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Former Balcons Co-Founder Returns to the Stage With Solo Songs Written During Cancer Treatment


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Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival

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June 24-26, Mooney’s Bay Park

Free entry

friday june 24

The Strumbellas, 9:30 p.m.

Frown Line, 8 p.m.

Stoby, 6:30 p.m.

Saturday June 25

Serena Ryder, 9:30 p.m.

Rebel 8 p.m.

Steve Neville 6:30 p.m.

Steve Neville returns to the Tim Horton’s Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival this weekend, nearly a decade after rocking the Mooney’s Bay stage with the Balconies, the hard-hitting band fronted by his sister, Jacquie.

This time, the Ottawa-born guitarist-singer-songwriter, now 32, is pursuing a much different musical path. When he opens for Serena Ryder on Saturday, he’ll appear as a solo acoustic act armed with a brand new album called Off Track. Released on Friday, it’s packed with songs written and recorded during the most heartbreaking experience of his life.

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Last winter, Neville was living in Hamilton, married with an infant son and working on a doctorate in media studies when he started feeling ill. At first he thought it was COVID-19, then strep throat, but when the antibiotics didn’t work and he wasn’t better, he went to the ER.

Within hours, he was diagnosed with one of the deadliest forms of cancer ⁠— apretty myeloid leukemia. Doctors immediately rushed him to intensive care at Juravinski, Hamilton’s cancer treatment center, and chemotherapy began the same day.

Once his condition stabilized, Neville was alone in the hospital during a pandemic, with visitors limited to one person, one hour a day. Boredom set in quickly and he asked his partner to bring his acoustic guitar.

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“I had hours and hours of free time and I felt the need to think about other things,” Neville said in an interview, “and right away it wasn’t about playing for fun. , it was, “Let’s write some songs and start processing what I’m going through as a way to cope and make sense of things.

He was initially reluctant to share the songs with anyone, even his family members, but as the music took shape he realized he had the makings of a decent album. On the days out of the hospital, he decided to try recording with an old friend, Liam Jaeger, another former member of the Balconies who is also a producer and sound engineer. Brought to life with full band instrumentation, the resulting album showcases the raw emotion of the lyrics in a melodic, alt-pop framework.

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“I was very private about it. It was almost like a diary at first,” Neville said of writing the songs. “But then I started thinking about it more and I thought that the album might be good for other people. I feel like a big part of supporting people with cancer is often about fighting cancer, being a warrior, being inspirational, being strong. But there are a lot of dark sides to the journey that nobody talks about much.

“I feel like that’s what I’m trying to do with this album: try to address real human themes. There are still moments of happy hope, but there is also depression, fear, anxiety, worries. Hair loss, physical changes and what happens to your body if you receive a transplant. I felt like this album could help other people process the experience.

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Today, Neville is a year away from the transplant that replaced his unhealthy stem cells with those from a donor ⁠— in his case, sister Jacquie stepped up ⁠— and is getting used to his immune-compromised state. He must be very careful about where and how often he performs, reducing the risk by playing a limited number of solo outdoor shows.

The Dragon Boat Festival concert series is one of the few on its schedule this summer. He joins a stellar line-up that also includes indie rockers Wakefield Rebelle on Saturday, while The Strumbellas will headline the big stage on Friday in a show that features their new lead singer, Jimmy Chaveau.

For Neville, the festival will be a reminder of the fun that can be had in Ottawa in the summer.

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“I’ve been to Dragon Boat a few times as a kid in Ottawa, and I always thought it was great fun,” he said. “This time The Balconies played it was an amazing fun party. It’s one of the best times of the year and it’s such a beautiful setting in Mooney’s Bay. It’s such a positive experience, especially with the fact that it’s a free and open festival. It brings out all kinds of people.

As for the future, Neville says there are more songs to come, including another EP of tracks to be recorded.

“I can’t stop writing songs now, to be honest,” he said. “I want to release the next one pretty quickly because I want to move on to more upbeat and happy themes just to move on and start a new chapter. I’m ready to get all the energy out of my body and do something quick and a little lighter.

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

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