20 Questions With: Mike Stevens
Some people know Mike Stevens as one of the world’s best harmonica players. Others know him as the philanthropic founder of ArtsCan Circle.
For those of you who don’t know him at all, he is both of these things … and much, much more.
After discovering the harmonica as a young boy in Sarnia, Ont., Mike quickly mastered the instrument, creating and refining a sound and style all his own. Before long, he was blowing up on the international Bluegrass scene and his music literally took him around the world.
Racking up more than 760,000 km on his trusty Volvo, he embarked on a successful career as a touring musician and appeared on the world-famous Grand Ole Opry stage more than 300 times.
In addition to solidifying his position as the true pioneer of Bluegrass harmonica, Mike wrote a book and won countless awards. He also began speaking at events and facilitating workshops for groups, corporations and youth.
But it doesn’t stop there. In 1999, Mike’ music took him to some of the most remote northern communities in Canada, and what he saw there could not be ignored. Bulldozed houses. Mounds of ash. Roadside crosses. Kids sniffing gas.
Not knowing what else to do, Mike pulled out his harmonica. When he saw the effect his music had on the kids, the idea for ArtsCan Circle was born. More than 15 years later, his charity has provided hundreds of at-risk youth with instruments, mentorship and a voice.
Mike recently took the time out of his busy schedule for 20 Questions with Digital Drum. Here’s what he had to say about Charlie Parker, hernias and more.
Where did you get your first harmonica?
When I was five or six years old, I just found one hanging around the house. I picked it up and started to play and fell in love with it.
What was the first tune you learned?
I never really learned tunes. I totally play how something makes me feel. I was never really big into melodies or tunes; it just didn’t do it for me.
At what point did you realize you had a special talent?
I don’t think I have a special talent. I just think I’m really, really lucky that I get to express exactly how I feel through music. I think everybody’s got that talent, but maybe not everybody has enough time or opportunity to discover it.
If you could jam with any band or musician, living or dead, who would it be?
Rather than jam, I think if I could sit down with Charlie Parker for two weeks and pick his brain musically, just sort of figure out what his work ethic was and how he thinks about music, that would be unbelievably rewarding.
Describe a typical day in the life of Mike Stevens.
I wake up and usually have a big, giant coffee to kick things off. Then I always try and get two hours of really, really hard physical exercise in my day. It just resets everything for me; I’ve done it since I was a kid. After that it would be phone calls, business stuff, emails. Then I try and practise for at least three to four hours a day in one and a half or two hour segments. That, coupled with the exercise, makes me really, really tired. Then there’s the ArtsCan stuff that usually takes up a few hours a day. But I’m on the road so much, that no day’s really the same. When I’m on the road, it would be all of that coupled with the things you do when you tour or travel.
What made you want to write a book?
I wrote the book because so many people were copying my style of harmonica playing. I was on the Grand Ole Opry and on TV a lot, and getting a lot of attention internationally. Apparently, I’d created a very different way of playing so a lot of people were copying me. A publisher got in touch with me and said I really needed to write a book, so that’s where the idea came from. My wife and I basically wrote the book between gigs. We’d play three states in a weekend, so we’d be driving all night and I would dictate and she would write it down.
What’s the worst ‘day job’ you’ve ever had?
I’ve worked a lot of really hard jobs. From day labour, when I had no money, getting up at 4 a.m., and jumping in the back of a pickup truck, to picking potatoes and working at Kentucky Fried Chicken. But what it boils down to for me, is that if you’re working with really great people who are happy or interesting, any job can be great. So the worst job I ever did was when I quit school and got a job with the Public Works department. I was 17 or 18 years old and I was driving dump trucks and there were all these old guys working there. I worked really, really hard – not to try and outdo them, but just because I like to work hard and do the best job I can. Apparently I had made all of them look bad to their boss, so it was really miserable working with those guys. That made it the worst job for me.
Best road trip story.
I have a million, but this one’s pretty interesting. I always traveled with my family, and when my son was about six years old we were at a big music festival and I was backstage. The band that was supporting me was already onstage doing a couple of numbers before I came out, and for some reason I had white pants on. I never wear white pants. Anyhow, the band’s into their first tune and my son Colin comes around from backstage and he’s eating a chocolate ice cream cone and it’s summer and it’s running all down his hands and everywhere. Just before they were about to announce that Mike Stevens was coming on stage, Colin put a great big chocolate handprint right on my crotch! Then they announced my name, so what do you do? Do you rub it in? Or do you just walk out there with a big chocolate handprint? That’s what I did.
Most memorable gig.
I’m a pretty lucky guy. I’ve gotten to play shows from Mount Fuji to a Bedouin camp in the Middle East, the North Pole to the Grand Ole Opry. I guess the one I keep rolling back to is playing for these kids in Sheshatshiu, Labrador, about 15 or 16 years ago. It wasn’t a big crowd, but they had a big impact on me so that’s the most memorable.
Biggest guilty pleasure (musically).
It’s something I always do anyway – I play totally how I feel. There’s no rules. I see colours while I play, and I just play exactly how I feel.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
I’d be daydreaming. Every report card I ever had said ‘All he does is daydream,’ or ‘If only he would try.’ I daydream now, but if I wasn’t a musician I guess I’d be doing it without sound.
How many harmonicas do you own?
I own thousands, and thousands, and thousands of harmonicas. I could have a house full of them.
Describe yourself in three words.
That’s a hard one. The first would be shy – because I am, and it’s something I wish I could get over. The next one would be driven. And I think the last one would be hopeful.
All that harmonica blowin’ must take a toll on your body. Tell us about your seven hernias and the impact playing has had on your body.
Well, lots of weird stuff. Lots of hernias, sewed up with stainless steel on both sides. Over-developed muscles in my neck, so for a while my throat would click when I turned my head. I wore out my jaw socket on the right side. I continually pop out my top rib from expanding my lungs so big, but I’ve figured out how to put it back in most of the time. What a geezer!
When you’re giving a keynote address, what’s the main point you want to get across?
I try to find a way to connect to that bigger energy that is always there, however you define it. Most of the time that happens when you are way out of your comfort zone. It’s always there if you can just get out of the way and listen. You can’t learn anything while you’re talking; try listening.
You’ve spent a lot of time in remote aboriginal communities up north. What would surprise people most about life in those communities?
People see the headlines, they see a lot of negative stuff. That doesn’t tell the whole story. I think what would surprise people is the incredible amount of knowledge, the sense of humour, the humility, and the forgiveness. I think those are things that would blow people’s minds if they got to know folks in those communities.
You’ve said more than once that you’ve learned from the kids you work with. What have they taught you?
I guess I look at it like they trust me, or let me in, or believe me, or put up with me. They give me that grace. I’ve also learned from their sense of humour. And also listening. You’re in some communities where a kid might have his back turned and a hood up over his head; down south you might think that kid was not paying attention, but I’ve learned time and time again that they’re soaking in every word.
Why do you think music is such a great way to connect with youth?
I think music can cut through a lot of other stuff. You don’t have to be a great musician, you just have to play something honest and make yourself kind of vulnerable while you’re doing it. I think kids get that, and respond to it. Especially with the harmonica, you can instantly make a sound that makes you feel something, that’s your own original sound.
What award or accomplishment are you most proud of?
That’s an interesting question, because I don’t feel proud of awards or accomplishments. It makes me feel good, and I’m really grateful, but generally you receive an award for something that you did. The real reward is how you feel in that moment, while you’re doing it. You get so much out of it. So it’s not really the accomplishments, it’s the feelings you get when something is happening, when I’m in the moment.
As a musician, how do you define success?
I think success by any definition, at least for me, isn’t about money or awards or any of that other stuff. If you’re trying to do good and be honest and be happy, I think you win. I think that’s the goal. If you can be a happy person and make other people happy, or make them feel important things, I think that’s success.
To learn more about Mike Stevens and ArtsCan Circle, check out our feature video below.