LOSING his singing voice almost cost Tony Johns everything. His passion, his career and eventually his confidence.
Back in 1997 the then 40-year-old folk singer was one of the most accomplished performers on the Newcastle music scene. The Arcadia Vale resident’s albums The Way I Live (1988) and The Valley (1994) had sold reasonably and his tracks Campin in the Barringtons and Fishin’ With Jack received radio airplay.
Just when Johns was preparing to complete his third album Natural, a touching tribute to his contented family life as the father of three young children, everything suddenly turned upside down. The onset of spasmodic dysphonia, quickly ended his profitable singing career and shelved the recording plans for Natural.
Spasmodic dysphonia is a voice disorder where involuntary movements or spasms occur in the larynx muscles during speech.
“I just had to go out and do whatever I could, which was labouring,” Johns says. “I had two mortgages at the time. I had to sell one to cover the cost of the other one. I had three young kids in school. I had no skills or qualifications in anything else and the voice problem affected my confidence as well. It was like my Achilles heel.
“I thought about going to uni, but I couldn’t focus on anything. I was too shot and devastated.”
Johns eventually returned to music purely as a guitarist, playing in the well-known duo Empty Pockets with Emil Matla.
Along the way he valiantly tried to restore his singing voice through speech therapy, learning relaxation techniques and even receiving botox injections into his vocal chords.
“I tried that with the doctor once. You get an injection through your throat and you’re awake and he says, ‘Now try and sing a note so I know the needle is going through your vocal chord muscle’,” Johns says. “If he misses you feel all the fluid flowing down your throat.
“I did it once and for the first three weeks I had no voice whatsoever. I was completely mute and then when it came back it worked. I sang my heart out for two weeks and did four gigs, but then it went away again.”
While Johns’ voice has never returned, his music refused to die. After constant encouragement from good friend and renowned Newcastle musician and producer Mark Tinson, Natural was finally completed and released in November.
Four of the 13 tracks used Johns’ voice recorded in the 90s before he suffered spasmodic dysphonia, while Newcastle musicians Kevin Bennett, Brien McVernon, Michael Hawke, Peter DeJong, Justin Ngariki, Julie Wilson and Ty Penshorn provided vocals for the remaining songs.
Johns’ 25-year-old daughter Sophie Gibbons also made her recording debut singing the title track.
“To have Sophie singing was the cream on the cake,” he says. “She really changed the tone of that song with her voice and I never imagined hearing it like that, but I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way now.”
Johns says Natural was always “unfinished business” and its release has helped the healing process.
“It’s such a good feeling to have the songs out there,” he says. “It’s not going to resurrect my career, but it’s going to help those songs have a life of their own.”
Tony Johns and friends will launch Natural at Lizotte’s on February 2.