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'I needed to stop': Marie Davidson on leaving the club scene — and taking care of herself

The Polaris Prize shortlister talks candidly about insomnia, addiction and the need to change course.

The Polaris Prize shortlister talks candidly about insomnia, addiction and the need to change course

'It's one of the hardest things I had to go through in my life. And I did it, and I went on tour.' (Album cover/Ninja Tune)

"You wanna know how I get away with everything? I work. All the f--king time." 

These are the opening lyrics of "Work It," from Marie Davidson's 2018 album, Working Class Woman, and an apt description of the Montreal producer/musician's life.

After four years of non-stop touring — often a one-woman show with a lot of gear — and three solo album releases in that time (plus a handful of side projects), Davidson is pulling back. This week she announced that she plans to "depart from the club scene to explore new horizons," with a final club show in her hometown during Red Bull Music Festival on Sept. 20. 

It's a decision Davidson has alluded to in interviews over the past year, but one she hasn't been so forthright about until now. Speaking with CBC Music the day after her announcement, Davidson says she actually decided to leave the club scene a year ago, around her birthday. 

Since the 2016 release of her third solo album, Adieux au dancefloor, Davidson's profile has been steadily rising, and she knew that October 2018 would bring the release of Working Class Woman, followed by a significant tour. The reality of always creating — and the effects that can have on you — is a key theme on that latest album, and Davidson was dealing with it in real time. 

"It was a really strange time for me, because I knew I should be excited about my album," she says, over the phone from her Montreal home, just back from touring in Berlin. "And I was. And at the same time, I was terrified to go back on tour because I was really struggling with health in general. So I made this pact with myself: OK, well, just take a break, you know? Take a sabbatical year, next year … I needed to stop." 

It was hard. I hated myself for it. I'm not proud of this. I'm proud that I've stopped. And that's why I can talk about it to you, but I wouldn't have mentioned [it] five months ago.- Marie Davidson

The health struggles she refers to started about two years ago, while she was living in Berlin. Her insomnia became chronic, which she says "leads to a lot of things, but basically anxiety, and I struggled with my health." She started taking sleeping pills, and became addicted to them. 

"I started to feel like I really needed those pills," she says. "It was hard. I hated myself for it. I'm not proud of this. I'm proud that I've stopped. And that's why I can talk about it to you, but I wouldn't have mentioned [it] five months ago." 

Davidson says she hasn't taken a sleeping pill since April, having quit cold turkey in the spring ("It's one of the hardest things I had to go through in my life. And I did it and I went on tour"). She self-describes as having an addictive behaviour, with sleeping pills the most recent item on a list: "I was an alcoholic in my 20s … I cut down the drinking but I started to use cocaine and other drugs a lot. And then I kind of stopped using hard drugs, but I kept using the pill to sleep … it's just moving on, from addiction to addiction."

She views work as another addiction, which is something Davidson says she needs to explore. The decision to take a break came from not being able to resolve anything because she didn't have the time. Working, travelling, creating, composing: "There's not much time left to work on yourself. And I did anyway. I do therapy, and I also do sports and meditation, you know, but these things, they take time. It takes time to heal."

Davidson has been open in interviews about being in therapy, starting with psychoanalysis a few years ago. In Working Class Woman, there's a track titled "The Psychologist," where the audio is layered so that Davidson is having a conversation with said psychologist, and we're left wondering whether the psychologist is helpful or a hindrance. Ultimately, though, Davidson has said it's about having to start the work of healing yourself.

"I would have never been able to make this decision a few years ago," she says. "But since last year, I feel closer to myself. So it's easier for me to know what I need and what I want. And I feel less and less the need to please people and I feel more and more the need to please myself. So I make music for myself. I make decisions that are good for me, and not necessarily good for other people. But this is what I need to do right now." 

Just because she's leaving the club scene, though, doesn't mean she won't be creating. Davidson's previous efforts fit loosely in a creative range from art house to dance music, focusing on the latter with Working Class Woman, using spoke-word vocals over driving, sometimes unnerving club beats. Her new work, though, will focus on a "lyrical and very melodic album."

"I want to make chansons, you know?" she says. "I want to tell stories and sing." 

Sandwiched between now and Davidson's Sept. 20 club retirement is the Polaris Music Prize, for which Working Class Woman is shortlisted. With the gala on Sept. 16, Davidson says she doesn't expect to win, but she's honoured to be nominated.

"I'm very conscious of the fact that on a more broader level, mainstream level, what I do is very weird," she says. "And I'm a little bit of an alien out there. So I'm happy to represent that diversity. I'm really happy to be the weirdo, and not winning, and just being there to show that you can do something different. It is possible."