On the comeback trail with JUNO nominee Kellylee Evans

Kellylee Evans

On Friday night in Vancouver, Kellylee Evans will don a hockey helmet and get behind the bench as the coach of the musicians’ team taking on former NHLers in the annual JUNO Cup.

She can’t wait, in part because she loves the event, but also because it marks a milestone on her road to the full recovery of her health and her singing career after she was first hit by lighting and then, two years later, suffering a concussion in a fall.

If the stars align, just maybe, she will nab a second JUNO for her album Come On this weekend.

Her comeback from concussion though really is a JUNO victory, one that began last year when the awards were in her hometown.

“When they were coming to Ottawa I called and said ‘I can’t sing right now,’  I couldn’t handle loud sounds then.” But she did think she could handle a speech or a hosting responsibility.

Then she called back. “I said I could possibly sing an anthem. So if you need me for one give me a call.”

They suggested singing the anthem at the JUNO Cup, which was held at the Canadian Tire Centre last spring.

The night before the game, in the JUNO Cup Jam, Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo invited her to sing with him in a version of Try, his great hit song.

“I said ‘I don’t know that song’. He started singing it and I realized I knew the song.”

After Cuddy finished, she said she could have done it and he invited her to a party the next night to try again.

“At that point I hadn’t sung with a band or anything. Even listening to him play was very heavy.” Because of her concussion Evans had trouble with loud noise.

A friend helped her get through the anxiety attack with some yogic breathing. That came in handy the next night when she stepped out on the ice to sing O Canada.

“It didn’t occur to me I would be singing in a place with a lot of people. It was my first time singing in public. There were a lot of folks.

“Before I got on the ice my body went into a panic again. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to sing it a capella. I started doing the breathing and I calmed down. When I stepped on the ice, all of a sudden it was ‘I know how to do this’.

“I sang and it was the best thing ever. The next day I learned Try and I sang it with Jim Cuddy at the party.”

That’s not the end of this story. She then went to a second party where she bumped into a senior official with Universal Music. He asked how she was doing and enquired if she had an album.

The day before Come On was coming out in 2015, Evans had fainted and hit her head — hard. The album was put on the shelf save for a release in France. Evans relayed that story to the executive.

He said Universal would consider releasing it in Canada and asked to hear the disc. The next day the deal was done.

“Had I not gone to the JUNOs, had I not done those things, the album might never have found a home in Canada. This is how it happened and now it is up for a JUNO award.

“The JUNOS started me back out again.”

It has been a slow road back. She is being treated still for the after-effects of the lightning strike that literally occurred as she was washing dishes in her home. And that’s been compounded by the mysterious, and lasting, impact of the subsequent concussion.

She has been performing more and more. One of the major events on her road back was at the NAC last fall of a program called Swing, Swing, Swing with sax man Petr Cancura, of the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

“That was one of the first shows back with full drums. I had my stool out (to sit down if needed) and I had earplugs in for some of that show. I even danced a bit. Afterwards I was pretty beat for three or four days.

“Now I’m doing shows and not totally crashing right after. I’m getting it back slowly.”

It would be so fitting if she would win this weekend, but that’s not always how it works. But it would be a worthy win too because Come On is a pretty funky album.

“If you follow the trajectory of my career you can see how I would end up in this album,” she said.

She has always mixed an acoustic jazz sound as exemplified by Nina her 2010 tribute to Nina Simone that did win a JUNO in 2o11 and more pop grooves that brings in hip hop and soul into a jazz palette such as in I Remember When (2013).

Come On, exemplified in the single Hands Up, continues this arc, she says.

What’s next?

“I really have no clue. I’m just trying to get out of the house, do the gig and come back home. And be able to wake up, make breakfast and be normal again.”

She’s not writing however.

“I did do a couple of songs a couple of months ago. And a friend was trying to help me figure out how to record music on my own but I just feel like I’m not ready.” She says she needs a deadline to push a song along and she doesn’t have one.

Evans is careful about being able to handle the demands of performing and daily life.

“I’m starting to build it up again, but not as much as it was. Before I was just ‘If you need it, I’ll do it, if you need me someplace I’ll go’. Now I don’t want to go. I want to stay with my kids.”

There was also a time when she didn’t even want to listen to music around the house.

“I have to be honest. I took a break from even enjoying it at home because it felt so bittersweet. Here you are in love with the work you do and you don’t know if you will ever be able to do it again. I wasn’t sure I wanted to sing around the house or listen to music or hear about another artist” succeeding.

There was a part of her left wondering: “Is this ever coming back?”

Evans has overcome that uncertainty but she is staying close to home for gigs. She will, for example, be on hand at the Ottawa Jazz Festival this June with a reprise of Swing, Swing, Swing and a second show.

“I just posted some dates that are all pretty local. Somebody just wrote me about Spain and I remember I used jump on that kind of thing but today I don’t know how I would handle a seven, eight hour flight.

She literally measures her energy output with a step-counter. “On a regular day, doing mom stuff, my steps are around 3,000. That’s me being pretty slow about everything and getting stuff done around the house.”

Performing can rack up up to 12,000 steps. So she is trying manage her expectations. And she promises to duck at all times when she’s behind the bench tonight.

She’s also teaching and working as a motivational speaker and raising her three children in the Glebe. She loves her hometown and wants to make sure her family has as normal an existence as possible.

“What I have learned, from all of this, is that everything is unknown. There is a positive aspect, in knowing that anything can happen. So how am I going to live my life then in such a way that I don’t get depressed at the uncertainty of everything.”

“That’s a decision people get to make whether they are suffering an illness or just living. We get to choose how we view every situation.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.