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Maggie Serota Maggie Serota

Videos: These Five Myth-Busting Musicians Are Making Good Music After They Got Sober

It may be true that alcohol and drugs can enhance an artist's creativity. But the equally popular belief that sobriety marks the end of great work, especially for musicians, is just plain false.

4 Substance

Popular mythology seems to dictate that drugs and booze drive the creative force even more than an actual innate talent does. How else would one explain a culture that continues to romanticize writers that drink themselves to death (Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald), and actors who meet untimely ends because of their hard living (River Phoenix, Brad Renfro, Philip Seymour Hoffman)?

However, musicians seem to be the biggest target for this belief. Some artists have even resisted getting clean because of the fear that drinking or using was necessary for the creative process. Here, people often cite David Bowie, who hit the height of his artistic output in the ‘70s when he was putting out bulletproof records on a diet of milk and cocaine. It was once he cleaned up that we were graced with the anti-climactic “Dancing in the Streets”/”Let’s Dance”/”Tin Machine” phase of his legacy.

Even a legitimate entertainment magazine like Entertainment Weekly could pose this question in a 2002 article “Can newly sober musicians make good music?” about the then Snoop Dogg/pre-Snoop Lion’s attempt to quit smoking weed.

Of course, there are also the confounding variables presented by Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and the other members of the so-called “27 Club” who passed away before they even had an opportunity to create art in sobriety.

In 2011, Flavorpill’s Tom Hawking argued that “musicians’ drug-taking coincides with the early stages of their career, and they often get clean at about the same stage they run out of ideas.” In other words, correlation between drug use and creativity doesn’t mean that drug use causes creativity. But try telling that to the guy with the blacklight posters of a dragon on his wall and the skull bong who won’t stop reminding you that Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister routinely drinks a bottle of whiskey a day.

However, not every artist who gets clean has a lifetime of mediocrity ahead of him or her. Here are good examples of musicians who went on to make significant and important work well after they kicked their habits.

Trent Reznor

Anyone who read rock magazines around the release of the 1994 Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral may remember Trent Reznor speaking candidly about the booze and coke bender he indulged in response to the death of his dog. Reznor’s self-medication extended well past the average pet mourning period until he finally sobered up in 2003.

I’m the first to admit that comparing any of the latter-day Nine Inch Nails albums to, say, 1990’s Pretty Hate Machine is a losing proposition. However, in sobriety, Reznor forged an interesting new path in his career. Along with his fellow How to Destroy Angels band member Atticus Ross, Reznor scored music for the David Fincher films, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He even racked up a Golden Globe, a Grammy and an Academy Award for his efforts.

It’s a little surreal to think that the angry guy in fishnet stockings stomping around a makeshift Thunderdome in the video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish” (see video below) would be addressed as “Academy Award Winner Trent Reznor” nearly 20 years later.

Bob Mould

Toward the end of his tenure as the frontman for the highly influential and highly dysfunctional punk trio Hüsker Dü, Mould retired to a Minnesota farmhouse where he effectively kicked a lifetime of drinking and drug abuse. Granted, he was only in his mid-20s and a “lifetime” meant a good 12 years or so of daily binge drinking with some speed thrown into the mix.

Still, getting sober didn’t hinder Mould’s ability to write a good song. After Hüsker Dü disbanded, Mould went on to form the trio Sugar and the band’s one and only full-length Copper Blue (see video below) went on become Mould’s most commercially successful record, in addition to being voted 1992 album of the year by NME.

Anyone who has given his 2012 solo record Silver Age a listen knows that entering his 50s hasn’t stopped Mould from putting out vital and anthemic guitar rock.

Sia Furler

Even if you don’t know Australian singer-songwriter Sia Furler’s name, chances are you’re intimately familiar with one of her songs. The bona fide hitmaker has written tracks for the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna and Britney Spears.

Before Furler became a major player behind the scenes, she had moderate success as a solo artist, recording and performing under her first name, Sia. Unfortunately, she didn’t take to the anxiety and lack of privacy that comes with being a public figure, in addition to battling addictions to both painkillers and booze, along with an autoimmune disorder called Graves’ disease. After a suicide attempt in 2010, Furler eventually sought help via 12-step programs.

Although Furler is a respected and successful producer and songwriter, it’s in sobriety that she re-emerged as a solo artist. Her 2014 single “Chandelier” was a critical and commercial smash earning the singer her first Hot 100 chart appearance where she was billed as the artist. She also co-directed the innovative music video (see below) that practically smashed the Internet.

Ghostface Killah

In both his solo work and his work with the Wu-Tang Clan, drugs featured heavily in both Ghostface’s creative process and his lyrical content.

A few years before the release of 2006 Fishscale, Ghostface got sober, most notably quitting weed. Although there was some debate over whether his religious conversion or battle with diabetes inspired him to clean up his act, the fact remains that he emerged from his smoke cloud to record an album that caused critics to laud Fishscale (see video below) as the creative pinnacle of his career. In addition to topping many of the year’s best albums lists, the album was also a commercial juggernaut, debuting at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Although Ghostface didn’t actually use drugs to make the album, they still act as a muse for his work as most of his rhymes revolve around the black market drug economy with the album’s title referencing a block of uncut cocaine.

Richard Thompson

Although Richard Thompson never quite became a household name, the guitar virtuoso and folk pioneer has created a vast body of work that is both highly influential and critically lauded. He’s also legitimately one of the best guitar players in the world, hands down. Thompson’s solo work, as well as his recordings with the group Fairport Convention and his duo with ex-wife Linda Thompson, have earned him a massive cult following. Also, his songs have been covered by the likes of David Gilmour and Bonnie Raitt.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thompson got booze and drugs out of his system early. At just 24, Thompson quit drinking, long before he would record some of his most important work, like the landmark 1982 Richard and Linda Thompson album Shoot Out the Lights (see video below).

Maggie Serota is Staff Editor at Death and Taxes and has written for Men’s Health, Refinery 29, New York Observer, Buzzfeed, The A.V. Club, Wondering Sound and a number of other fine publications. She was once yelled at by Glenn Danzig on behalf of the Village Voice. Maggie lives in Queens, NY with Oscar the cat.