Through sobriety, singer-songwriter Katie Toupin makes her ‘Moves’

Katie Toupin sobriety
Courtesy of Thomas Crabtree/Gasworks Entertainment

A great many alcoholics and addicts take their first tentative steps into sobriety with some amount of trepidation, and Katie Toupin was no different.

The Ties That Bind UsAfter all, substances — in her case, alcohol — are fun long before they make life miserable. If addiction and alcoholism hit the same legal, social, physical and emotional consequences right out of the gate that they do on the back end, treatment centers and the rooms of 12 Step recovery would be all but empty.

The insidious nature of those illnesses is that when they’re fun, they’re not a problem. And by the time they become a problem, the alcoholic’s perception of “fun” is skewed. How, they wonder, can sobriety offer the same sense of conviviality and elation that was a constant companion of drinking?

It takes time, and it takes work. More importantly, Toupin discovered, it takes dedication to a new way of life that’s about so much more than simply putting down the bottle and walking away. And if those pursuing sobriety are earnest in those endeavors, then life’s beauty dawns like the rising of a new sun, sometimes all at once.

“It’s just like that — something switches,” Toupin told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “I remember the first time I had a really good time sober. I went to a Christmas party at The Village recording studio, because that place had become a part of my second family. I think I was maybe four or five months in, and I was nervous about going without drinking anything, but I had an absolute blast, and it never occurred to me to drink.

“All of these cool people were hanging around, and all of my friends were there, and when the party, about midnight, started to get sloppy, I just said, ‘I’m gonna go home.’ And I got up the next morning and had a normal day, and that’s when it hit me: ‘This is a lot more fun!’ The experience that you can have fun is huge. It sometimes just takes a minute.”

Out of the shadows of her old band

Katie Toupin sobriety

Courtesy of Thomas Crabtree/Gasworks Entertainment

Back in June, Toupin celebrated two years sober, and she celebrated with a post on social media — just as she did when she marked her first 365 days. She’s far from the only musician in the public eye who’s been open about her sobriety, but for her, going public with it is another way of holding herself accountable.

‘I didn’t think too much about it,” she said. “I had to put (sobriety) first and foremost in my life, and it was something that seemed pretty transparent on social media. The more I can put myself out there, the more I can build a tribe of people that I resonate with. It’s such a central vibration in my life and how I live my life, that it just seems pretty important to me.”

It has, in a way, allowed her to flourish beyond the confines of the band with which she made her name: Houndmouth, which got its start in Louisville, Ky., and quickly rose up in the ranks of contemporary Americana acts for its ragged approach to roots rock. A buzzworthy performance at the South By Southwest music conference led to a deal with Rough Trade Records, and the group’s debut, “From the Hills Below the City,”  was a beautifully ragged pastiche of Laurel Canyon folk, fuzzy reverb and classic soul- and blues-infused ’60s rock.

The record wound up on numerous year-end best-of lists, landed Houndmouth on several late night talk show stages and led to high expectations for the band’s sophomore effort, “Little Neon Limelight.” Within a year of its 2015 release, however, Toupin quietly showed herself the door.

“It just became clear that it was over for me,” she said, declining to go into further detail. “I left, without much of a plan, but I immediately started writing and immediately started feeling like I wanted to keep doing music. I moved to (Los Angeles) from Kentucky, because an important part of the journey for me was moving to where nobody knew who I was.”

Free of the expectations of home, she also found herself free of the support her music had received when it went into the Houndmouth coffers. She had to start over from scratch, she said, and while she welcomed the challenge, there were a few personal challenges she had to tend to first: namely, her drinking.

A lifelong emptiness

Courtesy of Thomas Crabtree/Gasworks Entertainment

Like many addicts and alcoholics who pursue sobriety, Toupin has gained a great deal of personal insight into how her addictive tendencies were a part of her life long before she ever picked up that first drink.

“When I was young, I would get obsessive about animals — I needed to have a new pet, a new dog, to the point I would just annoy my mom and dad until they caved and got me what I wanted,” she said. “It was just such a pattern, and I realize now that the attention I got out of that made me feel whole. As a young kid, I think I was probably suffering from depression early on, because I remember being really, really young and faking being ill for weeks, so I didn’t have to go to school.

“Then later on, in high school, I was doing some modeling, and I developed a really severe eating disorder, to the point that I was dying. My organs were shutting down, my hair was falling out, and I had to drop out of school to go to therapy. It was really, really intense.”

Once she recovered, she dropped out of school and opted to pursue her diploma online. She’s got a diploma from Indiana University, she said, and school was fairly easy — she completed the curriculum and received high marks. At the time, being physically present in school seemed like a waste of time, she said.

“I hated the system and being told what to do; I hated having to go somewhere for seven hours a day when I could just read a book and learn it,” she said. “It never made sense, so I was pretty rebellious in that way. I probably started drinking before my eating disorder, but then when I then had my eating disorder, I was literally too weak to drink.

“I didn’t drink for a long time in my late teens and early 20s, but when we started touring with Houndmouth, that’s when I started drinking. It was always around and always acceptable, and to me it was a way I no longer had to be responsible for my actions or who I was. It was a way to cope and get through life that wasn’t very healthy in many ways, and it just became part of the routine.”

The thing that had to go

Courtesy of Thomas Crabtree/Gasworks Entertainment

There were intermittent periods of sobriety, times when excruciating hangovers or the physical toll made her swear it off for a short time, “but I couldn’t manage to actually make a huge life change that I did (later on) without having left the world of music for a little while.

“It was just around, all the time, and it became the only way to get through it,” she added.

And because the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle balanced everyone’s drinking habits, there was never any serious concern, she pointed out, until she left Houndmouth and moved to the West Coast. It wasn’t as if alcohol left her destitute and on the verge of liver failure, but once she was on her own, it became clear that her control over it was an illusion.

“I would find myself drinking a couple of times a week,” she said. “I wasn’t a person who woke up and drank, I wasn’t to the point where I couldn’t be functional, but I would be so hungover that I wasn’t moving forward. I realized my dreams weren’t going to come true unless I made this change.

“Alcohol was the piece that had to go. In the band, I could drink every day, and it was all fine, but starting from scratch, that wasn’t going to happen.”

With the dawning awareness that drinking had become a problem, she labored under the assumption, like many who struggle, that it was also a switch she could simply shut off. Reality proved different, however.

“I went out one night, and I had a horrible hangover the next day and felt terrible and had probably done some stupid stuff, and I said, ‘I’m never doing this again,’” she said. “Then, a week later, I did it again. That’s when I had a lightbulb moment. I thought, ‘My God. I’m not in control, I’m not in charge, and I don’t know what to do.’ That was the last time I ever drank.

“I had heard about going to (12 Step) meetings, but I didn’t know what that was or anything about it. I just showed up to one, and thank God I did. I went to a couple of meetings a day for a month or so, because I didn’t know what else to do. And I think you need that, especially in the early days, because in the music business, you’re around people who drink all the time.”

It wasn’t easy, avoiding the people, places and things that might have been triggering. Friends wanted to go out, but Toupin knew that if she did, she would be offered drinks. Instead, she turned to a group of individuals she befriended in the rooms of recovery. With their guidance, and that of the 12 Steps, she began a process of self-discovery and self-reinvention, she said.

Regaining self-trust

Katie Toupin sobriety

Courtesy of Thomas Crabtree/Gasworks Entertainment

“For me, I think the biggest thing that drew me to being sober is that I realized I didn’t trust myself,” she said. “I had all the intentions in the world of doing this thing or being this type of person, and I would drop the ball. When I got sober, I started to see that I could trust myself. If I said I was going to do this thing, I would do it. You make that commitment in meetings, and by showing up, you prove to yourself that you can do that.”

Among the healthy relationships she formed in the rooms was one with another newly sober individual. Conventional recovery wisdom advises newcomers to avoid romantic entanglements for the first year of sobriety, but like a great many of her peers, Toupin had to do the field research for herself.

“In some ways, it was very good for me, because it was transitionary,” she said. “It was somebody to hang out with, who knew what was going on, who was on the same page, to a degree. I just kind of holed up and started to build a new life, and since then, I’ve just made a breakup record, so you can put two and two together.

“Now, I’m in this new and interesting phase, where with 2 ½ years sober, I’m dating, and it’s very strange. I realize it’s something I’ve never done as an adult. I’ve never been in this place before, probably because I wasn’t capable of it.”

“This breakup record” is “Magnetic Moves,” the first full-length record under her own name. In March 2018, she released the EP “Moroccan Ballroom” (recorded live at Village Studios), her first tentative steps back into music after a two-year absence, and in moving forward, her friends in the business urged her to find a producer to bring a full-length vision to fruition.

Nothing seemed to feel right, however, until she finally gathered with musicians Scott Davis and Josh Blue at the Austin studio The Finishing School. That chemistry, she said, made “Magnetic Moves” an easy record to make. While the edges have gossamer threads connected to the sound that was her wheelhouse in Houndmouth, the meat of the songs draw on pop, soul and indie rock influences that build a sound both bold and vibrant.

The unknown future is a bright one

Katie Toupin sobriety

Courtesy of Thomas Crabtree/Gasworks Entertainment

“I really wanted to make a record that wasn’t strictly going to live in the Americana indie world, something a little more versatile and a little more open-minded,” she said. “I was looking for it to sound a little bit crisper and clearer than some of the other stuff than I’ve made, and so we addressed what each song needed and went from there. We had the same engineers (Steve Christensen and Aaron Glemboski) and the same musicians in the room for the whole thing, so inevitably it all ties together sonically, but each song is very different from one to the next.”

Picking a favorite is like asking Toupin to choose a favorite child: They’re all her “little babies” for different reasons, but the complexity of “Lost Sometimes,” with its opening piano dirge that slowly builds into an elegiac soul ballad is a high water mark, as is the spoken bridge on “Real Love,” which originally had a harmony beneath it that she ultimately decided to jettison.

“Because I had so much time thinking about and arranging each song, and being very meticulous about getting to the studio, I knew what each song needed,” she said.

The recording process isn’t the only aspect of her art to which Toupin has had to make changes. Performing with Houndmouth made the stage comfortable, but commanding it as a solo artist, or with a backing band, proved to be a different animal. Part of the sobriety process, however, is getting out of comfort zones, and discovering the new possibilities of a live setting has been part of that, she added.

“I enjoy pushing myself like that,” she said. “Pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, sober, is extremely important.”

Where those new paths may take her she added, is still up in the air. While all of her creative energies were put into making “Magnetic Moves,” she sat down at the piano recently for almost a half hour, and while a current tour to promote the new record is at the forefront of her mind, what happens after that is never far in the background. Peers have encouraged her to co-write, and that’s a possibility she’s given some consideration to.

“I’m still sort of figuring out if I can be that kind of artist who can write with other people,” she said. “I’ve explored and tried it, but I’ve yet to come out of the experience and thought, ‘That song is something I’ll sing.’ I don’t know; maybe I really am a true singer-songwriter.”

Sobriety: the gift that keeps on giving

Katie Toupin sobriety

Courtesy of Thomas Crabtree/Gasworks Entertainment

If sobriety has taught her anything, however, it’s open-mindedness. From the studio to the stage, she’s found a new outlook and a new happiness, and the rewards of her decision to step away from drinking have made her appreciate what she does all the more.

“It’s so different now,” she said. “With Houndmouth, I played a lot of shows sober, because I would go for months at a time and be the only sober one in our group, so I was used to that … but I couldn’t’ wait until the last song to be over so I could go have a drink. It’s different now, and it’s OK if I’m not totally part of the party or if people are partying around me. I have a different set of responsibilities that I didn’t used to have, but I’m up to that task now because I’m sober.”

And even though she doesn’t make as many meetings as she once did, she never forgets that the program is always there, should she need it. After the breakup that precipitated “Magnetic Moves,” it helped center her, and in the beginning, it was her rock. And, she pointed out, it can be for anybody who needs a way out.

“I think if someone is curious about what it’s like, they just need to ask someone,” she said. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I don’t know if I have a problem,’ and I just tell them my experience and ask, ‘Do you relate to this?’ Because most people who don’t have a problem, don’t ever think that they might.

“For me, I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know how to be in the world. It wasn’t a craving thing so much as just all the work you do after you get rid of the substance. That’s what it’s been for me, and even though it’s always there, I’m doing a lot of other types of work on myself. I read, I meditate, and I implement a lot of the things that are suggested.”