Coronavirus Sobriety Check-In: April Hartman, Apes of the State

April Hartman (seated) and Apes of the State
April Hartman (seated) and Apes of the State Photo by Jak Kerley/Shibby Pictures, courtesy of April Hartman

In a few weeks, April Hartman will mark six years of sobriety. Hartman is a busy musician who splits her time between three Pennsylvania-based bands. Her music and the people it reaches have shaped her successful recovery. Many of her followers and fans contact her directly for support staying clean. So, she admits, the live music stoppage and the stay-in-place isolation the coronavirus pandemic has created has also created challenges to her sobriety.

“The social aspect of recovery is huge, whether you’re doing a 12-step model where you’re relying on meetings or you’re doing something different. Like I relied on 12-step but also music very early in recovery, so going to open mikes and playing with people or just getting out on the street and playing shows was a huge thing in my recovery,” said Hartman from her home in Lancaster. “Right now, with people not being able to get out and have that physical and personal contact with others, it’s definitely bad. Isolation, like they talk about, is the enemy in recovery because when you’re alone with your thoughts, that’s a dangerous place to be in.

“I can’t even lie and say I haven’t had thoughts of drinking or using during this time because it’s like who’s gonna hold me accountable? I could just drink a beer right now in my house and nobody would ever know.”

That’s a concern for people in recovery everywhere during these trying, unusual times. The estimated 20 million Americans with substance abuse disorders come from all walks of life. Musicians like Hartman, whose sober path is partially paved by interaction with fans and band mates, may be having an especially hard time.

Sharing her story, right up to the current challenges, is how Hartman has avoided relapse the past six years. She shares it overtly in song with her band Apes of the State. She does it in the company of others on any of the frequent tours she’s on with Apes or as a member of the bands Local News Legend and Countersuits.

Hartman said she was just 10 years old when she started drinking.

“I can’t say it started out as a party or a social thing because when you’re 10 years old and you’re drinking it’s not really like there are other 10 year-olds to drink with,” she said and laughed at the notion. “It started out as a bad thing to deal with emotions I didn’t want to feel and a lot of that was centered around family issues that I was going through at the time.

click to enlarge Apes of the State is (L-R): Max Scott, Mollie Swartz, Dan Ebersole and April Hartman - PHOTO BY LEAP PHOTOGRAPHY, COURTESY OF APRIL HARTMAN
Apes of the State is (L-R): Max Scott, Mollie Swartz, Dan Ebersole and April Hartman
Photo by Leap Photography, courtesy of April Hartman

“It evolved, like in high school when my peers caught up with me, it turned into the partying thing and that just kind of kept going until it spiraled out of control through the end of college,” she recalled. “I graduated and was drinking so much. I really started drinking alone a lot because I didn’t want to handle life.”

“As far as appearances go, I was working, I looked as if I was okay, I wasn’t out of money. But I realized I could continue to use drugs and I would never change who I was. I could use all the drugs in the world and it was like a bottomless pit. I was still me when the fog cleared and I didn’t want to be me, I hated myself so much,” she said. “So, I decided I was either going to kill myself or I was going to learn how to love me and the only way I could figure out how to love me was to put the drugs aside.”

Hartman played guitar as a youth, but “I never thought I’d be good enough to pursue it because I had this idea in my head that I had to do things that would bring me money or success or approval from my parents or society.” She started writing music in 2014 when she left rehab and those songs set the stage for Apes of the State, which launched in 2015. It’s now a high-profile band in the growing folk punk genre. It features songs about Hartman’s 14 years of substance abuse and her ongoing recovery, fan favorites like “Timeline” and “Sober Intentions.”

“I would say it’s like a cathartic release of a sober mind, essentially. I started writing songs basically as a way to cope with the newfound emotional chaos of sobriety. I never wrote songs in my life before I got sober. I write about topics that give me a lot of emotional response. It goes both ways, so not just sad but also happy, because in sobriety those emotional swings can be triggers, no matter what direction they’re in. A lot of people talk about how they had an amazing day, so their first thought was to get high. Or, they had a really bad day, so their first thought was to get high. So, instead of getting high over those planes, I would just pick up my guitar and write a song about it.”

Isolation can be triggering for someone in recovery, but it’s necessary in the current pandemic. Hartman said Apes was set to leave for tour March 12. They had a date at the massive Texas music fest Folk Shit Up, but cancelled just before the run’s start and encouraged other bands to do the same.

“The way I saw it is I speak so much about harm reduction when it comes to recovery things that it would be disingenuous to not take another public health crisis seriously. I saw it as the same thing,” she said. “When I juggled it in my mind I thought, I can’t say we should all carry Narcan and look out for our friends when I’m going to just go touring during a pandemic.”

Unable to have that human connection, and also unable to host touring acts at her home, which she frequently does, Hartman has found positive outlets for her energies during this downtime. Apes released a live album at the beginning of May, available on Bandcamp, Spotify and other streaming music platforms. She's focused on the band's merchandise sales. A friend, Ian Archibald of the Buffalo, New York band Cardboard Homestead, asked her to help develop a streaming music fest. They and others in the folk punk community pieced together Coping with Dystopia. Designed as a one-time event, the show was so successful its organizers kept it running. It’s aired on YouTube, Switch and Facebook every Friday evening since March 20 and has raised more than $7,000 for grass roots charities. Sean Bonnette of AJJ and The Dead Milkmen’s Joe Jack Talcum have been headliners. Apes of the State was the very first band to play the series.

“We just really wanted a way to keep our scene active and together and communicating with each other through a music lens because when music scenes only exist through Facebook dialogue, they suck. We all start fighting with each other,” she laughed. “We wanted to just remain positive and centered on the reason that brought us together, which is music.

“Having music and then having the community right next to it in the YouTube chat is a huge part of it. It’s not just about the stream and the music, it’s about that chat that brings the people together every week. And, it feels like a community. That’s what we’ve wanted to build and that’s what we’ve succeeded in.”

Hartman knows there’s also a large online presence for people in recovery. There are more than 60,000 Alcoholics Anonymous groups in the United States and many are switching to streaming platforms like Zoom to continue to serve their members. She said the growing number of online meetings can only help.

“A lot of these have been around already for a while because some people live in rural areas and they’ve always faced these challenges,” Hartman noted. “People in recovery that live in these isolated areas suddenly have thousands of meetings to choose from, thousands of support groups to choose from, whereas prior to that they maybe had one Facebook group. It’s actually been better for some people that are used to dealing with isolation, but for others that are living in cities who are used to being able to get out it’s more of a challenge.”

click to enlarge The band has traded tour dates for new music releases and other projects during COVID-19 - PHOTO BY MOLLIE SWARTZ, COURTESY OF APRIL HARTMAN
The band has traded tour dates for new music releases and other projects during COVID-19
Photo by Mollie Swartz, courtesy of April Hartman

Hartman’s music community is tight-knit and supportive, so she’s aware of community’s importance to recovery.

“They talk, in these 12-step programs, about doing it for you and how important that is but I think a lot of people don’t grasp that until way later. It’s easy early on to stay clean because your friend group is going to call you out if you don’t. Taking that away is very difficult. I know a lot of people have relapsed during this, a lot of people have died because of it, and a lot more will.”

Some of those people will be musicians, Hartman’s sure of it. She’s shared her story and her advice on recovery with fellow artists struggling with dependency, partially out of debt.

“I feel like I owe folk punk a lot because everything that I have is because of the community. They embraced me with open arms when I was still screaming out of key and terrible at playing guitar years and years ago. They told me I had to get better. They embraced me,” she said.

“I talk to people a lot. Honestly, I feel sometimes like I’m sponsoring half of the punk community,” she continued. “I don’t do 12-step and I don’t sponsor people but I sometimes feel like I’m a lot of people’s sponsor, a lot of people I’ve never met. Just being a listening ear, it means a lot to people when they’re going through something.

“Like I said, my recovery has been all about becoming okay with myself. You can do that with or without people around you,” she said. “My biggest advice to people is to find something to live for. For me it was music, for anyone else it can be anything else. It’s art, it’s a hobby, it’s whatever you pick up in recovery that makes you want to get out every day and feel whole. It might be what you did when you were a kid before society got a hold of you and told you that you need to make money. It’s whatever you can find a passion for. Whatever you can be passionate about that gets you out of your head when you do it, that’s what you need to chase in your recovery and not worry about what other people say about it or if other people are going to judge you for it. Just do it because you love it.”
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.