Writing the Soundtrack to Recovery
By: Elise Hugus, September 28, 2012
- Kathy Moser
Two dozen women aged 20 to 50 gather around in comfortable chairs in the West Falmouth mansion’s cozy living room. They chat and laugh amongst themselves or sit quietly, studying the print on a lavender sheet of paper. A few are pregnant and some have infants, which they entertain with toys or rock in their arms with a bottle.
It’s not a family reunion or a ladies weekend getaway. Some of the women have been staying at the Emerson House for close to a year; others arrived just days ago. All are on the rocky road to sobriety, spending each day reflecting and healing from the path that brought them to this place.
A tall woman in her 40s walks into the room, wearing a purple dress, thick-rimmed glasses and a smile. She’s pulling a red and white polka dotted suitcase filled with assorted paraphernalia: a laptop, a projector, a mic stand and a tangle of wires.
Meet Kathy Moser, a New Jersey singer-songwriter who travels to rehab centers across the country teaching songwriting workshops. She’s been coming to Gosnold-affiliated centers like the Emerson House and the Miller House for the past two years, and last week joined the Students Achieving Recovery Together (START) club for a special workshop at Cape Cod Community College.
“Hi, friends and sisters in recovery,” Moser says to the group. “My name is Kathy and I’m an alcoholic and an addict.”
“Hi, Kathy,” the women chorus back.
"It's not 'Kumbaya'"
Like many who work in the rehabilitation sector, Moser has her own stories to tell. Now clean for 16 years, she freely admits that she abused substances until she finally had a breakthrough 18 years ago.
One of the myths about being a musician is that drugs and alcohol help with creativity, Moser says.
“I’m sure I had moments of brilliance [as an addict] but I can’t find them,” she says. “Now that I’ve gotten help I’ve been able to bring my creativity out into the world. All my success in music has come in recovery.”
Though she graduated from New York University with a degree in music, Moser emphasizes that she is not a licensed musical therapist.
“I’m not a trained therapist. I’m a trained musician. I’m trying to bring these workshops to the highest level of musicianship,” she said in an interview earlier this month, as she prepared for the Cape Cod Symposium on Addictive Disorders. “It’s not ‘Kumbaya.’”
That fact is evident as she breaks the ice with the song, "I'm Open," written by women of the Emerson House in a previous workshop. With her assistant, Trina Hamlin on harmonica and drums, Moser sings the bluesy tune: “I always find myself wherever I go/ But I’m open to something more than what I know.”
Listening in rapt attention, the women need little encouragement from Moser to join in on the refrain: “I am open/ To letting go” they sing, shyly at first, then with rising confidence as Hamlin lets loose on a harmonica riff. When the song ends, the room breaks out in whoops and applause.
Putting her guitar down, Moser tells the group that—believe it or not—they will have written and recorded just as powerful a song within the next two hours.
“Right now there is no song. It might not go well the first time, and that’s why we give each other the gift of repetition and allow ourselves to make discoveries through mistakes,” Moser says. “Writing a song is like the process of recovery.”
Writing songs also engage participants in creating a soundtrack to their own recovery. “Music reaches you in a different way. It just bypasses your defenses. So if you get an earworm with a positive recovery message [in it], it’s like a pop song you can’t get out of your head,” she says.
Finding a refrain
And therein lies the key to Moser’s success. Not only do participants come away with a song they might find themselves humming in dark moments, they also learn coping skills and cultivate an outlet they can use long after they leave rehab.
One of those skills is learning to work with others, especially in the close-knit and sometimes tense living situations at rehabilitation centers, says Moser.
“Some women said they’d done the thing that they’d been afraid of—working together [in my workshop]. It makes people willing to take healthy risks outside their comfort zone,” she says.
Turning the microphone to the group, Moser asks each woman to share a source of personal strength. As they begin to open up about their past experiences, full of disappointments and hopes, one of the women types their words onto a laptop connected to a projector.
A good song “tells the truth, paints a picture and tells a story,” Moser says. And as the women speak, the elements of a song begin to appear on the wall.
A red-haired young woman named Tristan says she finds strength, ironically enough, in reflecting on the experiences that led her to the present moment.
“My strength is walking through the door of this beautiful mansion. My hope is what I’m striving for,” she says.
Moser’s eyes light up. She highlights Tristan’s words, which will eventually become the refrain for the song: “My strength/Is walking through this door/ My hope/ Is what I’m striving for.”
As the women share their stories around the room, it becomes apparent that one song will not fix their broken families, illnesses and criminal records. Jessica, a mother of three boys with another baby on the way, has just arrived to Emerson House.
“To be honest, I don’t have a strength right now,” she says. Instead, Moser asks her to share how she really feels.
“I don’t want to reveal it. I don’t want to deal. ‘Cuz I know I have to heal,” Jessica rhymes, drawing smiles and high-fives from the women around her.
After selecting promising lyrics, the women pick out a beat in Garage Band and recording the chorus as a group, the women then add layers of tambourine and soft guitar licks.
“Songwriting is like a pizza. The crust is the drums, then we throw on the cheese and toppings on to see if it works,” Moser says. “Just like recovery, making music as all about choices.”