When Justin Hines was 13 years old, his mother was driving him to school one morning when an announcement came on the radio.
The radio station was sponsoring a singing contest; the winner would sing the Canadian national anthem at a Toronto Raptors basketball game. Hines had always been musical, singing in the church choir in his hometown of Newmarket, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, and at home while his father played guitar. In fact, Hines’ family story has it that baby Justin was singing before he could even talk.
In the car that morning, mother and son had a brief chat, and made a change of plans. “We made a U-turn and drove straight down to Toronto,” Hines recalls. “I played a little hooky! I ended up being the first person to audition for the contest. A couple of days later, they called to tell me that I had won. It was pretty shocking!”
Hines’ first public performance took place in front of 17,000 people. The Raptors were playing the Charlotte (now New Orleans) Hornets, so he sang both “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a tall order for a young teenager.
“Music had always been my obsession,” Hines says. “It was all I ever knew.” After that Raptors game, everything clicked. “From then on, I knew music would be my full-time thing.”
Creating the Path
Hines, who has a congenital joint disorder called Larsen syndrome and uses a power wheelchair, spent his teenage years figuring out how to move from that one-off performance into a musical career. “I started doing children’s shows, performances oriented to my age group,” he says. “I was learning how to write songs with other people, honing my craft, figuring out where I wanted to be musically.”
Hines performed on YTV and Treehouse TV, Canadian children’s television channels, before releasing his first album in 2007. Sides features straightahead melodic lines and everyday lyrics, but it’s the unique quality of his voice — some call it intimate — that sets him apart in the classic singer-songwriter tradition. When he was growing up, Hines’ family had a jukebox stocked with his father’s collection of 45s — the small “single” vinyl remembered fondly by people who grew up before digital music. Hines’ father would play along on his guitar, and the two would sing together. They favored ’70s singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce and Carole King. In addition to the 13 original songs on Sides, Hines sings a version of Croce’s “I’ve Got A Name,” one of his father’s favorites.
Hines’s second album, Chasing Silver (2009), was followed by Season’s Greetings (2009) and last year’s Days To Recall. The most recent album was also Hines’ debut recording in the United States. It has a more contemporary sound, with an understated horn section on “See You Like I Do,” and accordion on some other tracks. Jill Hennessy, best known for her role on TV’s Law & Order, joins Hines on the countryesque duet, “Why Not Love Me.”
Hines performed at both the Olympics and Paralympics — in Beijing and Vancouver, Canada, respectively. When the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics were in his home country, Hines was part of the torch relay, and also performed at a ceremony in Ottawa, the nation’s capital. “We got to perform at both the Olympics and Paralympics and I have to be honest, I enjoyed the Paralympics so much more,” Hines says. “The spirit of it was amazing.” Another homegrown opportunity came when Hines sang “There’s No Place Like This” in a TV ad for Ontario tourism.
Adapting on the Run
Hines, now 30, neither downplays his disability nor emphasizes it. “I don’t really look at my situation as a big deal,” he says. “We all have things that challenge us; some people’s are just a little more visible. It’s important to tell people something about my situation, but I also try not to exploit it. Somewhere in there is a balance that we’re always trying to figure out.”
Larsen Syndrome does affect the way Hines makes music. He has the use of only seven fingers, so for a long time, songwriting was a collaborative effort. “I had to rely on other people to help me write songs. I’d have the lyrics and melody in my head, and I’d need other people to play the chords,” he says. “It was frustrating at times, knowing how I wanted the song to sound but not being able to express it. I wanted to be self-sufficient as a songwriter, but I couldn’t play an instrument.”
In 2010 Hines decided he’d had enough of that and was determined to develop a way to play piano. The challenging process took about a year — and he now does most of his songwriting on his own. “I really had to work at it. I had to be creative, to figure out how to make it sound like I was really playing piano — not just plunking on some keys.”
The next step came in November 2011, during a show in Toronto: Hines played piano in concert for the first time. “It was very nerve-wracking,” he admits. “During our afternoon sound check, nothing was going right. And literally three minutes before people were taking their seats, the piano started working properly, so I had only a few minutes to try it out. I was completely nervous, but it worked out OK.” The song was “In My Quiet Hour,” which Hines wrote specifically to play live.
The logistics of touring is never without obstacles, and accessibility is never a given on the road. Hines is upbeat about that, viewing the occasional snafus as lessons in humility — and opportunities to expand minds. Last summer, the band was booked in a small venue as part of a Canada Day festival in London, England. “We were told that everything was totally accessible,” Hines recalls. “When we got there, it was down this huge, steep flight of stairs! In their minds, I could be lifted — a common mindset.”
Hines feels fortunate to work with a team that is both empathetic and creative. “They’re an incredible group of people, willing to take the time to show that it can be done — that it’s really not so scary. So once we all got over the shock, we had to figure out how to make it work. My chair weighs over 400 pounds, so carrying it down the stairs was not an option!” Band members transferred Hines to a dining-room chair, then lifted the chair like a makeshift throne, and carried him down the stairs on it.
“I ended up doing the show from that chair. That was weird, because I’d never performed from anything but my wheelchair before.” Hines tells the story not with frustration and annoyance, but with humor and understanding. “All told, it was a good experience, watching people’s transition, until it’s ‘Ohhhh right, that’s what you meant.’”
Hines views incidents like this as misunderstandings, coming from a place of ignorance rather than prejudice or malice. “There aren’t a lot of people in my situation,” he says. “People haven’t necessarily been exposed to these issues, so sometimes they truly don’t know what to do.”
The music business isn’t easy. Real talent is often passed over while the flavor of the moment is fabulously rewarded. What is it like to work in a field that places so much emphasis on physical appearance, when you look different? “I can’t pretend that it’s been a breeze, but we’re all very positive. Yes, we’re aware of the negatives, but we try to embrace them and look at those challenges as opportunities. It’s important to not paint a completely rosy picture, because I don’t think that is accurate, either. It is what it is. I’m figuring it out as I go along.”
One World, One Family
Although he is clearly focused, determined and hard-working, Hines has a deep sense of gratitude to everyone who has helped make his journey possible. First on that list is his family. “My entire family has been unbelievably supportive,” Hines says. “I have a support system that anyone would dream of. But I could not be luckier. If I had to do this on my own, I don’t think it would be possible.”
That feeling of connectedness led Hines to form the Justin Hines Foundation, to use his music to benefit a wide range of causes. One of the most exciting projects was the band’s work in South Africa, where the proceeds from the song “Say What You Will” helped communities rebuild schools. “It wasn’t about someone from North America going over and helping people in Africa,” he says. “The communities themselves took the reins and invested in themselves. We worked hand-in-hand with them.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the famous peace and human-rights activist, heard about the project and agreed to appear in the video “Say What You Will” (South African Remix).
“Working with Archbishop Tutu was a massive honor for us, and an experience I’ll never forget,” Hines says. “I can scarcely believe I’m mentioned in the same paragraph as him.” In the video, an African vocal group provides harmonies while Hines sings in the studio, as people hold signs with messages of community and hope: “One voice can start a revolution,” “Life is a gift, make every second count,” “Save the world … invest in education.”
The Justin Hines Foundation takes a broad, inclusive approach. “We have the perspective that the entire world is in need of help,” Hines explains. “Disability is an issue that’s a natural fit, but we’ve enjoyed working with all kinds of groups that are doing meaningful work.” The band has routinely performed at events that support the International Red Cross, March of Dimes, Easter Seals, as well as many smaller, local groups.
A Unique Fan
Hines refers to the music business and his career as “this whole crazy music thing.” The journey certainly has been full of surprises. Last year a performance taped at Toronto’s Royal Cinema was shown during PBS’s summer pledge drive, coinciding with the release of Days to Recall. Hines was touring in Italy when he learned he had the green light to do the show, and by the time they got back to Canada, the band had only two weeks to pull it all together. “For a show of that magnitude, that is not a lot of time,” Hines says with a laugh. “Everybody was scrambling — finding a venue, lining up guests. It was quite an intense couple of weeks. My job was probably the easiest one!”
The PBS broadcast featured a full orchestra and several guests, including The Canadian Tenors and Ron Sexsmith, with whom Hines sang a version of Bob Dylan’s “I Want You.” Hines recalls it with a bit of wonder. “Ron Sexsmith has been one of my musical heroes for a very long time, so playing with him was a surreal moment for me.”
Hines tries to answer all of his fan mail, but doesn’t always have the time. One fan e-mail he’s very glad to have answered came from a woman named Savanna Him, who hailed from British Columbia. The relationship that began with that e-mail continues: Justin and Savanna were married in 2008. In fact, the couple was married twice, once at a small ceremony at her family’s place outside of Vancouver, then again at a big gala his parents threw in Ontario.
Savanna Hines now travels on every tour, checking on accessibility and doing Hines’ hair and makeup before the show. “One of the big challenges for many musicians is being apart from their partners and families for great lengths of time,” says Hines. “We’re so lucky to have this situation where we get to spend so much time together. Savanna has been at every show I’ve played since we got married.”
His music career is on the rise, and the possibility of widespread commercial success seems just around the corner, but Hines wants to keep the focus on the music itself. “It’s important to remember why you are playing in the first place,” he says. “It has to start with really loving music. Breaking into the business and having a career, it’s such a narrow window of opportunity. I have met a lot of artists who are truly happy and content playing for whoever will listen, and I think you always need to keep that mentality. I love playing for audiences, but I’d be just as happy playing if nobody were listening.”
For upcoming shows, visit www.justinhines.com/shows.