Billy McCarthy lost his mother to suicide when he was a teenager. He cared for his schizophrenic brother as best he could after that, but his brother landed in solitary confinement in prison, where he eventually took his own life, too. Somehow, McCarthy found a way to rise above his anguish — as a songwriter. He began playing music while living in foster care in California.
"I think I was always a sensitive kid. There was a sense that it wasn't my fault, and I think I knew that," McCarthy says. "When I got to one of the foster homes, there was a piano. I remember it clear as day ... hitting notes and letting them ring out. And it just brought something out in me. At such a young age, [it was] such a complex feeling, and I don't think I ever stopped chasing it."
NPR's Laura Sullivan talks to McCarthy about his band, We Are Augustines, and its debut album, Rise Ye Sunken Ships.
LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:
Now, time for music, and in this case, the music of recovery. Billy McCarthy's life forever changed at the age of 19 when his drug-addicted mother committed suicide. He never knew his father. And shortly after that, his schizophrenic brother also took his own life. But Billy McCarthy survived, and he escaped into songwriting.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUGUSTINE")
BILLY MCCARTHY: (Singing) Yeah, keep your head up kid. I know you can swim but you got to move your legs. I'm taking you home, hang up the phone. We'll listen to radio. Yeah, keep your head up, kid. I know you can swim but you got to move your legs, yeah.
SULLIVAN: This is from the debut album by Billy McCarthy's band, We Are Augustines. And though he tackles head-on the painful details of his formative years, McCarthy doesn't wallow in misery. These songs are about rising above it. During a tour stop in London, Billy McCarthy told me about his mentally ill mother.
MCCARTHY: She had to give us up - me and my brother- when we were, you know, I was in fourth grade. And I went to live in a foster, a long road of foster homes. And I had a desire to get back in contact with her. I got her on the phone. She was in a Salvation Army shelter, and I finally tracked her down. She was homeless. And I don't know if it was the pressure or whatever, but, yeah, she unfortunately took her life there.
SULLIVAN: And you had just reconnected with her.
MCCARTHY: Yeah. I mean, that's actually the fun part of mental illness. She had been sending me packages, you know, since I was 10 years old, but they ranged from comic books to air conditioners to hair gel. Pretty much anything she could, like, shoplift, she would send to me, much to the dismay of my foster family. But I definitely started getting a sense that I'd better find her before something bad happened.
SULLIVAN: Where was all this happening? Where were you?
MCCARTHY: I was born in Santa Cruz, California. When they put me into foster care, at first, it was in the mountains of - Santa Cruz Mountains, and then they moved me up just underneath Lake Tahoe.
SULLIVAN: And where in all of that did you learn how to write music?
MCCARTHY: That's a great question. I think I was always a sensitive kid. You know, there was a sense that it wasn't my fault, and I think I knew that. And when I got to one of the foster homes, there was a piano. And I remember it clear as day. It was just sort of a window with a curtain and this piano. And I just remember hitting notes and letting them ring out. And it just brought something out in me, you know, at such a young age, such a complex feeling, and I don't think I ever stopped chasing it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEADLONG")
MCCARTHY: (Singing) We were headlong into the abyss in a four-door sedan and a kid that always stuttered...
SULLIVAN: I'm speaking with Billy McCarthy and the band We Are Augustines. And their album is called "Rise Ye Sunken Ships." Another song on the album is about your brother. It's called the "Book of James."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOK OF JAMES")
MCCARTHY: (Singing) He stood there in his boots, unable to move, kid, I drove all night here, to tell you I love you. And here lies my green eyes, rolled back in my head, but they're alive, and all the words, can all get spoken, but I know it's tried and you're forgiven.
SULLIVAN: How did you lose him?
MCCARTHY: I had a falling out with the foster family, and I went on my way. And I started taking Greyhounds around, and that turned into me going to Europe. I was just kind of following my music, I guess, and I got a pretty disturbing email. A friend of mine said that they believed that my brother might have been doing heroin, and I promptly cancelled my trip. Anyway...
SULLIVAN: Did you know that he was schizophrenic from an early age?
MCCARTHY: I could see it in his face. He just had this kind of look in his eye. It was just this faraway kind of look. And that was the beginning of it. And when I moved to New York City, I flew him out. But when he came, it was just out of my hands. He was volatile, and he had grown quite a bit. Jeez, the kid was like 6'3". He was huge. And I just felt really kind of like, I don't know, if this goes south, I don't know if I can control it.
So he couldn't stay with me any longer. He kept breaking into my house in Brooklyn, just not always good. So I had that same sense that I did with my mother that something might be up, and I started looking for him. And it took me nine months, but I found him in the jail. And because he was violent in the jail, they housed him in prison, in Folsom Prison. And it just took me forever. And I finally found him. He had been in there for nearly a year. I knew very well, because of our family history, that he was mentally ill and you wouldn't believe how difficult it was actually proving it to his legal representation and the system at large.
They wouldn't let me represent him in any way because I wasn't his guardian, his legal guardian. You know, I felt like there was a hopelessness. He was in solitary confinement. With schizophrenia, you know, there's like violent hallucinations and voices. And he was in solitary confinement for five years. I wouldn't put a German shepherd in a box for five years. It's inhuman. It's awful.
SULLIVAN: I actually cover prisons for NPR, and I've spent a lot of time in California's solitary confinement cells. And there's a great deal of criticism going on right now about the high numbers of mentally ill people that are incarcerated in these small cement boxes. And...
MCCARTHY: Cement boxes.
SULLIVAN: ...there's a lot of studies that show that it actually exacerbates, especially the mental illness of schizophrenics. So thinking about your brother in those situations, I can understand why you might be a little bit troubled.
MCCARTHY: Troubled is a nice way to say it, because I think what happens with - if you are the family member of somebody who has a mental illness, you worry. And if you're a family member of someone who's incarcerated, you feel guilty all the time, every holiday. Me and my brother have the same birthday and...
SULLIVAN: Do you really?
MCCARTHY: Yeah. Every birthday, every Christmas, like, it's a terrible feeling. And my heart really goes out to anybody who's got somebody incarcerated. And, you know, if they're mentally ill, it just doesn't - I just - I'm really sorry, I don't really think it's right.
SULLIVAN: In the song, "Patton State Hospital," you sang, we're going to get you cleaned up, James. Oh Lord, don't let them win.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PATTON STATE HOSPITAL")
MCCARTHY: (Singing) You're losing with the shape that you're in, haunting the alleys at night, it's only a matter of time...
SULLIVAN: You're losing the shape that you're in, haunting the alleys at night, it's only a matter of time. And then he ended up hanging himself...
SULLIVAN: ...in prison.
MCCARTHY: I had just spoken with him - I'm still very angry. It's been two years. I wanted to know if there was a note, if I could have his belongings. I've been sending him photos from our childhood, which we don't have many, and I wanted them back. And they basically handed me a box with his ashes, which I had to pay for, a pair of shoes and a bracelet and said, thank you very much. And I finally saw what people from the lower rungs of society deal with in the penal system. It's awful. You have no idea how little rights these people actually have. And so I went through that journey, and I'm not very happy about it. And this record has been a way for me to deal with it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SULLIVAN: You're in London right now on tour...
SULLIVAN: ...and you've been performing these very personal, very painful songs, I mean, almost every night, I would imagine. What do you feel when you sing them night after night? Where does your head go?
MCCARTHY: You know what I feels like? It feels like running down the street screaming your journal every night.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MCCARTHY: It's hard. It's fun. It's an experiment. I never thought this through.
SULLIVAN: I've read that you address your live audiences very directly between your songs and talk about your struggles. What do you tell them?
MCCARTHY: I - sometimes, you know, it's basically just keep your head up. And I just got to tell them, it's not your fault. But today is up to you from today on, and you got to do something to get up out of this and stand up. It doesn't mean you have to put your past away, but you do have to take a step and go forward. And you got to pick something, believe in it, and get through it.
SULLIVAN: Billy McCarthy fronts the band We Are Augustines. Their debut album is called "Rise Ye Sunken Ships." You can hear a few tracks on our website, nprmusic.org. Billy McCarthy, thank you so much for joining us.
MCCARTHY: It's my great pleasure. Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.