LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Arkansas soul is how Christopher Denny describes his genre of music. He blends country, folk, rock and even some gospel in a new album that has its roots firmly in the South. And Denny has lived through what he calls another kind of Southern tradition. He spent years addicted to drugs and alcohol. Christopher Denny joined me to talk about the record that's in stores now. It's called, "If The Roses Don't Kill Us."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD'S HEIGHT")
CHRISTOPHER DENNY: (Singing) I was sitting here thinking about how you were the queen of my world, my most beautiful girl. And when they said I need to get out more, I got believing I do. 'Cause you're God's height. You're God's height. I'm walking on stairs, mama. I can't reach you at all.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about this relationship or the kind of relationship that inspired that song.
DENNY: I wrote that song. And, you know, over the years, I'd really enjoyed songs that were kind of a stab at someone without being blatant and being sophisticated about putting someone down. And then later on, I realized that, you know, I didn't really care at all about that person like I should have.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you talking about your ex-wife here?
DENNY: Yeah. But, you know, that was a, like, feisty person coming out of the relationship that wrote that song. But also, it was a way for me to deal with, you know, insecurity, too, that I had always had in my life, just being inadequate. So, you know, it's got a couple different meaning for me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we mentioned, you struggled for years with drugs and alcohol. How did that affect your music career? How has it sort of informed your songwriting?
DENNY: It's weird because somebody told me the other day that if you start writing good music on drugs, then you'll write good music when you're on drugs. You'll write good music forever. If you start writing good music sober, then you won't be able to do it on drugs. And I started writing good music when I was in my early, early 20s, and I was in AA. And now it's funny 'cause I don't write good music when I'm on drugs now. So it's worked itself out.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's probably a good thing.
DENNY: Yeah, definitely. And it's funny, too, because you think, a lot of times, that everything's better when you're on drugs. And so obviously, you know, you think that your music's better. Well, you get sober for awhile, you realize that's not necessarily true. And, you know, with music and especially with songwriting, it's very important for you to be able to sing about things that hurt. And it's hard to hurt when you're numbing yourself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDE ON")
DENNY: (Singing) When we met, you thought that I was shined and refined. About the time you ran to tell your mother, your favorite color turned black. I walked through fire with my own kind of cross. I tried to feel like Jesus did. But you're someone that I just can't forgive.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You went off the grid for a long time. You know, it's been seven years between your albums. What were you doing?
DENNY: Early on, it was, you know, the record deals, major labels, that things were going on with that. And there was some paranoia there, I think, just because I came from a small town where everybody was like, don't let them screw you over sort of thing. And it's like, no one really knew what they were talking about. But I let myself get fearful. And I'm glad I didn't do that, though - 'cause I think I would have maybe became more of a pop artist and maybe not, you know, had a long career. And even though - what I mean by long career is seven years in between albums - but at least seven years later I'm able to put out a record, and people aren't going, oh, man, they should have died, you know, seven years ago in 2007. Like, you know, you hear some bands that come back, and you think, well, maybe they shouldn't have. Maybe they shouldn't have done that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How are you coping now? I mean, many people who have suffered through addiction will tell you that staying clean is taking it one day at a time.
DENNY: Yeah, well, I, like, really have to stay busy, you know? I call my manager sometimes, and I need something to do. I'll tell my wife, like, we have to go on, you know, a walk. There was a time when we were walking 10 miles a day. Just, you know, we both got clean together, so we have each other.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You did that with a check, right? A $20,000 check from Marlboro, ironically.
DENNY: Yeah, it's a funny story. I mean, I'll just tell it like it happened. We were actually trying to get into my email for a while. And we were sitting there shooting cocaine. And we got really high, and finally we were able to get the password to get into the email. And there was an email that said, you know, eventually there's going to be this other check coming from Marlboro for $20,000. And they paid for some video footage for their website, like an Internet campaign sort of thing. We were just like, oh, my God because we had just been talking about how we just had to, like, quit. And we had been playing around with quitting. And it was obvious that we were going to probably die if we kept on with that money. So we made the decision to stop. And we used, you know, maintenance medicine off and on for a while, actually. And it helped to cut the withdrawal and stuff. And then, eventually things happened - my mom going to rehab and, you know, my father passing away. And we stayed sober through those things. And it was like, OK, we can do this, you know?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's listen now to a song on the album called "Watch Me Shine."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATCH ME SHINE")
DENNY: (Singing) Well, if I wake in the morning, I can't see the light. I'm going to come into your room and darling, throw back the blinds, watch you shine. I'm going to watch you shine.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Something that you hear often from addicts is that they have to hit rock bottom before they can get clean, get their life together. Has that been your experience? I mean, you've talked about living in a crack den for a while. How have you managed to sort of pull yourself out of that?
DENNY: Well, luckily, everything can kind of get old for me besides something real and spiritual. And so I'm not one of those people that's ever really gotten stuck on anything for too long. You know, I have this belief that maybe I've already dealt with this in some sort of past life or something. And it doesn't have to be my story forever, you know? I know right now that it is my story and that people want to know about it. But, you know, by the time the next album rolls around, I want to be done talking about it, you know, and it just to be a part of not my past but, you know, a part of what made me the stronger person I am. And that thought has always been with me. I never gave up, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY AND SAD")
DENNY: (Singing) I got a song that's happy and sad. Part of it's good. Part of it's bad. But that's OK.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Christopher Denny's new album is called "If The Roses Don't Kill Us." Thank you so much for being with us.
DENNY: Oh, thank you, Lulu. I appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY AND SAD")
DENNY: (Singing) Writing it down makes me mad. Singing it out makes me glad. It's my song. It's happy and sad. Part of it's good. Part of it's bad.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can listen to Christopher Denny's full album, "If The Roses Don't Kill Us," on npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.