There has always been something very comforting to me about listening to the Jayhawks, even when their songs speak to sadness and loneliness. And there has always been something about Gary Louris’s voice that hints at something deeper and lonelier than we could ever imagine. His voice has a vulnerability at its core that makes the listener feel like he’s doing a dance with darkness, standing over the edge of the abyss and hoping that the lightness will eventually win out.
I wanted to talk to Gary about this, to figure out if I was just imagining it, and to learn more about that struggle between light and dark that is at the core of so much of his work. I first got the idea to invite him onto the O.K. Show because he’s been remarkably open and candid about his recent experiences with addiction, getting support, and getting clean.
I did my best to keep it together while a member of the Jayhawks — a band I have literally been listening to since I was 10 years old! – sat across from me in my home and shared his personal struggles with me. I’ve been doing this podcast for a while now, but people’s willingness to do this with me still kind of blows my mind. So if I sound a little awestruck in this one, that’s why.
Here it is: The O.K. Show, Episode 18: A conversation with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks.
Andrea Swensson: I’ve felt drawn to your music over the years because so much of what you write either hints at or directly addresses depression. Can you tell me a little about your history with that, and how that entered your music?
Gary Louris: Yeah, I’ve always been drawn to the melancholic music, ever since I was young. It doesn’t mean I don’t like to rock, but I’m not so much into party music as I am more reflective music, or introspective music. I think I’ve always had a bit of a depression issue, but I really wasn’t that aware of it until later in my life. There was always a bit of feeling like an outsider, or anxiety. But I always dealt with it. And I didn’t really have huge issues until later. And then I discovered, I had a medical issue, and I discovered morphine. And then through that, opiates. That was around 2003. I found that an opiate made me feel normal. I felt, finally, okay. And then it just escalated over a period of nine years.
When that got out of control, then drinking, and co-dependency, looking for some solution outside of yourself. It took a real big fall for me to kind of shake out of it. I had a pretty low bottom, as they say in the business. Suicidal, just wanting to end it all. And I’m here to say, there is always hope. Because I got help, I went to treatment, I came out of it, and it’s not perfect — as they say, life doesn’t really change, just you do — but I deal with things now, where I used to always sweep them under the rug, or put them off until later, and not really want to deal with things. I’ve kind of grown up, and I’m kind of an adult, and deal with responsibilities.
One thing I’ve always appreciated is that you explore dark territories in your music, but in a way that doesn’t bring me down — it actually comforts me, a great deal.
I think you just have to address that side of life, and process it, and balance it, and not wallow. I don’t think our music is about wallowing. Because there’s always somebody out there who has it worse. I don’t want that to be a comfort, but I think the most rewarding thing about doing what I do is when people come up and tell me, “Your music saved me,” or, “Your music helped me through my brother’s chemo,” or, “We played it at my mother’s funeral.” Or at a wedding. Those kind of things make me feel like maybe I picked the right profession, you know? I haven’t had the greatest track record with myself, as far as personal life, but I think more than ever, now, especially with the newer songs, I really feel like I need these songs. I need to sing these songs, and in certain ways it’s really helping me more than ever.
How has your relationship with making music changed over the years, using substances and then not?
Well, I grew to hate music, because I thought it was the cause. I thought, well, I picked the wrong career. For one thing, being a musician, it presents you with a way of life that’s different than most people. It’s the only job I can think of where whoever is employing you that night sets up a full bar and says, “How do you want mess yourself up before you go to work?” Because it’s the cliched tortured artist, need to loosen up thing. And for a while, I just really didn’t like music. I blamed it for a lot of my problems. I’m amazed that I did any work, but I did. Because I was still very functioning, I always showed up and got things done. I don’t know if I did my best work.
So it got worse as time went on, but I started thinking, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do when you write. You’re supposed to be messed up. I used to say, “Well, it’s the poor man’s zen.” If I had a hangover or whatever. It freed me up. But I found it wasn’t helping. And towards the end of it, I went out on a solo tour and I was falling down, I was repeating songs on stage, and that was just — luckily I called this friend who got me in touch with MusiCares, a wonderful guy named Howard out in L.A., and they sent me to treatment. I was so ready. You have to be ready. And I was so ready, it wasn’t even funny.
So now it’s been over three years, three and a quarter years. It’s changed the way I played. I’m actually much more comfortable on stage straight. I approach the music differently, I know this sounds a little holier-than-thou, but I used to go out on stage thinking, “What can I get from the audience? How can I get pumped up? How can I get that high, of feeling good about myself?” And now I go on stage, and you know I still want some of that, I’m human, but I try to go on stage and think, “How can I help the audience feel better?” That’s a big shift.