Austin John Winkler Opens Up About Health Crisis, Sobriety + Song That Saved His Life
Welcome back, Austin John Winkler. The former Hinder vocalist was last heard on his 2016 EP Love Sick Radio, but he's experienced a rather harrowing experience over the last few years, now approaching three years of sobriety after being hospitalized and treated for liver and kidney failure.
Winkler has just made his musical return with the new song and video "SuperJaded," which delves into his struggles with alcohol addiction and some of the toxicity of relationships caused as a result. It's a powerful and emotionally raw lead single for the musician, with an even more personal impact on the singer that he details in our interview below, calling it a song that "saved his life" just by writing and playing it.
In his first interview since his musical return, Winkler shares his story, reveals how he rediscovered his love for music again and speaks about his goals and hopes for the future.
Plus, he gives us an update on his new music and what he'd like to achieve moving forward. Check out the chat, and watch Winkler's new video for "SuperJaded" below.
It was 2013 when you split from Hinder and you revealed your struggle with sobriety. In 2016, you returned with the Love Sick Radio EP, but there’s a lot more story to be told that wasn’t in the public eye. Can you fill in some of the blanks of your journey in life over that period?
Well, with Love Sick Radio, I wasn’t really super present or really sober and I think that tour was short-lived. I think we toured on it a little in 2016 and 2017. But I was a wreck. I wasn’t really happy with myself or anything that I was doing musically. I just felt lost and to be honest I just fell out of love with music and I kind of lost my way in L.A. for about two years.
Then 2019 was really, really a struggle for me. It was a really bad year. I had checked into the hospital because I felt like there was blood rushing to my head and I was hallucinating and it got so bad that all I needed was like two shots of vodka and I’d be hallucinating for the rest of the day at that point.
So I get to the hospital and I explain to the doctor that, “Look I feel like there’s blood rushing to my head,” and he was like, “Well that’s all fine and dandy, but why are you so yellow?” I don’t think I had looked in the mirror in a month and I was totally yellow. I looked like a Simpsons character.
I was in the hospital for three months straight, 24 days in the ICU. And this is really hard to talk about because I haven’t shared it, so forgive me if I get a little emotional. But it was tough. I had to relearn how to walk again and the doctor said that I was about five days away from kicking it.
It was liver and kidney failure at the same time.
So they put me on dialysis in 2019 and some of 2020. I would go for four or sometimes five times a week for five hours at a time and I had just accepted it. I was in there and I was 37 and I just accepted it. These were my people now. It was mostly older people and I had accepted that maybe it was “5 to 10 years” as they say. But I was on dialysis for nine months, and one day the doctor came in and he was like, “Well, congratulations. We’re going to try to take you off dialysis for two weeks.”
I was just so excited. I had two weeks and I literally flew to Nashville and cut “SuperJaded” actually with a ProtoCath. I still had a catheter sticking out of my chest. And those vocals that you hear on the song, we kept ‘em.
But I’ve hit the ground running so hard that I haven’t really had a chance to unpack all this stuff. I went through hell for a solid year and I had to figure out how to make my way back. But right now, in May, it will be three years sober.
But I really just had to learn how to live again. I needed all this time, even after I got off dialysis in February 2020, I just had to figure out how to get my shit together and live life and get into a routine of not wanting to drink.
I know you had been through attempts to get sober before. But was the hospitalization the turning point for you with your sobriety or had it come prior?
Absolutely. It doesn’t matter how many rehabs you go to, unless you're ready … For me, it was the situation. I had been to seven rehabs before that. Obviously it wasn’t clicking and I wasn’t ready. You can slap someone in the face until they’re blue and tell them, “It’s up to you, it’s up to you,” but until you make the decision you’re not going to get sober.
Yesterday I ran nine miles. I run every day. The first thing I do in the morning is to run at least five miles and keep my head clear. But it was such a crazy nightmare, especially as I’m telling it out loud. I thought I was done for.
You talked about getting out of dialysis and going into record “SuperJaded,” which is your new song. On the surface, you can listen and think it’s a relationship song, but as the video really reveals, it’s a relationship with alcohol in your case.
Having gone through what you’ve been through, was that a tough experience to write something so close to the bone or did you find it a more cathartic process just to be that open with your struggle?
I think it is [cathartic]. It helps me. Secrets kept me sick. And I was in love with my addiction. I loved it. It was mine and I loved the secrecy of it. I loved all of it and I always chose that and that was such a part of me.
But “SuperJaded,” I am talking about addiction, but I am also talking about relationships that were in my life, and I have to say goodbye to that person [I was]. I had to say goodbye to him, but playing that song and writing it saved my life every time I played it.
And to be honest, when that video was shot, I had three people who were extras come up to me on that shoot and just start spilling their story. It’s a powerful song and I just needed to share it and do it justice and let everything show off who I am.
Austin John Winkler, "SuperJaded"
You mentioned that you’re still unpacking a lot of the emotions of this period in your life. Going through rehab and getting to this point in sobriety, you’ve likely uncovered quite a bit about yourself. How has this period impacted you as an artist and a songwriter?
Sharing my story is important, and [so is] being vulnerable. I’m a lot more vulnerable in my writing and that’s definitely been coming up.
I know “SuperJaded” is just one track, but there’s more. At least in my experience, I have to write from personal experience because that’s just who I am. As an artist, just being so close to the other side, it really puts me into a place where I don’t fear anything anymore. But I think the more vulnerable I can be in my art, A) it helps me and B) it could help other people.
While the song was just released, you’ve been back on social media for some time prior. Have you started hearing stories from some of your fans and followers now that you’ve opened up about your experience?
Absolutely, and the response from that has been pretty overwhelming.
I’ve seen it on my social media too where there are people who are just kind of leaning on each other, revealing their struggles in a thread and other people will be like, “Yeah, me too.” And they’ll be like, “Here, here is how I’ve done it and this is what works for me.” And really that’s what I want “SuperJaded” to be about is people coming together to tell their stories and leaning on each other so they’re not alone.
And I was alone, or at least I felt like I was alone. But there are so many people that struggle with it. My story is not unique, but it is a story that I think needs to be heard so that people know they’re not alone and fighting whatever it is they are fighting for.
And likewise, have you found support amongst your peers in the music industry as you’ve gone through this?
Yes, and especially when I was connected and still doing music. I leaned on some artists for support as well. And MusiCares, they have helped me out tremendously. I would love to do something with them now that I am sharp and have my wits about me. I would love to do whatever I can for them.
We talked a a bit about relationships, and there were a lot of relationships along the way I’m sure were affected by alcohol. Can you discuss what your relationships are now with your former band or others who were close to you in these dark periods of your life?
Well, I think “SuperJaded” comes into play here as well, because it’s a lot about letting go of those relationships because of the turmoil and because it was unrepairable. It was just all so toxic. Every relationship I had while I was in it, I don’t have it anymore. I had to let ‘em go, and it’s hard to do that.
I got to the point where I would drink half a bottle of vodka on the way to get coffee. I would go into the Starbucks, go into the bathroom, drink half of the bottle, take the half bottle of vodka and put it in the trash can, and then I’d come back a half an hour later with the person I was with, would excuse myself to go to the bathroom and come back and finish the bottle.
So that will show you, that was what I was loyal to in my relationships - that!
Austin John Winkler, "SuperJaded" Single Artwork
Earlier you discussed falling out of love with music. Obviously you are back doing music now. What was it that brought you back?
To be honest, it was a C chord.
I was on dialysis and I just picked up the guitar one day and started strumming again. I had had this “SuperJaded” idea, and I know the lyrics are simple, but I fucking mean every word of it. I was playing the chorus, and I was playing in A Minor and I accidentally played it in C and it was the chorus. It was that coming together, and it was a little spark. It’s these little sparks in general that just keep me going.
After I had finally written something, it was like, “Fuck this feels good again. This feels like me again.” And I just kind of ran with it.
I’m absolutely in love with music again (laughs). It may seem weird, but I was going to dialysis every day. I don’t want to pick up the guitar after that. It’s five hours a day, sitting there, doing nothing. So when I finally pulled that nugget out strumming the guitar, it sparked a fire in me.
On social media, fans have heard some things you’ve played along the way. I know you’re working on new music, but will any of the things you’ve previously shared in your online interactions be making its way to the new album?
Absolutely. I just had gotten to the point where I hadn’t put anything out and I just have so much fire right now and I needed to come straight out of the gate with a video and a song.
I just wanted to say, “Hey guys, I’m okay. I made it back from the other side and I’m me again,” kind of thing. I had to get that out because it was killing me. It was such a weight off my shoulders to share. I wanted to let my fans know that I’m okay and their support hasn’t gone to waste.
And I am ABSOLUTELY doing a record. I have the songs, and I am shaping it all together at the moment. I don’t have a manager, I don’t have an agent. I don’t have a label, so I’m just doing this all on my own.
The pandemic has given us all more time at home. You’re not out there touring, but speaking of relationships, how do you feel about your relationship with the road. How do you feel about potentially touring again and are you ready for that? Do you know how you’ll approach that now sober?
I’ve definitely learned that the biggest thing about myself is routine. I know what works for me and what doesn’t. If I’m on the road, the first thing I’m going to do is find a treadmill or just go out and start running. I know I would do that first and foremost if I was on the road.
But really, being around it doesn’t really bother me. I blame and credit that looking like a Simpsons character will scare you sober. I didn’t even notice it and the fact that the doctor was like, “Hopefully, your color will come back. Sometimes It doesn’t.” I’m like, “I’m gonna be fucking yellow for the rest of my life.”
As far as touring goes, you had mentioned having to relearn how to walk? In terms of playing onstage again, do you feel you’re back to where you would like to be?
Absolutely, and if you see the video, I’ve still got that fire in me. I didn’t know if I’d have it.
That’s a scary thing — so scary — but as soon as I grabbed that microphone, I was like, “Fuck, I’m alive again.” I didn’t know how I’d feel cause it had been so long. It felt fucking fantastic to get in there and just rip that video out. As soon as I did that video, I knew. I was like, “I’m going to have to do this ride again.” I’m addicted to that too.
“SuperJaded” deals with some of your story and I’d expect we’d get some more of that in other material, but wanted to ask if there are other things inspiring you as a songwriter right now?
I’ve got enough material right now to keep me going off of past relationships and stuff or things that I need to talk about and even deal with that I can get out onto a song. That’s just the best form of therapy for me, not to take any credit away from my own therapist who is awesome.
We’re just at the start of 2022 and you’ve got a song out now. What else would you like to accomplish this year?
I am still relearning how to do everything to get back into the swing of things. Ideally, I’d love to get out there and tour and get more songs out there. A summer or later summer tour would be amazing. I’m not saying that that’s happening, but that’s something that would be a goal. I would like to put at least a few more singles out with the album attached to it.
Having been on this journey, is there a message you’d like to share?
I’d just like to say, “You’re definitely not alone. There’s light on the other side.”
If I could go back and even tell myself something, I look back at these old interviews of me, and I just want to tell that kid that he doesn’t have to say yes to everything.
I just felt like there was nobody there and I felt like I had to say yes to everything. And I just did it to appease people. Sometimes I feel I slipped further into my addiction because I was in a situation where I didn’t even want to address it because it was uncomfortable so I poured booze on top of that.
I don’t know if people talk about that enough, but it definitely was a thing for me.
Absolutely, and I’m sure that there are pressures on you within the industry where you feel like you have to go along with the flow in certain situations.
Oh my god, yes. But I’m approaching it differently. I’m coming at it from a different angle this time. I’m a little sharper. And I just want to tell that kid, "You don’t have to do everything."
So that being said, what would be the goal you’d like to see with your career? Would you want to get back to the level of fame you had with Hinder or is it merely just enough to make the music, express what you want to say and get it heard by an audience?
That was my goal the first time, and it is my goal this time. But as far as goals, I would just like to let my music reach as far and as wide as it can with people who resonate with it. And if I can do that, I’m happy. One of the things that I got addicted to is the connections with the people and I miss them.
Our thanks to Austin John Winkler for the interview. "SuperJaded" is currently available via Apple Music here and here and Amazon Music here. You can keep up with the singer via his Instagram account.
If you or someone you know if struggling with drug and/or alcohol dependence, help is available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. To speak to someone on the phone, dial 1-800-622-HELP (1-800-622-4357) or send a text message to 1-800-487-4889.