In the hands of a capable and talented tunesmith, songwriting is elevated to high art.
Words, phrases and stanzas are constructed in sumptuous layers of color and emotion, often delivered as a unique gift to the individual listener, their meanings dependent on each recipient’s life experiences.
And then there are those songs like “Medicine Line,” the lead-off track to last year’s release by songwriter Kat Hamilton. It sets the tone for everything that follows, an intimate and deeply personal portrait of a shattered girl who finds relief and transformation on the other side of profound change.
“I’m in treatment … for my problems,” she sings, and coupled with the title of the record — “Recovery Songs” — there’s little room for interpreting her story for anything other than what it is: redemption. That she’s bared her soul comes with a price — standing in the public spotlight, no matter how bright or big it may be, can be terrifying.
But it can also be so incredibly rewarding, Hamilton told The Ties That Bind Us recently, especially when one’s eyes adjust to the glare and begin to notice the sisters and brothers standing in the shadows, taking their own first tenuous steps toward the light.
“My hope was that these songs would affect people, but especially people in recovery, because I have a lot of gratitude toward the process, and a lot of ways I want to give back,” Hamilton said. “So whenever I get a message from someone who has been in treatment, or been in (recovery) programs, or done the Big Book, or whatever it is they’re doing, and they tell me, ‘You get it; thank you; I listened to the album for the fifth time today’ — I sit there and think, ‘It’s all worth it.’”
Kat Hamilton and the impending darkness
These days, Hamilton and her partner are comfortably settled in Los Angeles, and the West Coast agrees with both her sunny disposition and the alt-pop shine of her music. As a musician, however, she’s lived across the United States (and even for a brief spell in London), soaking up experiences that translate into finely burnished edges of rock, Americana and emo, which all sit comfortably in the arrangements of “Recovery Songs.” For five years, she was the frontwoman of the East Coast pop-punk band Manic Pixi, but in 2017, her life began to fall apart on a parallel trajectory with the dissolution of her band.
She was no stranger to alcoholism — it runs in her family, she added, and her grandfather’s sobriety has been inspirational since undertaking her own journey. On days when it seems like she’s running in place, she recalls his 40th sober birthday celebration and takes heed of some of the wisdom he imparted:
“I remember him telling me how he does his (12) Steps every year, which I thought was beautiful,” she said. “Here was someone who’s 40 years sober and is still not done. That showed me that everyone who’s in recovery of some kind, whether you have five years or 10 years or whatever, and whatever your -ism is that got you there, you’re never done. Never. Nobody’s done until you’re done done.”
However, it wasn’t until that last year of Manic Pixi’s existence that she began to see how alcohol was taking its toll on her — or rather, how it was contributing to the perfect storm of existential angst, emotional trauma and mental health struggles that slowly came to a head in 2017.
“I don’t think I had a real issue with it until the last year before I went into a relational recovery center,” she said. “I didn’t really have problems, and most of my early teens to 20s drinking was what I would consider average. I’m adventurous, and I love experiences, and when I look back, I did party, but it wasn’t like I chased it in any respect.
“But it definitely shifted for me in the last year, because in the last year, I started drinking alone. I started drinking at shows, which was a boundary for me. We would always have a shot of whiskey before a set, but only one, because I would never, ever want to get drunk on stage. The kind of music I was doing at the time in Manic Pixi was really athletic, and I was always jumping and running, and I would get injured if I was drunk.
“Plus, I wanted to be there for the fans,” she added. “Even if it was just five people a night there for us, those are the five people you have a responsibility to, and I still take that very seriously.”
That turn in the lead-up to treatment, however, was a dark one indeed. The irony of addiction, she pointed out, is that the one thing she craved — understanding, empathy, the simple act of being heard — became harder and harder to obtain as she retreated inward to a place where alcohol was her sole companion. Coupled with failed relationships, it took its toll, and she felt broken, unloved and unseen.
“I felt like I surrounded myself with people who, as much I loved them and they loved me, were really not giving me what I was desperately craving, which was to feel understood,” she said. “And I just kept feeling more and more alone and hating myself and feeling like I had to hide myself, and that’s when the drinking switched over from what I considered a normal drinking lifestyle for a person in their 20s in the music industry to an unhealthy, scary one.”
Finding respite in a recovery center
When it all came crashing down, the substances triggered a mental health break that left her adrift. It wasn’t full-on psychosis, she added — she wasn’t hearing voices or seeing things that weren’t there, and she was cognizant enough to realize that commission to a mental health ward would likely cause more harm.
“Drinking and stressful situations led to me just sort of bottoming out, and my brain snapped like a tree,” she said. “One of my best friends, however, knew what I needed, and she knew I didn’t need to go to a place that was going to scare me more, so that relational recovery center ended up being the best place for me.”
“Medicine Line” is a real-time narrative of her journey there: “I am healing, from my trauma, although it may not look that way, I cried into my plate at lunch,” she sings, a plaintive recollection drawn from words penned while on the roller coaster ride of emergence into the light.
“I was really lucky in that I went to a place where it was me and three other women, and then a handful of people who worked there,” she said. “Had I been in a place that was more overwhelming, it would have been different for me. But the healing was amazing, which is my friend sent me there. It was on this beautiful prairie in Petaluma, California, with horses and a garden, and it was just a beautiful place to get healthy — and there were no men, which I appreciated and needed.”
Through the healing processes offered there, she began to connect the dots between her mental health issues and the substance abuse that had become such an issue over the previous year. After leaving treatment, she moved back home with her parents, staying in a small house in their backyard and contemplating what the next chapter of her life would entail. “Medicine Line” was written while in the recovery center, and that song opened the floodgates. Once on the outside, they kept coming, she said.
“Every day, I would grab coffee and a snack and go see what came out of me,” she said. “It all happened very naturally, and more songs started coming. It was just a really natural, beautiful process.”
Many of the songs, she added, were so real that even playing them today makes her flinch from the residual pain that lingers in that emotional scar tissue. “Amnesia” and “Afraid of Your Body” are still stark portraits not only of her past, she said, but her present.
“The memories around them are just really painful, so it’s hard for me to zoom out and find the separation between the pain and the grief for the person who was hurting,” she said. “With ‘Afraid of Your Body,’ it’s so painful to me because I still struggle with the central themes of the song. I haven’t moved beyond it. And ‘Amnesia,’ it really just makes me think of somebody I don’t like thinking about, but in songs, you’ve got to tell the truth, and that was the truth at the time.”
Kat Hamilton: Planting the seeds of 'Recovery Songs'
As 2018 continued, she found herself ready to release new music. Moving to L.A., she put out “The Grey Area,” an EP that examined the heady emotions of a relationship that came to an end. She gave her first interviews, in which she talked about being openly queer, and what a music future looked like on the other side of Manic Pixi. But the recovery songs — the ones that would become “Recovery Songs” — were held back while she built on the foundation of healing established in treatment.
“With ‘The Grey Area,’ it’s almost like, ‘Oh, Kat, you were like this. You poor thing! You were so strong!’” she said. “I can look at myself like this little baby, and I just want to take care of me. Granted, ‘The Grey Area’ was way more surface than ‘Recovery Songs.’ I had something like 30 songs, but I had go, ‘OK, I’m not going to record these.’ It felt less painful and personal to not record certain ones.
“It was like I told them, ‘You’re not the story right now. You will be — you’ll get your time, because I already know the next story I want to tell, and they’ll be on that one.’”
Through therapy in treatment, and through self-care in various programs in Northern California, where she lived with her parents, and in L.A., she began to understand that despite her feelings of brokenness, that she wasn’t alone. Sitting in recovery rooms, 12 Step and otherwise, and hearing her story echoing back from others whose paths led to similarly painful places was both comforting and encouraging, she said. Before “The Grey Area” was even released, she found herself planting the seeds for what would become “Recovery Songs."
“I had so many songs by May 2018 that I was like, ‘I know I’m going to make an album, and I know it’s about this healing, and I know “Medicine Line” will be on it,’” she said. “I also had ‘Afraid of Your Body’ and ‘Ohio,’ and I was like, ‘How do I pick the songs?’ And my friend Will was like, ‘Well, you can pick the ones that have the most commercial appeal — the bangers — or you could pick the ones that tell the story, or you can do it by genre. All the dark country ones, all the folkier ones, whatever feels right for you.’
“So I picked the ones that were (a) good and (b) uncomfortable. I thought about picking my catchiest ones, but with this, I was like, ‘I have to tell the story. I have to go all the way to the bone. There is no pussyfooting around, it has to be all the way, as scary as it is.’ And I’m glad I made that choice. It’s certainly not the best choice if I was in the situation of a more famous person, where my record would be everywhere, but for me, the story had to be told.”
Because in the end, she added, truth trumps everything. Honesty with self and others is at the core of every recovery program, and speaking truth is at the heart of every good songwriter’s best effort. That she could do both, and face down her darkness at the same time, felt incredibly personal and vulnerable, but what she discovered, she added, was that it was also a light lifted up that gave others hope.
“They’re connecting, and people are telling me, ‘Oh my God, this is my life story. This is amazing!’” she said. “And I want that connection. It’s the whole reason we release music, because if you didn’t want to connect, you wouldn’t release it. My struggle is, how do I feel it without adding to my own burden? Because I’m codependent for sure!
“People needing me is my No. 1 high above all else, the thing I jones for, the feeling of being needed. When someone says they need me, it’s like I just did a line — but there are rooms for that, too!”
Pain, healing and vulnerability
And in a way, putting “Recovery Songs” out into the world relieves her of some of that burden of the self. Yes, they’re still Hamilton’s songs, but upon releasing them in October, she also set them free, like doves released from a cage. They’ve taken flight, and they sometimes return to her, but they also travel far and bring comfort to others. And in that sense, they’ve become bigger than her.
And while “Recovery Songs” is a intimate gift, a comforting hug to the similarly lost from a woman who’s been there, it’s also an entry point, she hopes. So many casual listeners with no experience or association with addiction think they know what it is, but “Recovery Songs,” as cathartic and introspective and buoyant as it sounds, serves as a portrait so authentic that its beauty is undeniable.
“It’s scary, because at first, I couldn’t believe I was going to release a record talking about all this stuff — addiction and treatment and self-harm and rock bottom,” she said. “It’s weird to write a record that isn’t about romance, but then, I think it’s weird for almost every artist, because romance is such an easy emotion to tap into: the loss of romance, the yearning for it, the desire to have it, not having it. Most music explores the desire, the acquisition of, or the loss of romantic love, and my music explored that, just like anyone else’s.
“And then I went through an experience where the most important thing to write about was something more difficult, more nuanced, and more niche than this universal truth that most songs are written about. Most people hear about addiction through songs about romantic love — ‘you’re my addiction, you’re my drug.’ That word gets thrown around, and for sure, love addiction is a huge thing. But I don’t think anybody singing them is a love addict in a way that they need help. There’s a dissonance in what people hear in songs about that life and what the life is actually like.”
By the time she traveled to the Pacific Northwest to cut “Recovery Songs,” her life had settled into a routine, of sorts. She had fallen in love, become active in LGBTQ circles (proceeds from the initial Bandcamp sales of “Recovery Songs” benefited the Trevor Project, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth) and fully given herself over to the possibilities of recovery. She’s grateful for the plethora of paths and choices available in Southern California, and drawing from them all helped shape the “Medicine Line” mini-documentaries that accompanied the launch of “Recovery Songs.”
“That was so cool, and I cried like a little baby every single filming hour of that experience,” she said. “I feel lucky that with ‘Medicine Line,’ it was my first single, and I got a lot of messages and feedback, and I just try to be honest with where I am and what I do. My journey isn’t a straight line, and that’s really important to let people know, so that when they do reach out, they feel like I’m a good person to reach out to.
“When they tell me about these things they’re going through, I recommend the Trevor Project, because I believe in them, but I also like giving the same advice to people that was given to me, which is basically, try everything. Try all the meetings, try the Big Book, try other things, too. I just try to stay open and non-judgmental.”
Kat Hamilton: A crooked path is still a journey forward
Another thing about recovery for which Hamilton is grateful is the level playing field that it makes for all those on the path. Her decisions to pursue what works best for her own recovery may not work for others, but others — at least the ones working a healthy program of their own who care about her as a sister trying to make it the best she can — don’t sit in judgment of those decisions.
“Ultimately, you don’t get to where I got because you were a person who was any kind of moral authority,” she said with a chuckle. “I have triple diagnoses, and I use marijuana to manage my anxiety symptoms, because having anxiety medications lying around isn’t the greatest. One of the reasons I decided not to become a sponsor is that I try to stick to the ideology of, ‘I’m not here to tell people what to do, because what I did was unorthodox, and my straight line is very crooked.’
“And that’s OK. My concern is to live up to my own standard for myself, so what I usually tell people is, ‘Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. I’m so glad you connected to the music. I’m here, and you can always reach out.’”
While there are common denominators for those recovering from addiction, the individual journeys that make up recovery as a whole become vast and multicolored threads in a gorgeously complex quilt that fits whomever decides to over themselves with it.
“You’ve got to figure out, what does sober feel like to you? What is your relationship to medicine and healing? And to me, drinking didn’t feel like I had a healthy relationship,” she said. “It felt really toxic, like I wasn’t in good control of my own choices. So do I feel like I’m in control of my own choices if I use medication a doctor gives me, or if I use marijuana to fall asleep? Am I still me? That’s a question I ask myself.”
That she’s open about that dialog says a great deal about how far she’s come. Like many addicts and alcoholics, there was a time when even admitting to the possibility of a problem was terrifying. That she can discuss her recovery — from substances, from eating disorders, from mental health issues, from the spiritual and emotional wounds that we all carry and contend with — is not only a blessing; it’s an inspiration.
She doesn’t always feel it, but with “Recovery Songs” as her flag planted in the sand, she knows that somewhere, someone may hear the things she has to say, and find comfort in music that springs forth from the truest parts of herself.
“When it started coming to me that I was going to be making a record, and I started to figure out the story, I had to think about it as a story that needed to be told,” she said. “There are other songs that I enjoy playing more and have more fun with and are all around a nicer time — I mean, after writing these songs, breakup songs feel like a real party! — but these are the ones that are true, and I sing them from a place of endless love and support for people. I just really try not to judge other people’s journeys as much as I can.”