After a serious health scare last year and undergoing open heart surgery, Jon Stevens is back, feeling good and sounding great, with another tour, a new album in the works and a new mission… to spread awareness of heart disease.
You would think that Jon Stevens would be somewhat tired, by now, of all the questions about his recent heart surgery. “No, not at all,” he assures me. “Because, obviously, I’ve been through the whole situation out of the blue and, being a person who considers himself fit and healthy, you just never know what’s around the corner and it’s just one of those things where I’m more than happy to spread awareness really.” Jon says that it was purely and simply a regular check up that saved his life and now he is feeling recharged and ready to rock. “Right now, I feel amazing. I feel fantastic. I feel renewed. Obviously, the open heart surgery has cleared all the blockages and I’m just rockin’! The doctors say I could live another forty years so, as long as I take care of myself, I’ll be right.”
Jon readily concedes that the rock and roll lifestyle is not exactly conducive to good health and his heart scare was, he admits, a serious wake up call. “Well, when you’ve been in rock and roll for as long as I have, you go through ups and downs. You don’t realise how much you take for granted. I was on tour so much, that I wasn’t taking much time for myself at all, just working, working… and I love it. I love working but realising that I nearly died …” his voice trails off as he thinks of what might have happened, had he not been lucky enough to have the problem diagnosed in time.
As you would expect, such a traumatic event has caused Stevens to reassess his priorities. He has, of course, needed to make some major adjustments in light of his recent health scare. “Well, my priority has always been my family.” he tells me. I ask about his health and he pauses for a moment. “Well, I always thought I was healthy. I always maintained a semblance of physical activity, mainly because I’m a singer. Certainly, I don’t smoke anymore. I’m allowed to drink but I just choose not to. It was never a big deal anyway but, in rock and roll, you spend so much time on the road, you get bored, travelling and things. You work two hours on stage and then you need to wind down.”
Inevitably, the way in which Jon now ‘winds down’ has changed. “Because you’re not downing ten schooners or ten wines or, whatever, over the course of a day. At the sound check, you’ll have a beer; when you play, you’ll have a few drinks and you don’t realise that a few drinks is actually quite a lot in real terms. When you play anywhere from four to six nights a week, like I do, that stuff adds up. And you don’t realise it because it’s just part of your social interactivity. People come and see you in a social environment. It’s an interesting dynamic. But when it comes down to it, after all these years, I’m pretty well exhausted anyway. My heart has taken a battering with open heart surgery so I definitely feel it after a gig, that’s for sure.”
He admits that things have quietened down considerably on the road. “But it’s still late nights and all that stuff. But the thing is, it’s all a joy to me. I just choose not to drink and all that stuff anymore. They said ‘It’s going to take twelve months for your body to get back to where it was physically.’ Just the trauma involved. Three months recovery but twelve months for the muscles and cells to slot back in. So I’m just giving myself twelve months and doing the right thing by myself. The rest of it, being on the road and travelling… I love all that stuff. I love performing. To me, it’s a joy. Doubly now because of what I’ve been through. I truly have an appreciation for what I do and the gratefulness that I’m still able to do it. A lot of people have had heart attacks or whatever, are paralysed or lose something and they can’t do this anymore. Whereas, I never had a heart attack. They managed to catch it the day of me about to have one and they said if I had, I would have been dead. So I’m feeling lucky in that respect.”
“What happened to me was so out of the blue and it was such a shock by the severity of it and then, to go through it all and come out the other side of it, relief is not even close to being the word. Every day is a bonus and I’m trying to live my life like that. I get up and it’s just great to be alive. I’m not thinking about what I’ve got to do on the day or worried about ‘Oh my God! I’ve got this..’ I’m not worried about it. It’s just great to be alive. I’m learning to appreciate the little things… the little things like getting out of bed!” he laughs. “As humans, we waste so much time on crap, just living to work or doing things that make us unhappy or being miserable without even knowing really why. Everything gets you down or catches up with you. But, really, it’s just an attitude adjustment. An attitude adjustment changes everything. It’s a wakeup call. I’m not saying that I’m a miserable person because I wasn’t but this has given me a kick up the bum, that’s for sure.”
“It’s interesting, you know, the whole thing with your priorities and what’s really important. And, obviously, your family is paramount. I just had this overwhelming sense of wanting to see my kids get married and have children. I want to go through their lives with them. My dad died when I was fifteen so he never got to even see me perform, let alone be in music so that’s why I had this overwhelming sense, when I was lying in hospital, I just wanted to be there for my kids throughout the rest of their lives.” His voice is tinged with emotion as he reflects. “It wasn’t about me at all. It wasn’t about me one bit. I just wanted to be there for the kids.”
Jon was recently made an Ambassador for The Heart Foundation’s ‘Hugs For Hearts’*. It’s a cause that, obviously, is close to his heart (I know… I know… no pun intended!) And he is eager to spread the word. “It’s a new initiative and I’m proud to be a part of that. Awareness is a key factor. Heart disease is the biggest killer of Australians, bar none.” he explains. “Heart disease is a funny thing because men, especially, we take better care of our cars than we do our own bodies. I was in the same category. I was overdue from when I should have had a check up actually, especially with my family history. It’s just one of those things where we tend to put everything else ahead of our own health. And men, especially, are like that.”
It was only through a CAT scan, recommended by his doctor, that Jon learned just how serious his condition was. “I passed all my heart tests with my doctor: ultrasounds, the stress test, everything… and the only reason I had a CAT scan or even knew about a CAT scan was because of my family history. He said ‘Oh look, another thing we could do is a CAT scan. I’m recommending it to you but it’s going to cost you $600.’ And I said ‘Whatever you think Doc. I don’t care. If you think I should have one, I should have one.’ And the CAT scan saved my life because it saw immediately what was going on. They put a dye in your heart and they x-ray your heart with the dye running through your veins so they can actually see the blockages and see how bad they are. So, I feel really strongly about getting that message across. People are dying because they don’t get the proper tests because they can’t afford it. That’s my little mission really: awareness.”
As Jon points out, if he didn’t have the scan, he might not have known about the blockage in his arteries, let alone how serious it was. “Well, it’s pretty frightening when you think about it. It’s frightening to me that I fronted at my doctor’s as a fit and healthy man because my first instinct, when I first found out, was that my lifestyle had a lot to do with it. And he said ‘Your lifestyle has nothing to do with what you have. Because you can be eating lettuce and drinking water all your life and it’s not going to make a difference. You have a genetic predisposition to blocked arteries.’ It runs through my family history. I’ll lay it out there for everyone to see! It’s not something you think about until it sort of hits you in the face like that. I thought ‘lifestyle’… you know, drinking, smoking, carrying on over the years… but he said ‘No’, and I just find that amazing. And I guess when you do that, drinking and carrying on, in the job that I do, which I love, you’re existing quite happily,” he laughs. “I’ve thought about it often but …I don’t know.” He wonders at the irony of it.
So what kind of impact has all of this had on him as a performer? Does it mean we will now see a more ‘laid back’ Jon Stevens on stage? He is adamant that is not the case. “No, not at all. Actually, after a two hour show, I feel like I’m able to do another two hour show. That’s how much energy I’ve got.” Recently, Jon did eight shows in ten days: three in Perth and five in Sydney. “My first show of the week, I was warming into it but by the second and third show, I was just howling! By the last show, they said ‘Don’t take a bow’ because I normally bow because I warm down, the body turns off. But I feel really strong and I’m singing better than ever because I have clearer airways and, before, I was thinking I was tired, just from being on the road and long hours travelling etc. but it was because I wasn’t getting enough blood flow and I didn’t know it. So I was really fighting against it. My body was up against it most of the time. So now that’s clear, it’s easy… well, easier. Combine more energy with just being happy to be up there. It really calms me.”
If Stevens needs energy for his solo performances, he requires at least double that energy for his performances as frontman for his former band, Noiseworks. The boys reunited for a couple of tours over the last few years and have done just a couple of shows this year, including a recent concert at the Clipsal 500 in Adelaide. “The only Noiseworks show,” the singer reveals. “Possibly the last show.”
There are no tours planned for the future? “No, not at this stage but, if we make a new record…” he offers a glimmer of hope then adds, “But I’ve been saying that for the last couple of years.” I suggest that there would be a lot of disappointed fans out there if we didn’t have at least one more chance to see the band tour again but, as Jon explains, “Noiseworks is a funny animal because trying to get everyone in the same room to do stuff is too hard and we have to be all in or all not in. It’s great to play with the boys but you either do something new or what’s the point?”
He still performs some Noiseworks songs in his solo shows but, as he points out, “I’m doing new stuff as well. And the acoustic thing, it’s more ‘me’. Doing Noiseworks and being out front of a band, it’s kind of different for me nowadays because when you’re young, being in a band and being a rock star, it’s fun, but I actually enjoy playing guitar and singing as well and being able to hear my voice and understanding what I’m singing because, in Noiseworks, you don’t hear shit!” he laughs. “And most times, you end up over compensating and blowing your voice out because everyone’s got to be louder than everyone else!”
Jon has also been busy writing new songs and, in between ‘live’ shows, has been spending time in the studio. He says that he has ‘heaps of songs’ and confirms that we can expect to see a new Jon Stevens album released this year but doubts that we will find it on the shelves at the record store. “The industry’s changed so much that the only outlets where I can sell my records, is from my gigs or online.” he says, clearly frustrated by the situation.
Like many other performers, with a genuine love of their craft, the singer is disappointed in the changing face of the recording industry. “They just don’t support artists anymore. They’ve got to keep their businesses afloat. It’s a numbers game. It’s not about music at all and, if radio stations will play it enough, maybe someone will buy it or download it. For guys like me, that have been around for a while, we pretty much play anywhere in Australia before a crowd and we survive on doing live shows whereas artists today, they actually will do all the marketing and the album downloads or whatever and the whole live thing is non existent for a lot of these young artists today. People don’t really go and see them, so they don’t know if it’s real or not. There’s a lot of fake music out there today.”
We are lucky to have been around in a time when the ‘real thing’ was so accessible, when the ‘live’ music scene was truly alive and well. “Yeah, exactly,” Jon agrees. “You had to be able to sing. You had to be able to play. You had to be able to perform, whatever that was. If you were on stage, you were doing your thing. You actually learnt your craft and did your thing and became you. Whereas now, it’s the other way around – you become famous and then do a gig, without the experience or without being able to relate to a crowd or you relate to a crowd in a false way.”
While Jon’s shows are definitely the real deal, he balks at the number of artists who mime their performances these days. He recalls seeing Britney Spears eight years ago, in Phoenix Arizona. “I was with INXS and we were touring over there. Justin Stanley, who used to play in Noiseworks, his wife, Nikka Costa, was actually supporting Britney and we went along and saw Britney and Nikka, of course. Nikka was all ‘live’ and she was amazing! When Britney came on, her whole show was mimed. I was horrified. That was eight years ago and last year, when she came to Australia, they finally spoke about it. People are being conned, just conned. My daughter loves Britney Spears and she wanted to go. She had front row seats. I said to her ‘She mimes the show.’ She said ‘I don’t care. I love Britney.’”
Jon feels very strongly about supporting that true ‘live’ element among young artists these days. “I’m keeping the ‘live’ music alive, that’s for sure. I’ll support anyone who plays ‘live’.” He appreciates, all too well, how daunting it can be to get up in front of a crowd and perform for the first time. “Just to get on stage, to me, is a feat for anybody. It’s a scary place to be if you’re new to it. You’re bearing your soul. You’re bearing it up there, giving to people.” And, after all these years in the business, he still gets a buzz out of doing ‘live’ shows. “To me, it’s a joy. Every night, you’re jumping off a cliff! I like that feeling. I like that feeling of spontaneity. I love it when there’s a train wreck on stage. My shows, as you possibly know, are very interactive with the audience and even though we play the same songs, there’s always something different about every show. Every night, there’s something different happening. You’re dealing with the audience and people wanting different things. You’re having conversations with the audience.”
“I’m glad to be back out singing again and playing again. You know, I love touring. I love performing. I love being in front of people and having fun and helping people to escape from their daily lives.”
by Sharyn Hamey
Copyright © Sharyn Hamey 2010. All rights reserved
* For information on Hug For Hearts™, go to http://hugforhearts.com