BY RYAN GOODYEAR
At only 18 years old, Brendan James Stephens has led a more colourful life than most people twice his age.
Driven by a passion for old blues and folk music, Stephens has hitchhiked all over Ontario sharing his own personal brand of one-man band music.
After picking up his first guitar at the age of 12, Stephens spent the first two years just fooling around on it.
By 14 he was taking guitar lessons and playing harmonica. However, never intending to end up where he is today, he was concerned more with instrumental music than anything else.
“I didn’t start singing until I was 15,” he said. “At first I just wanted to play instrumental music with my guitar and harmonica, then in Grade 9 I took a vocal class for kicks and I eventually thought it was awesome.”
Like most people his age Stephens was introduced to the world of music through classic rock and spent hours playing his favourite Led Zeppelin albums, meticulously picking them apart, trying to find what made these bands so magical. It was while listening to Bob Dylan one day that Stephens had the idea to trace the singers’ influences back to their roots to find out what it was he had been listening to. At this point Stephens discovered the music of Woody Guthrie and other artists of that era – music he truly fell in love with.
“Once I started tracing the music roots I just kept going further and further back in time until I found a frame of music that I really loved,” he said.
With its deep connection to folk and blues musicians, it was only a matter of time before Stephens landed on old ragtime music. It’s this era that influences his music and his slick, dapper appearance.
By the time he was 18, Stephens knew school simply wasn’t for him. Wanting a future in music meant the best way to make sure he stuck with his plan was to drop out. He figured if he didn’t have a high school diploma he would have to work at his music because he would have nothing to fall back on.
Shortly after leaving high school Stephens moved out of his mother’s home and started busking around the city. It was eventually through busking and getting his name out in the public that he was introduced to the Grand River Blues Society, which helped him get his first big break.
“My friend Richard Garvey, who’s like a local folk musician, emailed me this message about a competition back in March of 2012 and said, ‘You should try this out, it’s a blues competition.’ So I just showed up there with my guitar, a harmonica and a suitcase and did my thing,” he said.
This wasn’t just any competition. Stephens would be competing for a spot on the main stage of the Kitchener Blues Fest, a popular blues festival that swallows up a majority of Kitchener’s downtown core every summer and includes well-known bands and singers from all over the world.
At the end of his half-hour set, Stephens was told he had the position and would be playing the main stage as well as receiving $500 for his performance.
After playing Blues Fest Stephens spent the rest of the summer hitchhiking and playing different markets and outdoor venues across southern Ontario, going as far as his thumb and the kindness of strangers would take him.
When he returned from a busking trip in Bruce County, he decided to record a demo. After borrowing a zoom recorder from his cousin, Stephens sat down in his friend’s laundry room and hit record.
“I was staying at my friend’s house for the summer because I didn’t really have anywhere else to go,” he said. “So I’m sitting in his laundry room, I hit record and recorded 10 songs, took a disc, burned them onto it, and I had my demo.”
By the end of this past summer, Stephens had played Blues Fest, hitchhiked all over Ontario, cut a demo and was booking paid gigs at bars, pubs and anywhere else that would have him. Yet, even with all of this, Stephens didn’t know he was about to receive his best news to date.
One day, while playing his regular gig at The Boathouse, Stephens was approached by members of the Grand River Blues Society and told that they wanted him to participate in a competition that would give him the opportunity to represent the Grand River Blues Society in one of the world’s biggest blues competitions in Memphis.
After competing against some stiff competition, Stephens was informed he had made the cut and would be taking the trip to Memphis at the end of January. He will be playing in both the youth and solo sections of the competition as well as sharing the stage with people from all over the world.
When asked how he felt about winning the competition Stephens’ face glowed “It felt awesome. Like I never graduated high school right? But my mom was there and she was crying and so happy and was saying ‘y’know, this is more impressive than a high school diploma,’ and that just meant so much to me. It felt like getting a university diploma or something. It’s something that says you can go on in life doing what you love to do. This is what I’m studying; I’m studying music, just in a different manner. It’s like getting a golden ticket; you know people care about what you’re doing.”
Stephens will be playing one last show in Kitchener on Jan. 26 at the Imbibe restaurant on King Street before heading to Memphis. All proceeds from the show will go toward his trip.