Hootie and the Blowfish Ex-Band Member Jim Sonefeld
Sweet Surrender: Hootie and the Blowfish’s Drummer Jim Sonefeld Leaves A Hard Beat For A New Heart Beat
Written by Jess Fierro
Standing before nearly 7,000 fans at a recent Hootie and the Blowfish concert, ex-band member Jim Sonefeld preformed one of his new Christian songs with his previous band mates. Later, after hearing only about half of the song, a listener commented online, “I think he’s singing about God!”
Indeed he was. This past summer, Sonefeld released his first contemporary Christian album, focusing on his freedom from addiction and his changed life. A talented drummer, songwriter and now lead singer, Sonefeld took time to share with Risen about his struggles with alcohol, broken relationships and the void that finally forced him to seek help. Today, with a clear perspective of the past, this musician is sharing his experience and message through new songs and reaching out to help others who battle addiction.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: What were you like as a child?
Jim Sonefeld: I would say I was shy, but competitive, if I could make that contrast. I think most of my favorite childhood memories came on soccer fields [laughs] or anything involving the potential for a ball and chasing it. I love sports. I was good at most things I picked up. I had a big family of boys and a little sister surrounding me – we all were pretty active. So life usually involved a soccer ball, or playing some tennis, or basketball in the driveway with my family and friends.
Risen Magazine: Was it like that through your whole childhood; through high school?
Jim Sonefeld: Yes! In fact, it’s probably the only thing that got me to the University of South Carolina – that I still had a sizeable dream in my heart of playing professional soccer, or taking it to whatever the next level was.
Risen Magazine: You started pursuing music at a young age also. Being part of Hootie and the Blowfish, when was the moment you knew that it was going to be really special?
Jim Sonefeld: It was always something very special because it’s rare to be part of four guys in their early 20s who firmly believe in the same goal; to write songs and travel, and persevere. We just loved doing that and we loved the atmosphere. That was super special. I had never really had that so equally with three other guys. [Regarding] the special moment, I don’t think I ever thought, “Oh, my gosh – we’ve just broken through! This is happening!” It was all a smooth, sort of ramp-up from about ’89 to ’94 and then things definitely went to another level in ’95. But even then, you’re just playing music, and your fans are there, and you sort of take it for granted, like this is normal.
Risen Magazine: As one of the main writers for the band, where did the lyrics come from for you?
Jim Sonefeld: My lyrics are all life experience; the love and the pain that I was living came out in my lyrics. I also did do a bit of writing about a lot of other peoples’ love and pain. So I just can’t say it was about me. I could also write a love song about someone else’s love. It didn’t always have to be my own heart.
Risen Magazine: Some would say a number of those songs are among the most recognizable in the English language. Was there ever a pressure to outperform yourself when something you’ve written resonates across the country or around the world? Did you think, “I’ve got to do better than that to keep on the upswing?”
Jim Sonefeld: There’s always slight pressure we put on ourselves as songwriters to write a better song. That’s the same whether there are 10 people listening, or 100, or 10,000. I think when you bring in record companies and budgets and marketing plans from separate entities, that can really add pressure that’s not your own; it’s other people’s pressure.
There’s a difference between believing in a god and believing God. When I got sober, that thought really stood out as a very important question I needed to answer for myself
Risen Magazine: That’s the real business side of it.
Jim Sonefeld: Yeah. The business side is something most songwriters don’t know they’re going to have to take part in. It’s destroyed much better songwriters than myself along the way. We got great advice from David Crosby, from Crosby, Stills and Nash, when we were recording our first Atlantic record, and we asked him specifically, “Dude, you’re here in the studio singing backup vocals for this ‘Hold My Hand’ song. We’ve been performing for five years, tell us something that can help us along this path – just in case the path ends in 90 days.” He said, “Make sure you can separate the music from the music business.” And that was the best advice I’d heard at that point, because they are two distinctly different things. And if you do mix them, you’re probably going to become disgruntled, or jaded or frustrated.
Risen Magazine: You were writing songs and drumming in Hootie and the Blowfish. How did your role develop?
Jim Sonefeld: I spent a couple of years in a local cover band learning how to sing and drum, and I dabbled in songwriting. So I had a little bit of practice. But in our Hootie forum, we were all equal. We were all learning how to write songs. We all thought we could sing. It turned out only one of us could [laughs]. In a lot of ways, we made it up as we went along.
Risen Magazine: That’s the key to the creative process. You don’t necessarily have a blueprint for it and it just kind of develops.
Jim Sonefeld: Absolutely – that’s well put. It’s creative, therefore, there’s no standard, necessarily, besides trying to keep your song under four minutes [laughs]!
Risen Magazine: As the band became very successful and as you had more success and fame, money and ultimately access to whatever your heart wanted back then, did you ever feel satisfaction at the time like, “Wow, this is exactly what I want” or did you think “There’s always going to be more?”
Jim Sonefeld: I think the satisfaction in the early ‘90s was I get to write songs and travel around, and our fan base is growing slightly – that was our simple attitude then. But when the big time hit – it challenges your motives. That was something I think we did well on, in that our motives were pretty good; to write good music and to have people sing and dance and frolic. That really didn’t change when the big time hit.
Risen Magazine: I’ve read about you back then and now, and you’ve been very open about addiction in your life. Could you walk us through how it began and how it affected your career?
Jim Sonefeld: Well, I think addiction for me has always been a subtle foe. I think I always fit in enough where I didn’t party too hard, yet I would never turn down a drink. Rarely was peer pressure a factor. I just didn’t have the filter that most normal people have to say when it’s enough. After some years of that it led to using alcohol, and then drugs medicinally, to numb the real pain and the void I had in my heart. Unfortunately for most addicts, they’re unaware that this is what they’re doing.
Risen Magazine: How did it affect your personality and how did you gauge that there may have been something wrong?
Jim Sonefeld: You know what, I only learned most of what I know today about my addiction from getting sober. It’s when you get sober that you’re able to start looking back and can say, “Whoa, that wasn’t right,” or “I had a trend in x-behavior or the way I dealt with relationships.” It’s only in cleaning up that you can look back and start earmarking your maladjustments. While I was under the grips of alcohol, I had no clue anything was wrong. At the end, and by the end, in the early 2000s, it hurt a lot and I had a sense in my heart and in my head that something wasn’t right. But, that’s not enough to get most addicts to quit.
Risen Magazine: How did addiction affect your family and personal life?
Jim Sonefeld: It certainly leaves a lot of carnage. I would say that broken relationships were the norm, unhealthy relationships, most definitely. But the blessing is that at some point, by God’s grace only, I became aware that it was too much, and it was too wrong, and it hurt. And I was able to get to that point and that’s a blessing. All of the crap I had to go through, and the amends that I’ve had to make for my bad behavior, were really what it took to get me to where I am today. I am blessed in that sense.
Risen Magazine: You had a Catholic school background so how had that faith played a role in your life up to that point?
Jim Sonefeld: I had a problem in that all I had was belief in “a god” and that I believed that there was a god out there. I didn’t accept or understand, or as Beth Moore (Speaker, author & Bible teacher) would say, “I didn’t believe God.” There’s a difference between believing in a god and believing God. When I got sober, that thought really stood out as a very important question I needed to answer for myself. Do I just want to sit around and simply believe that there’s something out there, or do I actually believe that those promises are for me and that life could be for me?
Risen Magazine: When was the defining moment when you knew you needed the Lord, that it was more than just knowing about him, but actually knowing him?
Jim Sonefeld: I spent a couple of years in a 12-Step program, and I don’t know at what point, but somewhere along the way I realized that it was God who was working in my life and that was what got me sober. Maybe my whole way to where I was two years into sobriety was just God – God doing his wonderful, extraordinary work. It wasn’t me, or even those around me. It was him the whole time. That was part of me believing God. Because I got to the clearing where life finally didn’t hurt so badly, and who was there in the clearing, but God. So, that was a big moment.
Risen Magazine: What specific changes did you feel you had to make to keep this new commitment?
Jim Sonefeld: My most specific change has been a daily surrender. That’s what I need as a person, as a recovering addict. I need to tell my thick skull and my heart every day, “I’m his” and “Thank You, Lord.” I need for him to take me and guide me and let me serve him, if I can. I’m a bit stubborn.
Risen Magazine: How accepting of your decision were the people in your life back then? Which ones are still around today?
Jim Sonefeld: Getting sober was very good for those around me [laughs]. They were very supportive. I found it more challenging to be bold in Christ than I found it to be bold in the announcement that I was recovering from my addiction.
Risen Magazine: It takes courage to stand for your beliefs. What tools are important to help in living your faith? The 12-step recovery program provides tools for daily living. Do some of those tools overlap with the tools you use to live out your faith?
Jim Sonefeld: Absolutely! It’s a spiritual program; any of the 12-step groups are spiritual programs. They’re also anonymous which leaves most people to not publically announce their participation. But the spiritual principles that I know today, that I learned partly through 12-step programs, are for everyone – for Christians, for people who are not addicted – because we’re all sinners, we’re all sick in some way. I learned that I had to go all the way back and look at the beginning; look at my whole life. I had a lot of signs that were out there, believe me, God was trying to hook me in long before I realized that it was him speaking to me.
Risen Magazine: There are a lot of folks who aren’t familiar with the 12-steps. Are there a couple [steps] that really reinforce your faith that you can cite or describe?
Jim Sonefeld: I’ll stay away from fully talking about the program, it’s not that the steps are secret, but the idea is, and it’s lasted 77 years, that would be like putting myself as being more important than the actual program – because no individual is stronger than the group of individuals trying to keep sober. But, I’ll say that what I’ve learned and the principles that Jesus has taught and the commandments that Moses brought – are the real deal! It’s the truth and I shouldn’t be afraid of it. I think that [for] most of my early Christian upbringing, I was afraid of it.
Oh, it was a big step for me to realize that I didn’t know how to pray. I was a forty-year-old man desperately asking God to guide me and I just didn’t know how to pray.
Risen Magazine: Forgiveness goes both ways; to forgive and to be forgiven. What does forgiveness look like for you?
Jim Sonefeld: Forgiveness is God’s miracle on this earth. That could be me on the receiving end, the giving end, or just reading a story about someone else’s experience in forgiveness. It is a miracle if you can receive it, if you can believe it!
Risen Magazine: If you could go back to the beginning of those Hootie days and give one piece of advice to Jim Sonefeld then, with the wisdom you have today, what would that be?
Jim Sonefeld: I would say to myself, “Be more truthful.” I think I was often afraid of the truth and I would just go the other way.
Risen Magazine: How were you inspired to follow the musical path you’re following today and development of your own band?
Jim Sonefeld: I am following a calling to be a lead singer and to sing the praises of Jesus – and not necessarily by choice. My problem is I’m inspired because I’ve received God and I believe God, but I’m also somewhat troubled by the fact that I have to learn how to become a lead singer [laughs].
Risen Magazine: How would you describe the contrast of being part of Hootie, to now performing songs of faith as the lead singer of your new band?
Jim Sonefeld: Well the best thing is that I get to sing about the celebration of life now. I wrote from the perspective of the pain of broken relationships and the pain of trying to do God’s job yourself. And now, I get to sit here and write songs where I know that I’m a little guy down here, God is a big thing out there and I finally get to write in that perspective. And that’s the proper perspective.
Risen Magazine: Can you tell me about Found, your new CD? What was the inspiration for the title? Did you find God, or did God find you?
Jim Sonefeld: He’s been waiting for me. I finally found enough courage to walk his walk. But the more I see of my life today, the more I realize how lost I was. You can get lost subtly and you can get lost drastically, but I know today, I’m found!
Risen Magazine: Your new song Calling All Prayers encourages us to pray for, and with, others. How important is prayer in your life?
Jim Sonefeld: Oh, it was a big step for me to realize that I didn’t know how to pray. I was a forty-year-old man desperately asking God to guide me and I just didn’t know how to pray. I didn’t know how to sincerely give it to him. Prayer is just a foundation for myself and for my wife. I’ve found it very powerful to pray with my spouse. It was scary at first, but I’m learning.
Risen Magazine: What has been the reaction of your former band members to the new direction you’ve taken in your personal life and your music?
Jim Sonefeld: Well I got a great compliment from our singer, Darius [Rucker], by text one day last spring saying he was just loving the new songs and so supportive. It felt real good to hear that. I just try to lead by example. I can’t judge anybody else’s level of spirituality. I can pray for them. But it is real invigorating to hear from Darius, or Mark, or Dean that they’re diggin’ my new music.
Risen Magazine: You’re also involved in a few non-musical projects. Can you tell us a little about your ministry in helping others with addiction?
Jim Sonefeld: The way that I stay sober is by putting myself in the position of a servant. So I look for others who need help staying sober, I share with them my experience, and working with them is what is going to help me stay sober today. So that is very big. I got to speak at a prayer breakfast the other day for about 300 civic leaders and Christians in our community. I am glad that my story could be of some value, but it’s God’s story when it really comes down to it.
Risen Magazine: Having come from that place, what advice would you give to someone struggling with addiction now?
Jim Sonefeld: Be brave! Look in the mirror, try and be as truthful as you can at that moment, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Obviously our greatest fault as humans, and as men, specifically, is the fear of asking somebody else for help.
Risen Magazine: How has what you’re doing now impacted your life – being a servant and helping others in their addiction?
Jim Sonefeld: It allows me to feel useful, because when you’re addicted, you’re living a life of secrets and lies, and darkness – you don’t feel very useful. That helps strengthen me certainly every day.
Risen Magazine: Where would you like to see yourself in ten years?
Jim Sonefeld: Just learning, growing the way God would see fit and living in line with his will better than I have today.
Risen Magazine: Do you have a favorite scripture, one that you’ve read during the most difficult moments or one that brings you joy, peace or assurance?
Jim Sonefeld: There are certainly many, but I’ll give you one that I read yesterday from Colossians that applies to my walk not only to addiction to a substance, but also to my greater struggle to my addiction to idol worship. It’s not just alcohol; it’s being a warrior against material goods, lust, money, success. These are very human issues every day for me. So, I have to be strong in that. The scripture is Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.” Just live in God’s joy. There is joy, laughter and love for you – and it comes through Christ. Go get him and have joy in doing it.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Winter 2012
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