The day after his mother’s funeral, rock-and-roller John Antoniuk was performing in Kelowna with his wife Jen Lane.
Lane was already going through a difficult time, releasing a new album and learning to be a touring musician after injuring her foot badly enough she still has surgeries two years later.
If music is your way of life, then in Antoniuk’s view, you belong on the road after an album release. So all of the pain aside, Lane and Antoniuk were here in our city playing arguably the biggest music event in its history, the dust on an emotional journey fit to spawn a thousand songs waiting in the wings to materialize, let alone settle.
“To me you have to be able to stare down the barrel of the gun and say this is not what I do, this is who I am,” Antoniuk explained in interview from his home in Saskatoon Tuesday, the day of his third album release.
Aptly named Always with You, the record is a tribute to his mother Marlene. It started as a stack of songs and quickly evolved into the story of life with mom that suggests just how much a mother’s love can shape and influence.
Producer Leeroy Stagger picked through the 28 tracks Antoniuk presented him with to build a clean storyline of losing a woman who could squeeze beautiful music from an accordion, yet still appreciate a musical persona like Smokekiller, the alter ego Antoniuk usually plays under.
Marlene took an iPod with two of Lane’s albums, the first two Smokekiller albums and Stagger’s music into the hospital as she waged her last fight with the cancer that took her life.
Rather fittingly, her death marked the birth of a stunning musical collaboration between her son and Stagger culminating in this album.
In July of the same year she passed, Antoniuk lost his job as an audio technician. His company missed out on a major hotel contract and, while he had worked his way up to management, his job effectively evaporated.
Seeing a shining opportunity, the musician offered to be laid off and the loss appears to have been far more of a gain. With his mother in the hospital, no job to go to and a wife who had just released a new album, Smokekiller had the time, incentive, inspiration and vision to mold a new life in music.
“Luck is created through preparation for opportunity and it helped me take focus in saying today is today…lets be here right now and make the best of this moment,” he said.
He describes the risk as letting his mind catch up with his body.
In the years proceeding his mother’s death, Antoniuk admits he had one foot in a normal work-a-day world and one foot in music and it ultimately meant he wasn’t getting very far in either realm. He would picture having children with Lane, his mother playing with those children, but with no idea how the music he and Lane loved would fit.
With Marlene’s passing, those “snaps began to fade” and he was able to move toward a role that saw the pair dedicating their lives to their craft.
He landed two major grants—the Radiostar Songwriting Competition and the 10K20 project grant from Rawlco Radio— and with family figuring he and Lane might be in the ditch before Christmas of 2010, launched a career path that now has them both booked into next year.
“I truly believe that it’s something that wouldn’t have happened to us if we were doing it part-time,” he said. “This is a lifestyle choice.”
Part of the lifestyle right now is Kelowna musician Kevin Kane, formerly of the Grapes of Wrath, who plays on the recording. While he had released two records as Smokekiller, both moniker and band didn’t fit a tribute for a woman who died of cancer; but it opened the door for new collaborations.
Lane and Antoniuk had met Stagger at the Western Canadian Music Awards in 2006 and they used his song Beautiful House as the music for their first dance at their wedding. The couple stayed friends with the musician/producer and when it came time to press this album, he seemed a natural choice to help synthesize a very complicated journey and showcase a powerful relationship.
“As a songwriter, I’ve always wanted people to listen and hear the words,” said Antoniuk, noting this albums is already connecting with people more than any of his other work, despite the fact it’s an entirely personal topic.
John Antoniuk plays Fernando’s on Bernard Avenue this Saturday, Sept. 8.