One minute in, you see it: her lip starts to quiver, and Lucy Spraggan fights to hold back a flood of tears.
By minute 2, she struggles to get through the chorus — “I’ve had all the time I need to think it over, I’ve gotta be sober” — chest heaving, her face a rictus of sorrow for all she’s been through and all that she’s lost. By the time “Sober” comes to an end, however, she stares defiantly into the camera, eyes glistening, and the underlying message is clear: sobriety for Lucy Spraggan isn’t a fad or a lifestyle choice, because embracing it in the summer of 2019 meant she only had to change one thing:
“I’d been on tour for 13 months,” she told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “My marriage was just collapsing, partly because of my recycled toxic behavior — whenever I got myself into any kind of situation or uncomfortable situation, I wouldn’t face it. I would just have a drink. I’d think, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to take the edge off,’ or, ‘I’ll go get absolutely smashed so I’m not thinking about it anymore,’ and I’d just go around to the bar.
“When I got home after this 13-month slog of tour dates, it all came to a head. There was a lot of drama, and I got really drunk, and I woke up the next day and said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’”
And what she’s discovered since making that decision, she added, is this: Life doesn’t stop, but the way she responds to it has changed. Being open about her sobriety, especially writing about it (with her friend, Joe, according to the liner notes), has held her accountable to that life-changing decision.
And more than anything else, it’s initiated a dialog with fans who found themselves similarly struggling, and for that, she’s grateful beyond measure.
Lucy Spraggan: Navigating the pitfalls of sudden fame
Spraggan, who turns 30 in July, was born in Canterbury, England, and by the time she was 20 years old, she was on her way to making a name for herself in Britain’s indie music community. She was still several years away from the sort of stardom that’s made her fodder for the infamous British tabloids, but music fans found a hero in the feisty songwriter who was an unabashed advocate of the LGBTQ community, an openly out gay woman whose ability to pen verses with both depth and humor set the stage for her ascendency.
In 2011, she placed third in the United Kingdom’s Live and Unsigned competition, which helped launch her career with festival appearances and a music video. She released her debut, “Top Room at the Zoo,” in October of that year, but it was in 2012 that she auditioned for the ninth series of the original, British version of “The X-Factor,” and she became one of the first contestants in the show’s history to have a song chart before live rounds were aired. “Last Night,” a single from “Top Room at the Zoo,” entered the UK Singles Chart at No. 11, and the record itself at No. 22. Another original song, “Tea and Toast,” earned her a standing ovation, and she quickly became a fan favorite.
Although an illness forced her to withdraw from the competition, she signed to Columbia Records the following spring, releasing the record “Join the Club” in October 2013.
The second single from that album was actually a reworked version of “Last Night.” Titled “Last Night (Beer Fear),” it’s an eerily prescient preview of the battle yet to come: “Wish I could stop and I'm not joking / drinking too much and socially smoking / wish I could stop, start to behave and then / wake up in the morning and never miss a day again …”
“I remember how much I fully mention whiskey, wine, drinking — it was such a huge part of all my other records,” she said. “What’s interesting about drinking, is that it’s something to do. It doesn’t matter what kind of drinking it is — if you go to a party, and the party sucks, you have a few beers, and then the party’s fine. And I think that’s sort of analogy for life: If life sucks, you have a drink, and life is fine. That’s a sweeping statement, but for a lot of people, that’s reality.”
And for the next six years, it was Spraggan’s reality, she added. After she got sober, she did what most songwriters of her prodigious talent would have done: She took the journey upon which she embarked, and she chronicled it in song. In so doing, she said, she began to see that alcohol wasn’t just a balm for life; it had become a form of spiritual anesthesia, but just as anesthesia doesn’t heal, neither did the booze provide the sustenance her soul needed to overcome emotional pain.
“I’ve always struggled; it wasn’t a new thing,” she said. “I had identity issues growing up — not sexuality ones, although that was part of it, but huge issues with my self-worth for my entire life, and that manifested in so many different things. I was plagued with anxiety and depression growing up, and becoming famous overnight really stuck the knife in and twisted it. With this record (“Choices,” released in February), I just knew I had to talk about it, because if you don’t talk about it, then who is going to?”
Lucy Spraggan surrenders to win
After her Columbia Records debut, Spraggan embarked on a grueling schedule of recording, releasing music and touring. “We Are,” her major-label sophomore effort, was released in 2015, followed by the “Unsinkable” tour of the UK. After switching labels, she released an EP the following year, and the next full-length, “I Hope You Don’t Mind Me Writing,” was unveiled the following January. Throughout 2017, she toured Europe, and in March of the following year, a showcase as the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, landed her a deal with Cooking Vinyl Records.
North American tour dates blurred into a three-week European run with veteran rocker Melissa Etheridge, and in May 2019, a few months before she got sober, she released the album “Today Was a Good Day.” On tour to support it, however, was when her life began to unravel — much of it, she said, because of drinking. But putting booze aside was just the beginning of her sobriety journey, she added.
“The first few months were so, so hard,” she said. “I had a problem with alcohol my whole life, so it wasn’t a new thing, and so I never really felt that many emotions. I drank through happiness, anger, celebration … so as soon as I didn’t have anything to drink, and all of these emotions started coming in, I felt so naked, and I felt so vulnerable. These things could jump in and touch my soul, and whether they made me happy or made me cry, they would jump out of nowhere.”
Like a lot of newly sober alcoholics, she had to navigate the pitfalls of raw nerves and a body starved for the sugars found in fermented beverages. (“At the beginning, it was sweets! Candy!” she said with a laugh.) All individuals in recovery have to endure the “firsts” — the first meal in a restaurant where booze flows copiously, the first celebration or party where others are imbibing, the first bad day or awkward date or triumphant success … all of which would have called for a drink in the past.
But like she was taught to do in the rooms of recovery, where she initially sought help and support, she played the tape all the way through. Alcohol, she remembered, never made any of it better.
“For me, from the very beginning, I realized what I needed to do, and I just knew I had to do it,” she said. “If I was a believer, I would have said there was some kind of divine intervention with me, because it was so sudden, and it was so powerful, these things that caused me to stop and think and the things that helped me stay away.
“That’s not to say I stayed away from alcohol. I had — I have — friends who drink. I’m around people who drink all the time. I live in a drinking culture. But I just knew that I couldn’t continue.”
How a resurrection really feels
Two things made more of a difference than anything. One: physical fitness. After the first few months of sobriety, she threw herself into a lifestyle that’s resulted in a radical transformation, one that was seized upon by the British celebrity press. To say that her athletic physique is awe-inspiring isn’t a stretch; she looks and feels healthier, she said, because she threw herself into fitness with the same determination she once did drinking.
“When you remove alcohol, your body starts asking, ‘Where are all the endorphins? What is happening to you?’ And it sent me signals to get those endorphins however I can,” she said. “But the other thing was, when I gave up alcohol, you find that boredom exists. You can’t just go to the pub and have a drink and make it disappear, so you have to do something. Some people go bird-spotting. I lift weights, and I run.”
The second difference-maker: Her art. Not only did sobriety free her body from the shackles of alcohol, it freed her muse as well. And rather than plotting out her next record as a pre-packaged sonic construction, she sat down, and she turned inward, and she began to write.
“From what people have said, (“Choices”) is resonating with a lot of people — and this is the first album I’ve written in a decade that I didn’t plan,” she said. “I just sat down and wrote how I felt. I didn’t think, ‘This song will be this; this song will be No. 6; this song will have drums.’ I just wrote and wrote and wrote.
“And I think if you listen to this album, from start to finish, that even without the song ‘Sober,’ you would know it’s by somebody who’s overcome their vice, or is overcoming their vices. I think it sounds like a woman who is working hard on not just the material things, but all of the things that live inside each of us. To me, that’s just improving yourself.”
While the entire record sounds like an unfettered woman taking her first confident steps into a full-color world after wearing black-and-white glasses for so long, “Sober” is the linchpin — or at least, the song that made such a profound impact for its on-the-nose message. As the second single, it came out the month she celebrated 15 months of personal sobriety, and the video itself continues to resonate on YouTube.
It’s a spartan music video — just Spraggan, wearing gray sweats and singing directly to the camera, illuminated by a single spotlight. But the emotional resonance of the lyrics, combined with the weight of her struggles with alcohol and the desperation to move past it, is the only thing the 3-minute clip requires to be one of the most powerful in any artist’s catalog.
It’s vulnerable, raw but more than anything else, it’s authentic — and that, Spraggan said, has given her the direction she’s always sought as a lyricist to craft her words in a way that do so much more than provide entertainment.
She wants them, she added, to provide a purpose.
The continuing adventures of a healthier, happier Lucy Spraggan
“I think when people start telling me how they make them feel, that’s when I know they’re so much bigger than me,” Spraggan said. “My one thing that I always wanted to do with music, which is why I’m a lyricist, is to write every single word that comes out of my mouth, without exception, and the reason for that is that I have a message, and I know what that message is — and I only just realized it in the last couple of years.
“And the message is acceptance. We don’t really value acceptance as much as we should, and we have to think about acceptance when we’re getting sober. You have to accept it —the way you exist, and how where you’re going to thrive in life isn’t always where you are, and that sometimes you have to accept that you have to shut down everything you know and start somewhere else.”
And that’s exactly what she’s done. She hasn’t cut out the music she made pre-“Choices” — much of it is beloved by her fanbase, and for Spraggan herself, each song is a marker along the path she’s traveled to get to where she is today. But because of sobriety, and the doors it’s opened for her as a human being and as an artist, nothing will be the same from this point forward.
If she ever needs a reminder, all she has to do is check the YouTube comments on the video itself.
“I only found out about it a few weeks ago, and when I looked at the comments, it’s just thousands of people sharing their journey about sobriety,” she said. “It became this forum for people to write about their journey, and just reading all these people commenting, I got goosebumps. I just thought, ‘This is unbelievable.’ There are so many people out there in recovery, or not drinking, or sober, or sober curious, and opening up doors for those people to talk about it is just amazing.”
It is, she added, a great honor — a privilege that she recognizes as a rarity, something that’s put her in league with other musicians whose works not only provide entertainment but also affect change. And in so doing, she’s been changed. She’s aching to get back on stage, but she’s not wont for work, either: In addition to “Choices” (which debuted at No. 5 on the UK Albums Chart the week of its release), she working on opening a not-for-profit fitness center called Community Gym, a place “where people can go to work on their mental health and their physical health,” she said. A recent video release for the title track of the album included a message of support for the trans community, and while she can’t say for certain when the music industry will be open to live shows again, she’s committed to getting back on stage as soon as possible.
In the meantime, she said, she’ll keep living her best life — and using her platform to encourage others to find theirs, as she has.
“I would tell them to look everywhere for sober people, to always look for relatability and people who understand you, because not everybody does,” she said. “Going to (a 12 Step program), I met some amazing people, and even though I don’t attend anymore, I’ve got some lifelong friends. And there are sober groups on Instagram, on Facebook, everywhere.
“At the moment, it’s hard, because you can’t go anywhere (due to COVID), but they are out there. So I would tell them to just try to get as many sober people in your corner as you can. And I would want anyone who’s out there on their journey of sobriety and recovery to know that I’m always putting my best energy out into the world for their recovery.”