Singer-songwriter Dom Kelly: ‘I just really grew up in recovery’

Courtesy of Brian Hall Photography

Singer-songwriter Dom Kelly: 'I really grew up in recovery'

Life is sweet for singer-songwriter Dom Kelly these days.

He’s living in Los Angeles with his fiancé, working at a job he loves. The power-pop band he fronts with two of his brothers and a longtime friend, A Fragile Tomorrow, is preparing to release a new record this fall. He’s working on new material for a solo album, a follow-up to last year’s “Everything Is Just Enough,” which featured contributions from Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, Sarah Bettens of K’s Choice and singer-songwriters Chris Trapper and Lucy Wainwright Roche, among others.

And for the last eight years, he tells The Ties That Bind Us, he hasn’t felt the need to overeat or drink in order to cope with life’s challenges. Those have been plentiful as well — few more painful than losing his mother to cancer a year ago — but thanks to recovery, he can allow both pain and joy to wash over him, feeling both in equal measure and finding gratitude in the ability to do so.

“My recovery has been the foundation to me to walk through all of this,” Kelly says. “I can’t imagine what I’d be doing right now or how I’d be dealing with any of this if I wasn’t in recovery.”

Rock 'n' roll as therapy

The Ties That Bind UsDominic Kelly and his brother, Sean, were born as two sons out of a set of triplets. They grew up in a musical household, and playing music became something for the brothers to do — especially in the wake of their brother Paul’s death. All three brothers were born premature and with cerebral palsy, but Paul — confined to a wheelchair and unable to talk — was the most afflicted.

Music, however, comforted and excited him, and as his surviving womb-mates, Sean and Dom felt as if they were carrying on for their late brother as much as for themselves. When younger brother Brendan joined, the Kellys started A Fragile Tomorrow as a means of thumbing their noses at the disease that afflicted them and illuminating the spirit of the brother they’d lost.

Sean began playing guitar at 4; Dominic picked up the drums when he was 5; and younger brother Brendan was 8 or 9 when he began playing guitar. Their parents encouraged it, and over time A Fragile Tomorrow began to make waves around the New York region in which the family lived. After several albums, they began making friends in the Southern college rock circuit after moving to Charleston — people like Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, Susan Cowsill of The Cowsills, Peter Holsapple of the dB’s and Knoxville resident Tim Lee of Bark.

With their innate natural talent, dedication to the craft supporters of such repute, they’ve proven to music fans that they’re the real deal — not a gimmick, and certainly not a band to be pitied. Fans drawn to the band’s brand of power pop will still hear a distinctive homage to the genre’s early ’80s heyday, but a sneak listen to “Dig Me Out,” the first track from the forthcoming record, reveals that the guys — who complete the lineup with bassist Shaun Rhoades — aren’t content to retread old ground.

“It’s totally different than anything we’ve ever done,” Kelly says. “It’s a rock record, because we’re a full rock band. I made a shift from being a singer and drummer to being a singer and keyboardist, because when I did my solo record, I discovered that I really loved playing keys, and I felt like it was the next logical step.

“Another part of it, too, is that this record is very groove-oriented. We drew some influences from hip-hop, and not that I couldn’t do it, but we felt like if I was going to move to keys, that gave us an opportunity to get a drummer who’s got that background. So that’s what we did, and it just worked. It’s just a rock record with hip-hop influences, and how I’ve been explaining it is that the record itself is about dying in the Trump age.

“When our mom died a year ago, we were inspired by these conversations we had with her about leaving her family behind in this world that’s kind of upside down,” he adds. “Those sort of inspired this record as a whole.”

Comfortably numb

Courtesy of Brian Hall PhotographyDying is something with which he’s intimately familiar. While his addictions to food and alcohol never took him to the depths experienced by some of his peers, he believes wholeheartedly that if he hadn’t found recovery, his life would have been cut short.

“My primary addiction is food, and I dealt with an eating disorder and food addiction my entire life,” he says. “When (Paul) died when I was 6, that was extremely traumatic, and I remember at 6 years old, I didn’t have access to anything else other than what was in front of me, and that was food. My reaction was to just dive headfirst into whatever I could to not feel all the feelings.”

Awareness of his addiction was a gradual thing, he says, but by the time he was a teenager, he had a startling realization: He had no capacity to feel. He understands now that it all relates back to suppressed grief, and by that point, he was supplementing his food addiction with alcohol, spiraling into an abyss that threatened to consume him.

“My drinking career didn’t last very long, thank God, but it was every day, and I was drinking to medicate,” he says. “I was morbidly obese and just binging and purging and stealing food; I was taking laxatives to try and control my weight; and on top of that, I was just drinking and destroying my life.

“I’ve never actually tried a drug in my life, and I credit that with coming into recovery at 18, because that would have been the next thing. There are a lot of addicts in my family, but at the time, I had no idea that what I was doing was the same thing. I knew my life was completely unmanageable, but I didn’t equate my using food with using a drug.”

The year before he entered recovery was the longest of his life, he says. Every relationship was affected; his mother, battling her first round with cancer in New York, pushed him and his brothers to move to Charleston, S.C., to take advantage of music opportunities, but while the future looked bright for A Fragile Tomorrow, Kelly was living in the shadows.

“I totally pushed everyone away; I was depressed, and I didn’t talk to people,” he says. “I just remember lying on a couch for days at a time, ignoring phone calls and not changing my clothes. My whole life, people kept telling me I was going to have a heart attack if I kept that up, and I just didn’t hear it. My mom was morbidly obese for half her life and almost had to have her legs amputated, but then she became a personal trainer and a nutritionist and tried to help me, but I just pushed her away, too. I didn’t want help.

“I remember being at a wedding a couple of weeks before I got into recovery. I was 18 and thought I was invincible, and I remember downing drinks at this wedding, and my brothers were like, ‘You need to chill.’ I just remember being like F--- you; I’m fine.’ I drove home that night in no shape to drive, and I can’t believe I didn’t kill somebody. It got to the point where people didn’t even want to be around me.”

12 Step salvation

Courtesy of Brian Hall PhotographyThe day before he discovered 12 Step recovery, his mother confronted him: His parents would sell their house in New York and move to South Carolina. Her cancer was in remission, and she refused to lose another son.

“Something changed inside me, and the next day, I truly believe that God said, ‘Here’s this opportunity,’” he says.

He ran into an acquaintance who had also struggled with overeating; he’d seen a picture of her from a year prior, in which she was 100 pounds heavier, in a wheelchair and incontinent from being so overweight. The transformation opened his eyes, and he asked her what her secret was. No secret, she replied: just a meeting on Thursday nights for food addicts.

“I heard about the 12 Steps, but I didn’t really know about them,” he says. “I thought my problem was that that I was fat; I didn’t need to stop drinking, or so I thought. I wasn’t looking for a spiritual solution. I thought, ‘If I lose weight, my life will be great.’ And when I went to my first meeting, I was a card-carrying atheist with no interest in God or a spiritual solution.”

When he pulled into the parking lot for his first meeting, he balked. His story is strikingly similar, he notes, to one in the Big Book (“On the Move”), in which the writer recalls that “as a nice Jewish boy, I was not about to wander into a church.”

“That was me — ‘I’m not going into some Bible study!’” Kelly says. “I thought that’s what I was walking into, but if I had not opened the door and walked into that church, I truly believe that I’d be dead today. I was suicidal.”

Arresting his food addiction was the easy part, he says: He was done. He’d wrestled with weight and eating his entire life and was ready for a solution, but maintaining total abstinence from alcohol was a more difficult thing to accept.

“I was surrounded by people my age who were drinking, and as a musician, I was surrounded by people drinking and using all the time,” he says. “For the first three or four months, I white-knuckled it more than I did with food.”

But the changes he began to see were immediate, he adds. Recovery didn’t just give him his life back, because the life he had before was an unhappy one. The program, he says, gave him a life he never thought was possible.

“We had been touring a bit, but probably the last six months or so before I got into recovery, all of the opportunities we had professionally just went away, and I think it’s because I just stopped working,” he says. “When I got into recovery, I go re-energized. We started doing more shows and bigger tours. I had dropped out of college three or four months before I got into recovery because my grades had tanked, and I had lost any work ethic or motivation, but a month into recovery, I re-enrolled and started taking classes remotely.

“I just really grew up in recovery. At the time, there was only one meeting a week for food addiction, so I went to other 12 Step fellowships, because I wanted to go to meetings constantly. My life just started to come together, and I started to understand what I wanted in life. I realized very quickly that my whole life, I was walking around with just this constant fear. I realized that after my brother died, I used to check on my family every morning when I would wake up to make sure they were still breathing. I was just so traumatized by that.”

'I knew how to work my recovery'

Courtesy of Brian Hall PhotographyThe Steps, he says, helped him realize that the fear he’d lived with since Paul’s death had consumed him, to the point that even as a 7-year-old child, he felt like the inevitability of death made life pointless. Because those feelings were so ingrained from such an early age, he didn’t realize how beautiful life could be until recovery began to help him see things with sober eyes and a healthy mind.

“I started to see how afraid I was, and I started to face that fear,” he says. “The biggest test of that, I think, was when I was just a year into recovery, and our mom called and said her cancer had come back, and that it was Stage 4. I felt that fear, but I called my sponsor immediately. I just knew that, ‘OK, I can’t use’ — that was not an option. I knew I needed to work this program right then, so I made a phone call.

“That’s how I walked through this tough stuff. The day after my mom died, I woke up not even sure how to even function. How would I even get out of bed? But every day, the first thing I do is I get on my knees, and I ask God for an abstinent and sober day and ask God to do his will just for today. And every night, I get on my knees and thank him. So I got on my knees, and I stayed there for a while.

“I may not have known how to function in the world without my mom, but I knew how to work my recovery,” he adds.

There are still days when grief slams him with the weight of a thousand hammer blows, but that’s when he pushes back with what the program has taught him to do. He reads the Big Book. He works with guys that he sponsors. He calls his own sponsor. He goes to meetings.

“My number one answer for anybody struggling is, go to a meeting,” he says. “That, to me, was the most powerful thing. When I said to this person, ‘I need help; tell me what to do,’ that was her answer: ‘Go to a meeting.’ When you go to a meeting and you’re open, I think God can work miracles.

“I’ve been called kind of a hardass by people in recovery because I work a really solid program. To me, it’s just so simple. It’s not easy, but this program is laid out for us, and there’s not a lot of thinking involved. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I just tell people what people told me: ‘You’re not unique. Your role here is not to change everything; your role here is to surrender.’ Any time my mind goes to a place of, ‘I should do this differently,’ it’s like, ‘Well … no!’ This program was divinely inspired, and my job is not to change the Steps.

“I just tell people to be willing to surrender to a solution, and you’re solid,” he adds. “I get that unwillingness to surrender to a solution, because in the beginning, I fought this. I didn’t want it to be the solution. But it is, and it’s the best one I’ve found.”

Check Out These Other Artists' Stories

Trey Lewis

Fourteen years into sobriety, ‘keep coming back’ pays off for Trey Lewis

Nimai Larson

Nimai Larson finds growth and beauty in sobriety’s Second Surrender

Tim Easton

Three chords & the truth: In recovery, Tim Easton gets more real than ever

Sheva Elliot

The becoming: Sheva Elliot channels her sobriety into ‘cosmic witch rock’

Stefan T

Sobriety gives producer, musician Stefan T a high no drug could ever touch

Jon Foulk

Delivered by grace: In sobriety, Jon Foulk sings ‘A New Song’