Breathe In The World, Breathe Out Music is the latest album from harmonica wizard Mike Stevens. At one point, he thought it was going to be his last album. During the recording process the Sarnia, ON resident was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease, which can effect the joints, heart and nervous system.
“The doctors said I’d had it for 20 years,” said Mike. “I was slowly falling apart, and I kept pushing through it until it got to be a real problem neurologically. I can deal with the pain in your joints and all that stuff, but I got messed up to the point I couldn’t figure out how to turn on my stereo or drive the car or anything.”
In fact for a time Mike was having trouble even holding the harmonica. In the middle of recording the new album for Stony Plain Records, Mike felt “in-the-moment” with the knowledge it might be the last album he’d be able to release.
“Not everybody is as fortunate as I am with Lyme to climb out the other side of it,” he said.
An unintentional result of the Lyme disease is that Mike Stevens sings on the new album.
“I think the Lyme disease took down my fear or defenses, so I went for it and sang,” he said. “I figured if you’re not a great singer, you can be a weird singer! I’ll go with that.”
The only problem with that approach is the Lyme disease affected Mike’s short term memory.
“Think of it. I never write lyrics, and I never sing, so perfect, I have to remember lyrics and sing songs in front of people,” he said laughing. “Maybe it’s just a challenge.”
Breathe In The World, Breathe Out Music is a tribute of sorts to Mike’s hometown. The album was recorded by Mike McKyes at his Grove Productions studio and featured local musicians Jeff Getty and Art Hratchian along with singers Corey James Mitchell and Polly Harris.
“Corey’s got a voice that really fits the blue collar, gritty Sarnia vibe,” Mike said. “Polly’s a beautiful singer – so fragile, almost, in the way she sings.”
Kevin Breit on guitar and organ with Jeff Bird on bass and taisho goto complete the basic band.
“Kevin is ‘in-the-moment.’ He’s brilliant. He’s a real artist,” said Mike. “He may be my favourite musician on the planet, and his contribution was mind blowing. Jeff’s bass playing blew my mind. It’s as creative as anything.”
Jesse Wells on guitar and Andrew Collins on mandolin supplied additional instrumentation on a couple of songs.
“They’re just all friends on this record so it felt good,” said Mike.
Two of the songs on the new album, 'Livin’ In Sarnia' and 'Devil’s Bride' first appeared on Piggyback, the 2009 album Mike did with Matt Andersen. The remaining songs are solo compositions created around the time of the recording.
“I’ve been writing lyrics my whole life,” he said. “I’ve got reams of them, but I never felt comfortable singing. I don’t know if it was the Lyme disease or whatever it was, but it just brought the barriers down that I just said, ‘Who cares? I’m just going to sing and if nobody likes it, they don’t like it. I may not even be around to hear it! Take that!’. That’s kind of how it happened.”
A big part of Mike Stevens’ life, besides music, is his work with ArtsCan Circle, an organization he founded in 2002 to confront the realities and inequalities facing First Nation, Innu, Inuit and Métis youth in remote northern communities using the power of music. It’s work that still inspires him every day.
“There’s so much to learn from these communities if you listen,” he said. “People are starting to listen but it’s going to take a long time. There’s a lot to do still, food insecurity, housing, clean water. Really what’ll help is the overall awareness in our country to pay attention and learn the real history of our country and what created these environments for these communities.”
Looking to the future post-Lyme disease and post-pandemic, Mike’s attitude is one we all could emulate.
“Everybody’s dealing with something,” he said. “If you can just try and find the joy, the creativity or find something to keep you inspired, that’s always the key. I just never give up. I’m like a cockroach. I won’t take something like that diagnosis and say, ‘Ah well, that’s it. It’s all done.’ I just find new ways to adapt and change. I feeling like the harmonica version of Forrest Gump, ‘run Forrest run!’ Somehow I’ve been able to keep the wheels on just playing that goofy little instrument. I’m thankful for it.”
For more on Mike Stevens and Breathe In The World, Breathe Out Music, go to mikestevensmusic.com.