Late this summer, the Yukon music community lost a treasured member.
Paul Stephens, a prolific bassist and longtime Yukon resident, passed away on July 28, leaving behind a legacy of music and friendship stretching from north to south across the country and beyond.
But he did not go quietly.
Through a project headed by local producer Matthew Lien, Stephens joined a group of 18 musicians from the Yukon, British Columbia and California to create one last song before he passed.
“When I got the message that morning that Paul had [aggressive] cancer and was expected to only live months, I called him right away and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Let’s do a song. Do you want to do a song?’,” Lien recalled.
Stephens was already an established performer in the Yukon when Lien began his musical career. He described Stephens as being part of a “gold rush,” an influx of talented artists all around the same age, that arrived in the Yukon about 40 years ago.
“When I started producing my own concerts here, Paul was a staple bass player,” said Lien, who also toured with Stephens across North America and Asia. “Lonnie [Powell, drummer] and Paul were the dream team of rhythm. Those guys could just nail it down, it was so cool to see what they’d do. Paul was just so reliable, enthusiastic and heartfelt. He was genuinely committed, he loved nothing more than making music.”
About six years ago, Stephens and his wife Maureen moved to Vancouver Island, but he remained involved in many of Lien’s projects.
“This family of musicians doesn’t stray far from the heart; even though people move away, they always keep in touch. A lot of people here in the community are still really deeply connected to Paul.”
This connection became all the more apparent with Lien and Stephens’ decision to record one last song, with musicians from far and wide clamoring to contribute to a group recording of local songwriter Paul Gatien’s recent work, “I’m Gonna Pray.” Describing the track as “a song of peace and hope for a torn-up world on fire,” Lien had already considered recording it for his upcoming binaural album release. In light of Stephens’ illness, the two decided it would be the perfect swan song.
“We agreed that this would be his final tune,” said Lien. “His wife Maureen set up a GoFundMe campaign and that paid for some of it, it just ballooned and kept growing because so many people wanted to be a part of it. In the end we recorded this in six studios with seven engineers, and 18 musicians, all of them long time friends and colleagues.”
For each studio session, if Stephens wasn’t able to be present, Lien would FaceTime him, ensuring he felt completely included in each step of the process. It also gave all the artists involved something of a way to say goodbye. As the process wore on, Lien saw Stephens growing frailer; finally one morning he asked if Stephens thought they should expedite the mix.
“He said, ‘Yeah, we’d better.’ So we fast-tracked it,” Lien said. It was unanimously decided that Stephens would skip his upcoming chemo sessions in favour of being present for the final studio sessions.
“Paul was real plugged in during the mixes; he was so engaged. He had a couple licks he put down, and he wanted them played just so,” recalled Lien. “Every verse was sung by a different musician, and we had him sing over two days, but we could see he was getting tired.”
After he retired to his hotel on the final day, Lien and the other session musicians brought the final mix to him.
“He listened to it and was so ecstatic. He’d just been living for this project,” Lien said. “This project became the framework that escorted him out of this world. The next day they flew back to Vancouver Island, and he died 10 days later. It seemed like when the mix was done, he just felt he could let go. It was powerful.”
For Lien and the other colleagues and friends left behind, the loss of Stephens is something akin to groping for a phantom limb, but the extraordinary experience of sharing his final recording does offer them some form of solace.
“Working with Paul on this was healing,” said Lien, who had just recently experienced another personal loss. “There was full closure, we couldn’t have gotten any closer to the door of death, and walking him to that doorway helped. It means a lot more that I can’t articulate and don’t even know yet.”
The finished song was released on YouTube as quickly as possible after Stephens passed away, accompanied by a music video comprising footage and photography from the recording sessions. The opportunity to see the recording process, as well as recent footage of Stephens so engaged and happy, has been incredibly meaningful for his friends and family. The song will also be released on Lien’s upcoming studio album, albeit under an amended artist name.
“This [song] will be by ‘Matthew Lien and the Paul Stephens Project,’” said Lien, “Calling it a project indicates there are a lot of people involved in it. It encompasses all these people coming together to escort their colleague out of the world.”
All proceeds from the streaming of “I’m Gonna Pray” will be donated, as per Stephens’ wish, to ArtsCan Circle, a reconciliation charity that connects creative artists with Indigenous youth in remote Canadian communities.
Lien leaves us with a final listening note: “I’m Gonna Pray” is best heard on headphones as it was recorded using a technique Lien developed called Full Circle Sound, employing a binaural microphone modelled after a human head.
Lien describes the recording as an organic, lifelike listening experience, and feels it best captures the diverse instrumentation, and the textures offered by the contributions of seven engineers and 18 individual musicians.
“It sounds like the music is happening around you,” said Lien. “And that’s really cool because when I recorded it, I knew that tracking Paul’s last note was going to be emotional, and it was… but then [as an afterthought] I asked Paul to lean into the binaural microphone and say, just very intimately to it, ‘I’m going to pray.’ And he just speaks that, right at the end of the song, and in the immersive format, it’s like he’s standing right next to you. It’s like as long as you listen to the song, he’s still right there.”
“I’m Gonna Pray,” is available to stream on Matthew Lien’s YouTube channel.
Willow Gamberg is the owner of Road Dogs Music Supply and The Lab Rehearsal Studios in downtown Whitehorse.