How Dana Fuchs Found Her True Voice

Singer heals herself and others with music.

Posted Dec 04, 2015

 Merri Cyr
Source: Credit: Merri Cyr

“And it seems so real;

In the moment, it’s all you feel;

But it feels so strange

In the long, long game.”

 “Long, Long Game” by Dana Fuchs

Dana Fuchs has been described as a “blues and soul goddess,” a “true storyteller” and a singer who “roars like a lioness.” Her vocal style, which has been likened to that of Janis Joplin, helped her win roles playing Joplin in the play Love, Janis and a part in the movie Across the Universe.

But to reach these heights, Fuchs has had to suffer terrible lows, including her own addiction, as well as family mental illness and the deaths of loved ones. And yet in blues music, Fuchs was able to find herself and channel her pain in a creative and productive way. And in doing so, she teaches us an important lesson:

If you find something that you love, you can reclaim who you are and find your true voice. 

“That’s been my path and my life, and I’ve written a lot of songs about addiction, death and suicide,” she told me. “I have had a lot of loss in my family in the last few years, as well. So it has all shaped and informed my music, for sure.”

Fuchs recounts the tumultuous relationship that she had with her father, who suffered from alcoholism when she was growing up. There is a long history of research suggesting that children of substance users suffer significant negative consequences in the form of depression, low self-esteem and increased risk for addiction themselves.

“My father and I had a pretty terrible relationship…My father was such a tortured soul — heavy addiction, alcoholism on his side of the family. His father committed suicide… So our household was certainly tumultuous, to say the least,” Fuchs said.

Fuchs described the volatility and inconsistency of her family environment. “I think it was more the mixed messages. It was confusing and a roller coaster…It was the inconsistency, and the Jekyll and Hyde aspect of someone himself who was struggling, I think, in retrospect, with severe mental illness,” she said. “We were known as the wacky Fuchs family.”

One of the effects of her father’s addiction was that he did not take care of his family financially, thus leaving Fuchs and her family in a relative state of poverty. “He had his own stash of shampoo and toothpaste, and we would do without, or my mom would sneak it to us,” she recalled. “My father would yell and scream at us whenever you needed something…[I was] going to school with one pair of pants, hiding the holes in the bottom of your shoes. You know, literally, I did the whole tape cardboard to the bottom of your shoes [and] being afraid to speak to someone because you knew you didn’t brush your teeth that day.”

Fuchs’ self-esteem suffered. “It was really self-esteem…feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere…It’s the support system you’re not getting at home that’s reinforced when you go to school every day, and you kind of have nowhere to feel safe.”

Fuchs began to develop for her own methods of coping. Evidence suggests that many children who grow up in difficult circumstances show resilience, or the ability to use a wide range of skills to cope with stressful events. For Fuchs, imagination and creativity became a refuge.

“When I was a little kid, my favorite place was to sit in a small dark closet. I’m completely the opposite of claustrophobic. I would like these tiny, little, dark places, and I would just get in my imagination.”

Fuchs eventually began to find an interest in music and performing, although her options were limited. “As a child, anybody that came to our house, I would demand that they sit down and let me perform for them,” she said. “There really wasn’t much to do. It was a small town. There was one drama class, and I was the head of that. And in middle school, there was a guitar group. [W]e would travel from school to school. And I did that in 6th, 7th and 8th grade…My family was pretty rough, but I had this guitar group. It was my life.” 

Fuchs chose well, as studies show that music can heal emotional wounds. For example, research has shown that adding music therapy to treatment as usual for people who suffer from schizophrenia improves both symptoms and social functioning. Additional studies demonstrate that listening to or playing music can improve symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain.

Fuchs described how she eventually began her own drug use. “I started getting into heavy pot smoking and the wrong kind of crowd. Life at home was pretty rough between me and my father, so I left. And then, after 17, I started with the harder drugs — cocaine. And I completely dropped out of school, and went on this terribly destructive path. I left home at a young age, started working at strip joints…I was down in Florida and that world of drugs just really consumed me.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, her drug of choice, cocaine, was chosen precisely because it made her feel euphoric and elevated her self-esteem. “I was working in the strip club, where the drug addiction really started. I was feeling, ‘Wow, this is not my best self.’ This is to get through and present a level of self-esteem to get on stage and take some of your clothes off…Cocaine made me feel more in touch with my strength and made the insecure girl go away.”

Fuchs eventually left Florida to go to New York. “I left Florida basically because I owed so many drug dealers money…I didn’t want to be a drug addict. I didn’t want to be a stripper.”

Fuchs tried the “regular life” and worked as a legal secretary. Not only did this not bolster her self-concept, but it also made her feel more detached from herself. “I remember that feeling of leaving that job each day and wanting to get high. I couldn’t bear. I can’t live this life, this 9-to-5, going to Staples to buy paper for the copy machine. It was torturous. That sense of conformity that you have to have in a job like that, there’s nothing more frightening to me in the world.”

And so Fuchs returned to stripping. “I started dancing again. It was really a harsh environment. You kind of become a confidante at these high-end clubs where the men have a lot of money, but often times with really no social skills. So it was kind of this con job every night and I couldn’t get through it without drugs. I really couldn’t. The drugs made it all easier.”

Fuchs started to get serious about getting better.

“Initially, you hit a certain bottom, and that kind of wakes you up. When you got to these meetings and therapy and you start unfolding and dissecting your life, and you peel back all those layers, and go to the core. For me, it was self-esteem and feeling like I had this person inside of me bursting to come out — this performer, this creative person, this competent person,” she said.

“No kid dreams of growing up a suicidal, drug-addict stripper.”

She began therapy as well as mindfulness meditation training. There is evidence that psychotherapy of many forms can be useful for a range of mental health issues. Studies demonstrate that mindfulness therapy programs have been effective in improving symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“I sort of worked my way through therapy and the Buddhist practice and meditation and retraining the mind…just really understanding that the drugs for me were symptomatic of so many bigger issues that I just really needed to work out.”

Fuchs’ life changed when she lost her sister to suicide. “She was pretty far gone on drugs and alcohol both. I just told her, ‘Listen. I’m gonna get clean now.’ It was shortly after that that my sister stopped talking to me, because I had found therapy, and I started going to 12-step meetings and invited her to both. And she was highly offended and pretty far gone at that point,” Fuchs said.

“And it was weeks later — I was two weeks clean — I got a call from her boyfriend that she was with at the time who found her. She had left a note and drank herself to death with some heroin.”

This is when, in 1998, Fuchs started becoming more serious about her music. “I had tried to do music in fits and starts. I was working with my guitar player at the time. I would make a plan with him to write, and I just wouldn’t show up. So, I was trying, but I just couldn’t get it together. It was really after her death and being in therapy and finally going through the 12 steps that I started to do [music] seriously," she said. “That’s when I had the wake-up call to get my act together and really do what I came up here to do.”

Soon Fuchs found blues music. And as she started writing songs, she began to find that there were others who shared similar experiences, and validated her feelings. “When I got to New York, I got on what was called the ‘blues circuit.’ There was a scene happening in NY, and it was the tail end that I caught, but it was quite a scene.  So, there was my first family community. I was on that scene every night of the week, playing four, five hours a night.”

“It’s very validating to go on a journey of someone else’s pain with them.”

That was when the comparisons to Janis Joplin began. “I was always compared to Janis Joplin before I ever really listened to her. So I was asked to do this off-Broadway production called Love, Janis playing Janis Joplin. It was amazing. It opened my world to her music. I had just gone through my own struggles with addiction, so it was really timely for me to do this.”

Initially, Fuchs found playing someone else was easier than performing her own music. “I had just started doing my own shows in New York and there was so much pressure when it was me and my songs. And it was so comforting [to play Janis]. I’d get there in half an hour and jump into the costume, and funny enough, it was so much easier to just jump into her and play her.”

Ironically, it was in playing Joplin that Fuchs began to discover her own voice. “I got to know me so much more, and it really shaped how I became a performer after that, because when you play Janis Joplin, one of the first things you do is, you have to get into the songs and relate her seeming lack of inhibition on stage…so my self-consciousness went out in that role,” she said.

“Everything I had to get me to the point of addiction and sobriety that led to playing that part was all experience that I could bring to that role. And that was one thing that the director said, ‘I don’t want you to try to emulate her voice or her body. You were brought in here because you already have that essence.’”

“He wanted the essence. He didn’t want Janis mimics. It also doesn’t make an authentic performance. That was the paradox for me. I’m playing somebody else, but I feel more myself than I ever have. That’s what I brought back to my own show,” she said.

Fuchs then found her voice when writing and performing her own songs. She had initially been conflicted about her relationship with the audience. “Initially, it was getting up there and showing off. I wrote this song, I created this, I have this skill. It starts as this validation…the validation where someone else is looking at you and admiring you, and having no idea how dark you are feeling inside,” she said. “So you take their word for it as long as you can. I get on stage and act like I’m having a good time, jumping around. But inside I’m looking at the audience. Who likes me? Who hates me? Oh, I hate this — just such a conflict.”

Fuchs’ ability to channel and share her emotions through songwriting helped her healing process. Taken to an extreme, the type of experiential avoidance that can occur when people use drugs, rather than addressing their feelings, can have damaging psychological and physical effects. Research shows that emotional suppression actually makes negative emotions worse, not better. In contrast, expressing emotions through activities such as writing down one’s feelings though songwriting can improve mood and reduce unhealthy stress responses.

But with a newfound sense of confidence, Fuchs began to be more honest with her songwriting. “For me, the show really changed. The seed was planted when my sister took her life, and I wrote a song about it that people started responding to. And I was building up an audience then. And I would talk about the story and invite people into the story. It was no longer ‘Look at me. Listen to me.’ But here is an experience that I had and maybe you had it, too.”

And Fuchs’ career took off. “That led to me writing my own songs and releasing my first record and that led to a film in 2007, Across the Universe. Julie Taymor was the director. She was one of the producers of Love, Janis and she was looking for a singer with that kind of raspy, strong voice, and she came to one of my shows in the East Village. I did a demo for her for something entirely different, and then we talked, and she asked if I acted, and of course, you tell a director, ‘Yes.’ And a year later, she called, and I auditioned for Across the Universe. It turned out she wrote the part for me, which was quite cool, but it was loosely based on Janis Joplin. So that’s how people started becoming familiar with my work.”

But soon Fuchs experienced more loss, in 2011 with the death of her brother. “My oldest brother…he had a lot of mental illness. It was loosely diagnosed as schizophrenia. Down south, where my parents lived, there was just not a lot of treatment, so they just kept trying one place then another that insurance would cover. And no one really knew what to do with him, so, finally, my dad’s sister, my aunt, took him to live with her in New Jersey, and he had a pretty tortured life.

“He was supposed to come to dinner one night at my apartment, and they took him to the emergency room. They thought he was having a stroke, he was slurring a lot, they were giving him a lot of Klonopin, and the next day, I met him at the hospital, and they found tumors in his brain, and they gave him about a year to live. I was kind of the only really close family he had other than my aunt, who was dealing with her own mental illness as well. And I had to put my life on hold and get him in the right hospital, and eventually hospice, and be there with him and hold his hand as he went.”

Then in 2014, Fuchs lost her father and another brother. “My dad and I had really repaired our relationship. He was sober for years before he died. When my mom got sick from smoking — she was never a drinker — I was all [my dad] had to get him around when she was in the hospital for a long time. We sort of amended and bonded. And then he died in a rehabilitation facility,” she said.

“And then in March, I lost a brother that was very close to me. I knew he was struggling with pills and drugs. We were quite close. He was taking care of our mom. He lived very close to my mom, just 5 minutes away. He was her caretaker after our dad died. He was sleeping over at her house to take her shopping the next morning, and she went to wake him up, and he was gone. The toxicology reports said it was a deadly combination of heroin and cocaine,” she said.

Fuchs poured her experience into her music. “… And then, after my two brothers, my dad — I talk a lot about now addiction and the battle and recovery and grief and loss as part of life that we all go through. So the show is now more inclusive, and that’s what’s been able to keep me performing heavily the way that I have the last few years. It had to shift for me; otherwise, I could see the lure of people needing to use drugs and alcohol in that lifestyle, where you have to be on, no matter what’s going on in your life,” she explained.

“And after each loss, I didn’t have the luxury of taking a lot of time off, and you get on stage raw and talk about it, and invite the audience in, and it became a shared experience, so for me, that’s where performing has been the catharsis with these stories and these losses.”

Fuchs has found just as her music helped her own recovery, it is helping others. She has committed herself to working with advocacy groups, such as the Jed Foundation, to help stop the stigma of mental illness and encourage people to seek treatment. John MacPhee, Executive Director and CEO of The Jed Foundation told me, “We are so thrilled that Dana joined JED as both a participant in our partnership with The Moth Community Program and performer for JED's recent #GivingTuesday fundraiser, ‘An Evening of Storytelling.’ Dana is letting others know they are not alone by sharing her story and connecting with people through her profound song writing and incredible voice.”

And part of her goal is to help others get the opportunity to be creative as a way of managing mental health issues. She said, “And it’s been really hitting me more now as I start thinking about transitioning into a career working with kids, which is why the Jed foundation is so appealing to me now. I’ve had this idea for a while of having this youth center, for kids whose parents can’t afford to send them to summer camp.”

“If there had been something like that even in my own high school, I would have stayed.”

And with her new album Broken Down and her ongoing touring, including her Dec. 8 performance celebrating legendary bluesman Lead Belly, Fuchs keeps rocking. “And it’s amazing the letters I’ll get from people in the audience and fans, and the interaction I’ll have. It’s amazing to hear someone just lost a sister, or someone lost their husband, and I’ll always say, ‘We’re celebrating life tonight’ to people. Everybody goes through this stuff,” she said.

“I’ll even say before a show, ‘OK, I’m gonna give you guys all my heart and soul tonight, but you’ve got to give me yours back.’ That’s the deal we have.

“And they’ll scream, ‘Yeah!’” 

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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