Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter is stone-cold sober (literally)

Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter

Winter is coming for Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter, and it’s going to be brutal.

The Ties That Bind UsThat’s not an addiction metaphor, although given Solomon’s past, it might have been, had he not found recovery. But Solomon — Johnny to his friends and to the fans who have adored his band for a decade now; John as the addiction treatment professional he's become in recent years — will celebrate 10 years of sobriety on Dec. 12 … and he’ll do so from Kotzebue, Alaska, where the sun will rise at 12:44 p.m., set at 2:45 p.m. and the temperature typically hovers around 2 or 3 degrees.

It's a strange and wondrous place the indie rock musician finds himself, closer to the Siberian village of Naukan (205 miles) than to the nearest large American city, Fairbanks (442 miles). In the spring of 2019, Solomon received his degree in clinical counseling from the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute — the same facility where he’d received treatment for addiction almost a decade earlier — and shortly thereafter, he and his wife (and bandmate), Molly, headed north to Alaska.

“I’m up above the Arctic Circle, working with  mostly Native Alaskans in mental health and addiction counseling,” Solomon told The Ties That Bind Us recently, speaking from home on a balmy (by Kotzebue standards) summer day from his home in the remote village at the end of a thin-fingered peninsula jutting out into the Chukchi Sea. “There are no roads up here, so you have to fly from town to town or take a snow machine. It’s been an interesting thing, but I’m actually really happy with the way things are going right now.”

It's a life that bears little resemblance to the one that led him to the rooms of recovery, one in which he’s found the balance between healing, hope, music and service. Communist Daughter has a new album, “Unknown Caller,” that’s completely fan-funded and in the process of being manufactured on limited edition vinyl. But getting out and promoting it? Hitting the road as he once did, waking up in a new city every day? He’s OK with taking a break for a while and using the other side of his brain to help those who struggle as he once did find a way out of that metaphorical darkness that’s more oppressive and cold than anything Alaska can throw at them.

“My wife and I, we made this decision to come up here, and when we did we thought, ‘Maybe we’ll go back and go on the road for a little bit,’ but when (COVID-19) happened, we kind of stepped back,” he said. “We’ll end up putting out ‘Unknown Caller’ soon, kind of the way we always wanted to put it out, but we don’t have to get in the van and drive around and sleep on annoying hotel beds.”

Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter: The journey begins

Courtesy of Emily Mesner

Much of Solomon’s recovery is a testament to his attention to the mental health issues that plagued him for most of his life. Although he wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until he was 31, he found himself drawn to the twin pillars of anguish and light in music even as a kid.

“I remember hearing Johnny Cash and his voice and his quasi-gospel darkness, and there was something just so magical about that,” Solomon said. “That was way before I even knew you could make music. I just remember this was something incredible I wanted to keep listening to over and over again. Everything kind of grew from there, but I didn’t realize you could make music for a living until I got to college.”

His bipolar disorder, he added, began to manifest most intensely when he reached college and became obsessed with creating music. He would cycle through manic phases, he added, where he thought he “could change the world by writing the right combination of three chords,” he added with a laugh, but it was also during that time he discovered drugs and alcohol — and just how much they affected his fevered brain.

“I remember distinctly the first time I got drunk. It was like this warm, incredible feeling for me where everything in my head was quiet,” he said. “I didn’t care about stuff anymore, and I thought it took away all these doubts — but it turns out it just shoved them further down there. Once you get sober and you start to really grow as a person, you begin to realize that (drugs and alcohol) are a wrong turn you took because nobody told you earlier that you could fix that without taking something.

“For me specifically, I always felt like somebody was going to figure me out, that they were going to turn to me and say, ‘Oh, I know you’re fake.’ Drinking stopped all of that anxiety, but it was another one of those things where I was too far gone before I even realized it was a thing you could fall into.

“It’s funny to look back on that now,” he added. “I don’t really have those feelings anymore, because of the work I was able to do sober.”

After college, he threw himself into music with a tenacity that seemed like a life-or-death race. He would settle into an orbit on the verge of record or publishing deals, but those deals would then fall apart — and “looking back now, I see how a lot of that had to do with the drugs and the alcohol and the bipolar,” he added.

“I would think, ‘I must be cursed,’” he said. “Well, yeah, I was. It was called addiction.”

Before Communist Daughter, he came closest with the band Friends Like These, which toured with Chicago indie rocker Ike Reilly and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, among others, but by 2007, arrest, divorce and drugs drove Solomon to seek respite in the town of Prescott, Wisconsin. There, a year before he got clean and sober, he began to assemble the bones of the project that would become Communist Daughter.

“I gave up playing music and started writing again, writing music knowing it wasn’t for anybody else,” he said. “It was music for myself, but that’s when people really connected with it. It seemed a lot more likely I could go around and make a living, and I didn’t have any success until I started saying, ‘I’ve gotta do something about this drug and alcohol problem.’”

The painstaking trudge toward radical honesty

Johnny Solomon of Communist DaughterThe recession of 2008 took its toll on the music industry, and Solomon suddenly found himself facing the prospect of starting a new project in the middle of an economic downturn. Record deals became more elusive, and musicians suddenly had to balance recording and performing with all of the other aspects of a self-owned business, he pointed out.

“You had to be a businessman and a website developer and a T-shirt salesman, and you couldn’t do that drunk or high,” he said. “That’s not why I got sober, but it sure was a big bonus that you could actually do those things when you’re sober.”

He didn’t come to sobriety willingly, he added, but then again, few addicts or alcoholics ever do. Stopping is one thing; finding a new way to live and addressing the reasons an addicted individual keeps returning to substances that are slowly destroying them is another matter entirely.

“The biggest thing you can do is try to be radically honest with yourself,” Solomon said. “So much of our life is built on hiding things from others, but also hiding things from yourself: ‘I don’t want to touch that part of me.’ When I look back on that part of my life, I don’t know how I was going through things not facing it, because it was so obvious. I guess I did know, but I was standing so far away from it that in my head, I wasn’t ready to confront it.

“I thought it had to be anything but the alcohol and drugs. Everything but that. I didn’t really dip my toes in the water until I went to my first treatment, and I only went there because it gave me a convenient out of a sticky situation.”

It’s ironic, in a sense — things were so bad at the time that it wasn’t until he got sober in 2010 that Solomon realized he had actually been to drug and alcohol treatment once before. It didn’t stick, he added, but some of the wisdom passed down by those who tried to help him that first time around did.

“I remember one of those counselors said, ‘You can’t do this in the middle of your tornado,’” he said. “At the time, it was just a stop on the road, and for the first year of being sober, I told people I went to treatment one time and got it. I had completely forgotten about the other treatment I went to — one and done, I thought. But then I started to really be honest with myself, and that’s when I remembered: ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been to treatment more than once.’”

In Prescott, he opened a restaurant, and that’s when he met Molly. With her in the fold, Communist Daughter — the name of which is taken from a Neutral Milk Hotel song — began to get noticed. The songs were confessional, ethereal indie pop songs that were searing in their honesty, even if most fans at the time didn’t realize how much Solomon was spiraling out of control.

“These were songs I wrote thinking, ‘This isn’t for anybody else,’” he said. “It was almost like I was writing these songs to myself and trying to be honest with myself for the first time. For the first time, I really admitted I was in trouble and that I was done — but then to suddenly have everybody start connecting with that, it almost became more of a burden than I realized.

“Yeah, it was great that all of the shows were full and people were talking about these songs, but then in the back of my head, I knew — what else am I going to do if this is what people are connecting with? How do I write something if I’m no longer this person? How do I get healthy and get the care that I need?’”

Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter: The turning point

Courtesy of Emily Mesner

Molly, he added, became the lighthouse toward which he pointed his storm-tossed boat. He was so honest with her that in the beginning, she even jokingly told him she’d never date him because he was a walking disaster, he said … but the machinations of the heart are things outside the control of the head, and as Communist Daughter began to gain greater respect, Molly fell for the man who seemed trapped between the metaphorical Scylla of drugs and the Charybdis of destruction.

“Right toward the end, before I got sober, we got together,” he said. “It seems like a lifetime ago, and we’ve talked about it a lot, but she kind of came to a realization that she’s just going to love this guy who’s destined for failure. She didn’t have any qualms about it, either, because she realized there was no use fighting it. And that’s when I was like, ‘I’ll get sober.’ She went through the hardest part with me, and it took her having to leave me for me to get through it.”

She wasn’t the only one (although, he pointed out with a chuckle, the shows were relatively empty affairs until her voice was added to his) — there were other members of the Communist Daughter family, musical and otherwise, who saw something in Solomon that he couldn’t see in himself — “because I couldn’t,” he added. “They took up that burden and carried me, and that’s what got me to the other side.”

At the time, carrying him looked like what’s known in recovery parlance as tough love. He had lost everything, he said — his restaurant, his home, even his music. The members of Communist Daughter told him they no longer wanted to play music with him. Molly told him she couldn’t put herself through the heartbreak of watching him slowly kill himself. Finally, one night, he had … well, not a lightbulb moment, he said — it was more of a sledgehammer-to-the-brain moment.

“I was still on a mattress, on the floor with my guitar, and I was like, ‘I’ll get through this,’” he said. “It was 3 or 4 in the morning, and I picked up the guitar, and nothing came. It just wasn’t there. It was just the moment where I was like, ‘I could lose all of it. Everything.’ That was the moment where I said, ‘OK, tomorrow, I’m going to call my mom. I’m ready to actually try now.’”

His mother had heard it all before, but there was something about Solomon’s voice … an earnestness, a desperation … that persuaded her this time was different. Within a few days, he was in treatment again, but not before one last Communist Daughter show at Minneapolis’ famed First Avenue.

“We played to a packed house, and I was backstage in the green room after we were done with our set with all of these people drinking and smoking pot,” he recalled. “Everybody was like, ‘What are you doing?,’ and I’m on the phone with a treatment center backstage while I was cradling a vodka bottle at 1 in the morning, saying, ‘I’m ready to go to treatment.’”

He showed up to Hazelden Betty Ford absolutely broken, feeling like a contemporary version of Job, the man from whom God had taken everything. He wasn’t exactly the most agreeable patient at first, he added — “I told them, ‘I won’t do any more drugs or drink, but you’ve got to convince me it’s good to stay sober’” — and for the next three weeks, he threw up roadblocks and stumbling blocks even without realizing he was doing so.

“In my head, it was not sticking, and I remember going to one of the counselors and saying, ‘I’m doing everything you guys tell me to, and it’s not working.’ And he said, ‘Have you had your spiritual experience yet?’” Solomon said. “I said, ‘No — where do I sign up for that? What room is that in?’ And they told me, ‘You’ve gotta go outside.’ So I started going for walks outside in the middle of the Minnesota winter, and that’s when I just had a moment, where it all made sense.

“I was out there, walking and praying and was like, ‘I just need whatever it is that makes people stay sober.’ And suddenly I felt as high as I’d ever been in my life, like that first time doing drugs, where it hits you and flows into your whole body. I was praying for something to show me I could do it, and that was it. That was the moment where I got that high and didn’t do any drugs, and that’s when I realized, ‘Now I’ve got something to chase.’”

Communist Daughter: From 'Soundtrack' to 'Cracks'

Johnny Solomon (foreground) and Communist Daughter released "Soundtrack to the End" in 2010 and "The Cracks That Built the Wall" in 2016.

From that point forward, chase it he did. Communist Daughter’s full-length debut, “Soundtrack to the End,” was released earlier in 2010, and as TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” picked up on the gorgeous harmonies and intricate playing that’s a hallmark of the band’s sound, the group began touring again, this time with a sober Solomon in the driver’s seat. For the first year of his sobriety, he threw himself into 12 Step recovery, working Steps and attending recovery meetings, but more than anything else, he said, surrounding himself with a support system that held him accountable and lifted him up when he needed it was crucial.

“Because I was traveling so much with the band, it was really hard for me to find a home group and settle into that, but with Molly and the band kind of circled around me, everybody held me up when I was going through that new sobriety, even though I didn’t have a sponsor for much of that first year because we were touring so much — which in hindsight is not something I would recommend,” he said. “I plodded along slowly, and that was the thing that really helped me more than anything. I was just so honest about it. I talked to anybody who wanted to hear me talk about it; I told every interview from then on about being sober, because I realized that it couldn’t be this precious thing that I could hide. I had to be all out there. If I was going to do it, everybody was going to be there with me.”

Working with producer Kevin Bowe on the band’s second album, “The Cracks That Built the Wall,” proved to be another turning point. As another sober guy in the music business, Bowe helped Solomon navigate the intricacies of maintaining sobriety while turning art into commerce, an aspect of rock ‘n’ roll that was always something Solomon wrestled with.

“Especially as an artist, you have a lot of times where you’re really doubting yourself, and the hardest part of the battle is picking up that phone and calling someone for the first time and asking for help,” Solomon said. “But there’s a lot of growth and work that happens, so to have somebody there with me through a process, there to listen to me struggle without trying to fix it, was pretty amazing. I think it really shaped the person I am and the artist I am now.”

“The Cracks That Built the Wall” is the churning portrait of an artist clawing his way out of the darkness in which he once languished. At turns introspective and urgent, chaotic and quietly melancholy, it’s a gorgeous record that builds on the spiritual nature of recovery without being an overt “sober” record. And in making it, Solomon began to see that while music will always be a part of him, it doesn’t have to be the only part.

“I walked out of treatment thinking that was the most incredible, greatest thing that anybody could be a part of,” he said. “Then, as I developed as a musician and started to have success, I spent a lot of time really being open about being sober. I got to be more and more involved in spreading the message of sobriety and trying to help people around me, and I got connected with a lot of newly sober musicians, so that I could be for them what Kevin was for me.”

The more Communist Daughter gained national attention, the more Solomon felt pulled in another direction, he said. Advocacy felt like an equal calling, and as he began to better understand himself, the more he realized that touring didn’t agree with him.

“I love making music, and I like traveling, but that’s not what touring is like. Touring is really tough for me, and it’s not something I’ve ever been a real big fan of,” he said. “I think as I started to round the corner on ‘The Cracks That Built the Wall,’ I realized there was no reason why I couldn’t study more about sobriety. I think a lot of it had to do with people who kept reaching out to me, messages to our band account, by those who were in trouble, and I wanted to be able to answer them the best I could.”

Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter: Into the great 'Unknown'

Courtesy of Emily Mesner

A new master’s program by the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute offered him the opportunity to receive a tele-education while still touring, and as Molly and his bandmates threw their support behind him, he began taking classes. Over time, he and Molly began to explore their future together and realized that a life as a touring rock band didn’t have to be one they were locked into.

“When music has to pay the bills, there’s something different about it, even though I loved doing it,” he said. “We got to go on a few tours with (Americana titan) Jason Isbell, who’s a pretty well-known sober guy, and at the time, he was just recently sober, like under a year. We must have gone on three or four different tours with him, and the last one, he got so successful that there were tour buses and rigs and catered meals and truly ‘Spinal Tap’ moments where you’re trying to figure out how to get from the green room to the stage.

“We got to experience that, and I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t any different than when I was 23 and going to play for five people. This is me still making music and standing up and playing it for somebody, and I’m OK with not getting on the road constantly and trying to chase that.’”

And so after receiving his degree, they left the Lower 48 for Alaska. It’s a place where, despite its isolation — and maybe in part because of it — Solomon feels the most stable he has in years. Recovery is different that far north, mostly because in small Alaskan villages, everyone knows everyone else’s business, but as an advocate for the same process that helped change his life, he’s found reward in watching others discover the same awakening he once did.

“It’s been surprising that because of COVID, we’ve had a lot more success now that we’ve started these telephone meetings, which are much more anonymous, and we get a lot more people engaging,” he said. “People are excited and happy about it, and for people in rural villages to be able to call and talk to people, they’re excited and happy about it. Before, they had to walk to a clinic and sit down with just two or three other folks, but now they can call and be around more people.”

And on the side, Communist Daughter is still a vibrant creative force. “Unknown Caller,” he said, is something of a coda, the final entry in an unofficial trilogy that traces the arc of his journey to redemption and rebirth.

“I’m excited for it to come out and for people to hear it,” he said. “A lot of it felt really familiar when I was writing it, like it did when I wrote ‘Soundtrack to the End,’ but for completely different reasons. It felt like I was being really honest again, and a lot of it was about coming to the end of this life of being a musician.

“I’ll always be a musician, but I’ve realized I’m not going to tour, and I’m not going to let this idea of who I should be dictate my life anymore. It feels like coming full circle — kind of like writing ‘Dear John’ letters to people who listen to Communist Daughter — and it feels really good.”

When and how music fans might hear more from Johnny Solomon remains to be seen, but for now, John Solomon is content — an emotion that’s been a long time coming. That he found it in a rural Alaskan village 30 miles above the Arctic Circle is proof that addiction recovery opens doors previously unimagined, leading to lives filled with reward beyond measure.

“I get to wake up everything morning and go do this work,” he said. “Every day, I see people get better. It’s pretty incredible.”