In sobriety, Armon Jay finds beauty in ‘The Dark Side of Happiness’

Armon Jay

Alcohol and drugs didn’t destroy Armon Jay’s life.

The Ties That Bind UsJay — born Armon Jay Cheek and a member of emo pioneers Dashboard Confessional, as well as a solo artist who will release his new record, “The Dark Side of Happiness,” later this year — didn’t end up homeless. He wasn’t arrested. He didn’t lose his standing as a respected session and touring guitarist who’s been on the road since he was a teenager.

But addiction, he acknowledges, isn’t about the heights to which those who suffer soar, or the depths to which they fall. It isn’t even about a specific substance, although he leaned more toward painkillers before he got sober, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

In the end, it’s always about “more” — and even today, the need for “more” is still an integral part of his psyche. It doesn’t drive him to destructive habits like it once did, but it’s always there, he said, lurking just beneath the surface.

“It can be something as simple as ice cream,” he said with a laugh. “Last night, we were just hanging out at home, and I wanted some ice cream, so I went to the freezer, got a cup of it and ate it. And as I was sitting there, after I was done, every part of me wanted to get back up and go to the fridge and have another ice cream. ‘More’ kind of applies to everything in my life.”

Granted, he didn’t jeopardize his sanity for something as innocuous as ice cream, but the drive to use external things to assuage internal discomfort has been a part of him for as long as he can remember, he added. Fortunately, his sobriety has given him coping skills and recovery tools that turn that simmering need down to a negligible whisper, and some days, he doesn’t feel it at all.

But when he does, he now knows what to do.

Armon Jay: 'Happiness' and the breakage of stigma

Armon Jay“I think it’s important to have people in your life,” Jay said, speaking with Ties recently from his home in Franklin, Tennessee. He returned there after Dashboard Confessional’s 20th anniversary tour was cut short because of COVID-19, and while infection rates continue to fluctuate, he’s starting to put together plans that will, he hopes, include live shows once again. For now, he added, he’s continuing to work toward a day when he takes the stage again — with Dashboard, but more importantly under his own name to promote “The Dark Side of Happiness,” his third solo album and an intensely personal work that rides on delicate wings of atmospheric melody and Jay’s contemplative vocals.

If there’s a point of reference that’s required, Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie and Lowell” is a good benchmark, and it’s a comparison he acknowledges with gratitude because of his personal fondness for that record. But “The Dark Side of Happiness” is ultimately its own body of work, a glimpse into the mind of man who’s worked hard over the past several years to reassemble himself from the shards of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and addiction.

“I can be alone all day long, and I can isolate, but at the end of the day, if I reach out and talk to somebody, that helps to break the stigma of depression,” he said. “And I do think it’s getting better and better. It’s becoming more and more of a thing where I feel like it’s OK to talk about it, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to explore all of that on the record.

“‘The Dark Side of Happiness’ — the song — the chorus (“I’m depressed, there I said it, I’m embarrassed, whatever”) isn’t poetic, but I wanted to say it. I wanted to say how I felt, and I didn’t want to hide behind some sort of metaphor. Most of the time, I would rather do that so people can take the songs and apply them to their own lives, but this one just had to be said. And as far as the title and the title track go, I hope they will be able to provide a conversation with people who feel the same.”

The song itself dates back to 2014, the year he and his wife married and the year before he got sober and joined Dashboard Confessional. The two were living in a townhouse, long before he had the home studio in which he recorded the entirety of the new album himself, and life, from the outside, seemed idyllic. For Jay, however, a single line rose to the surface, and he captured it on his laptop: “Fuck it, I feel depressed …”

“Honestly, when I was writing that song – I didn’t know where my life was going to go, and that was scary,” he said. “I was dealing with so many panic attacks. That was the year after I got diagnosed with ADHD and OCD, so basically I was insane, but that diagnosis was also instrumental to me getting sober.”

Armon Jay joins Dashboard Confessional

Jay grew up in the Chattanooga area of Tennessee, where his “wonderful, amazing family” nurtured his talent when he started playing guitar at 14. Although it would be years before he was diagnosed with OCD, he clearly recognizes, through the lens of diagnosis and therapy, how it affected him as a kid.

“Growing up, I had all of these OCD obtrusive thoughts and no clue how to explain them, much less talk about it or anything else,” he said. “When I started playing guitar, I just latched on, because it was the one thing that kept me in the same spot for longer than 30 minutes, and it scratched that itch.”

He credits church for honing his chops and played in bands throughout adolescence, and songwriting came to him early as well. Four days after he graduated from high school, he started touring, and he’s basically been on the road ever since, he said.

“For 15 years, I’ve been touring in miscellaneous bands and with different projects,” he said. “The first time I went overseas was when I went to Switzerland with a band, but after I joined Dashboard in 2015, that was really when I started to see the world — Bali, Singapore, Australia, Brazil, the UK … I’ve been to a lot of places.”

He released his solo debut, “Everything’s Different, Nothing’s Changed,” in 2014 and followed it up a year later with “Del Rio.” That record was recorded with and produced by Jon Howard, a guitarist for the band Paramore at the time. Howard and Dashboard founder/mastermind Chris Carrabba were friends, and at a party, Carrabba happened to mention that after a few years of inactivity, he was looking to get Dashboard Confessional back off the ground and wanted to know if Howard had any potential players in mind.

“Jon was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this dude it would be worth having a conversation with,’ and two days later, Chris and I were talking on the phone and texting back and forth,” Jay said. “He asked if I could come over, and that was when we realized I only lived two miles away from him. So I went over and played ‘Screaming Infidelities’ with him and sang harmony, and he was like, ‘Dude, do you want to do this?’ And that was it. It was crazy.”

A decade younger than Carrabba, Jay had been a fan of Dashboard Confessional since high school, and at first, he figured his tenure in the band might be temporary. But the two found a chemistry that works well for them, and five years and 300-something shows later, Jay is still the lead guitarist of Carrabba’s band.

“He’s a phenomenal, terrific songwriter, and I’ve grown a lot creatively by being in that band and watching Chris and his process,” Jay said. “Watching him, he never settled. It was never, ‘I think this sounds right.’ It was always, ‘It’s not right until it’s right.’ And I learned from him that you can do something for yourself. He had a studio, and of course there were people who helped him, but he did (“Crooked Shadows,” Dashboard’s 2018 release) at his house, and he did it right.

“When I started thinking about ‘The Dark Side of Happiness,’ I was talking with a producer about working with him, but the timeline wasn’t working out. That’s when I took a cue from Chris and just said, ‘Fuck it! I’m going to do it!’ And it became this wonderful journey that I wish I was doing again.”

Chemicals to quiet the demons

Armon JayTo be fair, he’s already working on album No. 4 — but the process of capturing them in the studio is still a way off, he added. At the time of recording “The Dark Side of Happiness,” he often spent as many as 14 hours each day in the studio — a long time to sit in the emotional maelstrom of the subject matter, but every night he emerged, he felt good — proud, he added, of the effort, but also of himself for his ability to carry that weight.

“Even though the lyrics were heavy, it never felt heavy,” he said. “Doing the record myself really, really opened the door to show me that I can, and I don’t have to wait on anything else. And it was a really fun process that started a lot of things. Right now, for example, I’m mixing a record for a friend.”

His productivity, he added, is inextricably intertwined with his mental health, and he credits his maintenance of the latter for his success with the former. As a younger man, his own brain could be a terrifying place, he said — mostly because he didn’t understand why it seemed to work like it did.

“When I was younger, OCD just scared the shit out of me, because I never understood what was going on in my mind,” he said. “That leaves you in a vulnerable place when it comes to addiction, but even before I decided to reach out for any help, I constantly lived with that itch, and I was always trying to find ways to take my mind off that, to distract myself from that and lose that internal restlessness.

“As a result, if it made me feel better, I wanted it — whatever ‘it’ was. That ‘more’ we talked about — but those things only provide very brief relief, because there’s no shortcut to healing and repair. To do that, I had to get to the root of the problem.”

The “more” wound up being a painkiller addiction. He remembers distinctly how, as a teenager, a dental procedure left him with prescription opioids, and upon taking them, they helped with the pain — and with other things, he said.

“I remember being like, ‘I feel better. That’s cool,’” he said. ‘Those things helped me sleep at night, I didn’t get my OCD thoughts, and so I just thought, ‘I’m going to take another one because I want to get some sleep.’ I did that, and I didn’t think much about it, and I didn’t seek it out again.”

The next several years were uneventful on the chemical front, but right before he got married, around the time that his stress and undiagnosed OCD were wearing him down, he underwent another dental procedure and went home with far more pills than he likely needed, he added.

“And that time, I kept taking it, and when the bottle was done, my first thought was, ‘Fuck, no! I need some more!’” he said. “So I began to seek out ways to get them.”

Crash, burn and resurrection

His run was brief but vicious: Drug-seeking behavior through dentistry, calling and pleading with prescribers when they wouldn’t give him narcotics; going through the pill stashes of loved ones and replacing opioid pills with Tylenol; feeling absolutely unhinged if he ran out. Fortunately, he and his wife were going through pre-marital counseling at the time, and he was also getting therapy on the side from the same counselor. That counselor suggested he get some outside help, and Jay got connected with a program that introduced him to experiential therapy.

“I went through a seven-day workshop with them, and that’s what opened the door to the 12 Steps and going to (recovery) meetings and everything,” he said. “After I got done with their program, they suggested things I could do as aftercare to try to set up a routine and stay connected, and a friend I met there told me about a meeting he went to in Nashville.

“He told me, ‘It’s the same vibe, dude, it’s really cool!’ So the first night, I walked in and didn’t know anything about the fellowship or the Steps or sponsorship, and when they started talking about sponsorship, I thought, ‘Hell, I’ll take a sponsor, dude, especially if they can support me financially!’”

It didn’t take long to understand that recovery sponsorship, of course, is a far different beast than financial or corporate sponsorship. A recovery sponsor acts as a guide through the program, and Jay found his when one of the co-founders of that particular meeting — unknown to him at the time — talked about how, after knee surgery, he had a choice to make: to stay in bed for six weeks, “to kill himself, or to get up and try to do life and be positive,” Jay added.

“Him saying that so bluntly made me realize, ‘That’s the guy I want to talk to,’ so I went up to him after the meeting,” he said.

For the first two years of his recovery, he attended meetings five times a week. The third year, he began to ease up on attendance, and today, although he still talks to his sponsor, he’s in a season of recovery reconfiguration. That doesn’t mean he’s quit or that he’s no longer sober; only that he recognizes the need for change, and the need to find what nourishes his soul in the way that everything else in his life seems to these days.

His mental health, for example: In receiving his ADHD/OCD diagnoses, he began a medication regimen that became another incentive to stay sober.

“I realized quickly with this combination of medication my therapist was trying to tweak with me that I couldn’t really mess around with alcohol or drugs while I was on it, or I wouldn’t have any chance,” he said. “Going through that process was extremely hard, but eventually I became more aware than I ever had in my life of what was going on. And that was very freeing but very scary as well.”

Armon Jay: Creative freedom through sobriety

That freedom has allowed him to be more present in the creation of his art. For one thing, he’s found his lane, thanks to his partnership with Carrabba and his love of the music of singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers.

“I heard her music described as ‘emo-folk,’ and the first time I heard that, I thought, ‘Holy shit, I think that’s what my music is,’” he said. “I think Phoebe is kind of paving that way now, but I feel like Chris paved that way for so many artists before her. He was just part of that musical revolution where a dude can open for a hardcore band at a place like CBGB’s with just an acoustic guitar, and people would be into it.”

When the material is as raw and real as what Jay has included on “The Dark Side of Happiness,” it’s little wonder that it demands attention. Take a song like “Break the Habit” — a gossamer thing that floats on piano and strings and opens with a gut punch of Jay’s inner thoughts: “I’m a little too comfortable in my own skin, haven’t cared to look in the mirror since God knows when, and I’m afraid that I won’t recognize who I am, I’ve always been afraid of change, just never desperate enough to admit it …”

“That’s a heavy one to listen to, even for me, but it’s definitely raw,” he said. “My goal is always to be authentic — more and more every time I make a record, I feel that push to do it, because at the end of the day, what kind of pulls me in and keeps me coming back to creating art is serious stuff like that. And that just leans into the idea and the fact that we can make art that can translate and be bigger than us.”

And that’s what “The Dark Side of Happiness” is — Armon Jay’s story, the good and the bad and the ugly and the beautiful. There’s a little bit of fear of putting himself out there in such stark repose, but at the same time, it’s his story, and if in the telling he can provide a little solace and hope who walk behind him along the darker paths of the human heart, then maybe his experiences can serve as a beacon of strength and hope.

“It served as like a therapeutic place, the record, but I knew it wasn’t a place I was supposed to stay in — but I knew it was going to help people, and I still believe that,” he said. “That’s why I go to those places, lyrically, because this is shit people really want to talk about. And talking about it makes it better, at least for today.

“And even though I don’t know what tomorrow brings, I know that right now, I’m alive, I’m well, and I can feel my toes and my legs. I can smell the air, and I can hear the lawnmower across the street, and I’m living. There’s a sense of, ‘It’s gonna be OK,’ and life right now is really good.”