“Pain shared is pain lessened.”
That’s an old saw commonly spoken in meetings of various self-help groups designed to help addicts and alcoholics get sober and stay that way. The gist is this: By speaking of the things that weigh heavy on your heart … by allowing your recovering brothers and sisters to help you carry those emotional burdens … they no longer feel like battleship chains wrapped around the fragile tendrils of the soul.
But … what if there’s no one to share to? What if you’re in the middle of a pandemic, and self-help meetings across the country have shuttered, not that there was a plethora in the part of rural Mississippi in which you live anyway? What if you’re not even six months sober, and your wife is out of town, and everything you own is packed up in boxes because you’re getting ready to move, and that weight feels heavier than chains, feels like an inescapable destiny that will lead you back to those dark places from which you only recently escaped?
What do you do?
If you’re Andrew Bryant, you pick up a guitar, and you write, and what comes out might become the centerpiece of a phenomenal new record, “A Meaningful Connection,” that will be released in July. It’s the latest in a burgeoning solo career out of a guy who spent his several years playing in the Mississippi-based indie rock band Water Liars, and as he approaches one year sober, he doesn’t hesitate when asked about the record’s foundation stone:
“Drink the Pain Away,” written about that very night, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently. Built around gentle strings and Bryant’s guitar, it’s a no-holds-barred look at one man’s reckoning, a moment in which every fiber of his being screamed at him to turn left toward the bottle that had always offered familiar misery and dark solace … but he turned right instead.
“I wanna drink my pain away, for the first time in two months today, yeah I wanna drink my pain away if I can’t find another song to sing …”
“When I listen to it now, I hear the opposite of a sad drinking song. I hear a kind of sober anthem,” Bryant said. “I don’t know if I meant to do that, but when I sit back and listen to it now, I hear it for what it is. It's what was in me at the time. I was in the process of moving houses, nothing was going right.
“My house was packed up, my wife was away tending to her dying father, I was four months sober and really wanting a drink at that moment. It was one of those days that all felt like it was too much. But I wrote that song and it really got me through that next push. I know if I hadn’t written it, I might not be sober today.”
The pitfalls and perils of early sobriety
As the July 9 release date for “A Meaningful Connection” approaches, sobriety is a more comfortable fit for Bryant these days. It’s still a daily struggle, he added — after all, he’s been on his way to quitting for a few years now, and it wasn’t until his 40th birthday in 2020 that he stopped trying and started doing. Making the decision to do so in the middle of a pandemic actually aided his efforts, he pointed out.
“In my 30s, I had all of these future dates built up — ‘I'll quit music and booze and get my shit together when I’m 33.'” he said. “Then it was 35, then 37. I kept putting off getting sober and healthy because to me it was all a part of the songwriter's lifestyle. The two were inextricably linked. I always thought that if I stopped drinking, I wouldn't be able to write songs or sing anymore.
“A couple of years ago, I started trying sober months. I'd do at least one 30-day sober month per year, and during those periods, I found that I could still sing and write. I realized I had built this entire narrative in my head to keep the booze around because I was afraid to let it go. So I decided, ‘When I’m 40, I’m going to stop for good,’ and I took my last drink on my 40th birthday last year. But I’m going to tell you, I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for the pandemic. I don’t know if I would still be sober today if it had not happened. It was good for me because I couldn't go out to the bar or get lost in myself out on the road.
“I guess I just needed to lock myself away and get through those first 30 days, then 60 days, then 90 days,” he added. “And I don’t consider myself past it completely. I’m just in another phase right now.”
To be clear, it’s a good phase, because even though there have been struggles, there has also been light. The completion of “A Meaningful Connection” was both cathartic and therapeutic, and while it’s a heavy record, it’s not a devastating one: There are sublime moments of beauty and joy and introspection and hope, all of them anchored by Bryant’s soothing baritone and a steadiness that, while present on past releases, resounds with a clarity and surety born from certainty.
In other words, he added, making this album was the anchor that kept him from drowning in the turbulent waters of early sobriety amidst a global pandemic.
“I really just wrote these songs and worked on this album when I needed to keep myself busy, and that was keeping me sober — when I was freaking out and all I wanted to do was get drunk because I didn’t want to feel any of my feelings right then, and I didn’t want to have to deal with anything,” he said. "This album was made out of necessity, out of a need to create something to keep myself alive, to work through some things. I needed something to do, and this is what came out of it.”
Andrew Bryant: Magnolia State proud
These days, Bryant and his family live in Oxford, Mississippi, home of the state’s flagship university and a city that’s long had an underrated and underappreciated music scene. They’ve only been city folk for three years, however — before that, they lived in the small hamlet of Water Valley, and Bryant’s childhood was spent in the equally small town of Bruce, Mississippi, about 30 miles south of Oxford. Like a lot of artists from small towns throughout the rural South, he’s developed a later-in-life appreciation for the place he calls home, even though it seemed like a place stuck in time when he was growing up.
“For the most part of my young life, I felt like I didn’t belong here,” he said. “As a kid in the '90s being really into music, wanting to play in bands, there just wasn’t a lot for kids like me to do. I remember watching MTV and wanting to move to Seattle as soon as I graduated. That didn't happen of course. When I started touring in my 20's I got out of my tiny Mississippi bubble and learned a lot about myself. I always started my sets by saying, ‘Hi, I’m Andrew, I’m from Mississippi, and this is my band.’ I got a lot of comments and such about my accent. People were even surprised that we had electricity in Mississippi. So that was my first real experience realizing that my state was different from other states. I realized people didn't really know much about where I came from, and I didn't know very much about them or the places they came from either.”
Fortunately, a couple of fortuitous circumstances broadened Bryant’s horizons before that time. For starters, Christian music broke free of its gospel and praise-and-worship confines in the 1990s, when Bryant’s tastes were developing, he pointed out.
“I grew up in a church that wasn’t your typical small town Baptist church. I was raised in an evangelical church that spoke in tongues and prophesied and all that. It was open to a lot of things that your typical churches weren't, like drums and guitars for example. But it was more oppressive in a lot of other ways. One thing is that I wasn’t allowed to listen to any music that wasn’t Christian music,” he said. “But in the ’90s, there were a lot of Christian punk, metal and rock bands that were really pushing the limits. I had never heard punk music, so my introduction to it was through Christian punk. Hearing those types of bands made me ask, ‘Where does this sound from?' And that was the beginning."
The other influence came via a literal deux ex machina, an archetype in coming-of-age films that’s built on the reality of so many small Southern towns: The cool, hip kid who introduces our protagonist to the wider world of rock ‘n’ roll that he won’t find on MTV or on Top 40 and classic rock radio waves drifting through the Mississippi pines.
“In those days in Mississippi, it was hard to get music. Music stores and record stores were an hours drive away, at the mall, so the best music I got at the time was from my friend, Joel, who bagged groceries in Bruce,” Bryant said. “He’s was the guy who wore cool Chucks and band T-shirts, and I saw him and wondered, ‘Who’s that guy?,’ and he would give me CDs and tapes of bands I’d never heard of.”
By the time his high school career came to an end, Bryant had been playing in various Christian formats at church, but one of his earliest projects, a Christian hardcore band called The Quick and the Dead (in which he actually played bass), landed a few shows in the Memphis scene.
And that, he added, opened up doors that would eventually lead to Water Liars.
Andrew Bryant and the solace of substances
As he spent more and more time in the Memphis scene, his perspectives began to shift. For one, he began to see that cross-pollination was a good thing, and playing basements and underground clubs and other DIY spaces let him cobble together influences and sounds that would continue to influence him today.
“What was cool about those spaces is that no show was ever one type of music — there were always a few different types of bands, and not long after that, I found other guys there and started my own emo/indie rock band,” he said.
Never Cry Wolf was active from 2000 to 2004, and Bryant and his bandmate, Joshua Mousie, even cut one EP, “Friday Nights,” in 2003, finally releasing it 18 years later after dusting it off. The group earned a modest following in the Memphis scene, opened for some bigger names and even toured regionally, and in 2001, when Bryant turned 21, he had his first drink of alcohol.
“I was a fairly straight-laced Christian kid and wasn’t really interested in drinking or partying, even when I started hanging around rock venues and shows early on. Most of the shows I was at were drug- and alcohol-free,” he said. “But then you start hanging with your buddies and your bandmates after the show, you go to dinner and you have a few Rolling Rocks because you think it’s cool. And for me, because neither one of my parents drank, I’m sure there was a little bit of a rebellion thing going on.”
But like most individuals who find themselves staring at a garbage can full of empties and trying to sort through the details of what happened the night before, Bryant’s drinking didn’t turn into a problem overnight. For him, it became a beer here, and a beer there, until eventually, every night out and every show means having a few drinks.
“It just got to be a thing that became a consistent part of my life, and it just progressed worse and worse,” he said. “I never had a big drug problem — I worked construction and manufacturing jobs in the 2000s, and I really messed my back up once. One of the guys I worked with gave me some (prescription opioid) pills and said, ‘Take a couple of these.’
“I got hooked on those pretty quick. I started buying them from the guys I worked with, until they eventually cut me off. They gave me the name of a doctor I could see that would write me a prescription. So I went, and I remember sitting there in the waiting room, looking at all the people waiting to get their prescriptions, and I just thought, ‘This is no good.’ And I got up and left, and I never took them again.
“Alcohol was always my problem, because it was a slow build over time, and I didn’t see it coming,” he added. “I didn’t realize what I was using it for until it was too late.”
Water Liars: Such wondrous beauty
After Never Cry Wolf broke up in 2004, Bryant forged ahead as a solo artist, and while on tour in St. Louis met Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, with whom he struck up a lifelong friendship that eventually transitioned into a musical partnership. In 2011, Kinkel-Schuster visited Bryant in Water Valley, and over the course of three days, the pair recorded “Phantom Limb,” the debut album by their new project, Water Liars. NPR described the record as “a shamblingly folksy and intermittently rocking debut,” with flourishes reminiscent of Pedro the Lion and Songs: Ohia, lo-fi and warm and so very un-Mississippi.
By that point, Bryant’s love-hate relationship with his home state had mellowed, and in the years since, he’s come to embrace the beauty of the Magnolia State while standing on the principles of decency against politics of fear that make headlines across the South.
“I turned 40 last year, and I'd say it’s only in the last five years that I’ve really come to love a few things about my state,” he said. “I do feel a sense of home here — I grew up here, my family is here. I don’t feel that out-of-placeness I did when I was a kid, and I think that comes from me getting the time and experience to get out and see other places. Leaving and returning helps you see who you are. For me, it was only in relation to everything else that I realized I had everything I needed right here — nature and nurture, friends, family, good food, good art, good music, all the things that make a culture."
It's home, and as Water Liars continued to evolve, the rock ‘n’ roll press began to take notice. When the band released “Wyoming” in 2013, American Songwriter said “the band is now confident enough in their footing to try a little bit of everything. As a result, it’s hard to pin down this duo to a single musical approach, and that’s just fine because the diversity is refreshing.” A self-titled album followed in 2015, and PopMatters wrote that it “plays across styles, adding to its dimension. It could almost be viewed as two separate albums: the first containing blood and murk, with the second consisting of plaintive, restrained love songs.”
By that point in the band’s career, however, Bryant had begun to take notice of just how much alcohol was part and parcel of everything he did.
“Justin was always sober. He had quit drinking before we even started the band,” Bryant said. “Our bass player, G.R., liked to drink a few beers, but he kept a tight lid on it. For me, it got to the point where I couldn’t function without it. I really knew something was wrong when I couldn’t control my emotions anymore. I couldn’t control my reactions to anything without it, and I was going off the rails, all the time, a lot.”
Andrew Bryant gets sober
The tipping point — or at least the point in which he realized steps toward sobriety needed to be taken — came when he couldn’t find the off switch after he got home from tour. Until then, it had been relatively easy to stop drinking and spend his down time with wife and children, but the insidious nature of alcohol is that it becomes a security blanket, and one that demands constant attention.
“When I had to drink more at home than I did on tour, I knew it was a problem. But even then, I was resistant to admitting I was an alcoholic,” he said. “I thought I had other issues going on. I thought if I could just fix those, I could still drink. But eventually, you wake up one day and realize you're going to the store for the third time that day for booze and you can’t remember the last day you didn't get drunk. And you start waking up in weird parts of the house. You start waking up with dings on your car and dings on your body and wondering how you got home. That's when you know."
For the next five years, sobriety was a two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey for Bryant. Water Liars went back to the studio in 2015, but the record was delayed until last year. “Roll On” was cut in Texas, but it didn’t see the light of day until 2020, Bryant said, after he and Kinkel-Schuster dug through their old files and decided to unveil them. In the meantime, Bryant switched his attention back to solo recordings, releasing “This Is the Life” in 2015 and “Ain’t It Like the Cosmos” two years later. During the pandemic, he released “Sentimental Noises,” and as he began to plan out his next project with a couple of songs left over, he began thinking about connections.
“I was really trying to approach technology, to write songs about connection, about the ways we connect with each other and the ways we connect with and through technology,” he said. “That's where my brain was at, and there are bits of that on this record, but the album really morphed into me writing myself through the year that was 2020.”
He and Kinkel-Schuster had discussed resurrecting Water Liars, but the pandemic put a halt to those plans. Getting out on the road to promote “Sentimental Noises” was a no-go, also because of COVID-19. And while the connections we make to one another across the complicated spiderwebs of technology made for an intriguing blueprint, through the prism of his newfound sobriety, “A Meaningful Connection” became about so much more.
And that he was forced to seek a connection to help him stay sober through technology is just another level in the Russian nesting doll layers that make “A Meaningful Connection” so beautifully complex.
“I did online (recovery) meetings and found a broader online community, and that helped tremendously,” he said. “I had been in and out of (self-help) groups for a few years, and they always worked for a moment at the beginning, until I started thinking, ‘I’m fine! I’m not as bad as all these people!’ And I would stop going. So I really think joining a broader community of people helped me to have the broader perspectives that I needed.”
At the same time, he added, he found himself ruminating on the fragility of those connections we make with one another. His father-in-law died of a terminal illness last year, which necessitated his wife’s back-and-forth trips to Washington, D.C., and her absence, along with the permanent loss of her father, not only informed some of the material on the new record, it was another tool to help him stay sober.
“Having that type of mortality in your face, and also having to navigate traveling back and forth with her during a pandemic, helped me stay focused on the task at hand,” he said. “To me, there’s never just one thing that helps you get sober and stay sober. But that was definitely a big one.”
Connection to himself, through sobriety
On most mornings, Bryant wakes up in his Oxford home, and the light hits a little differently. For one thing, it’s not as harsh, because his brain and body aren’t marinating in leftover booze from the day and night before. But the long night of COVID-19 also seems to be coming to an end, and he’s looking at getting back out on the road, likely as a solo artist, come August.
“I think the tricky thing about trying to tour is that everyone has had to get different jobs just to get through the past year, and now it’s like, ‘Can we get everybody back together? Is it even possible?’” he said. “Everyone is trying to figure out what the best course of action is. And if I'm completely honest, I'm pretty anxious about getting back out there. We'll see what happens.”
And even the logistics of it are so much easier to navigate — or at least less stress-inducing — because he’s sober. He still hits up meetings when he needs, and he has a sober pal in Chicago who serves as an accountability partner. He’s not, in any way, a sobriety evangelist, he added, and the last thing he wants is his story, and the background to “A Meaningful Confession,” to set him up as anything more than what he is: A guy who was once lost but has now been found.
Or rather, found himself, and a life worth living, once he crawled out of a bottle.
“I think just living the sober life and staying creative is one of the best things I can do at this moment,” he said. “‘Drink the Pain Away’ was a song that I didn’t want to write, honestly, because it felt easy. I’ve talked about quitting drinking on albums for the last five years, and my first thought was, ‘Nobody wants to hear that again.’
“But I think it was just the song I needed to write. It felt like a true relief to be able to say some things I needed to admit, and to admit them in song was one of the best ways I could immortalize it and feel it and let other people feel it too.”
Because there’s a way out. How he got there isn’t nearly as important as what he did once he found himself in alcohol’s vise-like grip — although it’s worth noting that Bryant’s origin story turns the stereotypical sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n’ roll narrative on its head.
“I don't think I've ever perceived that as cool, but I still got sucked into it,” he said. “To me, that’s what is most telling about the power of the industry, and the way we perceive art. We perceive artists as needing to be damaged. The idea that there needs to be something wrong with them, because that’s what makes their songs good. It's all really cliche, but it's true. People glorify you in a lot of situations that don't warrant glory. The idea is to let the tortured artist do whatever they need to do because the art is more valuable than the individual who creates it.”
Except … it’s not. It’s beautiful and lovely and meaningful and sometimes, as in the case of his new record, arrives at a moment that feels so very, very necessary, but it’s not worth the creator’s sanity … or life. Fortunately for Bryant, reaching out and finding a community of other recovering alcoholics to walk alongside made all the difference.
“Last year, I was doing meetings sometimes five or six times a week on Zoom, because being early in it, I just needed to talk about it all the time,” he said. “I needed to let it out. I also took to Twitter to say, ‘This is what I’m going through.’ That was huge for me, and that’s probably the advice I would give: If you’re an alcoholic, and you think you need help, find another alcoholic, or someone who’s in recovery, or a recovery community, because those folks are going to understand what you’re going through more than anyone else.”