Through sobriety, singer-songwriter Griffin House finds his ‘Star’ is on the rise

Griffin House sober

When you’re a struggling singer-songwriter, balance in any area of life can be difficult to come by.

The Ties That Bind UsNashville’s Griffin House is no different. He’s striven for balance ever since he came to Music City, when a set of circumstances set him up with a Nettwerk Records deal and led to meeting three of his heroes — Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp — within a month of its release.

“They’re still the three most famous people I’ve met to this day, 16 ½ years later!” House told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “At the time, I just thought, ‘This is crazy! What’s going on?’ Doors just seemed to open and dots seemed to connect in really wild ways.”

Other times, he added, the chaos of the accompanying lifestyle was insidious. Alcohol, for example, was something that crept up on him: It never seemed to be a problem, and it rarely presented problems, until he eventually found himself taking stock of how much he drank and what happened when he did.

“Part of the problem was that I was drinking like other people were drinking, meaning I was drinking around people who were drinking heavily, and it seemed normal to me,” he said. “I was around people traveling and playing music, in the bar every night, not thinking I was doing anything out of the ordinary. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t causing problems — it caused relationship problems, legal problems several times and put me in some situations that were not good.

“The problem was that it was working for me on an emotional level to deal with what was going on: traveling around the country, not having a home, essentially being homeless. Not having roots and wondering if you’re going to make it as a musician, it’s scary, and it’s easy to overdo it. I could never figure out a way to drink a decent amount. I wanted to be the guy who could drink two beers a day, and I couldn’t do it, for whatever reason.

“I couldn’t get out of the cycle, and it continued to cause problems until I couldn’t keep it under wraps anymore,” he added.

Building on a sober foundation

Balance, it’s sometimes said, is the point in the middle one reaches when sliding from one extreme to the other. For House, the short time he spends there makes him crave it all the more, and while he’s more out of that Zen spot than in it, he gets to stay a little longer every time he makes the slide, he said.

“I’ve gone to a lot of meetings, and I’ve gone through years where I can say I’ve done (12 Step program work) 110 percent, just balls to the wall as hard as you can to go through the Steps and do the deal,” he said. “I’m at a little bit of a place now where I’m a little distant from the program. I’ve been going to therapy to address some issues I felt like the program couldn’t touch.

“My black-and-white thinking can take some of the program concepts and make them almost work against myself, so I’ve had to take a step back and go, ‘OK, what’s healthy for me, for my overall health, my overall psychology, my emotional well-being?’ I’m still dealing with anxiety and depression issues, and they were almost exacerbated by messages I was taking and running with.”

The Steps, however, still serves as a firm foundation upon which he’s rebuilt his life. Not that he ever reached the depths of despair that some of his musical peers did: His bottom wasn’t as low or as extensive, but as one particular recovery program espouses, “We’re not interested in what or how much you used, who your connections were, how much or how little you have, but only in what you want to do about your problem and how we can help.”

For House, the problem wasn’t even a problem for most of his life. A native of the Buckeye State, he was a gifted athlete who found an outlet for a talent he didn’t even realized he had in high school theater, he said.

“I can remember lots of little things growing up: being in my room at 5 years old, rocking out and playing air guitar and fantasizing about playing a guitar solo for the school,” he said. “I saw ‘Back to the Future,’ with Marty McFly playing in front of the whole high school, and I wanted to re-enact that for my second grade math class. Then I went through a period where I sort of forgot about it until I tried out for some theater in high school.”

Taking Nashville by storm

griffin house soberComing from a blue collar family — his father worked at a tire shop, and his mother helped place foster children — he ended up turning down a golf scholarship to Ohio University, choosing instead to attend Miami of Ohio. There, he taught himself to play guitar, joined a band and fell in love with playing live. He did a home recording, sold it in his college classes and reevaluated his decision to major in creative writing. Teaching, he said, would have been his only option, so he instead chose to pursue music, moving to Philadelphia for a short time before landing in Nashville.

There, he added, his naivete kept him from becoming jaded.

“I just thought I was a really unique individual who had a really unique thing here,” he said. “I knew very few people daring to do that with their lives. I think something happens when you walk around and you believe in yourself in a way. Even if you are delusional, people think, ‘This guy’s got something going on.’ I was not cynical in any way about the music industry, and for some reason, doors opened for me really quickly.”

Cases in point: He planned to cut a record at Belmont University, but a chance meeting with a guy named Ian Fitchuk, who convinced House to cut his album with him instead. Earlier this year, Fitchuk won a Grammy for his work on country star Kacey Musgraves’ latest album. Another friend had House’s demo in his bag, and during a meeting with Island/Def Jam in 2003, executives asked the friend if he had a line on any new artists they might be interested in. He pulled out the demo, and House received a call the next day that led to his Nettwerk deal.

“There were just these little synchronicities,” he said. “Like, how did I run into that guy and record with one of the most talented people in Nashville? I just started a podcast (recently) and went back to ‘Lost and Found’ (his Nettwerk debut), telling stories and playing audio from that record and talking about what was going on at that time.”

At that point, he added, drinking was a normal part of his routine, albeit a habit that he started later in life.

Booze becomes him

griffin house sober“I was really a kind of wholesome, straight-edge kid until I was about 15, and then I started experimenting a little with drinking,” he said. “Even then, I was a freshman on the varsity golf team with four guys who were seniors, and they were all out partying on the weekends, and I was really not interested in doing that. I would just think, ‘You guys are stupid. Why are you doing that?’ That was kind of my attitude at 14 and 15, and I just did some normal experimentation like any other high school kid.”

Looking back, however, something clicked. Even then, there’s a part of his brain that takes stock of all of the misery and pain he did manage to avoid and whispers, “But are you really an alcoholic?”

“I think there were times you could tell there was something about it that either clicked with me in a way that was maybe more than with the other kids, I could say,” he said. “The funny thing about me and my journey with sobriety is that I still, to this day, have a question about how abnormal I actually am.”

His relationship with booze in his 20s was a love/hate affair that led to promising starts and fitful stops of sobriety. He would spiral out of control, he said, and realize a change was needed. Several times, he reached out for help, calling a local 12 Step hotline and going to meetings. But after a certain period of abstinence, that old thought would return: Was he truly an alcoholic?

“With (a 12 Step program), I didn’t hang around long enough,” he said. “I spent several stints of time not drinking at all, but I still had a lingering question about whether I was a real alcoholic, and that always led me out to doing experimentation.”

He dabbled occasionally in other drugs, mostly weed, but to this day, he said, he’s never even seen cocaine, he chuckles. Even weed, he said, was something he could take or leave.

“It never really clicked with me the way drinking did,” he said.

Sobriety becomes him even more

Finally, he fell in love, started a relationship that led to marriage and opened his eyes to everything he was about to lose if he didn’t get sober.

“It was really clear that I was drinking in a way that was not going to work for a long-term relationship,” he said. “I lived with someone who saw what I was doing and was able to say, ‘You’ve got to make a real change.’ In order to stay married, I doubled down on my efforts and tried to get sober for real.”

That was in 2010. His record, “The Learner,” was released that year, and after he committed to getting sober and staying that way permanently, his life took a left turn, he said.

At first, it wasn’t easy. He felt like his career was on hold; he had friends who slowly backed away from the guy who wouldn’t drink with them. It was difficult and frightening at times, he said, but as he began to be open about it, he noticed a curious phenomenon.

“People have reached out to me on Facebook and things like that and told me they were trying to stop and asked me what I did,” he said. “I just share my story with them and be open about it. I haven’t been scared to talk about it, and even though over the years I sometimes worried about whether or not it was acceptable, I would have those discussions with my sponsor and try to talk about sobriety and recovery without mentioning (a particular 12 Step program).”

And in so doing, he’s found that sobriety, and more importantly the principles of a recovery program, has buoyed him through times both trying and triumphant. Further cases in point: He recently lost his grandmother, the last of his four grandparents, to a long battle with Alzheimer’s. On the flip side of tragedy is the positive press he’s received for his most recent album, “Rising Star,” released in June.

In a review for the esteemed Americana publication No Depression, Brian D’Ambrosio writes, “Quiet and content this album isn’t. Thematically, it’s the work of a talent who has never been one to sit on his laurels and wait for the next trend to come along. Despite the fact that ambition isn’t endemic to House or to music or music endeavors, he still makes it all feel so special and singular, sharing the pressure to create a viable product while not compromising his own artistic vision.”

The story behind the song

The title of the record also lends itself to a documentary about his life, expected for release this year. House stars and co-produces along with video director and filmmaker Shane Drake, and it’s focus is on the past 15 years of his career, he said.

“It tells the story of coming to Nashville and starting music and what it’s like now,” he said. “We’ve been trying to see it to Netflix for the last couple of months, but we haven’t gotten any bites yet, so we may put it out ourselves. We’re focusing on that in the fall, and right now I’ve been really focused on this podcast.

“It started out as a dare, really, and when I opened an account, I didn’t know what to talk about. Then, a few weeks ago, I got this idea to tell the stories behind my songs and play songs on the podcast. It’s almost been a way for me to write out my biography and do one extensive story one song at a time.”

If any song deserves a deeper dive, it’s the title track to his latest album. On the surface, it’s a collection of Nashville clichés — albeit intentional ones, he said.

“What happened is that I met a friend of mine, Teitur, in 2004, when he had an album out called ‘Poetry and Airplanes,’ and ‘Lost and Found’ had just come out,” he said. “He was opening for John Mayer, and when he went out on tour, he asked me to open for him, so we went out on the road, toured the country, became friends and stayed in touch. Eventually, he moved to London, and when he came to the United States a few years ago, he stayed with my family in Nashville for a week.

“We were co-writing and playing shows, and one day we were just sitting on my couch, and he says, ‘With you, my friend, I would like to write the quintessential Nashville country song!’ So we made this parody, using every cliché we could think of. We came up with the line about getting punched in the face by Keith Urban, and it just made us laugh, so we kept going.”

A rough cut sat on House’s computer for a year, and when he played it live occasionally, it was well-received. Audience members laughed, almost as hard as he and Teitur had. When it came time to make a new record, he re-recorded it, christened the documentary with the same name and realized he had the album opener.

Building on a firm foundation

There are, he pointed out, some similarities. No fistfights with famous country stars, but those serendipitous turns of events have certainly served him well.

“I moved to Nashville in 2013, and I kind of had some success in terms of hooking up with the music industry right away,” he said. “I got major labels interested and had a lot of crazy things happen.”

One of the saner things, however, was discovering sobriety. Even though he’s found his own path, he’s still grateful for the foundation he laid in the rooms of 12 Step meetings, mostly because the principles espoused in them are reflections of an innate morality that all decent humans have.

Sometimes, it just takes being reminded of them after booze has made them forget.

“You look back on all the times spent in meetings with guys trying to live by moral principles, trying not to put alcohol in your body, and it’s pretty hard to regret that,” he said. “They allowed me to be there and present for my kids, in a way, because I didn’t have all those problems, I wasn’t walking around drunk, and my kids never had to deal with that.

“My wife and I are in a great place, and it’s allowed me to work out other issues that there’s no way I would have been able to do if I hadn’t gotten sober. There’s just so many positive things, that even though I needed something more, it’s still been an immense amount of positivity.”