TORONTO – Kellylee Evans laughs about the relentless hurdles life thrust upon her over the past five years.
She chuckles recalling how being struck by lightning could’ve ended her Juno-winning music career.
And Evans smiles explaining that as she neared recovery — readying a comeback album — she suffered a debilitating concussion.
Memories like these wouldn’t be considered funny to most, but after years of rehabilitation the 43-year-old singer finds levity wherever she can.
“I’m laughing, but I’m not laughing,” she explains with a certain effervescence. “I don’t have a choice but to be positive.”
Heading into this weekend’s Juno Awards in Vancouver, Evans has a reason to feel optimistic. She’s contending for her third nomination in the vocal jazz category for “Come On,” the album shelved after her head injury.
The concussion sent her life spiralling into darkness as unpaid bills stacked up, her marriage fell apart and she questioned whether it was worth pursuing music.
Before the onslaught of those challenges, Evans’ career felt almost unstoppable. Her popularity was rising in France where her cover of Stromae’s “Alors On Danse” and a Nina Simone tribute album connected with listeners.
But one afternoon while washing dishes in her Ottawa kitchen in mid-2013, she was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. She vividly remembers the moment: her family rushed to her side, but everything seemed fine. She didn’t bother seeking a doctor right away.
For several days, her body didn’t show any signs of trauma, until the left side of her face began to droop, she mixed up words, and found it hard to breathe or eat meals.
By then her arms were twisting towards her body and her legs curling inward, she says. When she shouldn’t stand any longer, her friends convinced her to visit the hospital.
Evans was ordered to stay in a wheelchair for five months, but she refused to slow down, playing shows in France and Canada while seated on a stool. She also booked a recording studio to make “Come On,” an album of upbeat songs meant to propel her spirit beyond the health setback.
Evans realizes now she was pushing herself too hard. Plans came crashing down in the fall of 2015, a day before her album’s all-important release in France. She was stepping out of a hot bath when she fainted and smacked her head, suffering a major concussion.
Her doctor flatly told her this was a message she couldn’t ignore: Slow down and take six months off.
The reality was crushing, Evans says, partly because the recent dissolution of her marriage left her a single mom of three. Like many Canadian musicians, she didn’t have worker’s compensation or employment insurance.
Most paycheques went to her family, while the rest was reinvested in her music career, which she says felt especially lifeless after the concussion.
“There was such a sense of finality about it,” Evans says. “All the gigs I was about to do were supposed to pay bills.”
Shut inside her bedroom, Evans watched the promise of “Come On” wither away. European gigs were cancelled and seemingly everything she worked towards had instantly deflated.
Her doctor ordered her to avoid using computer screens, draw her blinds to block out harsh light, and keep her home in near silence.
Amanda Martinez, a Toronto Latin-jazz singer who met Evans when they were both starting their careers, remembers how dire the situation became.
“She always wanted to have that happy-go-lucky optimistic side we all know and love about her,” Martinez says.
“There were periods over time where she wouldn’t pick up the phone… That’s when I could tell things were really bad.”
Thinking of ways to give Evans a lift, Martinez launched a GoFundMe fundraiser, urging fans to help the ailing singer pay her living expenses. Friends and family pitched in too, cooking meals and moving her into a new home while she was still bedridden.
Throughout the process, Evans found it emotionally straining to consider what could’ve been. She couldn’t watch her old music videos and when copies of “Come On” were sent over by management she tossed them in a closet, unable to listen to what had become a painful memory.
It took until early last year before Evans was ready play her album. When she did, she was surprised by how disconnected she was from the woman on the recording.
“I would always talk about her as ‘That girl,'” Evans remembers.
“She just didn’t seem like me. A lot of changes had to happen in the way that I thought about myself and life.”
Evans has transformed her approach to her daily routine, setting aside time for meditation and structuring a usual day on a rigid schedule.
When gloomy thoughts creep in, she says her mind instantly flips a switch to focus on the bright side. She can find anything to be happy about in a situation, whether it’s a room’s paint colour or the ambient music playing down the hall.
“It’s really bizarre, but the more you do that, it actually works,” she says.
What Evans isn’t so sure about is her future as a professional singer. Effects of the concussion make it difficult to tolerate loud noises and her unreliable energy levels hinder plans for international concerts.
“Right now I’m just trying to make sure I can do a few days and get back home,” she says.
“Come On” found a second life when it finally arrived in Canadian stores last year, which qualified it for the 2018 Junos. Whether she wins or not, Evans says she won’t get wrapped up in the pressures of the music industry again.
“Before I was convinced it was so important that I get my music out there,” she says. “I was changing the world and changing lives.”
Now she’s prioritizing on her family before anything else. She can’t say whether she’ll still be chasing a music career by the end of this year. She’s considered applying for a more stable job with a pension that would ensure some security.
“I’m not willing to kill myself for the music industry in the way I was to before,” she adds.
“I realize there’s more.”
Listen to a playlist of 2018 Juno Award nominees on Spotify: http://spoti.fi/2siaaUi