Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Music has always been a large part of Métis singer/songwriter Steve Neville’s life, and after his diagnosis of leukemia in 2019 it became the rock he leaned on while he navigated treatments, isolation and his battle to live.
“When I was in the hospital, isolated, one visitor a day for one hour, I brought my guitar in and was just playing every single day, writing tunes,” Neville said about how he spent his days while receiving chemotherapy treatments.
“Basically, what I ended up doing is writing an album that is kind of like my diary when I was in the hospital, is how I think of it. It’s all the things I was experiencing physically, but also the emotions I was trying to work through.”
The album, Off Track, was released in June and brings listeners on a journey of illness, love and recovery.
Singles such as “Forever Yours” capture Neville’s fear of leaving his partner and son behind and his concerns of how they would cope without him.
“That was on my mind the most when I was sick,” he said. “I was really scared for my partner and my son, just the prospect of if I were to die, not being there to support them. That was really top of mind for me right from the beginning.”
When Neville first started not feeling well, he thought he had COVID-19. Following a sudden and drastic decline in his health he went to the emergency department where he was living at the time in Hamilton, Ont.
He describes the experience as a “whirlwind” because within the hour he was diagnosed with leukemia and transferred to another hospital to begin treatments.
“I needed lifesaving intervention,” he said, adding he had pneumonia in both lungs, a swollen tongue so big he couldn’t swallow, and his eyes were bleeding internally.
“It’s unusual for someone my age to develop this type of leukemia. Typically, doctors see it in folks that are 60 years of age or older,” he said.
In total, Neville went through one course of three chemotherapy treatments, and then received a stem cell transplant.
Being extremely immune compromised he had to be very mindful of his health. Neville found comfort in creating music again, something he had left behind several years prior.
“I kinda just hung my hat on that chapter of my life until I got sick. When I got sick it inspired me to go back to song writing and to return to that.”
During this time Neville reached out to former band mate Liam Jaeger.
The two were members of The Balconies from 2007 to 2013 before Neville decided to leave to pursue other life goals.
From the hospital Neville asked Jaeger if he would produce the songs he was creating. Jaeger agreed and soon after he began receiving the recordings.
Both Neville and Jaeger said their former relationship was key to the success of the production of this album.
“It was an unusual process compared to most albums,” explained Neville. “When I was in the hospital, I would send demos to the producer. When I got out of the hospital I couldn’t go to the studio because of the pandemic and I was pretty immune compromised, so I recorded things at home with my acoustic guitar and my singing and I sent those tracks to Liam.”
From there Jaeger would complete a “mock-up” of what he visualized the direction of the song would go in. He would add the additional instruments and would then send it back to Neville for feedback.
Jaeger said when he was putting the songs together he tried to create the mood or theme of the lyrics, pairing them with the sounds from the instruments.
“I was looking for themes within the songs and (wanted to) bring them to life with whatever suited the song,” he said.
“(There was) a lot of teetering on the edge of being too, too sad. When you’re trying to make songs, you’re trying to look for the optimism in the song and present it in a way that is bittersweet, true to the emotion, encompassing his feelings that he’s writing and trying to make it come off in a way that sounds inviting.”
In addition to producing the album, Jaeger also played all the other instruments on the tracks.
He said his history with Neville definitely provided a familiarity between the two artists.
“Because of that formative experience we had together, I feel we are still musically aware of (each other’s) directional styles. I can just send him a mock-up and he would get where I was going with it,” Jaeger said.
Neville said Jaeger is a “one stop shop” due to his vast array of talents that allowed this album to come to life so flawlessly in such an out of the ordinary way.
“It was very unconventional…I had never made an album this way — ever,” he said.
When they were all members of The Balconies, Neville, his sister Jacquie and Jaeger would all work on writing lyrics and music together.
Neville and his sister had grown up in a home filled with music and started playing instruments at a very young age.
Jacquie played guitar and sang, while Neville played bass.
Neville said their mother had been reacquainted with her Métis heritage when he was about seven years old. The family is part of the historic Georgian Bay Métis and environs community, where many of their relatives still reside.
At that time, she really began showing her children the culture by attending fiddle performances and creating a connection to the outdoors.
“That was one way for sure that my mother was trying to impart our Métis roots with us,” he explained. “My mom is incredibly passionate about music and storytelling and just the celebration of things. My mom is always trying to connect with nature… and appreciating the land that we live on.”
Recently, at 38 years old, Neville participated in a Métis fiddling class and hopes to continue to learn the instrument.
“It’s not something I would ever do on stage (now) because I’m too much of a novice,” he joked. “I am always trying to learn more and get more involved with activities and different parts of the culture.”
As Neville continues his journey with music he hopes to also continue his discovery of his own culture.
“I would frame my relationship with Métis culture as reconnection. I am always trying to learn more and get more involved with activities and different parts of the culture.”
To see more information about the album, single, or to order, go to https://steveneville.bandcamp.com/ Also, $2 from each cd sale is being donated to the Canadian Cancer Society.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.