But North Vancouver’s Ryan Matches admits that his 2015 diagnosis made him refocus, creatively.
“I said ‘Yes’ to more bucket-list stuff,” he says.
The latest checked box on that list is a music video release of Strong Heart, a song Matches wrote about his battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
He wrote the “F#@k Cancer” song about six months ago.
“I kind of wanted to keep it anonymous but my brother and sister, Stephanie and Sandy, really encouraged me to put it out there.”
He sent the demo to a producer friend on Bowen Island who helped finalize the arrangement. He was referred to a filmmaker through a Facebook friend. And then he contacted fiddler Kendel Carson, who has played with Spirit of the West and Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea.
“I Instagrammed her on a whim and she said yes,” says Matches. “She was super gracious.”
The video features Matches on piano, Carson on violin with Surrey’s Redwood Park providing the bucolic backdrop.
“I’m still here, living like I should/It takes more than this to knock me down…” goes the refrain.
The diagnosis came in May 2015. Matches underwent a stem cell transplant and was “immune-compromised seriously for a year.”
These days he’s feeling pretty good, the illness managed with medication and chemotherapy. Monday mornings he spends two hours in Lions Gate Hospital’s oncology ward receiving treatment.
“I’m really grateful that the treatment is there at Lions Gate. … There’s an alliance of nurses that are really supportive, they are amazing,” he says.
He’s a bit of celebrity there, too: “One nurse and I got to talking about music and the project and since then every Oncology nurse has come up to me and said they watched the video,” he laughs. “I’m humbled that it was shared.”
Matches has even heard from members of the multiple myeloma community as far away as Thailand, after a Thai man contacted him and asked if he could post Strong Heart on his YouTube page.
“Generally the feedback is ‘Thank you so much for writing this, for being true in your writing and in the song’ and that the lyrics resonate with what they’re going through,” he says. “If there’s any inspiration attached to the song for anyone, that’s what’s pleases me.”
“It’s never been a journey about money for me. … If things do go south – it’s more like a chronic illness at the moment but with a diagnosis like this there’s always a chance – leaving a legacy for my family was appealing.”
Matches’ mother was an artist and his grandmother painted landscapes. Matches jokes that he “only graduated from Seycove thanks to my arts classes … I needed the credits!”
He has cycled through watercolour with pen and ink, architectural photography, and back to painting.
Along with his father, Alex Matches, he wrote a book about two of Vancouver’s municipal boats, launched here in North Vancouver. Called “Police Boat, Fire Boat,” it chronicles the history of the first fireboat, the JH Carlyle, and the better-known St. Roch (the first boat ever to circumnavigate North America, it currently sits at the Maritime Museum in Vanier Park).
Dad is a retired battalion chief for the Vancouver Fire Department who has written several books on local history. “Now that he’s 86, it’s heart-warming to do stuff like that with him.”
But music is a constant in his life. Since 1997 Matches has been a part of local bar-band favourite Five Star Motel, in addition to stints with a country band or two.
These days Matches is adjusting to a new life “where every day seems like a Friday” after he took early retirement from the City of North Vancouver.
“I just didn’t want to push it anymore,” he says.
He set up a studio in a 30-foot Airstream on his parents’ property, and is working on a new set of songs based on his grandparent’s history on the family farm in Saskatchewan. He can’t promise that these new songs won’t be as melancholy as his The Sentimental Son EP: “It seems easier for me to write a sad song than a happy song,” he says, noting that his early songs were “kind of somber … yearning for some long-lasting love.”
Mortality is weighty subject matter but Strong Heart is ultimately uplifting, Matches points out. “The message is it’s OK to be scared. It’s OK to possibly have to let everything go, and it’s about embracing life while we can.”