Lori Yates’ Dark Night Of The Soul
“The biggest load of bullshit is that you’re more creative when you’re high. Writing is a lonely exercise, a lonely life. It’s done in solitude. It takes discipline. I didn’t have any. Drugs took that away.” – Lori Yates
Celebrated Canadian country music singer/songwriter Lori Yates is no stranger to the inherent dangers of the music business, especially for those who already suffer from a precarious state of mental health.
She's come perilously close to totally spinning out on the trials and temptations that many artists so often face. Having come out the other side, however, she is today an articulate advocate for music as an elixir for the disturbances of the emotions and the mind.
These days Yates fronts her own band, Hey Stella!, formed in 1999 and still generating heat on the Canuck club and festival circuit. She started singing and writing songs at age 19 in the punk/new wave band The Last Resorts, and then formed the seminal and pioneering alternative country/cowpunk outfit Rang Tango in 87.
Yates was signed to Sony Nashville and her debut album Can't Stop The Girl was released worldwide in 89, for which she was nominated for a Juno Award in 90 as Best Female Country Vocalist. She later signed with Virgin Music Canada and released her second album Breaking Point in 94. In 2007, she released The Book Of Minerva, a collection of acoustic-based old-school country tunes.
It may sound like one sweet, successful ride, though it was anything but. With her success came much responsibility, and the life that ensued took a number of potentially tragic turns. Yates unflinchingly reflects on the traps that so many struggling musicians are lured into. Her own mental health demons manifested themselves in depression and what is now called substance use disorder.
“I certainly was at a point with my ‘partying,’ we can call it, where my drinking and drug use got to be the number one thing that I was doing,” says Yates from her Hamilton, Ontario home.
“And it was getting dangerous. I think now that it was a response to coping with early childhood feelings that were the result of traumatic experiences. I was always a person who always felt too much. So I’d try to numb that out. For quite a while that worked for me, and it seemed like a lot of fun. But at a certain point it became an addiction that kept increasing. Then I couldn’t control it.
“I always say that I wasn’t actively suicidal but I was on the layaway plan. I was making payments on the self-destruction every month. I wasn’t ever going to do anything about it, but I was extremely unhappy with my life and unhappy with myself. I also had a huge fear of mental health professionals that had to do with my personal family history.
“I ended up getting clean and sober in 93, largely through a 12-step. But in those days, addictions were falling under a different heading than mental health. Now, thank God, they’re very much considered mental health issues. But it wasn’t really viewed that way back then.”
Post Rang Tango, when she alone was offered the recording deal that took her to Nashville, Yates dealt with much rejection and insecurity as a result of the huge backlash. She was regarded as a traitor to her band by its fans and the music industry. But under the huge amount of pressure, she was more or less forced to make the decision to fire the band and make the move Stateside.
“I took a lot of lumps,” she explains. “It was painful, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. But I believed that it was ‘my shot,’ and I ‘had’ to take it. So it wasn’t a control decision. And I didn’t know the impact it would have on me.
“I suddenly had a lot of things happening that I didn’t know where they came from. As all the shit hit the fan, I realized I had about three friends left. I didn’t really believe in myself either, so that added to the pressure. I was as insecure as I could be. I always had this tremendous fear that people were gonna find out that I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Yates found herself virtually alone in a house in the country down south, getting used to the ridicule of her Canadian accent. To battle her loneliness, she started drinking a bottle of wine every day. She realizes now that it could’ve been the beginning of the end.
As her career was ascending the industry ladder, so was her addiction. To counter the effects of alcohol, she added cocaine to the menu to the point where her “full-time job was getting high.” Then, to take the edge off, came heroin. The music aspect of her career was, at that point, in the past.
“The method I used for taking heroin let me believe I wasn’t addicted, but I was,” she says. “Then it all came crashing down when I heard that some people were talking about how I’d thrown away my career because of drugs. I was thoroughly miserable – and not just because of these types of comments – in my life.
“It was my dark night of the soul, for sure. I was as low as I’ve ever been. And I felt lucky to have come out of it all in one piece and arrive at a place where I had at least a semblance of sanity and could rebuild my life.”
Sort of. After getting sober she found she was still facing the same problems and came to the brink of repeating the same vicious cycle. Certain realizations, though, kept her from going over the edge all over again.
“I love music,” she says. “I love the art of it. I love creating and writing. But I realized that the business part of it can eat you alive. It did then, and it still does. I look back at some of the writing I did in those days and it’s just drivel. It’s crap. I was trying to be productive and creative, but while doing the drugs I never really got around to actually doing anything, and the music absolutely suffered.
“One of the biggest loads of bullshit is the notion that you’re more creative when you’re high. It may work for a little while, but then you end up just talking about the work you’re going to do. Writing is a lonely exercise, a lonely life. It’s done in solitude. It takes discipline. I didn’t have any. Drugs took that away.”
But she felt that as long as she kept singing, she’d somehow survive. In that sense – even though the world of music contributed greatly to the darkness that hovered over her world – making the music “literally” saved her life. And to this day, she regards her writing to be a very personal form of therapy.
“It can be very cathartic,” she says. “You can say what you need to say in kind of a fictional way. If you’re struggling in your life, you can explore that in a song. You can turn to that and understand that you’re actually creating something.
“And when you’ve finished a song, you have that sense of accomplishment. You’ve done something. It’s not in the outcome, it’s in the doing. You’ve told your story, and gotten it out of your system. Then, maybe, that’ll inspire others to do the same. That’s the magic of it for me.”
Having been on the precipice of the emotional abyss, Yates has some sound advice to anyone in the throes of mental upheaval. She still suffers from bouts of depression herself.
“I would just suggest – do the work,” she says. “Forget about everything else and just focus – if you can focus -- on the work. I think artists get into trouble when they go into music for other reasons, like the old party-hearty/sex, drugs and rock’n’roll myth. Those reasons can end up killing you.
“If you can turn toward the art, all those questions of mind that you agonize over, like ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How do I fit into society?’ or ‘How am I gonna support myself and pay the bills?’, will become secondary. You can get away from them. You realize the darkness comes and goes, and that the light does still exist.
“I understand that it is often overpowering and seemingly impossible to overcome. But just keep writing. It’s never easy. Life isn’t easy. But through your songs you can get into that positive zone, and that’s when art can save your life.”