How singer Kellylee Evans made her long journey to recovery after a brain injury

It’s been a long six years for Kellylee Evans.

In 2013, the Juno-winning jazz and soul singer was struck by lightning inside her Ottawa-area home. Then in 2015, she fainted while getting out of the bath and suffered a major concussion.

Those two injuries have had lingering effects that would be devastating for anyone, and especially so for a singer. Because of breathing difficulties and dizziness she was unable to sing, and because of sound sensitivity she couldn’t handle loud instruments. But after years of recovery, the 44-year-old has slowly been making a comeback.

Evans is heading out west for three concerts in British Columbia this month, and next month will join her friend Amanda Martinez — who led a successful crowdfunding campaign years ago to help with expenses during her recovery — for a hometown show at the National Arts Centre.

She’s also the latest performer to be announced as a special guest for JAZZ LIVES at Koerner Hall in Toronto on April 10. It’s our signature concert and fundraising event and will celebrate the tremendous musical talent without whom this radio station would not exist.

Click here to get tickets

Evans joined Afternoon Drive host Brad Barker over the phone to talk about her long road to recovery, and how the experience changed her perspective on self-care and helped her realize what’s most important in life.

Brad Barker: It seems like things are moving quickly and there’s a lot going on.

Kellylee Evans: You know, I’m not 100 per cent, yet every month there are gigs, people ask me to come speak to them or their organizations. I’ve been speaking at schools about self-care. And every month, even though I’m not 100 per cent, I’ve got enough energy and I’m still able to keep doing this. So I’ve been reflecting, what am I supposed to be doing with my life? I think it’s still what I’m doing — just continuing.

It’s funny when you have to reflect on the big picture when you’re in the middle of it. It’s difficult sometimes to have perspective when every day you’re moving forward. But it sounds like you are doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

I hope so. It’s funny because I think I was always just such a bulldozer through life, just keep going, smile, stay positive, keep moving forward. That was my mantra, and I had no intention of ever slowing down until my health slowed me down for me. You really do get a lot of time to think. When you don’t really have a clue what tomorrow’s going to be like for you, you really do have to take it one moment at a time. Tomorrow I’m heading out on tour to B.C. That’s a big trip for me. It’s something that in the old days I could have done no problem, and I know it’s going to work out tomorrow as well, but every day has its own hint of adventure.

Well, I have to say from where I’m sitting, if I had that on my plate tomorrow, it would be daunting at the best of times. So I think you can give yourself a break that that’s tough business, travelling in planes and showing up in different locations. It’s not nothing, that’s for sure.

Thanks for saying that. You know what? I think I needed that little bit of perspective today. But it’s true, there’s a lot involved.

I remember you were here two years ago, shortly after you had fallen. You were in a wheelchair when you came in to our space. This was when you were just starting to turn a corner. I believe you had a gig at Hugh’s Room, one of the first road gigs. Can you give me a sense of where you were there and where you are today?

At that point I still wasn’t comfortable with amplified music, so I remember that gig at Hugh’s Room, my piano player Michael Shand played with me, and I think it was Ross MacIntyre on the bass. We were quietly making music, just to see. And I can remember their faces before we went on stage, and they were saying, ‘Kellylee, if there’s anything, just give us the sign and we’ll take care of you.’ We just didn’t know. The last gig I had with Mike Shand a couple weeks ago, he was like, ‘You scared me!’ Because I was still giving it. But I feel like I’m way past the point where I can’t have amplified sound. I have drums now, we’ve had trumpet and backup singers. We’re able to make louder sounds and I’m moving around a lot more. But I will say that I still have no clue what to expect fully, what it’s going to be like later. Some days it’s a bit rough the next day, and I need to take rest after — whereas before, rest? I didn’t know what rest was.

So every day presents itself in real time — you sort of wake up and get a sense of where you’re at each and every day.

A lot of what I’m doing right now is being flexible with my plans, learning how to take care of myself, and realizing that there is a self to take care of. Obviously I’m a selfish human who wants to do well and to have this dream job of singing all over the world. But at the same point, I need to learn to monitor what I’m doing and be cognizant of myself and those around me. I think that I’m really balancing that selfishness with more comprehension of what my family needs. Before, I was so obsessed with getting the music out there. I felt like the music was a light, and I needed to bring it to as many people as possible. But that doesn’t mean that your family isn’t as important. It’s not fair to say they weren’t important, but I needed that stop in my activities to fully appreciate what I have brought into this world — three kids that need me a lot. And I need to figure out what that balance is, and still make enough money to bring home the tofu bacon.

I think it’s a good lesson for everyone. Maybe you don’t need a dramatic life lesson to get your stuff in order and where your priorities are and what’s important in your life. 

No, let me do the learning for you! My mom used to tell me when I was growing up, ‘If you can’t hear, you’ll feel.’ And I’m definitely feeling it. There are a lot of people out there who say no, I need to keep going. The fact that it’s taken me so long to heal from this brain injury is evidence that my body is in such a degree of stress still that it’s not able to calm down so the healing can happen. So that’s my job to meditate, to do my yoga, all the things I need to do for self-care to be able to function on a daily basis and hopefully let my body heal.

Well, we’re so excited that you’re in a place to come and perform for us. I know from the times I’ve seen you that the live performance — it felt like a light coming back to me as I watched you perform. There is something that happens to you when you get on stage that I think is a little different than other times in your day. Is there some magic that happens?

Oh yeah. I’ve been seeing that magic happen since my first solo in kindergarten. It’s why I still keep going. I was talking to a friend who comes over once a week to help me with some admin. She’s doing that out of the goodness of her heart. And I was saying, ‘Maybe I should go get a real job.’ We were talking about how many people help me, and she thinks it’s because people just want me to be able to continue to make music, and because they feel that there’s something more there. It sounds kooky, but I see it in people’s faces when we’re out there performing. When the band gets out there and we start making music, people just seem more peaceful, happier. It’s a state change. I’ve seen that since I was little, and to me it’s like — OK, there’s something there. I just want to keep going out there. I may not be Grammy-nominated or travelling all over the world, and I may never have the energy to do all that, but if I can get in front of an audience — no matter how big or small — I have the chance to change that moment for them, and it’s exciting.