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Rae Lydia struggled to accept the loss of her brother before returning to making music.EXPAND
Rae Lydia struggled to accept the loss of her brother before returning to making music.
Cari Frederick

How a Phoenix Singer-Songwriter Used Music to Cope With Her Brother's Overdose

Today when Rae Lydia takes the stage, she’s all smiles. Her sweet, soothing voice instantly invites audience members to go on a musical journey with her as she sings her “happy-sounding sad songs.” Her website greets visitors with the message “Like a Rae of M@therfuxking Sunshine.” A placard she displays on stage with her contact info is bright yellow and adorned with flowers.

It was only a few years ago when it was impossible for Lydia to get out of bed. Staring at the ceiling, “wasting the sun,” she was paralyzed by the loss of her 19-year-old brother to a heroin overdose.

The siblings were only 15 months apart in age. Lydia’s loss of her younger brother was shocking, confusing, and life-changing. But like there can be no light without darkness, the Phoenix singer-songwriter’s grief has evolved into something she carries with her, not something keeping her from the world.

“Since talking about it and telling people what I and my brother have been through, a lot of people have come to me and opened their hearts,” says Lydia, whose full name is Rachel Lydia Ellis. “A lot of the shame is what’s keeping people quiet. That’s keeping information out of people’s hands and keeping people isolated, which just makes it worse. I feel like just talking about my experiences might help somebody.”

Rae Lydia performs at the Listening Room in Phoenix.EXPAND
Rae Lydia performs at the Listening Room in Phoenix.
Jimothy Martin

Lydia, who is 26, has always expressed herself through music, from when she was a kid who would harmonize with her family to “Goodnight Sweetheart” before bedtime, to when the self-taught guitarist posted her first original song about a childhood crush to her MySpace page when she was 14.

But after her brother died, the summer before her senior year of studying biomedical science at Northern Arizona University, she experienced writer’s block. She says it took her a year and finishing her degree before she could process what she was feeling in musical form.

“Once I did, it just flowed out of me very, very quickly,” Lydia says. The songs that came from the trauma, as well as musings on existentialism, formed her 2016 four-song EP Gravitas.

The EP beings with “Hibernation,” an acoustic ukulele-driven track commenting on Lydia’s emergence from depression and foray back into the outside living world. “Joshua Tree, Pt. 2,” is a tribute to her departed brother, Joshua. “It’s time to unpack the guilt I’ve been carrying ’round,” Lydia sings. “It’s not that I don’t miss you, you know that I do. I just can’t have my life become the death of you.”

Lydia says she had no inkling of her brother’s addiction to opioids. They were always close throughout their lives, and even now, she still calls him her best friend. The last time she saw Joshua was when he dropped her off at the airport for a volunteer trip in Nicaragua. It was there that she got the call her brother had died.

Lydia mentions a local organization as a resource for addicts, called Shot in the Dark, which is a Phoenix-based syringe access program offering clean syringes, syringe disposal, treatment referrals, educational resources, and more to drug users in the Valley. Joshua had started the detox process before relapsing and overdosing.

“Often, opioid addiction will start because someone is in pain, and they go and get a prescription from their doctor,” Lydia says. “That makes them become dependent and then addicted to that substance. Then they can’t get that prescription anymore, so they turn to other uses, whether it’s to numb whatever physical pain they’re having, or mental/emotional pain ... It’s affecting so many people, and unfortunately there’s such a shame in talking about it.”

Lydia always carried her guitar with her, even during bouts of homelessness in high school.EXPAND
Lydia always carried her guitar with her, even during bouts of homelessness in high school.
Francisco Cordova

Lydia talks about her tragic personal experiences during her shows. The sad story is such a juxtaposition to the positivity she emanates on stage. Now a full-time musician, Lydia traded in her aspirations to go the MD or physician assistant route to instead heal people a different way: through her music.

She often plays open mics at Shady Park in Tempe. They’re hosted by Travis Ryder, singer/guitarist of local band Japhy’s Descent. Ryder says in the past year as he has watched Lydia perform, he has witnessed a growth and drive that stands out among Valley musicians.

“She’s genuine, kind, has an honest approach and beautiful voice and songwriting,” Ryder says. “All the good intentions you can tell just shine out of her while she’s playing and how she interacts with the crowd. Her positivity is one of the biggest things that shines through.”

Besides sharing her story at shows around the Valley at places like Tempe Center for the Arts and Rogue Bar, Lydia also recently received a City of Tempe Vibrant City Grant. The grant will support her Rae Lydia Project, whose funding began through a GoFundMe campaign. The Rae Lydia Project will bring live music and songwriter sessions to the Valley homeless population at local food banks. Lydia is currently working with a cohort to launch the nonprofit, which should begin operating this spring.

Lydia experienced bouts of homelessness herself in high school. During her senior year, she sometimes slept in the park to escape an abusive living situation. No matter what friend’s home she found refuge in or where she slept for the night, one thing was always a constant presence: her Dean guitar, which she still plays today.

“My guitar was one of the few things I was able to carry around with me when I was really struggling,” Lydia says. “I recognize how important it is to have music. If you don’t have a reliable source of electricity, you’re not going to have a lot of access to music you want to listen to, let alone be able to go out to bars and pay entry for live music. It’s such a human right, I believe, to experience that kind of art.”

Amid her philanthropic efforts, Lydia is also working on an upcoming 10-song album, due for release this fall. Titled Lux, the Latin word for “light,” Lydia describes the music as having a “deep sunshine” theme. There will still be some heartbreak-themed tunes, but Lydia says the album will be more of a “feels album,” and less sad and contemplative.

“If there’s anything I want my music to do, it’s at least to let people know they’re not alone in what they’re going through,” Lydia says. “You can’t have light without shadows.”

For more information, visit raelydia.com.

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