The wheels weren’t falling off, but they were damn close when Australian singer-songwriter Liz Stringer pulled back into Melbourne after an exhausting tour grind.
It was October 2016, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently, and her relationship with alcohol had run its course. The tour to support “All the Bridges,” the record she had released three months earlier, started out as it always did: Fast-paced, lots of music and the ever-increasing intake of booze that, by the time that run came to an end, had her at a breaking point.
“I used to drink a lot anyway, but it would just ramp up over the tour until I would get home at the end, feeling physically like absolute shit,” Stringer said. “I used to smoke, and my voice would be fucked too, and I came home from tour, and I realized that I had been drinking heavily for years and years, and everything was fine, and then suddenly it wasn’t fine anymore.
“I was getting really angry, and there was just so much toxicity that my psyche was like, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ So I decided I was going to try a week off (from drinking), because I had never had a week off since I started drinking when I was 15.”
At first, the goal was to detox so she could start back up again, but after day seven, something happened. In conversations since, she’s described it as “feeling like I slipped through a slit in the fabric of my consciousness at the right moment,” and her instincts suggested she take another week. And at the end of that week, she felt compelled to take another. And another. Until eventually, she began to emerge from an alcoholic haze and took stock of her life.
“My psyche very gently laid out, ‘You’re fucked!’” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t really have any understanding of how bad I was. Now, I look back at the way I used to experience life, and how much I was drinking and how much I was abusing my body, and I just think, ‘That was exhausting!’ Just waking up like that every day, and going through every day, and not wanting to be around, and having that constant suicidal ideation at the end.
“And I thought everyone felt like that. No! No, they don’t! They just don’t! Not everyone wants to die! God knows how I stepped away from it, but the only thing that allowed me to work out how bad I was, was the objectivity of stepping away from it. I just kept dangling the carrot a bit further.”
Liz Stringer: 'First Time Really Feeling'
Almost five years later, Stringer is back in Melbourne after a sojourn to Toronto, trying to figure out when she’ll be able to return to North America with a new album in tow. “First Time Really Feeling” was released earlier this year, and in any other year — one in which the music industry around the world has been sidelined by a pandemic — it would have put her on the map outside of her native Australia, where she’s “developed a cult following across her decade-plus in the industry, when she deserves her own megachurch.”
That’s a description from the British music and pop culture website NME, which lavished the new album with praise that’s long overdue: “From the rousing rock sounds of its full-band moments (‘Big City’) to the vulnerability laid bare in its more intimate passages (‘My History’, ‘The Things That I Now Know’), ‘First Time Really Feeling’ is uniform in its compelling nature and heart-wrenching honesty.” Warm, genuine and honest on a recent Zoom interview from half a world away, she makes no bones about what served as the tipping point for this record: her sobriety.
“Traditionally, I write a lot of story-based stuff, and I hadn’t been able to write autobiographically because I didn’t have any access to myself,” she said. “Now, I have this new channel, so I’m able to really kind of feel a lot of the stuff that I hadn’t felt before, and I’m able to articulate and synthesize it into art. And that was actually the greatest gift and the greatest relief.
“I think on some level, I was afraid that if you’re not a fucked-up alcoholic, you can’t make good art, but it was the opposite for me. I realized I enjoy writing more sober, and I think I’m so much more open. Things just flow so much more than they did, because you’re not stifled by blocks put in place to protect you from your pain. I’m OK with feeling pain and joy and articulating it so much better.”
The record opens with the title track, and while the album was recorded three years ago during her time in Toronto, there’s a timeless nature to every song on the record. It sounds as fresh as last week, and as timeless as a classic like Beth Orton’s “Central Reservation,” but all of it is built on the yearning Stringer now feels for living life unfiltered. Joy and pain aren’t numbed by alcohol, she pointed out: They’re backed up, like the ever-deepening water behind a dam.
“You have all these feelings coming in, and nothing escapes,” she said. “My mental health is so much better now than when I was drinking, for obvious reasons. I still feel difficult stuff, and I feel it more acutely than I did when I was drinking. And maybe the suffering is more pure now that I’m not trying to bat it away or wallow in it or use it in some way to make excuses to myself about not dealing with things.”
Case in point: The death of her mother, who died 26 years ago, when Stringer was only 14. It was a life-shattering event that’s rippled forward into the present day, but it’s only been since getting sober, through recovery and therapy, that she’s begun to unpack exactly what sort of impact it’s had on her life.
“It’s huge, and it’s so hard to deal with, but early on in my sobriety, a lot of my sober friends taught me to feel the feelings,” she said. “Before, you don’t want to, so it hovers there, and it never really gets felt. This fear of really feeling stuff, I didn’t understand that once it’s felt, it’s released. And that’s been really powerful.”
A slow descent in the abyss of booze
Liz Stringer can’t remember a time that music wasn’t a part of her life. Her father was a high school music teacher who also played guitar, and the family home was filled with instruments. Some of her earliest memories, she said, are of sitting on his lap at the piano, putting her tiny hands on his big ones as he played.
“I just remember it being such a natural part of our family, just around all the time, that there was never a point where I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do for a living,’” she said. “It was just a part of my life.”
When she was 12, however, her mother was first diagnosed with cancer, and the next two years were a litany of hospital stays and a slow, downward spiral that initially put her off of drugs and alcohol altogether. Mind-altering substances were things Stringer associated with the powerful opioids that caused her mother’s hallucinations toward the end of her life; why, she wondered, would she want to enter into such a state voluntarily?
But then her mother died, and not long after, she found herself, to the best of her recall, in a Melbourne car park with friends, throwing back an airplane bottle of Jim Beam and thinking, “Whatever this is, it’s disgusting, but I’m into it!,” she said.
Once she was in, the combination of emotional pain and life in a culture that prized overconsumption as a trait worthy of pride led to a relationship with alcohol that lasted until she got sober. And throughout it all, she said, she remained functional, for the most part. Music became the thing she did more than anything else, and by her mid 20s, after losing jobs because she took so much time off to tour the country, she opted to pursue it as a full-time career.
She released her debut album, “Soon,” in 2006, and for the first decade of her career labored as an independent artist who slowly amassed a loyal following of devoted fans. From smoky bars to a handful of patrons to the Sydney Opera House, she toured incessantly, and over time, the stress began to take its toll, she said.
“What I feel like happened, and what happens to a lot of people with addiction, is that you feel like it’s under control, and you tell yourself you have it under control over and over again, and then it’s totally got you by the balls,” she said. “I quit when I was 36, and looking back, I think if I hadn’t stopped, I was headed toward the inevitable conclusion of that abuse of my body and mind.”
Fortunately for Stringer, the tour behind “All the Bridges,” her fifth studio album, was her breaking point, and the decision to give up alcohol for a week that led to another and another eventually set her down a path of sobriety that continues today.
Liz Stringer on deciding to stay sober
Long-term sobriety, she readily acknowledges, wasn’t the plan, at least in the beginning. In fact, up until month ten, she figured that after a year off, she could start drinking again and be OK. But a conversation with an acquaintance changed her perspective, she said.
“She was a big drinker, and I hadn’t seen her in ages, and she said, ‘Yeah, I heard you’re off the piss!’ and I told her yeah, in another six weeks or so, I was planning on starting again,” Stringer said. “And then she said, ‘I really envy you. I went off of it for three months, but I started drinking again, and now I can’t stop. You’re so lucky you haven’t started back yet!’ And that’s when I thought, ‘Holy shit — imagine if I do the year, and I start drinking again, and I can never stop?’
“That’s when I saw the fork in the road, because to this day, when I think of drinking, I don’t think about having a nice, chill glass of wine. I think about getting fucked up, because that’s how I always drank. To me, complete abstinence is way easier than trying to only drink in moderation, because moderation was just never a thing to me. I trained for 20 years to drink like that.”
There were trying times, and a few close calls when stress and emotional pain nearly sent her back to the bottle. But the one thing she reminded herself was that no matter how badly she felt, it was only going to be worse if she added booze on top of it. The biggest challenge, she added, was trying to navigate a world without alcohol.
“Early on, there was so much nostalgia, because it was how I socialized, how I experienced my city, how I moved around in the world and experienced these places, and that was gone, so I was really sad,” she said. “All of my old friends were here (in Melbourne), and my ex-partner was here, and I just needed to be somewhere else because it was too hard. So that’s when I moved to Canada.”
In Toronto, she found her footing by attending 12 Step recovery meetings. They allowed her to make new and sober friends, and they provided a balm for a soul that was still skittish without the anesthetic of inebriation. Meetings don’t play a big role in her sobriety any longer, but she’s working with a therapist, and she has a handful of close sober friends around the world who help keep her accountable, she said.
“In some ways, I did do it pretty tough the first couple of years, because I did it on my own,” she said. “I think that was good, but I think I might have benefitted with a bit more support in those couple of years, when my new life hadn’t quite taken shape yet, and I was still trying to cling onto sobriety daily. I knew I was doing the right thing, but it hadn’t materialized yet, so I think I would have benefitted from a bit more structure or support in that early time.”
What she gained, however, was a new set of eyes with which to see the world around her. Colors formerly bleached by the haze of hangovers were more vivid; life that seemed listless suddenly felt more vibrant. But perhaps more importantly, she developed a clarity that allowed her a deeper understanding of herself and others.
“I have so much more compassion for other people, so much more empathy for people who are behaving out of pain, especially when it’s really obvious that’s what is happening,” she said. “It’s infinitely fascinating to me the lengths that we go to, especially in this Western-Anglo culture that I’m a part of, to not talk about things, to not talk about death, because we don’t really have any emotional metabolism around it, and all it does is feed into this rampant addiction problem.”
'First Time Really Feeling' ... but definitely not the last
Talking about it helps, she added, and that’s a route she would suggest to anyone struggling with the past, whether alcohol is a factor or not.
“For me, talk therapy has been really good; you’ve just got to find the right person,” she said. “And in the beginning, you’ve got to just set small goals. Saying ‘I’m never going to drink again’ is too overwhelming. It’s too hard. Give yourself a month, or a couple of months, to see how you feel. You’re going to feel different, and I would wager you feel better.”
The initial relief is often tempered by what’s known as life on life’s terms, she added — but by choosing sobriety, it makes those peaks and valleys so much easier to negotiate. Because while she can’t change the past, and she’s powerless over much of what happens around her, she does have power over her own choices, and that’s a comfort she never found at the bottom of a bottle.
“You can’t change the experience of life, but your reaction to it is something you can change,” she said. “It’s really hard work, but I’m constantly reminding myself of that, and I’m constantly telling myself, ‘Don’t be discouraged, don’t fall back into self-flagellation, don’t think that there’s something wrong with you.’ Because I have to put things into perspective. I grew up in a loving family, in a stable country, and I’ve got food to eat, I got an education, I have healthcare, and because I’m a white person, I’ve been afforded this disproportionate freedom to travel and to live my life. I understand, proportionately, that my life is good, and in many ways very easy.
“That doesn’t mean the suffering I experience isn’t real or important or profound, but I have to look at it in the greater context of my life and my experiences and those of the people I share the world with. For alcoholics and addicts who are consumed by this self-hatred, it has the same effect of being conceited, because you’re constantly thinking about yourself and what the world is doing to you. And for me, I’m so grateful not to be thinking about that.”
In other words, she’s grateful to feel — in some ways, for the first time, which is exactly what her new record chronicles. It’s not easy to be sitting on it in the middle of a pandemic — she returned to Australia from Canada roughly 18 months ago, and while she could leave to revisit North America, getting back past Australia’s COVID border closures would make returning home difficult. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, she believes, but for the moment, she’s unsure of what the future holds.
There are a few certainties, however: She’s grateful for art, and for the opportunity to be the creator of some that hopefully brings comfort to those who hear it. And she’s grateful for her sobriety, which makes the current uncertainty surrounding her professional life that much easier to deal with.
“I do feel like that if I can do it, if anyone can do it, anyone else can do it,” she said. “I know it’s hard, and I see people who are struggling, and I sympathize with what a lot of them are dealing with because I was in the thick of that for too many years. It’s hard to watch, because you’re like, ‘You could be in so much less pain than you are!’
“I know that for me, my life is a lot better and a lot easier because I’m sober. I just feel like I’m a better friend and a way better family member. I just have to take it one day at a time, just like they say.”