Philo Reitzel chronicles his road to sobriety on new album

LYRICAL NUTRITION: With the exception of a few guest verses, local hip-hop artist Philo Reitzel wrote and produced the entirety of his new album, "Live the Life." That level of hands-on involvement and his creative process of tinkering with songs right up to their release allowed standout track "Capture Lightning" to reflect the stresses of the coronavirus era and includes a reference to COVID-19 tests. Photo by Emma King

Local hip-hop artist Philo Reitzel has always written highly personal music, but in tracing what he calls his “downward spiral of substance abuse and hard living, complete with the journey to the other side via recovery” on his new album, Live the Life (released April 17), he took that intimacy to a new level. Getting to that plane of self-realization, however, was an odyssey in itself.

“Honesty is not one of the things that really goes with addiction. You tend to put this veil over everything, and you’re putting on a persona. It appears to be like everything is good and everything is in control, even though everything is crazy as f***,” Reitzel says.

“I would be saying all these things and sometimes I would get deep and emotional a little bit, but there was definitely always a point where that would stop. It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t willing to share, but I wasn’t willing to look within myself to where I was.”

Currently coming up on 2 1/2 years of sobriety, Reitzel vividly recalls accepting that there were issues and traumatic events from his past that he’d never dealt with. From there, he embarked on a gradual process of addressing these conflicts, which tied in nicely with his newly clean living.

“For me, one of the main things about getting sober is you have to get honest. You have to be honest with yourself about what is really going on in your life, and you start seeing these things in a really weird way,” Reitzel says.

“When I got sober, I realized that I’d not really been processing any emotions in any real way since I was 14 or something. I realized that, as a person, I’m really emotionally stunted. Plus, all that feeds into the whole toxic masculinity, ‘We don’t feel shit — we’re men,’ which is super huge in rap. Like, ‘I’m hard. None of this shit bothers me at all.’”

Though Reitzel didn’t set out to make an album about what led him to hit bottom and seek help, once he made a few songs with that connective tissue and recognized the pattern, he realized that lyrical exploration was what he needed and embraced it.

Still, roadblocks arose, specifically in regard to his own guilt and feeling as if what he survived is nothing compared to what, for example, some of his friends who lived through the height of the crack epidemic endured. Helping him overcome that doubt was his girlfriend Emma King, who noted that the discrepancy of experiences doesn’t invalidate what he went through — including a rough stretch living in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco — which is also far more extreme than what most people have encountered.

“The more personal music is, the more I relate to it, and it seems like more people relate in general,” Reitzel says. “So, generally, if there’s something I’m scared to say, I feel like I probably need to say it. As I’ve gotten more comfortable in myself, just over the years, I just push through that.”

Jumping back into the state of mind he was in as an addict also proved challenging and frequently had him questioning whether he was pursuing the project to glorify his past behavior or to be honest. (He says it’s “a little bit of both.”) On the title track, which opens the album, he says listeners can tell he’s “kind of a shithead” as his past self objectifies women and calls them insulting names — and is upfront about the lingering venomous appeal of that point of his life.

“When I’m writing about shit like that, a part of me still just really wants that, really wants to be there, really wants that chaos, really wants to not give a f***,” he says. “That shit, for some reason, is darkly addictive. Part of me likes rapping about that because you can go in and be super aggressive.”

Reitzel says that his ability to temporarily inhabit those mindsets and return to his current healthy ways “comes back to prayer and taking care of myself and doing the things I need to be doing to stay sober,” though he also notes the “danger in art,” pointing to method actors “who get sucked into a role.” Also beneficial is his rural lifestyle in the Reems Creek area, which has barely been impacted by COVID-19.

“I’m good! I live in the woods, and my studio is in my crib, and I have a business online with my business partner, so I’m not changing too much. All I’m doing is, instead of going to my business partner’s apartment to meet and us do business there, we just meet virtually,” Reitzel says. “And I’ve just been doing a lot more projects out here. I’ve got my chickens and garden and all that, so it’s been good for me. And all my family, mostly, lives on the same property. It’s dope. I’m pretty lucky.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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