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Tell Me Más: Neysa Blay’s Sobriety Journey Has Transformed Her as a Music Artist

When indie rock musician Neysa Blay sat down to start writing songs for her new album, “Nada es Suficiente,” she found herself in an unusual predicament. She’d been sober for nearly a decade at that point, putting considerable distance between her turbulent past and the more placid present. “I’m really good at writing when there’s chaos and noise in my head, and when things are kind of bumpy,” she says. But now she’d overcome so many of her inner demons. “How do I learn how to write from a good place?”

The LP, which drops in May, bridges the gap between her innate rebellious spirit and the more conscientious Blay that has emerged over the past few years. Previous singles, such as the softer “Te Gusta/Me Gusta” and no-nonsense “Quise Que Fueras Tú,” toggle between vulnerable and headstrong; she might be rough, but her heart is undoubtedly open. Her newest track, “Úsame,” channels 1980s hair metal in its sound and visuals. But to get to where she is now, the budding rock star had to survive a difficult road.

Raised in the beach-friendly town of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, Blay’s adolescence was marked by an inner tug-of-war between the love she has for her hometown and the constraints it imposed not just on her career, but on her as a person. As an openly gay woman who recognized her orientation very early on, she felt hampered by the societal mores of her surroundings.

“That created a lot of angst because I didn’t understand why. I felt like a part of me had to pretend. The town all of a sudden would become too small for me,” she shares. As time passed and she grew into her teenage years, the colors of Cabo Rojo began to take on a different shade. “I remember [being] young, free, happy, fulfilled, and then I started growing up. [And a] sense of doom started falling in,” Blay adds.

Her only respite then was music, which she began to explore between the ages of 8 and 10 after seeing students who were taking music classes out of an office space her father rented to a local music academy. From there she began to take guitar and singing lessons, which didn’t surprise her parents who noticed during her younger years that she had a knack for song.

“[They] would play a lot of boleros, and I would love that music,” she recalls. “They’d hear me singing along and they’d be like: ‘There’s so much passion there. There’s so much emotion. You’re not a 40-year-old chasing a married man.'”

As she grew older, the encroaching pressure of how she was expected to live her life was beginning to push her towards volatile spaces. As with many people who go down the same path, Blay found herself searching for ways to abate the anxieties that were overwhelming her. This led to what would become a years-long stretch of substance abuse that would nearly derail her relationship with her family, with partners, and her career dreams.

For nearly seven years, Blay spiraled through a life almost entirely dominated by extreme drug and alcohol use. She moved to San Juan, where she found herself in circles that directly and indirectly encouraged her lifestyle. She would attempt to lean into her music but found herself unable to.

“Because of my addiction, I wasn’t functional, so I couldn’t do gigs. I wouldn’t show up. I would miss a lot of opportunities.”

“Because of my addiction, I wasn’t functional, so I couldn’t do gigs. I wouldn’t show up. I would miss a lot of opportunities,” she says. She admits to crafting unreasonable ideas about how to become a working artist — ideas spurred by the effects of her vices. “I had a very distorted idea of what [pursuing music] would look like. I thought I could be singing while pumping gas and somebody would discover me. I had a very romanticized fantasy vision of how you do this.”

Eventually, she hit what she refers to as her “ultimate emotional bottom”.

“I was very broken. I lost everything. I couldn’t keep a job . . . My parents had just kicked me out of the house, and they had stopped any financial help,” she says, adding how she had also just gone through a breakup as well.

That Christmas she was invited over to her parent’s home, where she was given an option: enroll in a wilderness therapy program and try to overcome her addictions. As Blay tells it, she felt “beat” at this point in her life, and accepted, deciding she had nothing else to lose. “That was a Thursday. Saturday, I was flying out.”

She recognizes what stage of the addiction cycle she was in at this time, and how difficult it was for her loved ones to get her there. “Dealing with an addict, it’s like you can’t save them, you can’t rescue them. But when the time is appropriate, you got to let them hit that bottom,” she reflects. “If you take a person that’s unwilling into treatment, [the help is] going to go in this way and out this way. You don’t want to get better, and you kind of have to want it for yourself.”

Looking back, Blay credits wilderness therapy with saving her life. As opposed to rehab, which she says can sometimes be “cushy,” wilderness therapy is an outdoor program of intense activities for people suffering from behavioral disorders and substance abuse that include hiking, camping, and more, with the goal of “enhancing personal and interpersonal growth.”

“They broke me and then built me back up,” she confesses. “When you go in they don’t tell you when you leave, which is different from treatment because when you go to treatment, you’re like, ‘I’m going to do 30 days,’ and you’re already one foot in, one foot out . . . Here [there’s] no future information. I don’t know when I’m getting out. I don’t know what we’re doing today. I don’t know where we’re hiking today. And that really helped release a sense of control of my life.”

After three and half months, she was finally deemed ready to leave the program. From there, she spent another three months at a treatment center in Chicago, to underline the progress she had made. Eventually, the day came when she was told she could relocate to wherever she wanted. “I’m already thinking in my head, what do you really want to do? Music. Music has always been in the background. Music has always been the priority,” she says.

She convinced her parents to trust her to move to Miami, despite it being as they called it, the “cocaine capital.” Initially living in a treatment center followed by a halfway house, Blay soon found herself in her own apartment, with a job, going back to school, and getting around with a scooter.

“I was pretty much learning how to be a person; how to be a normal, functioning human being. And I think it was one of the greatest experiences,” she says.

In 2017, she connected with Sam Allison, an engineer at the iconic Criteria Recording Studios, and recorded “Veneno,” her first official single. That song made its way to experienced producer Marthin Chan, who became a fan and produced her debut EP, “Destrúyeme.”

Songwriting and working on her craft while sober opened up an entirely new world of possibilities for Blay, who says “All of a sudden I was able to finish things, and not stop because anxiety was too crippling.”

Not too long ago, she chose to move back to Puerto Rico, settling back in Cabo Rojo. She jokingly referred to it as “returning to the scene of the crime.” But there were earnest reasons behind the decision as well. Her relationship with her parents had grown stronger and more accepting since they saw how much she’d grown in the last decade and even embraced her new partner as well.

But for Blay, there was another, deeper reason: “I wanted to tackle the sense of not belonging, to tackle the feeling of, as a lesbian, I’m not welcomed and loved in the community. I wanted to tackle all of the negatives. I wanted to take that narrative, change it, and own it,” she says. “I wanted to create new memories. I came with a mission of reclaiming Cabo Rojo for myself.” Her first gig after moving back? Onstage at Cabo Rojo’s Pride celebration, with her father in attendance supporting her.

Before that was a creative sojourn to Mexico City, where she teamed up with producer Felipe “Pipe” Ceballos and cooked up “Nada es Suficiente.” Making this album, years into sobriety, was a learning experience. She realized the way she accessed and channeled her emotions had changed considerably. Where she once wrote from a place of a chaotic mindset and “spitting fucking venom,” she now approached the same scenarios from a contemplative, self-reflective angle.

“I think that’s been one of the biggest changes in sobriety in terms of creativity,” she says. “I’ve grown and I’m also allowing my songwriting to grow along with me on this journey of being a good person.”

Juggling the responsibility of maintaining her sobriety while also working through the anxieties of being an independent artist, without the privilege of self-medicating, has led Blay to incorporate new tools she hopes to share with others. She’s a proponent of DBT, or dialectical behavioral techniques, which allow her to face anxiety in healthier ways.

“There’s simple stuff like realizing when you’re anxious and how it’s manifesting, and taking ownership of it by self-soothing. Self-soothing can be taking a nice hot bath for 10 minutes. It can be some breathing exercises,” she shares. “And then there’s… radical acceptance, [which] is when you have to accept that things aren’t under your control. And I love the word radical. Because it is. It’s just, ‘Shut the fuck up. You’re not in control. You have to accept that this is the way that things are. You can either cope with it, accept them, or you can just spend the whole day trying to fight something you can’t.'”

It’s a rule that sums up her journey so far—one that led her to emerge from darkness and now points her on the path toward making her longtime dreams a reality.

“With time, what I have learned is that whenever I’m feeling anxious or fearful, that’s the direction I have to run towards. Right now in my life, I see the anxiety and I’m like, ‘Buckle up,” Blay says. “That’s where we got to go.’ Like, ‘Oh, this is terrifying. I have a lot of anxiety.’ Okay, keep fucking going. This is where you need to be.”

POPSUGAR: First celebrity crush?

Neysa Blay: Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz” 💖

POPSUGAR: Favorite mocktail?

Neysa Blay: Ginger beer, lime juice, mint leaves and soda water

POPSUGAR: Favorite beach in Puerto Rico?

Neysa Blay: Playa Buyé on a weekday at 9 a.m.

POPSUGAR: Three artists you have on repeat right now?

Neysa Blay: A very gay playlist: Charli XCX, Troye Sivan, and Slayyyter

POPSUGAR: Favorite mantra?

Neysa Blay: “If they can do it, so can I.”

POPSUGAR: Favorite guitar?

Neysa Blay: Gibson SG (played by Angus Young)

POPSUGAR: Dream collaboration?

Neysa Blay: Marilina Bertoldi

Image Source: Raymond O’Brien/Design by Becky Jiras

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