Middle of the night, sometime last year: Kyle LaLone awakens with a single lyric in his head:
“I hate the way you look at me when you say that you still love me / I know it’s true, but I don’t want it to be / You’re a thousand miles away with no plans of coming back / And knowing that knocks the wind out of me …”
The girl was gone, having moved to Chicago after a breakup. They tried the whole texting back-and-forth, but the lingering longing for what they once had only made the parting more painful. On top of that, LaLone was newly sober, and rebuilding himself through the midst of a painful separation from the girl who helped him get sober in the first place was challenging, to say the least.
“It was a tough time, man,” LaLone told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “It was the toughest one I had been through up to that point, because this was the girl I thought I was going to get married to at the time, but stuff really wasn’t working anymore after months of trying to make it work. And that whole time, my brain was going nonstop, but I kept doing what (recovery) taught me and telling myself, ‘I’ve just gotta get through today.’
“I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, and I basically wrote all the lyrics without picking up my guitar, which I’d never done before. It was something I’d heard about people doing, but not me. It came out in a cathartic, ‘I’ve-gotta-get-this-the-fuck-out’ way, but when I picked up the guitar and started playing, I realized, ‘Shit, dude, this is a country ballad.’”
And so began the journey to LaLone’s latest effort: “Somewhere In Between,” a five-song EP that’s an accomplishment in more ways than one. “Warning Signs,” that song he woke up and wrote sometime last year, is the album’s centerpiece, but the entire record hits with the gravitas of experience and the authenticity of a guy who grew up behind a roadside honky-tonk somewhere in Lower Alabama instead of Upstate New York.
And thanks to his sobriety, he made it through that breakup to the other side — not only without falling back into old habits in order to cope, but with an album that establishes him as a fresh new voice in Americana with the guitar-playing chops to back it up.
Kyle LaLone: A shredder is born
The guitar occupies a hallowed spot in LaLone’s memories. He recalls a particular kindergarten teacher who used to sit on a chair at the front of the class, wearing a suit and playing old rock ‘n’ roll, and how the music made his head spin.
“We would sing along with him. It was songs by Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys and stuff like that,” he said. “That just made a really huge impression on me. I have Elvis’ ‘Rocker’ on cassette, The Beach Boys’ greatest hits and some other ’50s and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll, like Herman’s Hermits, on cassette. I just loved that stuff.”
At the same time, his folks had a collection of folk records, and he distinctly remembers running around in circles in the family living room while “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” played over the stereo. When he was 9, his folks bought him an acoustic guitar for his birthday — and while at first he was disappointed because he had wanted a Walkman instead, it didn’t take long for him to fall in love with the instrument.
“I started taking lessons from this guy who was one of my dad’s college students,” LaLone said. “We met every week and did hour lessons in his band’s rehearsal studio, and I just thought he was one of the coolest dudes. He had White Zombie and Pantera posters on the wall, and it smelled like cigarettes in there — like a place where people went to rock the fuck out!”
It was, he added, captivating for a young dude who was learning to unlock the secrets of rock ‘n’ roll through such bands at Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam and classic rock. A few years later, he began to pick up music theory from another guitar teacher, and by the time he was in high school, he started a rock band. He and his bandmates worked their way up from county fairs and school dances to bar gigs and opening for national acts that came through town, until eventually LaLone graduated from high school and went to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music.
“That was really awesome, but at the same time super overwhelming and crazy to go from being a big fish in a small town to a place with some of the best musicians in the world,” he said. “At times, that was a very tough experience, but I’m really glad I did it, because it taught me what it took to be a working musician.”
He studied guitar, dabbled in songwriting and threw himself studying as many styles as possible: rock, blues, folk, funk, soul, reggae and jazz all became part of his repertoire, but it was alt-country that held his attention and became the genre to which he found himself drawn as a performer.
Kyle LaLone finds his lane
“Around that time, I was introduced to Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne, Wilco, My Morning Jacket and a lot of those kinds of bands,” he said. “I started listening to Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and I sort of rediscovered Tom Petty, who I had really been into as a kid but stopped listening to for whatever reason. I had my own rock band that I started at the end of my time at Berklee called Sugar Mama. We did that ’90s alt-rock sort of thing, playing some reggae and funk mixed with rock riffs, with influences like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sublime. At the same time, I was playing guitar for a bunch of singer-songwriters, original bands and cover bands.”
He would go through periods, he added, of throwing himself into his own material and relishing the opportunity to make other shine. His ravenous appetite for learning new styles kept his focus from settling on a singular path, however, and while he loved churning out his own material, the opportunity to work as a shredder alongside other artists was too tempting to pass up.
“I was very grateful to be playing gigs, working with other people and learning other styles, but then I would really miss doing my own thing and writing my own songs,” he said. “I had little periods of feeling clarity and confidence and sort of going at it, but then I would lose focus, change my mind or get busy with sideman gigs.”
It didn’t help, he added, that drugs and alcohol were consummate time wasters, even for an aspiring professional musician. While he can’t point to any immediate family of origin issues — his parents were high school sweethearts and are still married to this day — there was alcoholism and mental health issues on both sides of his family.
“Something just never felt quite right with me, like I couldn’t relate to my peers, or that I had these intense feelings that kind of freaked me out and that I was afraid to express to anybody,” he said. “I think my relief was to sort of disappear into myself, whether it was writing stories or going out in the woods and making up these fantasies.”
Music, naturally, provided the same sort of escape. With a guitar in his hand, the white noise that filled his head was muted, and he could lose himself in power chords and melodies.
As a teen, he started hanging out with older kids, and that led to his first experimentation with drugs. Although he never cared much for alcohol in the beginning, smoking weed felt like discovering a whole new world, he added.
“I absolutely loved getting stoned,” he said. “The first time I got high, right after we smoked, my friend’s parents and a bunch of their friends got home, and my friend said, ‘Hey, come downstairs and jam with my dad.’ I remember walking down to their living room as the high kicked in, and I thought, ‘I get it! I get why people smoke weed and make music. This is the shit.’ And pretty much after that, I really gravitated toward stoners and party kids.”
It was a weekend thing in the first, punctuated by occasional youthful indiscretions — buying weed off of a cousin who wound up telling his grandparents, who brought it to his parents’ attention.
“I would keep getting caught, and I would tell them, ‘I’m gonna stop, I’m gonna stop,’ but I never would,” he said. “And it started to become an obsession: ‘God, I can’t wait until the next time I can get high.’”
Down the rabbit hole
Once he got to college, he started smoking several times a day, every day; getting drunk on the weekends; and leaned hard into the cliché of being the “stoner musician” who used drugs to tap into his creative side. He also started to experiment with other drugs — pills, mushrooms, LSD, MDMA and cocaine, which was his party drug of choice.
“Because the comedown was so gnarly, and because of how expensive it was, I never got into a thing where I would be doing blow every day,” he said. “But whenever I was at a party and had a few drinks, I was like, ‘I’ve gotta find the person with the blow,’ and I would do it until the sun came up, or until the bag was empty.”
Eventually, he moved to New York, where he earned a reputation as a guitar-slinger for hire who knew his way around funk, reggae and soul. In New York, he started drinking more, however, and the booze interfered with his music career more than weed ever did.
“I started drinking more often and in larger quantities. I started to crave it, and I couldn’t be in social situations, at rehearsals, at shows or play gigs without it,” he said. “On a good night, I would be the drunkest person in the group and have difficulty forming coherent sentences. On a bad night, I would end up getting totally hammered and doing blow until 6 in the morning, throw up on the sidewalk and pass out on a part bench somewhere in the East Village.
“Then the next day I would be so destroyed, I would either have to stay in bed all day, call in and cancel whatever was on my schedule, or muscle my way through the day, feeling like I wanted to die.”
He wound up on a couple of albums for other bands and eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where he resides today. On the West Coast, he found himself still torn by the two music paths before him.
“Part of me wanted to be a session dude and get a sweet touring gig and have that be my thing, but in my heart and my gut, something always said, ‘Don’t you want to do your own thing, write your own songs and sing?’” he said.
In L.A., however, he started hitting up the city’s eclectic jam sessions, sharpening his chops alongside other players, and rediscovered his knack for country music. Back in Boston, he’d dabbled in it, impressed by the “chicken pickers” in that city’s music scene, but it wasn’t until he jammed with a local picker that he earned a reputation as a badass country guitarist on his own. His name got passed around town, and LaLone wound up playing alongside alt-country singer-songwriter Ben Bostick.
“We did some gigs around town and a few hours out of town, and I really dove into that kind of style,” he said. “He was a really prolific songwriter, and he would come to our weekly gig with new songs every week, and it was three hours of picking and accompanying him in that style. Then I started playing with other people and getting other calls, and that sort of evolved into the thing I was getting the most calls for, which felt really awesome and really fun.”
Crawling back up, into the light
A few months after he first moved to L.A., he added, he stopped drinking for almost six months — but then he started to increase his marijuana use, to the point that he was once again smoking all day, every day. Eventually, he convinced himself that he could have a glass of wine or some tequila after wrapping up a gig, which quickly progressed to having one before it as well … and then during set breaks … and before long, he had abandoned the conditions he put in place to control his consumption. He eventually started drinking as much or more than he did in the beginning, and he started doing cocaine on most weekends. And when he got into the relationship with the girl who inspired “Warning Signs,” everything came to a head.
“I was very jealous, controlling and would have these angry explosions,” he said. “So we started going to couple’s therapy, because we were really in love, wanted to make it work and thought therapy would help.
“I had been to therapy on and off for 10 years, trying to get help for the anxiety and depression I’d had for years. Even though I was working, making a living and my life looked good on paper, most of the time I was very unhappy — just this deep, aching emptiness in my spirit.”
It was in one-on-one therapy that his drinking and using were laid on the table. His therapist, he added, pointed out that he frequently brought up his drug and alcohol use and how they had a negative impact on his mental health and relationships, and recommended he look into attending some recovery meetings.
“That was the first time anybody suggested checking out the rooms,” he said. “At first, I had trouble accepting that I was a true alcoholic/addict. I’ve been sober now for a year and five months, and sometimes that still happens — but then I remember reading that part in recovery literature about the cravings, how people would try to limit how much they drank and used without success, the thought patterns and personality traits of alcoholics/addicts, and that is me, 100 percent. I was absolutely dependent on getting high, drinking and always seeking something outside of myself for relief. I had no control over it, and my life had become unmanageable.”
“Somewhere In Between” is a document of that journey in more ways than one. It details that painful breakup, but songs like “Always Trying to Quit” and “Not Gonna Drink Over You” are two sides of recovery’s coin: The desperation to give up something that won’t let go, and the determination not to return to it once it’s been surrendered.
“I think I had to be in the middle of it like that,” he said. “When I wrote that first song, I was pretty terrified at first. I was like, ‘This might be too honest, too plainspoken or raw,’ and I very quickly said, ‘Fuck that. This is what I’m feeling right now, and I need to do this for myself.’ And I think people will be able to relate to, feel that and appreciate that: Just straight up, ‘This is what’s going on. This is what I’m feeling.’”
Easy like Sunday morning: Kyle LaLone finds some peace
And therein lies the beauty of LaLone’s EP. After writing “Warning Signs,” he contacted a friend who had helped him record a self-titled 2016 instrumental EP. At first, he only wanted to record that single song, but the words kept coming, and he kept writing them down. Before he knew it, he had a handful of country songs, and the chords neatly wrapped around them in a manner reminiscent of Buddy Miller or Hayes Carll or Ryan Adams. Previously, he’d been playing a lot of Haggard and Waylon Jennings and Dwight Yoakam, so the picking wasn’t exactly foreign to him.
The honesty, however, certainly was — as a songwriter, at least. Recovery taught him the value of that spiritual principle early on, and by embracing the program, he found a way out of the clouds that had followed him as far back as he could remember.
“It’s like a night and day difference,” he said. “Before recovery, I felt so much self-loathing, resentment and self-pity. I always felt that, ‘If I get this gig, this girl, this guitar, this review, this form of recognition or validation, then I’ll be happy. I’ll be complete.’ But then I would get there, and I always thought, ‘What’s next?’”
The changes haven’t only been internal ones: His relationships with his family have improved as well, to the point that tension has eased and unresolved issues have been let go. Some of that is acceptance, he said, but much of it has been through his own internal mental, emotional and spiritual adjustments.
“Everything’s not all about me,” he said. “Most of the time now, if I do this stuff, the world doesn’t revolve around me. I go into situations now with the mindset of, ‘What can I do for this person? How can I make this better? What can I give to this situation?’ And if anything comes up where I feel uncomfortable or that old thing starts to creep in — the voice that tells me, ‘There’s something wrong with you,’ or the one on the flip side that tells me, ‘You’re the fucking man!’ — I can be like, ‘OK … you’re not going to listen to that.
“‘You’re going to hit the brakes and choose a different way to think about things that will result in a healthy response so that you can continue to treat the people you love in a way that you feel good about.’ And because of that, I’m not feeling empty anymore. I’m feeling happy and excited and peaceful most of the time.”