Sophrosyne (suh-FROS-uh-nee) is probably not a word that comes up in everyday conversation. Unless you’re Jam Alker, that is—it’s the title of his newly released album.
To Alker, the word packs quite a punch. It’s the ancient Greek concept of achieving spiritual balance and true happiness through the practice of temperance, moderation, prudence, discretion, sobriety and self-control. “It stuck out to me as everything I am trying to do and everything I am trying to be,” Alker told Behind the Setlist. “It was a natural decision for what the album should be named, given what the album represents to me.”
Gritty, blues-inspired rock with fearless lyrics, Sophrosyne evokes the feeling that the artist behind it has seen hard times. In fact, as a recovering heroin addict, Alker has seen some of the darkest sides of life. This album has been a huge part of his own healing process, as well as a way of reaching out to people who have been through (or are in the middle of) their own struggles.
“I’ve certainly been able to connect to people with addiction problems. It’s also been an opportunity to connect with lots of other folks who aren’t in that situation, but who are just human,” he said. “Flawed, as all of us are, we understand these feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety. Wanting to numb ourselves. All of these things are universal to the human condition.”
Sophrosyne’s 12 tracks pull from a variety of sources. And during its writing, Alker not only rediscovered his love for creating music, but also for listening to it. “My favorite thing of all time is Led Zeppelin,” Alker said. “But I was influenced by the early ‘90s Seattle sound, as well as artists like Al Green, Bill Withers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and even some of the old Delta blues stuff, like Lead Belly. I also love darker stuff, like Marilyn Manson, that influenced the spookier, maybe demented side of what I’ve written.”
Yet he’s not just reaching into the past for inspiration. “There are some great new artists out there, too, like the Record Company and the Temperance Movement. Their music really instilled in me the fact that blues rock is alive in the world today, and that made me feel good about the stuff I was writing,” he said. “It was encouraging to see this kind of music can still be relevant in this day and age.”
Music had always been a big part of Alker’s life. His upbringing was chaotic, so a passion for music was the one thing he could count on. He played in bands throughout his 20s, even doing a little touring and recording, but never found the satisfaction and fulfillment he was looking for. “I feel like I came out of the womb ‘white knuckling’ it. I was always somewhat miserable in my own skin. Restless, irritable and discontent—that was me. I kept grasping for the next thing to find happiness.”
“When I started playing in bands, I lived that hedonistic lifestyle that goes along with it,” he continued. “I thought that missing sense of happiness would come from fame, or money, or relationships with girls. I had this confidence I could party with any sort of substance because nothing had taken hold of me yet. That ended up being my downfall. When I was introduced to heroin, I thought I could treat it like anything else. But instead, it started me down a road of destruction that lasted for over a decade.”
While money, fame and girls failed to provide the contentment Alker was seeking, heroin at least made life more tolerable—in the beginning. “Heroin was fun at first. Opiates are painkillers, but they’re not just physical painkillers. They’re emotional painkillers, too” he explained. The unexpected side effect was that it eventually dulled him to everything, including his creativity and passion for music.
Nearly three years ago, Alker realized he was going to die from his addiction if he didn’t get help, so he checked himself into a treatment facility. “In treatment, I was all of a sudden forced to start feeling these feelings again that I had numbed myself to. Since I wasn’t going to get high and numb myself to those things anymore, I had to figure out a way to deal with the thoughts, feelings and emotions I had been burying my whole life,” he said.
He had brought his acoustic guitar with him to treatment, thinking he’d get bored and that it might help him pass time. Instead, it ended up being an essential part of the healing process. “I had an amazing counselor when I was in treatment who allowed me to use songwriting as some of my treatment work. That opened up this whole new world for me,” he said. “These songs started to pour out of me because I finally could express difficult thoughts and feelings through a form of storytelling I connected with.
“It’s amazing to me how that one moment in time completely changed the trajectory of my life. Music was in my past at that point, not something I thought applied to my future. But because I was having such a raw authentic experience, this music I had written for my own therapy started to touch other people,” he realized. “It was an opportunity for me to potentially help others who were going through similar experiences.”
Three of the songs written during that month of treatment (“Weather the Storm,” “Fixing the Right Fix” and “Please”) made it to the final cut of Sophrosyne. As for the rest of the songs, Alker describes the process as follows: “I feel like I’m an old radio that was finally tuned into the right frequency. The songs started to play through me. That is the result of the clarity and the wisdom and truth that has come from true recovery. Not just abstaining from drugs or alcohol, but from connecting with something bigger than me.”
“The songs started to play through me. That is the result of the clarity and the wisdom and truth that has come from true recovery. Not just abstaining from drugs or alcohol, but from connecting with something bigger than me.”
So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The video for “Junkyard,” the album’s lead single, has over 100,000 views on Facebook, proving to Alker that his message and music are reaching people far beyond his initial supporters in the addiction recovery community. “I’m an artist in recovery, but I’m not a ‘recovery artist.’ Not everything I write is specifically about recovery. My message speaks to the fact that we’re all numbing ourselves from the trauma of life in one way or another. My problem manifested itself through addiction, but that was just a byproduct of the trauma,” he explained. “People are responding to the basic fears, emotions and ideas I’m trying to get across. I’m hearing from all kinds of people, in and out of recovery.”
This is the music career Alker never realized he wanted. He always wanted his music to make an impact, but earlier in life, it was in pursuit of money and fame—the things he thought would make him feel loved and accepted. With a new lease on life, his reasons for continuing to write songs and perform have changed. “My entire goal moving forward is to use this music and this gift that I’ve been blessed with as a way to be able to touch people and let people know they’re not alone. To create empathy between myself and other people who desperately need it,” he said.
In addition to a focus on helping others, each day is a reminder to be grateful. Not only for what he has now, but even for where he’s been. Alker speaks regularly at schools and treatment centers, and most people are caught off guard when he talks about having gratitude for his entire story, including the worst parts. The way he sees it, addiction was the catalyst that forced him to seek help. “Had this addiction not taken hold of me and taken me to the depths it did, I would have continued being miserable, just not miserable enough to change.” Who knows if music ever would have become part of his life again had it not been for that “rock bottom” moment.
Now, Jam Alker simply hopes his career continues to build and people continue to buy his records and come to shows. But he doesn’t fear the future, or worry that success or even failure as a songwriter and performer will change his mission or his message. “I’m putting a face on what addiction really looks like. I’m carrying the message that addiction is a disease and not a moral failing. It’s not a lack of willpower,” he concludes. “I want to break down the stigma and use any voice or platform I have to help others who have struggled through the things I’ve struggled through. And that’s it. That gives me purpose. That gives me true happiness.”
All photos by Bill Whitemire.