Dragon Boat Festival: Ex-Balconies co-founder back on stage with solo songs penned during cancer treatment

Ottawa's Steve Neville, of the band Balconies, opens up about the music he wrote while battling acute myeloid leukemia.

Ottawa Citizen 4 minute read 2 days ago

Former Balconies member Steve Neville returns to the Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday as a solo, acoustic act with a new album full of songs written and recorded during the most harrowing experience of his life. Amanda Lee Tully

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

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

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

Within a couple of hours, he was diagnosed with one of the deadliest forms of cancer ⁠— acute myeloid leukemia. Doctors immediately rushed him into intensive care at Juravinski, Hamilton’s cancer-care centre, and chemotherapy started the same day. 

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

“I had hours and hours of free time and I felt the need to have my mind on something else,” Neville said in an interview, “and right away, it was not about playing for fun, it was, ‘Let’s write some songs and start processing what I’m going through as a way of coping and making sense of things.’” 

He was initially reluctant to share the songs with anyone, even 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 old friend, Liam Jaeger, another former member of the Balconies who’s also a producer and recording engineer. Fleshed out with full-band instrumentation, the resulting album showcases the raw emotion of the lyrics in a melodic, alt-pop setting. 

“I was very private about it. It was almost like a diary at first,” Neville said of the songwriting. “But then I started thinking about it more, and thought maybe the album could be good for other people. I feel like a lot of the support for people going through cancer is often around fighting cancer, being a warrior, being inspiring, 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: trying to address the real, human themes. There are still happy hopeful moments, but there’s also the depression, the fear, the anxiety, the worries. The hair falling out, the physical changes, and what happens to your body if you get a transplant. I felt like this album could help other people process the experience.” 

Today, Neville is a year out from the transplant that replaced his unhealthy stem cells with those of a donor ⁠— in his case, sister Jacquie stepped up ⁠— and getting used to his immunocompromised state. He has to be extra careful about where and how often to perform, lessening the risk by playing a limited number of solo, outdoor shows. 

The Dragon Boat festival’s concert series is one of the few on his schedule this summer. He joins a stellar lineup that also includes Wakefield indie-rockers Rebelle on Saturday, while The Strumbellas headline the big stage on Friday in a show that introduces 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.  

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

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

“I can’t stop songwriting now, to be honest,” he said. “I want to get the next one out fairly quickly because I want to move on to some more hopeful, happy themes, just to move forward and start a new chapter. I’m ready to shake out all the energy from my body and do something quick and a little more light.”