These Tiny Desk Contestants Extend Compassion 'To Honor This Heartbreak' Of Addiction

Jun 1, 2019
Originally published on June 20, 2019 4:29 pm

Quinn Christopherson is the winner of the 2019 Tiny Desk Contest, but there were many other outstanding performances among this year's 6,000-plus entries. Weekend Edition will highlight just some of those over the coming months.

For this year's contest, the band Swale of Burlington, Vt. submitted a video that extends empathy to those struggling with addiction. Swale's Amanda Gustafson notably played "If You Get Lost" at the 2018 funeral of Madelyn Linsenmeir, a 30-year-old victim of opioid addiction and the sister of Gustafson's close friend.

As Gustafson explained in conversation with NPR's Scott Simon, though, Madelyn's funeral wasn't the first time she played the song for someone she knew — nor does she expect it to be the last. Gustafson says she wrote the song about 15 years ago for a friend who was suffering from a heroin addiction and whose whereabouts were often unclear. "I wanted to send him a message of hope: that there was always a way to come back home and to become recovered from his addiction" she says. This sentiment of inviting-home opens the track, at the top. "If you get lost / There is no danger / There is no danger," Gustafson sings.

YouTube

Underpinning the song, Gustafson says, is a sense of deep pain for addicts and their loved ones. It's pain that she and Eric Olsen — her husband and fellow Swale member — are intimately familiar with. Olsen himself is a recovered heroine addict, sober for 11 years. (The two have been together for 17, and now have two daughters.) Gustafson says the experience of loving an addict has always colored "If You Get Lost," from the song's inception to its performance at Madelyn's funeral.

"The thing about addiction, about losing an addict or living with an addict is, it's heartbreak," she says. "And I think that's why this song kind of sounds like a love song. It is a love song. It was a love song that I sang for my friend, and unfortunately, over the years, I've had many people to sing this song for. ... I don't think I'll never sing it again. I think, unfortunately, we're going to continue to have to find ways to honor this heartbreak."

Still, along with the heartbreak, Gustafson and Olsen both express their intention to share hope, love and compassion for people battling addiction through this song.

Olsen, too, reflected on the complexities of addiction, including the potential for healing. He underscored the hope that he both finds in his family's story and hears in "If You Get Lost."

"I think another thing that having that song out there, and the two of us being able to talk now about it — another takeaway is that it doesn't have to be the end. There are ways out; there are solutions. For the addict that still suffers out there, I think that is a priceless takeaway — something to hope for, something to move towards."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest attracted over 6,000 entries this year. Quinn Christopherson from Alaska was announced as the winner a couple of weeks ago, but there was tough competition from passionate and talented musicians. We're going to highlight some standouts over the coming months on WEEKEND EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU GET LOST")

SWALE: (Singing) If you get lost...

SIMON: This song from the band Swale from Burlington, Vt., caught our attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU GET LOST")

SWALE: (Singing) There is no danger.

SIMON: In a letter to NPR, Amanda Gustafson told us that she performed this song at the funeral of Madelyn Linsenmeir. Now, you might remember the touching photo that went viral of Maddie, her little boy Ayden perched on her back and smiling. But Madelyn struggled with opioid addiction and died following a drug arrest.

Amanda Gustafson joins us now from the studios of Vermont Public Radio in Colchester, Vt. Thank you so much for being with us.

AMANDA GUSTAFSON: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And I gather a musician named Eric Olsen, to whom you are married, a guitarist in the band Swale, is also there with you. Mr. Olsen, thank you very much for being with us.

ERIC OLSEN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You first wrote and performed this song 15 years ago.

GUSTAFSON: Well, I wrote this song for a friend of mine who was in the wind, as we say. He was suffering from addiction to heroin. And I wanted to send him a message of hope that there was always a way to come back home, become recovered from his addiction.

SIMON: And Eric Olsen, I gather the message of the song hits pretty close to home for you.

OLSEN: It does. Although it was not written for me, there's been many times over the years that it probably could've been.

SIMON: So you met. You married. And then something happened, right?

GUSTAFSON: Well, we were together as a musician couple - partners, as well. My experience with Eric was - he was very passionate about music. We were very close. I knew as - the more I got to know him, I knew that he had a past that involved being addicted to heroin, being incarcerated. And we talked about going to meetings here and there. He would seek some help.

We decided to get married. And two months after we got married, I found myself very happily pregnant and one night went out to our studio, which was in a garage behind our house. I had heard Eric come home from a gig and, you know, found him using heroin and realized that over those years that we'd been together, he had been regularly using in differing degrees and that where we were now - two months married, two months pregnant - was a full-blown addict.

And so I detoxed him in our house 'cause you can't go to rehab unless you're detoxed. And nobody would take him, and our insurance didn't cover anything - and drove him to rehab and then spent the next six weeks uncovering the wreckage.

OLSEN: Yeah. I - like any addict, all I wanted to do was stop. But, you know, we focus a lot on addicts and the lives - that they get destroyed. But really, the people that get destroyed in addiction are those around the addict. They go broke. They spend nights wondering where people are. They - wondering if people are still alive. You know, they're the ones that really suffer.

SIMON: This is an amazing story - you know, the two of you - the openness with which you approach it and then the way that you saw this picture of Maddie Linsenmeir and her little boy and made a connection, which, after all, is one of the things that music can do. I mean, Eric, forgive me. What made a difference? I've been told you've been clean 11 years. What made a difference? How did it happen?

OLSEN: For me, hands down, was - I got introduced in a way that I hadn't before to, you know, a 12-step program. It was a rehab run by other addicts. They helped me see, through their own experience, that what the problem actually was - one, that I have, like, a physical problem, that I had good evidence in my own life in which - that I could no longer use anything safely.

But that's - that would be the easy part 'cause then you stop, and then - any sensible person who's allergic to strawberries doesn't, you know, fret about eating strawberries. They just don't eat strawberries, and they live, whereas I, in the absence of it, would eventually convince myself that I could do it again. And that was the part that the work was able to change.

SIMON: I'm just breathless - breathless with admiration for both of you.

GUSTAFSON: I - sincerely, thank you. But really, you know, the reason to come in here and talk about this song is to just shed a little light on what it's like to be an addict and also to extend some kind of loving compassion to the people who are suffering with addicts in their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU GET LOST")

SWALE: (Singing) Take the time to see it through. Only you know what you need to do.

OLSEN: Having that song out there - another takeaway is that it doesn't have to be the end. There are ways out. There are solutions. You know, for the addict that still suffers out there, I think that is a priceless takeaway - something to hope for, something to move towards.

GUSTAFSON: And I think the thing about addiction - losing an addict or living with an addict - it's heartbreak, you know? And I think that's why this song kind of sounds like a love song. And it is a love song.

SIMON: Yeah.

GUSTAFSON: It was a love song that I sung for my friend. And unfortunately, over the years, I've had many people to sing this song for, Maddie just being the most recent. I don't think I'll never sing it again. I think it's - I think, unfortunately, we're going to continue to have to find ways to honor this heartbreak.

SIMON: Amanda Gustafson and Eric Olsen from the band Swale. You can see the video they entered for NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest on our website. And I hope you do. Thank you so much for being with us.

GUSTAFSON: It was an honor. Thank you, Scott.

OLSEN: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU GET LOST")

SWALE: (Singing) And if it gets rough, don't be a stranger. Don't be a stranger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.