Singer-songwriter Joe Nester builds a ‘Nation’ through music, recovery

Joe Nester

The benefits of a life in recovery still blow Joe Nester’s mind on occasion.

The Ties That Bind UsThere was once a time in his life when, addicted to crack and heroin, he was homeless, sleeping under bridges and using Boston Market cardboard boxes for a bed. He was one of the nameless, faceless afflicted that populate the streets of every city in America, and most “normal” people went out of their way to avoid him.

Now, as the titular figurehead of “Nester Nation” whose recovery advocacy is matched only by dedication to his songcraft, he’s an object of adoration. It’s not something he seeks, and when it happens, he’s as humbled as he is awed. But he never lets it go to his head, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, because as much as he’s been given, he has a keen understanding of just how quickly it can all be taken away.

“I’ve been touring the last few years, and people look at me as something of a celebrity or an icon, and it’s just funny how they react to me,” Nester said. “I’m just the most down-to-earth, goofy, funny dude. I was on tour this last time in Connecticut, and I had a fan flay all the way over with his family from the (United Kingdom) to come to my show and meet me. This guy was a professional boxer who trained with Mike Tyson, and when he met me, he was shaking.

“He told me, ‘I’ve never been starstruck, but your music has just totally inspired me. You’ve helped me turn my life around, because I came across your music when I was in a dark place. I trained to your music and your songs every day, and they’re what gave me the inspiration to go on and win the British title.’ And all I could think was, ‘Wow! Really?’ I’m just so, so grateful.”

A young Joe Nester goes all in

If anything, such an exchange is proof that Nester took to heart one of the sagest pieces of advice his father ever gave him: “He told me, ‘If you’re going to do anything in this life, do it to the best of your ability. Don’t half-ass it,” Nester said.

Since he was a kid and first picked up a baseball bat, he’s taken that wisdom to heart. These days, he’s working on a follow-up to 2018’s full-length album “The Awakening,” collaborating with artists across the spectrum of popular music and building a grassroots fanbase that’s closing in on 100,000 Facebook followers. And all of it, he said, has come about thanks to recovery — his own, and the experience, strength and hope he shares about it through his songs.

“When I was 19 years old and playing in a punk rock band in Delaware, I wanted to write songs to be famous or to be on the radio, and nothing ever happened,” he said. “Now, I’m writing songs about myself, songs that at first I didn’t even want people to hear because they were just for me, and the next thing you know, that’s the ticket. That’s what’s catching everybody’s ear, because it’s genuine, it’s from the heart, and it’s raw and emotional.

“My first tour was with Bubba Sparxxx, and that was my foot in the door. I was getting the exposure, then I started touring, and things just started taking off. The next thing you know, I’m doing interviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer and traveling to different cities and states. I’ll get into one town, and a news station will reach out and ask me, ‘Can you come into the station and do a segment?’ I’m just completely humbled and blown away, because really all I was doing was sharing my story through music.”

That story begins with a divorce when Nester was 6 years old. His parents both liked to party, but a young son inspired his father to clean up his act. His mother, however, wanted to follow her own path, and so father and son moved in with Nester’s grandparents.

“He just wanted to show me what real love was and give me the best upbringing possible,” Nester said. “I had an amazing childhood and grew up in a great neighborhood. I had the same group of friends from the age of 6 all the way up until I graduated from high school, and none of us drank or smoked or partied. We got good grades and did normal things — played hockey in the streets, skateboarded and rode our bikes around the neighborhood.”

Whatever he tried his hand at, however, Nester was all in. When he began playing baseball, he practiced daily until he was an all-state pitcher. When he got on a skateboard, he went faster and harder than anyone else in his crew, eventually earning sponsorships and winning competitions. And then, he said, he discovered the guitar.

Addiction takes hold

Joe Nester“I was 12 years old, and it was after baseball practice one day,” Nester said. “We went to this kid’s house, and he had an electric guitar and was playing Metallica — ‘Enter Sandman’ — and I was just blown away. I was like, ‘Dude, that guitar is nasty!’ I was completely in awe. I went home and told my dad, ‘I want a guitar!’”

The elder Nester waited a bit to see if his son’s interest would be sustained, but on his 13th birthday, he and his dad walked into the Concord Music Company in Wilmington, Delaware, and walked out with a baby blue Bentley electric. Back home, he locked himself in his bedroom and played it from 4 p.m. until 1 a.m., until his father came in and gently nudged his son to get some sleep.

“I fell in love with it immediately, from the minute my fingers hit the fretboard,” he said. “I took guitar lessons for a few years and learned theory, the major and minor pentatonic scales, and eventually the teacher told my dad, ‘I’ve taught Joe everything that I know. Honestly, not only does he know it, he plays it better than me. I’m just taking your money at this point.’ I stopped taking lessons after that, and I joined a band the year after I graduated high school.”

At that point in his life, drugs and alcohol had yet to enter the picture. He graduated high school with honors and was too focused on music to be distracted … until February 2002. His band was in Pennsylvania on a tour, and after the show, as he loaded up the band’s van, he noticed a group of childhood friends who had ridden over for the show sitting in a nearby car.

“They yell out, ‘Come over here! Get in the car!’ So I get in, and I’m sitting in the backseat with my best friends Jamie and Jon, whom I’d grown up with and skateboarded with,” Nester said. “I hear them whispering, and the next thing you know, they hand over this Altoid tin full of all of these little rocks. I ask, ‘What is this?’ And they said, ‘It’s crack.’ I had no idea they were into drugs.

“My mind was blown, and I remember thinking, ‘What in the hell?’ At that point, I had never really drank, and I might have smoked weed five times, and I’m instantly thinking about everything they tell you in school. I’m envisioning crackheads and homeless people pushing shopping carts full of empty beer cans to scrap for money and sleeping under bridges with no teeth.

“But then, these were my best friends, guys I had grown up with,” he added. “They had the house, the family, the car, the girl … could it really be that bad?”

They encouraged him to give it a try, pointing out that if he didn’t like it, he didn’t have to do it again. Little did he know, however, that addiction was a switch, waiting to be flipped … and crack not only turned it on, it ripped the button off of his neurological console.

“That was the day my entire life changed, when my entire direction of where I was going in life changed,” he said. “The minute those chemicals entered my body, something happened, and the only thing I wanted was more. Everything felt so good and everything was tingling, from the hairs on my head down to my toenails. Looking back, I still remember it like it was yesterday.

“I looked over at my friend and shook him, and because I’ve always had a funny sense of humor, I said, ‘Oh my God! I’m addicted!’ The sad thing about it was, it was true. I was addicted from the second I took that first hit. There’s a lot of debate about whether it’s a disease, and I get it. I did make the choice to try it, but what happened after, it was no longer a choice. And it led me down a very dark road.”

The downward spiral

Joe NesterThat same night, Nester went by the ATM, withdrew several hundred dollars from his bank account and spent it all on the drug. At the time, he was working as an apprentice to his uncle, a plumber, and making good money. He was 19 years old, living with his grandparents and had very little overhead … except for the addiction that came roaring out of the depths of his mind like an all-consuming dragon.

“Needless to say, it wasn’t even a month before I got kicked out of the band; the month after that, I lost my job,” Nester said. “My best friends, who had introduced it to me, were just doing it on the weekends as a party drug, just having fun. They said to me, ‘You took it to a whole other level!’ Well, my dad told me not to half-ass anything!”

Out of concern for Nester’s growing crack habit, they decided to introduce him to another substance. In a sense, their idea worked: Once he tried his first baggie of heroin, he never thought about crack again.

“Everything just progressed so fast,” he said. “In February 2002, I was introduced to crack. By May, I was sniffing heroin and hooked on that. I just didn’t know anything about any of it. I was so sheltered from that, growing up, and I didn’t know anything about the side effects. I didn’t know anything about withdrawal. One day, I wasn’t working and had no money, so I couldn’t buy any, and I got so sick.

“I was uncontrollably throwing up and laying in my room, sore and aching all over and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. A buddy came by and asked what I was doing, and when I told him I was sick, he asked, ‘Have you had any dope today? No? Dude, you’re dopesick. Your body has built a tolerance to it, and you need it.’ So he loaned me $10, and I went and scored and felt right as rain.”

It was an ominous sign, but stopping wasn’t part of Nester’s makeup. Besides, he was only 19, had yet to suffer any serious consequences and, like many young people, felt 10 feet tall and bulletproof. He had enough foresight, however, to see where it was leading him, and when he contemplated stealing from his grandparents, he instead chose to pack a bag, sneak out of the house and live on the streets.

“How crazy is that? That’s addiction for you — I hadn’t suffered any consequences, but I was choosing to be homeless,” he said. “I walked into Center City in Wilmington and slept on the side of a church. I told myself, ‘I’m 19 years old, and I’m just going to have fun for the summer. This is just a wild and crazy experience I’m going to go through, and I’ll enroll in college in the fall, get my shit together, and this’ll be a crazy story I tell my kids when I get older.”

That summer turned into 10 years, during which time his habit grew steadily worse, and the trappings of that wholesome upbringing were exchanged for the survival skills necessary to survive in the streets.

Straight A's in the school of hard knocks

“I adapted to the street lifestyle — learning how to hustle on the corners, steal from stores and selling to get my fix, robbing, even selling myself,” he said. “Addiction took me to depths I never thought I would go. Everything I said I wouldn’t do, I eventually did, and nothing made me wanted to stop. I lost both grandparents months apart in 2007, and not even that was enough to make me stop.”

By that point, he was fully cognizant of how much addiction had robbed him of so many of the ties that bound him to family and society. His father picked him up from Center City and drove Nester to the church for his grandfather’s funeral, but the rest of the family blocked the doorway. Their message was simple but firm: Joe wasn’t welcomed.

“It broke my heart,” he said simply. “I was just completely in awe, like, I couldn’t believe this was happening. I felt like a scumbag, just completely worthless and completely empty — like there was nothing to fight for, because my own family didn’t even want me at the funeral. I told my dad that I would be OK, to go in there and give Pop-Pop my respects, and then I walked off, back to the city.

“I went to Walgreen’s and stole a whole bunch of stuff — in the church clothes my dad had brought for me to wear! I just walked to the trash bag aisle, opened a box up and grabbed a trash bag, stuffed it full and ran out of the store. I wanted to just numb myself and escape the reality of the situation, because my grandparents were two of the people who helped raise me, and they never stopped believing in me … but now they were gone, and my own family didn’t want me at their funeral.”

For a time, the childhood friends that had introduced him to drugs were on the same streets, but even they slowly drifted away. Jamie moved to Vermont, got married and pulled his life together, Nester said; in 2008, Jon woke up one morning, declared that he was done and left for good. Nester, however, felt trapped. He fell in with a friend named Frank, who would eventually be sent to prison, and he wound up hustling with a crew of guys who were robbing banks.

The year was 2012, and they had a job that felt wrong to Nester.

“They wanted to hit this one bank, but it was across state lines, in a very populated area, near a police station, and everything about it seemed wrong,” he said. “I told them I had a very uneasy feeling and didn’t want to do it. And that’s when Jon called.”

Jon had landed in Florida, gotten clean and received word through the grapevine that Nester was on the verge of a disastrous decision.

“He says to me, ‘I know how you’re feeling. I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like to think you can’t get cleaned up there because everything and everyone reminds you of getting high, because that’s all you’ve been doing for 10 years,’” Nester said. “He said, ‘I know you’re worthy of love, if you just give it a chance. I know I introduced you to this stuff, so if you want, I’ll pay for you a train ticket so you can come down here and go to rehab.”

The resurrection and second life of Joe Nester

It was a pivotal moment, and despite the invitation to receive some grace, Nester still thought long and hard. He had accepted that his fate would end in the familiar refrain that so many addicts hear about in the rooms of recovery — jails, institutions or death — and he had made his peace with it. Jon’s invitation pushed him toward the light, however.

“All I said on the phone was, yes, I’ll go,” he said. “The next day, I was on a 26-hour train ride down to South Florida with nothing but the clothes on my back. The crazy thing is, I had become the person I had envisioned all those years ago when I first smoked crack. I was 130 pounds soaking wet, homeless and all my teeth were knocked out.”

That same day, his old crew hit the bank. It ended in a high-speed chase, complete with guns, money and drugs, and his running buddies wound up “doing football numbers in prison,” Nester said.

“It very easily could have been me,” he added. “It was like Jesus came to me and said, ‘You’ve been through enough. I’m going to give you an opportunity here. You have two choices: One can lead you to life in prison, and the other can lead you to a better life.’”

The Joe Nester who got off the train in Florida, however, still had a ways to go before he began to reap the rewards of his decision. After a week in medical detox, he entered a drug and alcohol treatment program on Christmas Day, 2012, and thought he had landed in the fabled catbird’s seat.

“I had my own apartment with a roommate, with leather couches and a big screen TV and $75 a week to go to Publix to go shopping for food!” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ve been homeless for 10 years, so this is great!’ I didn’t believe in the program, because I thought there was no way some book-smart counselor who went to college for this was going to tell me about my addiction. I thought, ‘You haven’t lived how I’ve lived or been through what I’ve been through, so don’t try to sit here and tell me how I’m feeling, because it ain’t working, lady.’”

He may not have believed, but he did have the willingness to follow suggestions, as much as he might have rolled his eyes at them. And it just so happened, he added, that his new roommate was a musician. Nester had abandoned music many years earlier, having long since pawned his guitars; when he borrowed his roommate’s acoustic six-string, he discovered that his fingers still remembered.

“It came back to me after a day or two like I’d never stopped playing,” he said. “Here’s the thing: I continued to do my groups and go to (recovery) meetings and listen to what they were saying, even though I didn’t believe it, and the whole time, I was starting to write music. I graduated treatment and went into an all guys halfway house, and once again, my roommate was a musician and had an acoustic guitar. So I asked him, ‘Do you mind if I play your guitar?’ And that was it. That’s when everything started happening for me.”

A growing understanding of the process

Joe NesterHe began to see that recovery was about more than putting down the drugs and alcohol. His fellow sober living residents, he realized, were happy. They laughed. They cracked jokes. And they did it all sober, something that was difficult, at first, for Nester to wrap his head around.

“It didn’t make sense, but they all said the same thing: ‘We work a 12 Step program, we have a sponsor, and we go to meetings every day,’” he said. “Something resonated with me, so I followed suit. I got a sponsor, I went to meetings every single day, and I worked the Steps.”

And, true to form, he didn’t half-ass it. It took him nearly 17 months to go through the 12 Steps the first time around, because he worked them methodically and thoroughly. Every Step, every meeting, every conversation with a sponsor or members of his network — they all helped to rewire his brain, he said.

“Every single time I was feeling discontent, anger, rage, I had to take a look back and see my part in things and ask, ‘Why am I allowing this to affect me? What’s my part in this?’” he said. “When I was able to understand and comprehend that, things really started to change in my life.”

It was begrudging forward progress at first. He gave it 60 days before he would move back to Delaware, but life at 60 days was good … so he gave it 90 days. Then six months. And by the time he marked six months clean and sober, he had an epiphany.

“I was on my lunch break working at a warehouse in Boynton Beach, Florida, driving a forklift,” he said. “I thought, ‘Man, I actually have a job today, a cell phone in my name, a roof over my head, food in my refrigerator, I’m sleeping good at night, and I’m not looking over my shoulders for cops or dealers.’ I felt a sense of peace, like I was finally able to let go of the idea of going back and getting high.

“For a long time, I wanted to hold on to the idea that maybe one day, I could still use. But something happened in those six months, through working the Steps and being able to come to terms and feel that sense of peace and freedom in myself, and I realized that I don’t ever have to get high again. And today, I don’t ever want to get high again. I just don’t, because my life is so good right now, and that was such a freeing feeling — to finally be free from the bondage of self and my own torture.”

Last month, Nester celebrated seven years clean and sober, and like he’s done from the beginning, he prays on a daily basis. Along the way, his Higher Power has opened doors that he at one time felt were permanently closed — starting with his rediscovery of music.

Ladies and gentlemen ... Joe Nester

Joe NesterThe roommate who loaned him that guitar ended up selling it to Nester for $20. By that point, Nester was writing music again, using it as auxiliary therapy in and around his Step work.

“I had 10 years of built up emotions and frustration, and I was just writing music every day and every night, writing my story out in song form, and I never did it for anyone other than me,” he said. “I did it just to deal with my own fears and my own worries and free myself, and I felt better afterwards. Slowly but surely, everybody in the halfway house started encouraging me: ‘You’ve got to get out here and perform this stuff, because it’s not only helping you, it’s helping us. And if it’s helping us, it’ll help others.’

“At first I was like, ‘No way. This is about my life, and if I go out and perform and they reject me, it’ll be like they’re rejecting my life, and I can’t handle that.’ But that was just fear. Finally, I started playing open mic nights at a local coffee house, and everybody just connected with the music.”

Pushing past that fear wasn’t easy: The first time he got on stage in sobriety, he posted up in the coffee shop’s bathroom like Eminem in “8 Mile,” staring into the mirror and trying not to vomit and giving himself a pep talk and asking God for guidance. Those in attendance found something in the searing honesty and poetic delivery of his lyrics, however, and soon, he was being asked to return on a regular basis.

“People packed it out, and they started asking me, ‘Don’t you have any CDs? Aren’t you on social media? We want to hear these songs!’” he said. “I went back, and my friends helped me create a Facebook and an Instagram account, because I was homeless for 10 years when all that stuff started, so I didn’t know what any of it was.”

The reception was immediate. Within a month, he was signed to a label, started recording music and released an album of songs written in the support living house where he had first gotten sober. “To Hell and Back” featured one of his most popular songs, “Never Gonna Take My Soul,” and over the next several years, he toured the country as a recovery advocate and performing artist.

Recovery doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing, however, and he and his label ended up parting ways. A new relationship had to be kept secret, and in the end, his image began to get a much bigger billing than his message. When he found himself having using thoughts, he pulled the plug and walked away.

“If I can’t be myself, and I’m not happy, I just don’t care,” he said. “I’m not going to let anybody bring me down. I don’t care how much money or fame is involved. What I care about is sharing my story and being true to myself. That’s what makes me feel good, and hopefully it in turn helps somebody else.”

More will be revealed ...

After some legal entanglements involving those early business decisions, Nester got back on the road in October, releasing a handful of songs before year’s end and drawing on the love of a dedicated fanbase — which refers to itself as “Nester Nation” — to get his message out there. He’s a father to the children of his girlfriend, and he continues to work on himself as much as he does his music.

The two go hand-in-hand, he said, and when he writes from the heart, the message reverberates far beyond what he could have ever envisioned when he first picked up the guitar.

“The love and support from my family keeps me going — that, and the support I get from everybody all over the world,” he said. “I get hundreds of messages each and every day, from Australia to the U.K. to China to Switzerland. Half the time, I sit there and wonder, ‘How the hell do you guys even understand what I’m saying?’”

They do, because the language he speaks is one of hope and love that stems from a relationship with himself, his recovery community and his God.

“I was raised Roman Catholic, so I grew up God-fearing, but after I came into recovery and started working the Steps, I realized they were God-loving,” he said. “When I pray, I found what works best for me is that as long as I pray as selflessly as possible, things tend to work out better for me. When I sit there worried and dwelling in fear and pray, ‘God help me do this,’ or, ‘Please bless me with this kind of money so I can pay my bills this month,’ it doesn’t really work out the way I want it to.

“Now, I just pray, ‘God, use me as you see fit. Help me be of maximum service and inspiration to people.’ I pray for God to use me as a vessel, and when I do that, I tend to get blessed tenfold, more than what I ever ask for. And when I get those hundreds, those thousands of messages from people who tell me my music has not only impacted them, but inspired them to change their life and to get clean? It truly doesn’t get any better than that.

“It makes me realize that this is bigger than me,” he added. “It’s bigger than anything I could have ever wanted or dreamed, and it would be selfish of me to stop.”