“I’m a relentless optimist,” says Drake White. “I’ve always been a glass half full guy.”
Given the challenges of present-day life, that outlook has been known to earn the occasional eye roll. But if ever an artist had the vantage point, the experience, the pure street cred to make it believable, then turn it into an album as powerful as his life story, it is Drake.
Nearly three years after a congenital condition led to a stroke that paralyzed his left side and nearly killed him, Drake’s release of THE OPTIMYSTIC is a statement of strength and resilience sure to speak to the survivor in each of us and inspire us all to reach for our best selves.
“People didn’t always want to hear the sunshine and rainbow stuff,” he says with a knowing smile. “But I know what it feels like to lose everything I’d worked on musically, to have no money coming in, to have to learn to walk again and not know if I’d ever get anything back, and I can speak with authority now about what it’s like to trust and dream and work and come back from that.”
The epic journey Drake has undertaken—and the recovery that is still underway—has produced an album that announces his re-emergence as one of our finest singers and songwriters, a musical statement destined to change lives and hearts. It is also a fitting touchstone for a nation and world re-emerging from the shadow of the pandemic and political and social turmoil.
THE OPTIMYSTIC is, above all, a musical declaration of renewal. Its cornerstones are two songs that grew out of the period of reflection and recuperation that followed the debilitating hemorrhagic stroke in August 2019 during a performance in Roanoke, Virginia, then hospitalization, surgeries, and a slow and painful rehabilitation. “Hurts the Healing,” which begins, “Maybe tears don’t fall for nothing,” acknowledges the stinging pain of loss, then goes on to find the seeds of growth and redemption within it. “Giants” looks at life’s stumbling blocks, from heartbreak to addiction, and sees them as springboards— “But they don’t know they’re turning underdogs to lions/So bring on those giants.”
Then there is the title track, which channels the innocent dreams of childhood and the unguarded openness of young love, then speaks of the way Drake reclaims them each time he steps on stage, as it urges each of us to claim their magic and power as our own.
Those core songs are bookended by gems like “Fifty Years Too Late,” a longtime live show favorite that’s getting its recorded debut here, “Power of a Woman,” with its soulful swagger lauding the women special to Drake and urging all women to own their strength, and “Legends Never Die,” an ode to Drake’s uncle, a veteran, nature-lover, and raconteur, “a break the mold, never fold one of a kinder.” Closing the proceedings is another bit of family history, a recording of “Amazing Grace” featuring relatives singing in his grandfather’s Gadsden, Alabama, Baptist church decades ago.
Through it all, THE OPTIMYSTIC speaks of hope and perseverance forged in the fire of life, wearing the kind of depth and power only overcoming can give.
It is a story Drake knows well. His in-concert collapse came as he was being treated for an arteriovenous malformation, a tangle of veins and arteries disrupting blood flow in his brain. He knows it could have happened weeks earlier, when he was overseas playing for troops, or in a remote part of the country, far from the lifesaving care he needed.
“After all the places we’d traveled and played,” he says, “it happened five minutes from a level one trauma unit, with my neurologist on the phone telling them what to administer to coagulate my blood. God must have had a good reason for me to go forward because he chose to save me.”
Still, the challenge nearly overwhelmed him. He recalls the moment when his wife was holding his hand, but he could neither feel it nor squeeze back. “Nobody would tell me I was going to be okay,” he says. “I was paralyzed and that was the way I was going to spend my life.”
Refusing to succumb to fear and self-pity, he set a series of goals. Just standing took six weeks. Taking his first steps took months. Then, there was slow, methodical, moment-at-a-time recovery. Music was a key element.
“I was still in the hospital in Roanoke, and I told my wife Alex, ‘I need to write about this. I need to share this with people.’ Everybody looked at me like I had three heads.” Doctors, therapists, even music industry friends and fellow artists told him to concentrate on healing, but he knew from the beginning that music was part and parcel of that healing.
He wrote songs on Zoom—some of Nashville’s finest are cowriters on the project, including Chris DeStefano, Allison Veltz Cruz, Phil O’Donnell, Eric Paslay, and Randy Montana—and after a few months was well enough to plan live online events, utilizing the barn he and his wife had converted into a music hall and calling the sessions Wednesday Night Therapy, “because that’s exactly what it was, an extension of my therapy.”
The man who had won and lost two label deals before this latest challenge just dug deeper. The songs that garnered the best reactions from audiences during Wednesday Night Therapy sessions became Drake’s album-in-the-making.
It’s the kind of grit he learned growing up in northern Alabama, singing in his grandfather’s church choir, enjoying the outdoors, and learning to channel the strength of the men and women around him. The music he heard in church was supplemented by his father’s vinyl collection—Merle Haggard, the Allman Brothers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marshall Tucker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Ray Charles, among others. The soulfulness he heard coming out of nearby Muscle Shoals remains a big presence in all his music, and it’s there in the new album, produced in conjunction with The Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston.
The album title plays on the mix of influences that animate him.
“I’m a nomadic spirit,” he says, “someone who’s aware there’s something much bigger than we are—it’s the reason I love looking at the stars, to get that perspective, to philosophize a bit. I’m also the good old boy who knows how to dig a fencepost, run a farm, and change the brakes on my Chevrolet. It’s about innocence and wonder, about training your mind to think like a kid. And it’s about getting back to loving each other. That’s what an Optimystic is.”
His story is taking more than just musical form. He recently gave a TED talk called “How Paralysis Helped Me Find My True 100%,” and there is a book in the works. “I feel like I’ve just started,” he says, “like I’ve got a new lease on life,” one fueled by faith, inspiration, resilience, and searing honesty.
“I’ve been through the wringer, twice, and I know everybody has their problems. I just want people to see them as an inspiration to keep going, keep punching. You do your best, live your best life because there’s a higher power guiding you. Don’t get stuck in what the news is saying. It’s a great life. Go do your thing.”
He is still re-learning guitar, but he knows the ordeal has strengthened his voice.
“I was literally breathing to stay alive,” he says, “and it taught me how to breathe better, how to hold it in my lungs and sing with more power.”
And most of all he is happy, after his return to the road was further delayed by Covid, to be touring again with his band.
“That’s the best thing of all. I love being out there on the road with the fans. We’ve got a ton of momentum and I can’t wait for people to hear this record. Seeing these dates lined up and going out and representing Country music live, it’s just an honor. We’re going to tear it apart every single time we’re on that stage.”
Seldom has a fire in the belly burned hotter.