Brett Newski is unflinchingly transparent: He struggles with anxiety and depression. He was paranoid as a boy, convinced people were mad at him, or that he’d let them down. In his mid-20s, acid reflux sometimes took his voice – until the cause was diagnosed as panic attacks, and anti-anxiety medicine was prescribed.
Yet for more than a decade, save for those moments when the panic sidelines him, Newski has fought through what can be a debilitating condition, developing his alt-rock/folk-punk songs into a pretty sweet gig: full-time musician. “I think success is, one, being able to create good things consistently and two, not losing my mind,” he says.
On the local music spectrum, the 36-year-old Milwaukeean isn’t at the level of the Violent Femmes or the BoDeans, but his profile is much higher than that of a casual cover band.
And when it comes to creating, he’s got no stop.
There’s the music. Newski has recorded a dozen albums. With his guitar, and a hint of maybe Tom Petty or the Femmes’ Gordon Gano in his voice, he does about 80 to 100 tour dates per year, locally, nationally and internationally. You may have seen one of his quasi-viral guerilla-style videos.
But there’s much more. Newski writes a newsletter once or more a week. He hosts a weekly podcast, “Dirt from the Road,” that’s had a guest lineup including Juliana Hatfield and members of The Lumineers and Barenaked Ladies. In 2021, he authored – and illustrated – a book that therapists have told him they use, It’s Hard to Be a Person: Defeating Anxiety, Surviving the World and Having More Fun. Most recently, he’s begun selling his paintings.
“Brett is sort of in a league of his own,” says Milwaukee Journal Sentinel music writer Piet Levy. “What makes him different is this DIY, hard working and trying to find all sorts of different avenues to express himself and to find an audience.”
You get the feeling talking to Newski, a former high school basketball standout and classmate of comedian Charlie Berens, that he’s a born enchanter, good natured and quick-witted. He’s anything but pretentious, even though he might be smarter than you, or at least he thinks faster. But he often needs to summon a sort of internal caffeine just to socialize.
“I’ve never been suicidal, but I’ve definitely gotten to pretty dark points where I wouldn’t mind being hit by a bus,” Newski says, half joking. “You don’t even realize it’s happening to you a lot of the time because your mind is, like, hijacked. You don’t even have the awareness to create a ceasefire with your brain.”
BRETT WISNIEWSKI was born in Eau Claire and raised in New Berlin. His parents are retired; Vinnie was a salesman at WKLH-FM radio, and Sue taught GED students at Waukesha County Technical College. His only sibling, Ben Wisniewski, coached future NBA players Cade Cunningham and Scottie Barnes at a Florida high school and now coaches at a basketball academy in the Czech Republic.
Family life was “awesome” and elementary school was good, but in middle school and part of high school, Newski was bullied, beaten up and harassed by fellow students.
“I’m sure I have residual PTSD, but I think overall it’s got to be more of a net gain – how to sniff out slimy people, or how to do things you don’t want to do,” Newski says. “All those things are pretty useful, long term.”
Eventually, Newski became a 6-foot-1 force on the New Berlin West basketball team. As a senior, he was an honorable mention all-conference guard for a team that won the conference championship.
After high school, Newski spent three semesters at UW-Eau Claire before transferring to UW-Madison. Off time there was spent with The Nod, a rock trio he led that played four nights a week at bars and frat parties.
Lacking a clear career path, and after purposely blowing at least one interview for a conventional job, Newski, who has always used the shortened form of his last name professionally, pocketed his journalism degree and opted for music – full on.
Newski the Anxiety Author
In his book, It’s Hard to Be a Person, Newski offers tips both practical and whimsical for dealing with anxiety:
- When you’re “trapped in your own brain”: “Talk to your brain as if it were another person and make friends with it. Remember not to do this in public.”
- Relieve stress by smashing acoustic guitars. It’s Hard to Be a Person shows a cartoon-like character body-slamming a helpless six-string in what is labeled the “Stone Cold Steve Austin.”
- Sweet ways to quit your job: “Take out the trash and keep walking.”
FELLOW MUSICIANS SAY Newski’s work ethic fuels his success – if at a heavy personal cost.
“Brett is one of the most persistent people that I’ve ever met,” says Miles Nielsen, the 46-year-old son of Rick Nielsen, guitarist of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band Cheap Trick. “He’s got that Midwestern hustle, which I appreciate.”
Nielsen is a husband and father in Rockford, Illinois, and fronts Miles Nielsen & The Rusted Hearts. He sang on Newski’s 2023 album, Friend Rock, which also includes, among others, Matthew Caws of Nada Surf, Brian Vander Ark of The Verve Pipe and Ryan Miller of Guster.
Nielsen recalls being jarred by Newski’s take on relationships. (Newski has never married and has no children.) “He told me, ‘I just realized that if I want to do what I’m going to do, I can’t be with anybody,’” Nielsen says. “That says a lot about someone. The focus is 1,000% on what he’s doing.”
What he’s doing is “somehow edgy and friendly,” says JD Eicher, 36, a singer-songwriter near Columbus, Ohio. “When I listen to him, there’s grit and direct talk; at the same time, it brings you in, in a kind of embrace.”
Newski, who has performed with Pixies, the New Pornographers and Courtney Barnett, now looks beyond the music that has been a longtime influence. “I just feel like I’ve listened to so much alternative and indie rock that I no longer seek it out,” he says. “I just buy old re-pressed African records or mariachi; I won’t even know who the artist is. Just basically listening to a lot of music that’s not in English so I don’t have to critique it or analyze it.”
Newski’s songwriting can look inward, as in “If We’re Gonna Break Up, Let’s Make It Take Forever.” His “Life Upside Down” was named in 2018 as one of the 10 best country and Americana songs of the week by Rolling Stone, which called it “a heartwarming ode to heartbreak.”
The music is authentic, often vulnerable and sometimes astride social commentary. In “Bro Country,” Newski mocks the country musician template: “I’m wearing pre-ripped jeans / I drink light beer for the taste / I’m an alpha male country star / Who exists to be replaced.” In the song’s video, animated Newski is kidnapped and forcibly turned into the type of vacuous country singer he disdains.
But, like that video, Newski doesn’t take himself too seriously. His merch includes T-shirts that say “Don’t Listen to Brett Newski.” He publicly admitted that everyone hated the “unlicensed” performance he did in February of his latest single, “Chemicals,” at a Chipotle, where he took a bite out of a diner’s burrito. He posted that recording on YouTube, as he did with his “Walmart debut” (70,000 views) in 2018. Newski alarmed clerks and delighted shoppers as he and a bandmate strode through the South Milwaukee store singing Newski’s “Can’t Get Enough.” For what Newski called his “dork rock bum rush,” one of the Walmart shoppers handed him $5.
Newski the Blogger
An excerpt from a Newski blog post during his 2013 tour of South Africa:
After the show in Durban, we hopped a night train to Johannesburg. We got on the faded second-class train and claimed a sleeper cabin without buying a ticket. Alonzo made dinner, a South African delicacy called the “chipwich,” where he smashed potato chips between two slices of white bread. Pretty good.
The grumpy dining car vendor had only chips and warm beer. She sat perched in a tiny rose red archway under a single light bulb, symmetrically centered between the mustard yellow walls like a Wes Anderson film. Earlier, I had placed a few melatonin on the table for anyone who wanted sleep assistance. In my absence, Alonzo and Vend had broken up the tablets into dust and were now snorting them through a green bill. I handed them the warm beer, and they swilled it down. These were very crusty times, but very tremendous times, I thought to myself.
Peering out of the window, the train was wrapping around small mountains, and I could see all the way down to the bottom. The shitty coffee never tasted better. I reveled in the highs of sunlight, safety and caffeine. I felt such intense happiness that it almost felt sad because I knew the feeling was fleeting. It’d be over soon. The beauty just crushes you sometimes.
HE TOURS A LOT, but when home in Milwaukee, Newski plays venues around town, including Anodyne in Walker’s Point, Redbar in St. Francis and Summerfest, where in 2022 he rocked the USCellular stage, which has capacity for 5,700.
“What I love about him is he is the definition of DIY,” fan Holly Voelske, 27, of Bayside says ahead of Newski’s Friend Rock release show at Anodyne in April. “He’s so normal, but he’s so successful.”
To channel creativity, to challenge himself and to find respite from what he calls “the American hamster wheel,” Newski is fed by a need for moving on. The unpredictability of travel becomes a muse. “The comfort zone is pretty dangerous, especially for writing and creating,” he says. His international excursions have included a six-month tour in Southeast Asia in 2011 and a 20-date stint in South Africa in 2012, taking advantage of a cost of living that was about one-third of what it was in the U.S. He lived in Vietnam for two years. “America’s an awesome place to live, but it’s also pretty insane,” he says. “The pressure to produce, create, move up the ladder. It’s really nice to tap out of that once in a while, to regain perspective.”
Former girlfriend Anna Sacks, who is married and lives in Austin, Texas, stays in touch with Newski. He dedicated his book to her, and they co-own the Bay View home where Newski lives. Sacks notes that Newski’s move to Vietnam, a place he didn’t know and didn’t speak the language, came shortly after college. “That kind of catapulting himself out of his comfort zone and into the unknown – and in a career where there’s so much that you can’t control and there’s so much to be anxious about,” she says. “That doing-it-anyway thing about him is really a defining characteristic of who he is. Not just going, but [going] big.”
In 2022, Newski performed in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and South Africa. After releasing Friend Rock, he began a 100-date tour throughout the U.S., Europe and South Africa. It’s an unforgiving grind – and it’s transcendent. “After seven or eight shows in a row, you start to develop this superpower, where you’re like speaking to your bandmates telepathically,” Newski says. “That’s a pretty insane feeling that you can’t really get anywhere else.”
Without the backing of a record label, saving money is at a premium. There has been “[sleeping] on a bed of pizza boxes in a concrete basement in Pittsburgh,” and on “on a pube-ridden floor in Kansas, literally in between a tank of poison dart frogs and a pit bull,” Newski recalled in a 2017 video.
Newski says it costs $60,000 to put out an album and tour behind it with a band. Touring produces about 60% of his income, followed by merchandising at 30%. Less than 1% comes from music streaming services, so platforms such as Patreon – where members (Newski had 146 at last count) give Newski $5 or more per month in exchange for goodies such as merch, blogs and personalized ringtones – are vital. “I want to play shows until I’m dead,” he says in an appeal for fans to join Patreon. “And I’m going to be dead a lot quicker without your help.”
Newski does have a breaking point. At the Anodyne show launching Friend Rock, he confessed to experiencing his worst fear: losing his voice at an album release show. Probably no one in the audience noticed any shortcoming. But five days later, Newski canceled a Chicago show because he lost his voice.
It was from panic attacks.
WITH ANXIETY, sometimes it can be tough to get your blood to settle down; other times, the darkness is so thick you can touch it.
“He inherited the anxiety from me,” says his mom, Sue. “I’m sorry I handed that down to him.”
Newski lives alone in a 700-square-foot, 148-year-old “Polish flat” (aka raised cottage) home. Even it is a hustle: The upper unit is rented out as an Airbnb. For Newski, the home is big enough for fighting off the moments when his mind is spinning on that dizzy edge. He copes by exercising, including “solo dance parties where I dance like a lunatic,” and relaxing by “sweating out the demons” in a portable sauna, followed by a cold shower. “That kind of knocks any depression out of my skull. I recommend it,” he says. Taking walks, choosing healthier foods and sometimes going sober on tour all help maintain balance, especially since touring has become more taxing as he’s gotten older. He has to guard against spending too much time in his head, and he can feel low for weeks at a time.
One of Newski’s newer creative outlets is painting – wall-worthy cityscapes sometimes fetch hundreds of dollars. The paintings “hold their own in a context and space completely different from a music venue,” says Bridget Maniaci, owner of GoodLand Home & Goods on Downer Avenue, which also stocks Newski’s book and music.
Sacks says anxiety gave Newski depth, empathy and energy. “The anxiety is the undercurrent for a lot of his activity,” she says. “If you’re that anxious and have this omnipresent anxiety of future dread, he just dealt with that by being insanely busy.
“In some ways, it’s been really good for him. It’s given him a way to really connect with people on a deep level who also have struggled with that. His ability to talk about that with so much openness really has meant a lot to a lot of people.”
Eicher appreciates how Newski is “publicly vulnerable” and “kind of a badass” at the same time. “He’s not afraid of anything. He’s one of those few people who can hold both at the same time. There’s a certain mission in him. He’s sharing that fearlessness with us by telling us how he’s afraid.”
Newski was dabbling with “depression humor” drawings when he was encouraged to do the Hard to Be a Person book. It attracted coverage from Billboard and TV stations in Sacramento and Indianapolis. “It found a nice lane where it makes fun of these serious things, but, luckily, managed to do it in an inoffensive way,” Newski says.
Berens, who praised his friend’s book as “a great tool” for harnessing anxiety, calls Newski a “creative force,” adding, “his mind is always going, and it’s going in a very interesting place.”
On one level, Newski says, It’s Hard to Be a Person has been more rewarding than music because it reaches a broader audience. “I’ve spent most of my life just bottling stuff up or hiding emotions or hiding secrets,” he says. “Once I started talking about it, it’s a great feeling. You’ve got to remember that basically almost anything you think is too scary to talk about is probably not as bad as you think.
“It’s a nice era now where authenticity has a higher form of currency,” he adds. “We’re in this psychotic internet-social media generation, where so much of the world is full of shit. But there’s this other side of the coin where people are talking about their demons out loud. Not only is it therapeutic, but it moves people in society forward. There’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic.”
Newski hints that another book is in the works, but who knows what the ingredient pool in his mind might produce next. He’s committed to music, working as compassionately as he can along the way.
“I thought I’d be way farther along by now, but I also thought I’d never get this far,” he says. “Six out of seven days, I’m pretty excited to wake up in the morning. So, it’s pretty good, pretty cool.”
This is veteran Milwaukee journalist Tom Kertscher’s first feature for Milwaukee Magazine.