He may be “Freakin Out on the Interstate”, making “Small Talk”, or getting “Under My Skin”, but one thing is for sure, 22 year-old Knoxville native Briston Maroney is a newly signed artist under the Atlantic Records imprint Canvasback, and he will be performing at Bonarroo this summer. You might also know his music from Spotify’s “Morning Commute”, “Fresh Finds”, or Rockin’ Vibes” playlists, Taylor Swift’s Apple Music playlist which she described as the playlis to her life. While these are big moments in a musician’s career, they aren’t Maroney’s biggest. Learning to navigate his depression, addiction, and music is.
That navigation began in August of 2012, when a new group of freshmen entered a high school classroom at Knoxville Catholic High School. There are always students whom teachers connect with right away. This year there was a young man who stood out as talented, smart, and sad. Not crying sad, but quiet, lonely, and searching sad. Teens struggle with typical issues, however, this young man appeared to be trapped.
“I felt like something was wrong with me. I had a good family, food on the table, I went to a private school and I was still sad. What did I have to be sad about? I didn’t understand that you don’t need a reason to be sad, sometimes you just are,” Maroney said reflecting on his middle school and high school years.
Like many teens, Maroney struggled with depression on and off through middle and high school not really knowing or understanding what was wrong. Coincidentally, this is also the stage of life where he discovered that music was something he really wanted to devote more of his time to.
“I started playing guitar when I was 10. I took it seriously all through high school. My personality became a lot more rooted in that [music] rather than it just being a hobby. In 8th grade was when I started realizing that I preferred playing music over doing other things– I still played sports freshman year—but ‘oof’ that was rough,” Maroney chuckled while shaking his head.
As his love of music grew, so did his feelings of uncertainty.
“Early on in my music, reaching out to people or showing people sad songs that I had written either scared everybody or weirded everyone out which made me feel like it was weird that I was feeling that way. You start off ashamed of those feelings when you don’t understand them,” Maroney said.
These feelings of being different were exacerbated by his research into music in the eighth grade.
“I started listening to bands and musicians that were diagnosably depressed. My eighth-grade year I wrote a paper on the thread of male musicians with depression in the 70s. Music was consuming them, and I recognized that for me the two things went hand and hand. I recognized that I was a pretty sad kid.”
Enter high school parties and recreational drinking.
“When you are a young kid and you’ve dealt with depression your whole life, just a general sadness, it is a beast. Alcohol immediately became a way to deal with the sadness. I’m going to drink this Natty Light and forget,” he chuckled.
Using alcohol and drugs as escapism isn’t unique to Maroney.
“I wish someone had told me that what I was feeling wasn’t my fault, and that it was treatable sooner, but no kid is going to come after school to the depression club. It wasn’t for a long time that I realized other people were struggling with similar things,” Maroney said fidgeting with his hands.
As Maroney went on to college, things only got worse.
“I began regularly drinking alone once I started college. I’d have mixed drinks while I typed my papers. That is when it wasn’t fun. Once you start doing it alone, and no one is there telling you to stop is when it became really dark. “
The combination of a depressant—alcohol, and a depressed individual almost always ends badly.
“It [alcohol and drugs] is a really easy way to justify hating yourself. When you get drunk, you aren’t held accountable, but you can hurt and not really have to explain it or do anything about it. It was the safest way for me to feel those feelings that I had bottled up. I’m just the guy at the party that’s drunk and really mysterious and crying in the bathtub—which for some reason I thought was really cool,” Maroney said laughing at his ridiculous assessment.
Still feeling like his sadness was unacceptable and unexplainable Maroney continued to self-medicate in order to keep his feelings at bay.
“People got really fed up with it. My friends were really tired of me being drunk,” Maroney commented on his struggle with addiction. “I didn’t play sober for a really long time. I played a Christmas show where I drank two bottles of wine on stage and by the end of it, I was playing face down on the ground in my Santa Costume, and it was captured on video. It was pitiful,” Maroney said shaking his head.
Maroney spent the better part of two years in an alcoholic haze before he was confronted head on with his illness.
“I didn’t realize it was a problem until I was in the hospital. My sophomore year in college, I got wasted at a show and there was all this drama going on, and I called my parents and said I can’t do this anymore, I’m walking out into the street. Luckily, I didn’t get hit by a car. I was in the psych ward for four days. The first couple of days I was really rattled, and on the fourth day, I was talking with the doctor and he said there are a lot of accounts of you harming yourself or others and all of them involved alcohol. I think you have a problem with drinking,” Maroney recalled.
While no one pulled him from the road in dramatic fashion, his life was saved that night on a busy road in Nashville.
“At first I thought I didn’t need to go to treatment that it wasn’t going to help. That had never even crossed my mind. I felt this way because there was something wrong with me. Alcohol was a depressive substance, and it took my depression to another level. Then sitting alone in the psych ward, I was like ‘wait if I go to treatment I can’t drink’ and I thought ‘I really want to do that.’ That thought really scared me,” Maroney stated.
Maroney spoke with his parents and in the summer of 2018, he decided to enter treatment in Murfreesboro for 30 days. He then transferred to a halfway house in California where he spent another 30 days. After treatment he stayed with his mom in Florida for a couple of months and then returned to Nashville.
“It was definitely weird to play sober. Playing the first show sober and realizing wow, I usually don’t remember this process of walking on stage and tuning the guitar. I forgot how nerve wracking it is to be present. It made me realize how little I was paying attention to what I was doing,” Maroney said while exhaling a deep breath.
Just returning from a two-month tour, Maroney recalls the difficulties he faced as a recovering alcoholic.
“There is no way I could have toured two months drinking like that. When you are going for two months, and you are five weeks deep, and you just played a really crappy show to six people and it is five degrees outside and the bartender is telling you the show was so bad that the beer was on the house, that is prime time for feeling that a drink sounds nice,” Maroney said.
One of the ways Maroney keep from sinking back into self-medicating with alcohol is relying on his support network.
“I still keep in touch with some of my friends from treatment, so I’ll shoot ‘em a text or call and talk it through until the urge passes. Sometimes distraction is all I need. I’ll call someone who I can just talk to –make stupid jokes and talk about whatever. Sometimes it is harder,” Maroney said.
A year and a half of sobriety under his guitar strap, Maroney talks about his continued struggle with addition and depression.
“I’m sober, I’m in recovery, but that doesn’t mean anything unless you continuously work on it,” Maroney said emphatically.
Playing his biggest show to date, Austin City Limits, Maroney found himself with a drink in his hands after the show in the tour sponsored Tito’s Vodka tent.
“I thought to myself we played Austin City Limits. I’m good, I can have a drink. We’ve gotten to this point.”
Walking back to the green room, drink in hand, Maroney had a difficult decision to make.
“I was experiencing the whole Angel and Devil on the shoulders thing thinking that I can’t do this to my friends, my band, myself. It hit me that I couldn’t do it, but it wasn’t going to be easy to put it down, so I started shaking and realized that I was going to have to throw the drink down. So, as I approached the green room, I made eye contact with the security guard, screamed a profanity loudly and hurled the drink at the ground,” Maroney explained. “The guard said, ‘all right then, how is your night going?’ I said, ‘going great’ then walked by him back into the green room,” Maroney laughed.
Laughing in retrospect, Maroney recognizes that he had a lot to be grateful for.
“If I go out with my friends now and one of them is drunk, I’m like no thanks; it’s been a good run. I had a lot of people that gave me a lot more grace than I would have given them.”
Just because Maroney is sober, doesn’t mean his addiction and depression have gone away.
“Now that I’m sober, a lot of those feelings haven’t gone away. There are times when I get sad or overwhelmed by stuff that this doesn’t feel like I’m in control, but sober thought process is not I feel like I’m out of control, therefore I am out of control—that was my brain while drinking. Now it is a lot less hopeless—those feelings are still there, but that window to do something about it and reach out to other people is open a lot longer than when drinking,” Maroney said.
Maroney realizes that there is no way he was the only kid with his struggles. He hopes to use his music as a vehicle for helping others who struggle with depression and addiction.
“Opening that door for conversation is huge. I try to make that a big part of our touring. I try to say something at some time during each set letting everyone know that it is truly a safe place to be, our shows and the music being associated with being able to have conversations about how you feel. I stick around after every show and meet people and genuinely want to have those conversations offering help and redirecting them.”
Maroney felt as though his time in rehab was not only important for his addiction, but it helped him understand his depression as well.
“Therapy is really important, saying things out loud is huge. If I went on a vacation right now, I’m not even kidding, I’d go back to rehab. It was great. I didn’t have a phone for 40 days, ate well, cut off from everyone else, wake up have therapy, exercise, walk around a lake.”
Thinking back to rehab, Maroney shares some of the lessons he learned.
“Physical health is so important for mental health. They just go hand in hand. I think people get discouraged when they hear that and they go run a mile and they still feel depressed, but it is a long-term thing, it takes time,” Maroney shared.
Maroney reflects on all that he has learned since he walked into that classroom in 2012 as a funny, talented, intelligent, and sad kid.
“You start pressing the gas as a freshman in high school. You better crush this English test your second week of high school or you could be your only friend not going to college. With social media too…. It is ok to take time for yourself. I don’t think I made a single decision in high school that was just good for me. You have so many voices coming at you at that age. People told me in high school that what you were doing didn’t really matter in the long run, I just wish people had told me that a couple of more times,” Maroney tilted his head back and laughed.
Maroney remembers feeling alone and ashamed of his feelings, even though he wasn’t sure a lot of the time what they were or why he had them.
“It is such a rare moment for a high school aged kid to open up. Literally just being there, and making it known that you are willing to listen to a kid is the most important thing you can do. It is in those everyday moments and conversations that help kids feel like they matter. Little interactions mean a lot to kids or maybe that’s just me, maybe I’m weird,” he laughed.
A little awkward that he might just be “weird”, Maroney shared that he has also noted how social media contributes to his depression.
“It is insane the effect that [social media] has on your brain. I had just finished a huge show and was so hyped. I looked on Instagram and noticed my friends were hanging out and I felt bummed that I was missing out. How did that small thing, take away the joy of what should have been one of the best days of my life?” Maroney questioned.
While being sad is different than being depressed, Maroney hopes to use his music to “make mental health presentable for what it is”.
“I don’t think people see it from a health perspective even despite the word health being in the phrase mental health. Mental health is not the same as a cold, but it is treatable in the same way. There are medications and ways that you can train your body to do better with it,” Maroney said.
Maroney goes to LA on January 21 to record his first full length record with Canvasback, his new label. They start touring in March and will be on the road most of the year.
While Maroney isn’t sure where he will be in five years due to the fickle nature of the music business, he is sure that he will still be working with music or musicians.
“If writing and playing music doesn’t work out, I could see myself working for a label, or managing bands or being a tour manager. I think I’ll be on the road for a really long time, but that could change too,” Maroney paused. “I could get tired of living in a camper.”
In the meantime, Maroney plans to use 2020 to figure out how he wants to handle the multitude of messages he receives from kids each day.
“It is kind of crazy, this dude messaged me right before I came here. He asked me if we could talk. I need to take time to figure out what to do. I am no better than anybody, nobody that is doing this is. We are people, very flawed people often times. I don’t know what I can take on and actually be helping when there are 30 kids who are saying I’m going through a relationship problem and your music talks a lot about that and I was wondering if you could give me advice. I don’t want to copy and paste. I try to be personal, but there have to be some boundaries,” Maroney said.
Maroney shares a story about messaging with a girl a few months back.
“I got a message from a girl who said she was no longer able to come to my show. She said she was on a bridge in Virginia and was so upset. I thought to myself ‘she is just a kid, what do I do right now. I don’t want to say something wrong and hurt this person more or damage this person. So, I responded and asked her not to do anything to harm herself. I gave her a hotline number and offered to call 911. She then replied LOL I knew this would get your attention. Thanks for replying. See you at the show.”
Maroney paused and took a deep breath.
“It’s crazy. I want to help people, but I have to have perspective. This year I want to figure out how to navigate this. Not to be so detached that people think I’m not a person, but how to also draw that line.
It is clear, that Maroney is a real live person, with real feelings, and a real heart for helping others like him that suffer from depression.
“I want to put together a big charity show this winter with an organization called Music Cares. They provide therapy and medical treatment for struggling musicians,” Maroney said smiling.
Look for the release of Maroney’s new, yet still untitled album this coming spring. You can also see him live performing at Bonnaro in June.