Songwriting for Recovery

katy vernon and guitar

My name is Katy. I’m a singer songwriter, a ukulele player, a mother, a wife, a dual citizen of the US and UK and I’m an alcoholic.

In my Twitter bio I say I’m a ‘Singer of sad songs on a happy instrument.’ It took me a while to even realize what that meant to me rather than just a fun throwaway line about being a ukulele player. As a songwriter I was always a little embarrassed or insecure about how sad many of my lyrics were. I often write about grief, drinking, disability, and other topics I had found hard to talk about but feel compelled to sing about. Once I discovered the ukulele it seemed to make the music more palatable for an audience. I like the balance of heavy words with a jangly instrument. The more that I think about it though, I realize that I’m the happy instrument. I’ve always loved singing and dancing and being a goofball and that balances out the intense stuff I write about.

I have always used songwriting as my way to process life. It’s my diary, my friend, my therapy. Often, I write a song and when I’m done, and I sing it, I realize it’s about an issue I’m trying to resolve. It’s also soothing to me to sing. It’s a mix of breathing exercises and a creative outlet. A way to calm my busy mind.

So why am i like this?

I lost both of my parents in my teens. This created such a profound sadness in me that the grief just seemed to take hold and change every part of me. I spent so many years trying to numb the pain of that loss, I felt very sorry for myself and pretty angry with the world. I couldn’t express either of those feelings in polite society, so I tried to swallow them. Swallowing red wine was the quickest way. I recently heard the term “Poor me, pour me a drink” and it’s annoyingly relatable.

May 1st, 2016 was the day I finally gave up drinking. I told myself I could maybe drink again if I wanted, if I could control it, contain it, enjoy it, but I wasn’t sure I would have a marriage, a career, a relationship with my kids, or anything else I wanted in life if I did. Even with all of this in the balance I still wasn’t sure what choice to make, or if it was even a choice.

For so many years I would minimize and joke about whether I needed to cut back and control my drinking, but all of these excuses were suddenly inadequate. It wasn’t funny anymore. I needed to wake the hell up and get in control of my life.

But you’re not broken, Just a little rearranged.After a lost night that served as my personal turning point, I made the choice to stop drinking. That felt huge but was only the first step in learning to be sober. I thought I’d be happy and healed and in control of everything without alcohol (and I am now for the most part) but at first it just made me feel everything in a massive wave of emotions and my only crutch was gone.

After three months of trying recovery alone I went to my doctor. For the first time ever, I answered all of the questions about alcohol usage and depression honestly. It felt scary but amazing to admit the truth and to have a professional listen without judgment. I was diagnosed with clinical depression.

I had spent so many years since losing my parents trying to navigate my feelings and my place in the world that my mental health issues crept up on me. I always had a million reasons to feel sad, and I didn’t know that depression had taken hold. It was probably always there, and it helped me realize that I was literally self-medicating.

I am now on medication for clinical depression and can finally feel the difference between sadness and depression. It’s a profound difference that I am still getting acclimated to.

As a performer I am used to feeling vulnerable out in public. Alcohol had always helped to put me at ease. People often ask me if I’m OK being around alcohol. I know it’s really hard for many, and you should always listen to your gut and avoid stressful situations, but for me being in a bar, pub, or club is work. So, I can separate in my mind the place from my addiction.

All of this upheaval and awakening led me to knowing that I wanted to write an album that would document what I was learning. I knew I would have to dig deep in order to get there. I wanted to make myself (and listeners) feel better and see that light at the end of the tunnel.

I used my songwriting to really work through all that stuff that I was suppressing. I already thought that I was pretty self-aware. I had written all of my life about feelings and being present—Present is literally the name of my previous album. I’d done a lot of work on myself, but I was kind of missing the big picture, which was that there was something wrong with me that could be fixed, or at least helped.

When I stopped drinking, I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel I was in. I had to hold on to the hope that many other people have survived this and if I listened and followed their lead I maybe could too. Ultimately, I just tried really hard not to give up on myself. If you can put that feeling on hold (I have also had to face the ultimate lows of hating myself and not wanting to go on) and stay close to people that are in active recovery, then you’ll hopefully understand that it’s never too late for anyone.

No one can truly be controlled, policed, or saved by someone else into recovery. Yes, we need the support of others, but we also need to build the motivation to save ourselves.

The first song I wrote for the new record was about this. It was initially called ‘Save Me’ (it became ‘Catch Myself’) and was written on the floor of a borrowed apartment in Brighton, UK, in floods of tears. As I wrote the words “kept thinking someone else would save me, I’ve been making myself crazy” I let all of my feelings of worthlessness and regret pour out of me. I have always tried to find the truth when I wrote. It’s easy to find a cute phrase or a clever rhyme. It’s less easy to completely dig into the honesty of what you’re trying to say. I dig into parts of myself that were not likeable and laid myself raw in a way I’d never done before. It was cathartic. I didn’t want every song on the record to be like this, but I knew as soon as I’d written it that it was special. I knew that feeling ashamed and vulnerable as I sang it was a signpost that I had done something important to my growth as a musician and as a person in recovery.

Recovery in writing Suit of Hearts

The title track, Suit of Hearts, is the first time I have written such a deliberate song to set the tone of a record. I was at a point where I felt so emotionally exposed on social media and on stage. Like I had shared everything of myself except the deep shame and pain I was still trying to hide. Instead of wearing my heart on my sleeve I was laying myself bare in an entire suit of hearts.

Once I thought of that I liked the idea of vulnerability as strength. That my naked raw feelings could also be a suit of armor. We are all afraid and unsure of ourselves and sharing that and shining a light onto it gives us all a shared strength.

“You wear your suit of hearts/You tear yourself apart/But you’re not broken/Just a little rearranged/And none of us get out of here/Without a little change.”

Embracing my newfound sobriety and my lack of control allowed me to feel braver with my songwriting. We can only respond to life as it happens. Once we’re able to internalize and practice that wisdom, then we can start to forgive ourselves. You are not your addiction. You have value. It’s never too late to change your life.

The song Latest Disaster was written about my very bad, awful time during 2016 when every single thing seemed to go wrong. The year that everything seemed to break. My only coping skill was to choose to get up every day and try again. Reaching a personal rock bottom and facing my own faults was the beginning of things getting better. So, why not put that to a disco beat!! My band laughed when I introduced the song but we all dug in and had so much fun making it. It’s received the most radio play of any song I’ve ever released.

The song Undertow. I knew that as low as I got with my personal depression and anxiety, there would hopefully come a time where I came out the other side. I didn’t know how or when, but I knew I had to trust that. I just had to let go and allow life to drag me for a while and then push me back when I had learnt some hard lessons. The imagery of an undertow was a powerful one. I was literally caught in one once. Learning not to fight it and allow it to take you and spit you back out was a perfect metaphor for life. I sat by the sea and the words finally came to me. The sounds at the beginning of this song are from that day in Brighton. I sat and watched waves. I recorded the soothing sounds they made and realized that I didn’t want to drown. I wanted to live.

The last song I write specifically about recovery on the record is Pink Cloud. This song popped into my head as I was in a happy mood driving to perform at the MN State Fair. I felt so happy that I was giddy. This isn’t my natural state and it was so over the top that I just started singing. Early in recovery I had this feeling and expressed it to a friend also in recovery. He said ‘That’s just the pink cloud you’re feeling. It will wear off.” After what felt like a lifetime of depression, I was determined to enjoy every last moment of that feeling and celebrate it. The last thing a person who’s finally feeling happiness wants to hear is that it will wear off. So, I wrote a song celebrating that. It’s tongue in cheek and combines rather dark reality alongside a jangly happy tune.

Kind of like a sad song on a happy instrument!


Katy Vernon is a Minneapolis / St. Paul based singer songwriter. She grew up in London, England and has been writing and singing as long as she can remember. You can discover her music at katyvernon.com and on Spotify.

Last Updated on July 14, 2020

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