Singer-songwriter Kasey Anderson: ‘I never expected to put out a record again’

Singer-songwriter Kasey Anderson: 'I never expected to put out a record again'

When singer-songwriter Kasey Anderson was released from prison in 2015, he figured his music days were behind him.

Overcoming addiction and doing penance for a mania-fueled scam that led to a four-year sentence for wire fraud charges were overwhelming enough, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently. Trying to pick up the pieces of a once-successful folk-rock career just seemed out of reach.

“I was like, ‘I think I’m done making records and performing,’ because it felt like, ‘Man, that’s really asking a lot of people,’” Anderson says. “It’s not like I was hugely famous to begin with, but asking people to listen to my songs after everything that happened, that just seemed to be too much.”

Friends and supporters, however, wouldn’t let him give up so easily. Journalist and author Peter Ames Carlin was insistent: Anderson didn’t forfeit his right to being an artist. And Adam Duritz, frontman for Counting Crows and a longtime ally, cajoled Anderson into taking part in a compilation recording to help finance a friend’s cancer battle. And so he put together a band, cut a Tender Mercies cover at Portland, Ore.’s Room 13 studio and discovered that maybe … just maybe … there were still some songs rattling around in his recovering heart that needed to be shared.

“We had a really good time, and it felt good to be in the studio, and Jordan (Richter, the engineer/manager of Room 13) said, ‘Let’s get a band together for fun, play in the studio and roll tape, and we’ll leave it up to whatever you decide,’” Anderson says. “We got five or six songs demoed, and by that point, B.J. (Barham, frontman of American Aquarium) had come through town on his ‘Great 48’ tour, and I saw him and spent the night talking to him. When I told him I thought making a record was asking too much of people, he said, ‘That’s silly. I’ve never heard anybody say there are too many good songs in the world. You’re one of my favorite writers, and I’d hate it if you didn’t at least give yourself a chance to be heard again.’”

A lower standard of living

The Ties That Bind UsGrowing up in the Northwest, drugs weren’t plentiful for Anderson, but they were around. His friends had older siblings who experimented, and the first time he tried drugs himself, he thought, like many addicts, that he’d discovered the solution to his spiritual malaise.

“It was like, ‘OK, now I feel comfortable,’” he says. “I remember being in my friend Mark’s garage, and I thought, ‘This is great. It relaxes everybody, and I can go through life without anxiety.’ Of course, by the time you realize that’s not the case, and you do it to the other end of the spectrum until you become uncomfortable, you’re already in it.’”

He developed a problem early on, and his parents sent him to outpatient drug rehabilitation in the Portland area, and he eventually got clean. He started making music, releasing his first album when he was 25, Eventually, however, he fell prey to the thinking of many young people who get clean at an early age.

“I started thinking, ‘Maybe I never had a problem; maybe I was a kid who just didn’t know how to use drugs,’ so I went back out,” he says. “Life in that industry is not rife with people holding themselves and other people accountable, and bad behavior is dismissed by people when you’re being a creative person. It’s like, ‘Oh, he’s just wired differently than other people,’ and that was my excuse for a long time — ‘This stuff helps me create,’ but it was really creating a lot of chaos in your life.

“You convince yourself that you thrive on that, but you’ve just continued to lower your standard of living so that whatever mess you’re living in is livable to you. You’re not rising above the B.S.; you’re lowering your standard of living to whatever your circumstances are.”

There remained two constants during that time, however: Sober friends with whom he’d bonded when he was still in recovery; and music. The presence of the former only served to make him feel dirty and dishonest, and there were a number of times he’d hang out with them or go to a meeting, only to leave and go get high. While his drug use grew, however, so did his status as an alt-country singer-songwriter with a ragged voice reminiscent of Steve Earle’s and enough songwriting cachet to earn accolades in No Depression, Paste and the Pazz and Jop Critics Poll. He opened for everyone from Jason Isbell to Counting Crows to Earle to the Supersuckers, and he eventually put together enough of a reputation to jumpstart a genuine idea that turned very, very bad.

A diseased spiral

Kasey AndersonThe pitch was real — at first. Anderson would organize a benefit album and concert for the West Memphis Three, Arkansas men convicted of murder as teens who were eventually set free after additional evidence proved their convictions untenable. The case became a cause célèbre, and Anderson wanted to help out. While plans quickly fell through, funding for the project did not … and Anderson kept spending the money.

It’s easy, looking over a cursory presentation of Wikipedia facts, to conclude that the fraud was a con job pulled by a schemer who set out to intentionally hurt others. Anderson doesn’t plead innocence or try to shift the blame to mental illness, but it can’t be denied, he pointed out, that his Bipolar Disorder played a role.

“I have tried to talk about the mental health and the addiction part without making it seem like it excuses what I did,” he says. “I said this at my sentencing hearing — I understand that it can appear that it was some long, drawn-out con, but if you understand addiction, and you have an understanding of mania and bipolar disorder, then you know that things happen in the moment. It’s not like I set out and drew a map to come up with this really absurd, years-long con.”

It came to a head in October 2012, when his roommate called him out.

“He took me down to the basement of our house and said, ‘Listen, I know you’re not sober, and secondly, I know you’ve done this thing, and I have to tell you that I’ve been in contact with law enforcement about it,’” Anderson recalls. “He had every right to beat the (crap) out of me and throw me out on the sidewalk, but he didn’t. He said, ‘This goes beyond addict behavior; if you’re gonna live, you’ve gotta literally go and get your head examined.’”

Three doctors later, he was diagnosed with Type One Bipolar, but the physician who offered to help him gave him an ultimatum: to address his mental illness, Anderson first had to get back on top of his addiction.

“He just said, ‘Jails, institutions and death — you’ve been to a couple of institutions, and it sounds like you’re headed to jail; do you want to try the third one out, or do you want to give this a shot?’” Anderson says. “I went to treatment in November of that year, and I started doing meetings and program work.”

In January 2013, he was indicted on five counts of wire fraud; in August, he pleaded guilty, and the following July, he was sentenced to four years in prison. Even though he knew jail was looming over his head, he continued to treat both his bipolar disorder and his addiction; by the time he turned himself in to serve his time, he had built a firm foundation.

I had a little more than year between my diagnosis and the day I went to prison, so I was fortunate in that I had time to get myself grounded in treatment for Bipolar Disorder and addiction before I went in,” he says. “If I had just gone to prison without any diagnosis or treatment, and without the opportunity to really put in some serious work in sobriety, I don’t think I’d have made it out alive.”

Learning to listen

Kasey AndersonIn prison, his history of substance abuse qualified him for an intensive rehabilitation program. He and some other inmates tried to start a 12 Step meeting inside the walls but were met with bureaucratic resistance, after two years behind bars, he was released to the custody of a halfway house for six months, and he wasted no time getting re-acclimated to the recovering community.

“I got my three-year coin at an outside meeting while I was still at the halfway house,” he says. “As soon as I got out, I wanted to be as involved as I could be. I had a great support system, and I had stayed in contact with sober friends. I have no illusion about how fortunate I was when I got out, because a lot of people don’t have a family or a community that will welcome them back with open arms. That was a saving grace for me.”

He’s still making financial amends to those he harmed, and he hopes that by living by a set of spiritual principles grounded in the traditions of 12 Step recovery, he’s also making amends by becoming a better human being. He’s getting married this month, and with a new band — Hawks and Doves — he’ll release a new album, “From a White Hotel,” on July 27, and he’s still a little apprehensive about how it’ll be received.

“Sometimes, I worry about, ‘Is it a selfish thing to put out a record?’ Because I’m sure some people think, ‘This guy — what right does he have to be happy after he did what he did?’” he says. “Certainly there are choices within addiction, but addiction is not just bad behavior. There’s no truth to the idea that it’s just people who want to get (messed) up and (mess) things up.”

There are, of course, many peers still in his corner: Duritz and Barham for example, as well as several who pitched in to help make “From a White Hotel”: Kay Hanley of the ’90s alternative band Letters to Cleo; Kurt Bloch of Fastbacks and Young Fresh Fellows; and the late Ralph Carney, a longtime collaborator with Tom Waits who died in December. The record features everything from a haunting, solo acoustic cover of Neil Young’s “I’m the Ocean” (an unheralded gem from Neil Young’s 1995 record “Mirror Ball”) to “Chasing the Sky,” sounding like a mid-’90s throwback to classic Americana nuggets by Slobberbone or Whiskeytown to “Bulletproof Hearts (for Laura Jane),” a song that began as an homage to Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace but found inspiration in the death of Tom Petty.

“If I put this record out and nobody hears it, it’s not that I don’t (care), it’s just that it doesn’t make or break my life,” Anderson says. “It’s just a blessing, because I never expected to put out a record again. People might hear it, or they might not, but I get to wake up every day in this life that I never imagined I would have five or six years ago.”

And if he can find recovery and redemption, he pointed out, so can anyone. He still goes to meetings — especially when he finds himself restless, irritable and discontent — and he still practices the principles that have changed his life.

“I would say two things if someone is new: One, you have to learn to be quiet and learn to listen to other people,” he says. “Get out of your own head, and that will take you a long way. The other thing is that one-day-at-a-time thing is a really well tread cliché. I feel it every time I see someone new come in, and they talk about how they’re done forever and never doing it again, and they’ve got three months under their belt.

“I’m like, ‘Man, you just gotta get to tomorrow, and you’ll get to where you want to go.’ It’s the same as anything else — if you stare 100 feet ahead of you, you don’t see what’s in front of you, and that’s really, really dangerous.”

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