Recovery has given Justin Clancy a purpose his music had been missing
Despite his young age, 23-year-old Justin Clancy knows how rare second chances are in life, so he’s going to make the most of his.
A recovering heroin addict, the MC/vocalist/songwriter from Revere just released his debut album, “The Color Blue,” a life-affirming collection of melodic, deeply personal songs that speak universally about the importance of overcoming obstacles and discovering one’s true self. It’s a remarkable achievement for the high school dropout, who just a few short years ago was on the verge of suicide while in the grips of his addiction.
Life has changed very quickly for the fiercely determined Clancy, who plays Sonia Friday. Over the past year, he has developed a devoted fan base thanks to his viral hit, “TV Dinner,” and a string of inspired, stylized videos for his introspective songs. With “The Color Blue,” he’s realized one of his dreams despite a past filled with conflict and pain.
“Finally releasing the record is so important for me,” says Clancy by phone recently while stuck in traffic on his way to Brooklyn. “Going back into my past and turning what I went through into art was hard. I’m touching on subjects like my recovery and mental health, but I feel if I’m not going to do it, who else is going to?
“One day I’m going to tell somebody’s story and that’s what really matters to me. It’s never about notoriety or monetary gains. It’s more about someone hearing my story and connecting with it to the point where it betters their life.”
Clancy’s music bucks the trend of so much of today’s chart-topping mainstream rap/pop, which seems to revel in nihilism and is hellbent on making depression appear chic. He sidesteps cultural clichés to look at the hard truths of our existential struggle and the fight for a more fulfilling life. He also has a savvy sense of melody and a soulful singing voice that counterpoints his rapping. Along with producer Nox Beatz, Clancy’s created a compelling pop/rap hybrid record that defies easy categorization.
It marks a stark departure from the music he was making while in the hold of his addiction. “Prior to this album, I had a whole different album that will never see the light of day — I threw it all away,” he says quite pensively.
Throughout the interview, Clancy speaks deliberately, as if he’s spent many nights questioning his place in the universe. “I was trying to do a boom-bap rap kind of thing. Angry stuff, and as I grew up, I realized that didn’t represent me. I’ve always been really inspired by soul. I grew up loving it. Old Bill Withers, Sly and the Family Stone, or Stevie Wonder.”
Clancy’s music is inextricably intertwined with his troubled past. For all the grace in his lithe singing on songs like “Favorite Color,” there’s an intimation of the damage done even in his most aspirational raps. He echoes artists as disparate as Sam Cooke and Kendrick Lamar on “Pretty Things,” where he acknowledges his pain but keeps his eyes forward (“We gonna be OK/ we gonna be all right/ I was lost for a while/ but I finally found the light.”)
For much of his life, Clancy has lived in the shadows. After a grind-it-out childhood, he says he began using drugs and alcohol by the age of 11. Despite his hopes of being a musician, he found himself addicted to heroin by his late teens.
“I was a full-blown IV heroin addict by the time I was 17, 18,” he admits. “I was putting out videos when I was strung out — you can still see them online. I remember I had to be woken up in the backseat of my director’s car. I’d be drooling on myself. I’d show up to shows all strung out wearing a jeans jacket in 90-degree weather. I was delusional thinking I was going to make it. It was so painful. Not being able to do what I loved just killed me.”
As with many people who deal with mental illness, he had to bottom out to turn himself around. “It was a terrible time. I was getting arrested and I was in and out of prison, detox, psych wards. All horrible, traumatizing things. I was just beaten and broken. I was no longer using to get high — I was using because I wanted to die.
“Right before Christmas in 2013, I’d just turned 19 years old. I was in my grandmother’s house. I was in the bathroom with the belt around my neck. My dreams had been shattered, and I didn’t see a future. And the phone rang. My mother picked it up. I’d received a scholarship to a treatment center — Chris Herren, the former basketball player [and recovering addict], his foundation saved my life. They put me in long-term treatment. It was actually only a month or so, but it was enough time to rewire my brain and get things together.”
The singer-songwriter now works to get addicts into recovery when he’s not trying to inspire with his art. He also started his own nonprofit, New England Addiction Outreach, while working with at-risk teen boys. “When I was 11, I had no idea there were people I could talk to,” he says. “So, I try to be the person I needed when I was growing up.”
With his fine new record and a slot on this summer’s final Vans Warped Tour, Clancy’s deferred dream of becoming a musician is being realized. As he leaves his past behind, he is pragmatic and cautious but full of ambition and hope.
“I’m always trying to better myself and better my craft. Life isn’t easy, but we can do things to make it better,” he says. “I always want to put out positive energy. If you put positive energy into the world, you’re going to get it back tenfold.”
At Sonia, Cambridge, July 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets $13-$25, 617-864-3278, www.mideastoffers.com/sonia