Friday, February 15, 2013

Singer-Songwriter Justin Hines Shines With Natural Optimism

There’s a moment in every artist’s life when he knows that music is not only his path, but his destiny.  

For Canadian singer-songwriter Justin Hines who will perform next month at the Fox Cities P.A.C., his moment of realization came at the most unlikely of places – a Toronto Raptors’ basketball game in his hometown 15 years ago.

A then14-year-old Hines won a vocal competition to sing the National Anthem – both the Canadian and American – at the game and his world opened up before him. “In that moment, it all seemed possible,” he recalls. “The performance eliminated any stage fright.”  Thrown in the deep end, Hines, who has performed professionally ever since, realized he could not only survive, but thrive.

But then again, Hines has thrived all his life against odds that would daunt someone with a less indomitable spirit. Hines has Larsen Syndrome, a joint dislocation condition that confines him to a wheelchair. “The reality is I don’t really look at my situation as that big a deal,” he says. “We all have our things that challenge us, just some people’s are a little more visible in the forefront. Mine is very apparent, whereas others wear it on the inside.”

Hines has performed across the globe, throughout Europe, China, the Middle East and North America. Although he admits his condition has provided challenges, he primarily sees the good it has brought him and the inspiration he can provide others. “There have been so many blessings. It’s afforded me so many other opportunities. It’s a bit of an attention grabber,” he says. “But then my job is to keep people interested and keep their attention with my music.”

That natural optimism permeates much of his American debut, “Days to Recall,” the singer/songwriter’s collection of heartfelt songs about life and love. “I don’t want to pretend that dark times don’t exist, but I have a hard time leaving things negative,” he says. “I think every challenging situation leads to something better. When I’m writing I don’t do it consciously in the songs, it’s just how they evolve.”

The album’s 2011 release coincided with a PBS special of Hines in concert taped at Toronto’s Royal Cinema with special guests Ron Sexsmith, Natalie MacMaster, Donnell Leahy, Sierra Noble and the Canadian Tenors. The special has had over 400 airings across North America to date. Hines also appeared in a CBS Sunday Morning feature, which aired December 18 and received an abundance of positive responses nationwide.

Music has always been a big part of Hines’ life. His parents had a jukebox— well stocked with tunes from the ’60s and ’70s that provided their son with a music education from an early age. “I really listened to such an eclectic mix,” he says. “What I most resonated with was James Taylor. He’s definitely one of my heroes.”

Though Hines doesn’t remember it, his mom tells him he wrote his first song when he was seven. “My grandmother still has the lyrics,” he says. In his late teens, Hines decided to teach himself how to play piano as a way to better express himself,  despite the obstacles Larsen Syndrome provided. “I’d done a lot of writing with other people. The most frustrating thing was I could hear the song in my head, but I was relying on other people to write chords since I didn’t play anything,” he says. “I decided for just about a year to focus on playing piano. I had to figure out my own method of how to make it work. My fingers are unique. Sometimes I use up to seven fingers. For a lot of songs I can get by with three.”

Hines recorded “Days to Recall,” his fourth album overall, during a six month period in Toronto. The first single, lilting, instantly catchy “Tell Me I’m Wrong,” tackles the fears that plague everyone and our desire for reassurance.  The music video for the single was shot in Joplin, Missouri following the devastating 2011 tornado. To support the American Red Cross, the music video displays a community coming together to rebuild, following tragedy. The song climbed to #21 on the Billboard AC Charts and the video has garnered hundreds of thousands of hits.

The second single from the album is “Say What You Will,” an uplifting song that initially appeared on Hines’ second album. The first video released for the song was filmed in Toronto’s Dundas Square and showed everyday people writing personal messages on whiteboards and showing them to the world. The whiteboard concept traveled to South Africa, where a new video was filmed, featuring the Most Rev. Desmond Tutu and was partially filmed at Oprah’s Seven Fountain School. The song took on a life of its own and was used as part of a campaign to refurbish 20 schools in 11 days.  Hines performed in South Africa spring 2011 and saw the schools that will educate more than 22,000 students. “It’s so beyond an honor knowing that a song we did was part of this, that we get to be part of that beauty,” he says. At the time of his visit, the song had hit number one on South African commercial radio.

Following the success of “Tell Me I’m Wrong,” American fans quickly fell in love with “Say What You Will” and began posting their own whiteboard messages online, which inspired a U.S version of the music video to be released. The new video was filmed from the east to west coast and features appearances by athletes, as well as everyday people, each writing their own messages of love and hope. Decca/Universal released the video in February.

“Say What You Will” was also highlighted in concerts across the U.S. recently as The Tenors and National Symphony Orchestra joined Justin to perform it in Boston, Portland, Minnesota, Cerritos and four nights at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“I get transformed to a different place when I perform. I hope it just makes people feel something,” he says, adding that he especially enjoys singing ballads. “Hopefully, that helps form an intimate connection with the audience. I embrace those moments because it feels like you’re having a unique conversation with people.”

That conversation begins anew with “Days to Recall.”

You can see Justin Hines Wednesday, March 14 at the 
Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in downtown Appleton. 
Tickets are $20.

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