Sobriety is the new black: How musicians are upending the usual narrative surrounding addiction

March 25, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC
Harmony Gerber—Getty Images

Katie Toupin had quit drinking two-and-a-half years before the singer, songwriter, and guitarist felt ready to address the subject in her music. By contrast, Bethany Cosentino, singer for the California indie-pop duo Best Coast, wrote about getting sober before she actually did it.

Both singers are among a wave of musicians, from folk singers to indie rockers, who are talking openly on social media, in their music, and even in promotional material for their albums, about giving up drugs and alcohol. That’s a change from years past, when artists tended to be more circumspect about that kind of thing, short of something like an attention-grabbing public incident or a trip to rehab that upended tour dates.

“I think we understand addiction and alcoholism and things more, so it’s talked about more,” says Toupin, who wrote her catchy new single “Don’t Wanna Die” about the last night she got drunk. “It used to be a little bit like, ‘It’s not cool to be sober,’ and now the trend is ‘It is cool to be sober.’”

“Our heroes keep dying, and I think people want to pave a new way,” says Toupin.
Thomas Crabtree

It’s a trend that’s been steadily building, at least since Metallica singer James Hetfield addressed his struggles with addiction in the 2004 documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Other high-profile musicians have also talked publicly about giving up drugs and alcohol, including Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, though the topic hasn’t come up in their songs. And Rocketman, last year’s Elton John biopic, advances the story through flashbacks while the singer opens up during a group therapy session in rehab.

Despite those big names, countless other musicians have struggled with addiction, and drugs and alcohol have taken their toll over the years. In just the past decade, Prince, Tom Petty, Whitney Houston, and Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland died of accidental drug overdoses, while substance abuse was a factor in the deaths of Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan, Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, the musician and producer Richard Swift, and the rappers Lil Peep and Mac Miller, among others.

“Our heroes keep dying, and I think people want to pave a new way,” says Toupin, 31.

The 2017 death of Lil Peep from an overdose of Xanax and fentanyl jolted Cosentino, who had friends in common with the 21-year-old performer. “He was really a kid,” she tells Fortune. “I was really sad because I was like, Man, who knows what would have happened if he would have gotten the help that he needed.”

Though Cosentino, 33, wasn’t yet sober then, it was around the same time that she wrote the song “Everything Has Changed,” which seemed to foretell her decision 14 months later to give up drugs and alcohol. 

“I think that almost subconsciously, it was already in my head that I had an issue and that I probably needed to address it at some point,” Cosentino says.

Though Cosentino was determined at first to avoid mention of her sobriety when promoting Always Tomorrow, Best Coast’s first new album in five years, she quickly changed her mind. “I realized, like, I can’t really tell the story of this album without mentioning the fact that I got sober, because it’s such a big part of why I was gone for the last five years,” she says.

She has also built enough of a reputation for openness on social media that keeping it private didn’t seem realistic. “I was pretty public about how much I drank and the drugs I did,” Cosentino says. “Now I try to be as open as I can because I know that there are people looking at me that may be in a place where they wake up every day thinking it’s always going to be like this. And I just feel like my message is to tell people that change is possible.”

That’s part of the reason Lilly Hiatt is open about her sobriety, too. The daughter of a sober musician, it was a familiar concept when Hiatt, 35, was growing up. When she found her own way to sobriety at 27, though, she didn’t know many peers in her position. Encountering other musicians her age who had been through it “gave me a lot of hope and made me feel not so alone in it,” says Hiatt, who releases the new album Walking Proof on March 27. “So it’s almost like a bit of a duty, I feel like, for me to talk about my experience, which hasn’t been a perfectly straight and narrow experience, but it’s been a very impactful and formative one.”

Lilly Hiatt
“I wasn’t drunk all the time,” says Hiatt. “But, you know, I was drunk enough of the time to miss some stuff going on around me.”
Alysse Gafkjen

There’s also an accountability factor. Twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous emphasize the idea of taking responsibility for one’s behavior as part of an effort to stay sober. Talking about sobriety online, or with fans at shows, has a similar effect. “It reminds me there’s a sort of accountability there that is necessary,” Hiatt says.

For a long time, the uncharitable line about musicians who had quit drinking or drugs was that their music was better when they were under the influence. Toupin, Cosentino, and Hiatt strongly disagree.

“I think I’m a much better writer now,” Hiatt says. “I think there’s a sense of observation in the new record that I wouldn’t be capable of if I was still drunk all the time. I mean, I wasn’t drunk all the time. But, you know, I was drunk enough of the time to miss some stuff going on around me.”

That’s been Toupin’s experience, too. “Making music is a lot more fun,” she says. “I’ve just gotten rid of so much fear and doubt, and I feel so much freer, just having more confidence without second-guessing myself.”

Cosentino recently went on her first sober tour, and after shaking off initial jitters about the possibility of stage fright or performing in front of people without the cushion of a buzz, she tells Fortune it’s far easier to be on the road and not wasted.

“Honestly, I feel a lot more connected to what I do now,” she says. “I get out there, and I have that time to just do my thing onstage. And I get an adrenaline rush from that that I used to get from drinking and doing drugs.”

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