Sitting on the terrace at the upscale Shutters on the Beach Hotel in Santa Monica, Snow Patrol lead singer Gary Lightbody moves from the shadows into the light as the sun shifts across the sky.
It’s a fitting metaphor for Lightbody and for the journey taken on Wildness, the band’s first album since 2011’s Fallen Empires. Lightbody’s struggles with depression and alcoholism, and his triumphs over both, play out on the album, as does an overarching search for what it means to be human in this often conflicted, chaotic world.
Produced with Garret “Jacknife” Lee, the melodically rich set has already spawned an Adult Alternative Songs hit with “Don’t Give In,” which became the Northern Irish/Scottish band’s tenth top 10 on the Billboard chart. After playing a handful of warm-up club shows in the U.S. and an Irish/U.K. tour in May, Snow Patrol — which also includes Johnny McDaid, Nathan Connolly, Paul Wilson and Jonny Quinn — will return for its first full U.S. tour since 2012 this summer, playing stadiums with Ed Sheeran.
In a revealing conversation, Lightbody talked to Billboard about making the album as he battled his demons, why he never censors himself, and the band’s new lease on life.
Why did you choose “Don’t Give In” as the first single?
We wanted to show people that things had moved on a little bit [musically], quite a lot actually, as well as being a strong message and being a great song. The unfortunate thing for me is it’s the hardest song to sing on the record, by a long way. So I’ve been struggling with that a little bit,
It feels like you’re sending yourself a message as much as talking to the rest of us.
Yeah. I think that’s where you have to start. It’s arrogant to think you understand what’s going on in someone else’s life. Deal with your own shit first and then if it relates to other people, that’s great. I know so many of my friends who have been through the same things I’m talking about on this record. You realize that everybody goes through periods of dark times, and nobody’s good at talking about it. The environment is changing to a place where it’s not taboo anymore to talk about mental health. There was a study done recently in Northern Ireland that focused on people in the arts, and something like 65 percent of people have thought about killing themselves… I don’t want to belabor the point, but it was a good start and important for the record, I think.
The album opens with “Life on Earth,” which states, “Shouldn’t need to be so fucking hard/ This life on earth.” You’ve said you think it’s the best song you’ve ever written. Why?
Because of what it does to people. I’ve witnessed people having a religious experience. I’ve had friends who their jaws have hit the floor, this look comes on their face when the chorus kicks in. I’ve just never seen it when I’ve played a song before. Maybe with “Chasing Cars,” but I’ve never had a stronger reaction to a song ever. It’s very hard to know that when you’re writing it, especially when it takes five years.
How did your parents react to “Soon,” which is about your dad’s dementia?
My mom had more of a negative reaction to it than he did. My mom’s been through a lot, and I don’t really know how to write a song about my mom because she raised us. I don’t really know how to put that into words. She kind of broke down and cried when she heard it. I think she didn’t feel seen, which was a tough day. But she has a different relationship to the song now.
Wildness deals with so many heavy topics, and yet the album’s overall feel is uplifting. How did you pull that off?
I was determined that this wasn’t going to be a record that was a bummer. That comes from writing about it as it’s happening, but also you’re healing as you get through it, and you see the light in these situations as well. I think if I was writing thoroughly in the depression, purely seeing the bad side of my alcoholism, this would be a heavy fucking record. But I feel like I got to the other side on a lot of these things. I feel lighter, I feel more connected to the world, to my friends, to myself; happier. I allowed the time, which is why it took seven years, to actually experience the whole thing, every facet of these things, rather than just writing a record about being in the hole.
You’re really vulnerable on a lot of these songs. Is it hard for you to not edit yourself?
No, I honestly don’t care. I saw something [I said] in an interview, and it was a really dark thing. And afterwards, it was like, “Did I really want to say that?” There’s something inside my brain that went, “Yeah, it doesn’t matter.” I will be harder on myself than anybody else will be. People only think they know how to be harder on me. They really don’t know. I’ve put myself through the wringer. I just want to enjoy life a little more than I did before, and I try to enjoy it a little more each day.
You got sober as you were writing the album. How did that work?
We were pretty much on tour [through] 2012. The problem started when we went off tour. Then I started drinking in earnest. I was never brave enough to not drink. And I really drank myself to a real mess. My health deteriorated to a massive degree. I went to see the doctor and he was like, “Whatever you’re doing, stop doing that.” I was like, “OK.” “Stop drinking or you’ll die” is a pretty good deterrent. So I stopped for a month. I went to get acupuncture from a really good friend. The song “Heal Me” is about [that] person who saved my life.
And then after that month?
It just got to the point where I was like, “I never said I’m never gonna drink again,” because all the times I said that in my life, I, almost like a child, would run fast as I could to my next drink.
What made sobriety stick in June 2016?
Garret, he’s not had a drink for seven years now, and he said, “After about six months [of sobriety], give me a shout. Everything feels great now, waking up without a hangover. After about six months, something’s gonna happen.” Around that time, I just went, “boop!” Like all the demons that I had been drowning in booze just [appeared] like leviathans. The Kraken just went up. I went, “Shit, yeah it happened.” I started to go see [a therapist] here in LA and she was very helpful. It was a long process, but I was able to start to communicate about when I was a kid growing up in Northern Ireland. I was born in the mid-‘70s, so I was a kid in the ‘80s, which is possibly the worst time for the war. They called it “The Troubles,” but I call it a war. … I didn’t understand the country that I was in and I wasn’t able to talk about it with anybody. I felt very alone and I felt like I was different. I felt self-loathing from when I was a kid. … There’s young adults that are 20 years old that have lived in a peaceful Northern Ireland their whole lives. It’s just a beautiful thing. I reconnected many years ago with Northern Ireland. I have a house there, I love the place. But I had a very complicated relationship when I was a kid.
I grew up in Bangor, which is reasonably sleepy town, until the weekend, when it turned into a mayhem. I went to school in Belfast, so you’d be driving up to school in the morning and it would be like an army, a military truck, guns pointed at your window. When my teenage years hit, I started to feel very isolated and that’s when I started writing poetry. I had an amazing English teacher, who introduced me to Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, all at the same time. Dylan I love, but Van Morrison became like a constant companion — not a literal one, but his music — and Seamus Heaney is the reason probably why I’m a songwriter.
What does it feel like to be on stage sober?
I’ve done tours when I had not been drinking, but it’s a different story [because] I knew there was a drink not too far away. Now, there’s nothing to fall back on if anything goes wrong. After the gigs has been the silence. The hotel room is kind of deafening in a way. After the LA show, I [went] back to my house, and it felt like the furniture changed position. Everything felt very strange, very different. It’s hard to explain.
You go from being adored by thousands to utter silence.
Yeah. That fucked with my mind in the past, where you’d be onstage before however many thousand [people], and then two hours later, [I’d] be curled up in a ball on my hotel room floor crying, and I’m like, “What the fuck is going on?” Because there are less highs, falsely created, artificial highs, in my life now, there are no massive lows. It’s more even. I can stand onstage and be fully present in a way I wasn’t able to before. I don’t think my mind is racing as much as it was. It’s like it was a different rhythm. It feels stronger.
Did you think the band wasn’t going to go on at one point?
Yeah. I didn’t know if I could write anymore. I could write with other people, but I didn’t know if I could write… I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I didn’t think I had anything left to say.
Speaking of writing for other people, between Snow Patrol albums, you were writing songs with or for Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and for other people. What did you take away from that experience?
I think their freedom is very inspiring. They didn’t have the same hangups as I did. Ed is the most distinctive songwriter I’ve ever worked with or been around or seen working. He has so many ideas. He can write 10 songs in a few hours. Also, he works harder than anyone else I’ve ever known. If anyone ever deserved to be playing stadiums, it’s Ed Sheeran.
It’s been 20 years since the first album came out and seven years since your last release. Does this feel like a new chapter for Snow Patrol?
Totally. It doesn’t feel like a reunion tour or anything like that. We’ve approached the record differently. The record sounds different. We’ve spoken about different things that weren’t spoken about before. The live gigs are better than they were ever before. We hit the ground running.