Charly Lowry is going through a tough season, but she's not about to let it best her. Lowry, the lead vocalist of local roots-soul combo Dark Water Rising, makes passionate music that intersects with her activism in standing up for Lumbee and Native American rights. After watching her mother succumb to cancer in November, it's music—and being surrounded by her friends and family—that's given Lowry the confidence and strength to keep fighting as she continues dialysis necessary to treat an autoimmune disorder that's disrupted her life.
Diagnosed with IgA nephropathy at eighteen—"I wasn't symptomatic and I didn't feel any pain. I had no clue," she remembers—Lowry took medication for the condition, which is also known as Berger's disease, while in college at UNC-Chapel Hill. But her kidneys deteriorated to the point where she was on the transplant list by age twenty-five, a decade earlier than expected. The sudden death of her cousin in 2009 meant a life-saving donation for Lowry, but that organ, too, is now failing.
While she awaits a donor, Lowry has gained a renewed energy and focus toward exploring new musical ideas in the absence of her biggest fan, with her sights still set on a Grammy. "Mama was my best friend and I'll always grieve her loss, but I think in the spring, I'll come out like a butterfly," she says.
INDY WEEK: What's involved in your treatment now?
CHARLY LOWRY: I moved back to Pembroke a couple months ago to take care of my mother, who had stage 4 cancer and passed away on November 21, so I set up my treatments in Pembroke. It's nice to be back home and that's helping me a lot to deal with my treatments, to be back on the land I was raised on. I'd been living in Chapel Hill and commuting back and forth for the past four years, coming to Pembroke every two weeks or so.
Before going on dialysis, I feared it a lot. I didn't want to be hooked up to a machine in order to live. I tried to avoid the conversation whenever the doctor wanted to talk about it, and I was bitter and angry when I first started my treatments. They finally put a catheter in my abdomen for me to do treatments from home [last summer] because they were aware of my schedule as a musician. I perform with another group called Ulali Project, and I took all my supplies over to France for about a week and a half and did my treatments there. I had some flexibility, but it was a lot of work and it was starting to take a toll on me.
I also found out that I had a hole in my diaphragm, so whenever I was doing the treatments from home, fluid was leaking into my right lung. I had just performed at Shakori Hills and ended up going to the hospital the following Monday because fluid had been collecting in my lung. They were amazed that I was still breathing and able to perform, but they said I was able to do that because all the singing had conditioned my lungs to be strong.
How has coping with this condition or the treatments given you a different perspective on life?
I don't remember this fact from going through orientation the first time, but this time they made a point that a kidney transplant is only a temporary solution. It's not a cure. So if I live for a good while, I'll probably have to end up getting another transplant.
Being hooked up to the dialysis machine, that really puts it into perspective for me. If something goes wrong—if I get kidnapped and can't get to a machine—I'm gone. I always think about if I was living in the 1800s and had this going on, I would've been a goner. My life may have been cut short by all this, but it is what it is. My mother showed me how to die gracefully and I'm ready whenever, I guess. I'm just embracing the whole situation and taking it one day at a time.
To what extent has this sense of mortality changed your approach towards either your activism or your music?
I told my friends that I knew I was going to go through a dark period when Mama passed because she was my main motivation. She's the one that has supported me in all of my musical endeavors and my activism. She was always supportive, always a listening ear. We did a canoe journey down the Lumber River to raise awareness about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mama had a fear of water and couldn't swim, but she still went on the water with me.
Now I don't have her here, so I've got to revisit how I approach my music. I'm sure some songs are going to come out of my experience. I've even thought about writing a book regarding her illness and my thoughts on her treatment.
I think now that she has passed, in some weird way, I'm going to be able to buckle down and be more focused. She was my main reason for coming home, so now that she's not here, I'm more apt to travel away for shows and stay gone longer on tour. The time that I dedicated to her, I'm going to dedicate it to my music.
I'm very funny about the creative process. I haven't found that it comes easy to me. I'm hoping that having my own space and being able to explore more and create whenever I want will help with that. I was always thinking about Dark Water Rising before, and now I'm thinking more about my solo career and experimenting with different genres and concepts. I've got a country accent and I'm from the country, so why not write some country songs and see how they do? I was raised in the church, so I might write some old-timey gospel songs and put them on an album.
How do you see Dark Water Rising evolving?
Our lineup has changed, so we're going to be branching out anyway when we create music this next time around. Emily Musolino is no longer in the band so we've contemplated adding another member or just keeping it as a four-piece, but either way, it's going to affect the music we create.
We've been talking about this third album for two or three years now. We did an Indiegogo campaign and didn't reach our goal, but we raised a few thousand dollars, enough to pay for the recording. We don't have a set release date but it's ninety-five percent done. It's just a matter of going back and fine-tuning it.