain his supply while watching the clock, waiting on the sickness to set in. He traveled to California, where he was buying drugs off the streets in downtown Los Angeles and using against his will.
“I was in tears, because I did not want to do this. That was the place I was in,” he said.
That California sojourn was meant to finish an album, “Lost at Last Vol. 2,” and somewhere along the way, he thought he might find a “healthy, hippie girl and fall in love and do yoga and drink green juice and get clean,” he said. Needless to say, those plans went out the window, and after much toxicity and lack of productivity, he and his friend, Joel Sadler, packed up and headed back to Nashville by car.
“I was trying to wean myself off of painkillers, benzos, the whole thing, and I was trying to do it without Joel knowing,” he said. “It was a nightmare. I bet he had suspicions, but it didn’t really come up, and by the end of it, he was looking at me like a guy he didn’t know — just sad and concerned and frustrated and angry.
“When we got back to Nashville and I dropped him off at the airport, I just remember the look in his eyes. I could tell what was in that look ‘I hope I see you again, but I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what the fuck’s going on.’ He went into the airport, and I started to cry, and I started looking up treatment centers on my ride home.”
Up until that point, he had been adamantly opposed to participating in a 12 Step recovery program. And, he admits, he knew nothing about treatment. But he was certain, so very certain, of one thing: He wanted the pain to stop, and he was willing to try anything to make that happen.
“I went to treatment, and I got involved in a program, and I had my heart completely opened to it,” he said. “I was clean three or four months, and then the pandemic hit, and just to have that little bit of time clean again and in recovery meant everything. I had a great sponsor and all that sort of thing, and it just gave me the connection I needed. That’s how I was really able to write any songs, let alone the record I ended up writing.”
While the songs have always been important, they took on a more meaningful place in his artistic paradigm after he left treatment, he said. Some of that was out of necessity: A therapist suggested that when he felt his anxiety spiking, he should pick up his guitar and play, without any expectation of a result. And at first, he said, such advice felt … well, offensive.
“It was like, ‘You don’t really get how this feels! How dare you say that’s going to help me!’” he said with a laugh. “But she said, ‘Play it just to hear the music in your own home, and that helped me. One of the great discoveries for me in this time, even though we all hated the reasons for the pandemic and the lockdown, was to be able to see that there’s a true adventure in stillness.”
Langhorne Slim: More will be revealed
And that stillness, he added, led to connection of a different sort. He’s always connected with an audience. The live setting, in fact, has been where Langhorne Slim comes to life. Whether he’s strumming a guitar so hard the strings snap or pounding a piano like an Old West saloon player, his gives off an infectious enthusiasm that seems to grab everyone in the room, bringing them into alignment with his vision, however clichéd it might seem, that music is the grand celebration of life — the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful.
But the stillness afforded him as 2020 stretched on, and “Strawberry Mansion” began to take form, was that life on life’s terms could be just as beautifully lived as it can be sung about in his songs.
“Being at home offers a lot when it comes to connecting with my neighbors and my community,” he said. “I find a lot of value in rambling from town to town and trying to play great shows every night, but last year, I was forced to peel back the layers, and I had to see what was under there whether I wanted to or not. I had to see who I am when I don’t put on the hat and put the guitar around my neck and do the damn thing.
“That’s certainly a part of who I am, but seeing that was very scary at times. But it was also very rewarding to have that time at home. Whether people like ‘Strawberry Mansion’ or not, that album, for me, will always be very special. It’s just a sweet gift, a reminder of that time and that I can be still — or at least a little more still. I think this record is really special to me as a reminder I wrote the most songs I’ve ever written in a short amount of time.”
As a whole, “Strawberry Mansion” is a clearing along that path through the mountains, a place where a table has been set — for Langhorne Slim, for Sean Scolnick and for all of the fellow travelers searching for themselves in the shadows cast by overhanging outcroppings and in the sun-dappled valleys filled with birdsong. It’s a place where they sit as equals, and sup as kinfolk, and rather than worry about the pressing need to press on toward those summits, that they can be still and enjoy one another’s company for a while.
“I tried like so many other people to do it alone, even though when I first got sober, my best friend of 21 years told me, ‘There’s a place I go that helps with all these things,’” he said. “I had to prove it to myself that I need help and that I need to work on this shit, and talk to somebody about it. That helps me on a daily basis, and that’s a powerful thing, because I didn’t know I would get so much out of connecting with other people over all these similar struggles.”
Sobriety doesn’t guarantee the absence of struggle, he noted: But it does make them so much easier to bear. And thanks to the work he’s done this time around, the big feels are manageable. The stress is endurable. The challenges met with grace and acceptance.
And the triumphs are all the sweeter.
“Everything I dreamt of doing as a kid was only to make a living making music. It wasn’t that I wanted this amount of people clapping for me, or record sales — I just wanted to play music and do that on my own terms and be a creative person,” he said. “I’ve gotten to do that, and live my dream, but the road was always hard. What I’ve found now is a sustainable self-esteem that allows me to take the good days and the bad days and not fucking fall off the edge.”