The interview was wrapping up just a few minutes before her show was to start.
Was there anything you’d like to add that my questions didn’t touch upon?, I asked.
“We didn’t even talk about my sobriety,” said Erin Harkes.
The local musician and, as of four years ago, comedian is never shy about the subject of alcoholism. Her sobriety has been covered in newspaper features. It’s a part of her comedy skit.
I didn’t want to ask, because I didn’t want readers to think it defined you.
“It’s very much a part of me,” said Harkes. “I would not be who I am without my sobriety.”
According to the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., roughly one in twelve people in the United States suffer from alcohol or substance abuse. Harkes has been sober for six years. Those participating in Alcoholics Anonymous carry a token depicting the length of their respective sobriety. A reminder. A last extension of a helping hand before one walks into a bar.
Harkes spends her life in bars. According to last year’s schedule, she worked 274 shows; on a 365-day calendar, that’s three-quarters of her days. The musical comedienne quit her day job about four years ago. “It’s a hard thing to do when you’re surrounded by …,” she said, gesturing behind her: a bar that stretched the length of the room, lights bouncing off bottles of liquor and the shiny metal of beer taps. In a career that often obligates her to perform in front of her former vice, she expressed pride in her ability to maintain the course.
But, Harkes said she understands not to be overconfident. She’s her own manager, and her own accountant. “No one does me better than me,” said said. She’s her own boss in a line of work that requires a thick skin impervious to crowds unreceptive to her jokes, indifferent to her songs, or the occasional heckler. It’s also needed when she listens to her body, feels a familiar urge, and packs up her equipment. She said it doesn’t happen often, but it boils down to a short conversation between herself and the venue owner: the owner either understands or she doesn’t play there again. Her attitude is not out of contempt. In the end, she said, she has to take care of herself.
Despite her propensity for travel — again, 274 shows last year — Harkes has attempted to be more selective with her shows. When she first quit her job, she said she would take every opportunity presented her way. Last year, she attempted to taper off the number of shows by selecting quality over quantity. It was a means to prevent herself from burnout. There’s also the balance between her music career, and her comedy one.
“If I wasn’t doing music full time, I’d probably be doing a lot more comedy,” said Harkes. Her reputation is strongest with music, so it pays more. “It’s like you couldn’t take an unpaid work day to go do whatever your hobby is. So, it’s really hard for me to take comedy shows. They have to be really worth it. … I have to sit down and seriously look at it. Is it really worth it? Is it a good investment? Sometimes the return, you don’t make any money at all doing comedy. So, I just work really hard on the other end to supplement it.”
So, you’re a double threat like a Bo Jackson?
“[Laughs.] Do you really have to make a sports reference to a musician?” she asks.
“I prefer Bo Jackson.”