Already a whirlwind, cosmic rocker Idgy Dean gets supercharged by sobriety

Idgy Dean
Courtesy of Jordan Kleinman

It’s not exactly accurate to credit Trent Reznor with creating Idgy Dean any more than it is to lay the fault of her addiction at the feet of Aphex Twin, but both artists had a part to play in the journey of Lindsay Sanwald.

The Ties That Bind UsFor the sake of clarity: Idgy Dean is the on-stage persona of Sanwald, and a necessary one at that, because “playing music” just doesn’t do Idgy Dean justice. As her website states, she’s “a self-described feminist loop artist, mystic and yogini” who “infuses her one-woman psychedelic rock with a calming Zen presence that belies the emotional intensity of her DIY beats.”

Credit some of that to the recovery she embraced four years ago this month. But also give a little bit to Trent Reznor, whose Nine Inch Nails album blew young Sanwald’s mind, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“Very early on, I became obsessed with Nine Inch Nails, and I remember definitively standing in my mom’s kitchen when I was 8 or 9,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wait — this is one guy? Trent Reznor? I want to be that one-man band!’”

A lot of kids make similar declarations, but it speaks to a ferocity of spirit that Sanwald followed through — and not just with music. Today, her life is a full one, with graduate work at Harvard Divinity School and yoga and music lessons and Idgy Dean and, perhaps most importantly, staying on top of her personal recovery.

Because that, she added, is how she keeps track of it all.

“That needs to be so much of recovery — demarcating strict boundaries,” she said. “That’s that, and then there’s this, and then there are a thousand other versions of myself, too. And recovery is sort of how I keep them in their own framework.”

Idgy Dean: A sober moment, a musical birth

Courtesy of William Ruben Helms

Say this for Sanwald: Once she sets her mind to something, all systems are go. One of the blessings of recovery, she added, is that she can direct the obsessiveness and determination that are hallmarks of addiction toward more positive directions. Case in point: She’s in graduate school at the moment at Harvard Divinity School, and when she needs to absorb a topic or read a book and dissect it for the purposes of her degree, she can harness those traits, she said.

“That obsessiveness, that insatiability, or even in music, working on a track for days on end — it’s like, ‘Cool, addict, go! Do your thing! Just make sure you get plenty of sleep!’” she said. “Those times, you can channel it to be useful, and that’s what I’m working on right now: figuring out how to be addicted to better things. You can be addicted to yoga and wellness, for example, and you can have some mental repercussions, but you’re not going to relapse on substances.”

The 30,000 foot view of addiction is that those who suffer from it get clean and sober when their physical suffering becomes too great to carry on. And to be fair, there are thousands of stories of addicts and alcoholics who stumble into the rooms of recovery meetings physically broken, homeless, destitute and desperate. But desperation isn’t the sole domain of the low-bottom addict, something Sanwald knows well.

“I talk about this with my sponsor and in the program all the time, because the assumption is that things get really hard when failure is happening,” she said. “For me, when I look back retrospectively, I can see that my recovery was years in the making. One of the last drinks I ever had, for example, was at a celebratory lunch, where the same booking agent who signed Nirvana had signed me. At that time, that was the biggest and most exciting moment in my music career, and the last glass of fine wine I ever had was at that celebratory lunch with her, and that same night was my bender.

“It occurred to me later that I went on a bender not because I was in pain, although I certainly had plenty of experience doing that; but that I was on a bender when things were the best they could possibly be.”

Things weren’t just good; they were, in fact, very good, given that making it and performing it became a life-affirming mission the first time she was sonically baptized at Sports Park USA, an amusement center near the rural New Jersey town where she grew up. It was, she said, “basically like a Chuck E. Cheese,” and the first time she climbed on a spaceship-style ride, the combination of frenetic energy and dance-pop sucked her in — and would, in some respects, become something of a template for the Idgy Dean aesthetic.

“It feels like my ‘cherry pop’ moment, when I lost my virginity to music,” she said. “You would go in this ride, which was like a mini-school bus, and it was dark, with this big movie screen. And the spaceship would go up and down, so it felt like a roller coaster, and they turned on that Haddaway song ‘What Is Love,’ and I just remember having a completely transcendent experience (laughs), especially when the female vocal kicked in.

“My mind was completely blown, and I was just like, ‘Do it again. Do it again. I want to do it again.’ I was taken away. There were other particular songs — some of the first music I was memorably exposed to was when my dad gave me Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ on cassette when I was 5, and I was obsessed with the title track and ‘Waking the Witch.’

“I just have these primary visceral memories of music that were like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m elsewhere, and this is amazing,’” she added.

Idgy Dean, light-bringer

Idgy Dean

Courtesy of Stephen Rose

Bush and Reznor weren’t the only influences on Sanwald as a girl. She credits her father and older brother for exposing her to a number of different genres and artists, and when she was 10, she decided to teach herself to play the drums. In middle school, she picked up the guitar, and aside from someone showing her how to play the power chords for Green Day’s “Basket Case,” that’s the extent of her musical training.

She was obsessed, however, and started cutting four-track demos at home, throwing her lot in with assorted punk, metal and indie rock bands in high school and college and slowly but surely weaving Idgy Dean out of the cosmic ether.

“Idgy Dean’s my superhero!” she said with a laugh, pointing to herself on the other size of a Zoom interview. “This is Clark Kent — I even have the glasses! — and here I am, in my office, doing my thing, but then I tear open the work suit, and out comes Idgy Dean. I’ve said this in therapy before too: When I’m on stage and doing what I do live, I feel like there’s a complete invincibility, which is interesting, because in order to feel that, you have to have complete vulnerability.

“When you’re up there, it takes years of practice learning how to be that vulnerable and raw and sometimes in failure, because there are plenty of shows where nobody shows up or something goes wrong, and you’re crashing and burning on stage, and the way to get through it is to just go into that fire and stand in it.”

Sobriety, she added, helps her shed the trappings of expectation and ego, allowing her to become even more vulnerable. In a way, her sobriety journey has been a search for the elation and euphoria associated with the first time drugs changed the way she experienced music.

“I was watching Chris Cunningham’s video of ‘Come to Daddy’ by Aphex Twin the first time I got high,” she said. “There’s one scene in the video where this monster is screaming at an old lady, and it just keeps increasing in volume, and as that was increasing in volume and the song was coming to its climax, that was when the drugs started to kick in. I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit. This is amazing!’

“And that became a reference point. Whenever I hear that song, I relive that moment. But while it worked with the drug, the interesting thing is, was it the marijuana, or was it the music? Because the truth is, I can relive that feeling with the right music.”

And more importantly, she can help others feel that same way — but while there’s an inherent unease in that song and video, Idgy Dean is all about the light. She’s more than capable of coloring her song with shadows, but ever since she exploded with the frantic-sounding “Bang Bang Sun,” back in 2010, there’s a whimsy to the Idgy Dean catalog that taps into an otherworldly euphoria.

In other words, it’s virtually impossible to listen to an Idgy Dean song and not feel the need to move. Whether her songs are coming through speakers or rolling across a live audience like breakers pushing and shifting and arranging sand in intricate and arcane patterns, Idgy Dean feels like a force of nature — and that extends to the woman herself.

“The talent I have with music, the way I make songs, to this day remains a complete mystery to me,” she said. “I never studied music formally, so it doesn’t make any sense, how I’m doing this. It’s very holy, in a way, like it’s an agreement with God: I don’t know what’s going on here, but I feel like if I don’t give space for this to be expressed, it’s blasphemous. And when I do it, during that part of the performance and the show, I feel utterly powerful to wield this thing, because even though I have no idea what I’m doing, I know what it’s affecting.”

How a resurrection really feels

Courtesy of Brynne Levy

Idgy Dean first made waves with the release of “Heart and Lung,” a six-song EP released in 2011 that caught attention in the New York scene and beyond. Four years later, the eight-track album “Ominous Harminus” was even more widely received, with one reviewer for the blog Girl Underground Music claiming, “couldn’t praise this album enough, from melodies to the lyrics, Idgy Dean stands out with this album. To be in Idgy Dean’s mind is the equivalent of being in love, and being under the spell of drugs; not sure what is going on, not sure what will go on, but the current feeling is indescribable.”

The following year, Sanwald was selected to attend the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, where “she participated in two weeks of mentoring lectures and studio workshops with musical luminaries including Björk, Pauline Oliveros, Susan Rogers, Jam & Lewis, Deradoorian, tUnE-yArDs, Dev Hynes, Thundercat, Dorian Concept, and Matias Aguayo,” according to her website. That was in October 2016.

Less than a year later, she found herself waking up the morning after that celebratory lunch and realized that despite her acclaim, drugs and alcohol were knocking incessantly on the door of her career (and her life), threatening to burn it all down.

Quite literally, she added.

“I really did almost burn my house down, because you know how we are:  Once you cross that threshold, you gun it,” she said. “I woke up that morning, and I had slept through two yoga meditation workshops I was supposed to be responsible for. I blew it, and I had 24 hours of deep shame, but part of the seeds had already been planted that would help me get clean and sober.

“I had already been in yoga training, or meditation training, for years, and I had this ritual I had enacted where every day, I would read a Yoga Sutra (a collection of aphorisms outlining the eight limbs of yoga). And the Yoga Sutra I happened to read that day, after I almost burned my house down, was something along the lines of, ‘Creativity is not the result of any sort of outward effort. It’s the result of removing your obstacles, like a farmer removes stones from the field.’

“As soon as I read that, I just started weeping, and I just knew: I’m done,” she added. “I was done. I was fucking done, and that was the stroke of insight: That I needed to get these stones out of my field.”

Those stones, for Sanwald as well as a great many addicts and alcoholics in recovery, aren’t necessarily made up of problems. Rather, they’re built out of resistance to the solutions, which are often spiritual in nature. Sobriety isn’t about mere abstinence, and much of the emotional struggle in early recovery comes from wanting to avoid pain rather than walking through it with head held high — which sounds frightening and can be, but it can also be breathtakingly beautiful.

As Sanwald prepares herself for an upcoming vision quest, she’s been reminded of those early days in the program, she said.

Thinking back to that first 90 days, that first year, it was such a sacred chapter in my sobriety that I almost miss it, or at least miss things about it,” she said. “Doing all of these cleansing preparations to go on this vision quest, there are aspects of it that remind me of early sobriety, where you start to feel your system clean out, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever felt. The clarity you gain, the bedrock honesty of how you’re living — these are the things nobody tells you, or maybe they do, but you don’t listen.”

All things Idgy: music, yoga, higher ed and more

Idgy Dean

Courtesy of Brynne Levy

The flip side of feeling everything, of course, is that the anesthesia drugs and alcohol once provided for emotional pain is removed. It’s a conscious choice to do so, and there are coping mechanisms embedded in the machinations of a spiritual sobriety program, but it’s still a ride every bit as wild as the spaceship at Sports Park USA.

“Part of recovery is that you feel everything, and what I like to tell people is that it’s like open heart surgery with no drugs!” Sanwald said. “You get torn apart, and you have to be there for it. Getting ready for this vision quest, I’m having echoes of that now, and I’m really grateful for it, because it’s reminding me of that fresh, baptismal moment of getting sober and recognizing that it’s a superpower.”

Case in point: Her first time back home visiting family since 2019 was, she added, “fraught.” It was chaotic, it was uncomfortable and it was emotional, but because of sobriety, she went into it prepared both emotionally and spiritually. And returning home, she said, a single mantra kept repeating over and over in her head: “Thank God I’m sober.”

“Thank God I’m sober, because I would not have been able to do that if I didn’t have this,” she said. “The cool thing about sobriety is that while you always try to be humble about it and understand that you can relapse at any time if you’re not doing the work, you do feel incrementally strengthened. This (month) is four years for me, and compared to all these people in my community, I feel like a complete baby, but in that four years, it feels like I’ve had three other lifetimes.

“Within the space of me having temptations or cravings, it’s almost like I have this cache I’ve built up of how much exponentially better life is without it. When I do have those moments — ‘Oh, I wish I could get fucked up and have a beer; God, I wish I could just be high’ — I immediately think, ‘And compromise all this other stuff? This beautiful garden I’ve cultivated? How to live a mindful life? No. No thanks.’”

And what a life it is. As Idgy Dean, she made a new album last year during the COVID quarantine, the first three songs of which are on her most recent EP, “Piano in the Hurricane.” It’s a solid record’s worth of material, and she’s also eyeing a commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of “Heart and Lung.” In the meantime, she continues to study philosophy and ritual divinity at Harvard, making music videos and some writing on the side, like her recent contribution to the Sober 21 zine.

And she continues to fine-tune her sober journey, through traditional methods and the spirituality of yoga.

“I’m so grateful that yoga meditation came into my life, because it helps you realize that your whole life is your instrument, not just your guitar,” she said. “My body is my instrument. My day is my instrument, and if my body and day are fucked up, I’m not going to be able to make good art I can’t. It doesn’t work that way. Like, I have to watch myself, because I’ll occasionally pull all-nighters and not sleep, and the addict in me loves when I do that.

“It gives me new chemistry, but it’s a fucked up chemistry. It’s a manic one, and my brain is like, ‘Goody! Candy!’ But then I’m out for two days, so was it worth it? Wouldn’t it have been better to get the right amount of sleep and meditate in the morning and do the top line behavior that I know works really well and do it consistently?”