There was a certain kind of rock music that thrived in Australia in the late eighties and early nineties. Jimmy Barnes, Choirboys, Screaming Jets, AC/DC, The Angels, The Divinyls and Midnight Oil were all members of a larger and beloved crew of Oz rockers that consistently churned out melodic, guitar-laden grunters with plenty of hooky choruses that many Gen-Xers today would consider the soundtrack to their younger years.
Of course any soundtrack that featured the bands above would also need to include Sydney quintet Noiseworks, who from 1987 to 1992 produced three solid albums and the chart topping singles ‘Take Me Back’, ‘Touch’, and ‘Hot Chilli Woman,’ under the sure hand and impressive vocal chops of New Zealand-born frontman Jon Stevens.
Noiseworks disbanded in 1992, and Stevens has since gone on to carve out a lengthy and productive solo career, with 10 further studio albums under his belt, a lead role in one of the country’s most acclaimed musical productions, 1992’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, and a non-stop touring schedule that sees him chilling out at home (now Melbourne) only about a third of the time. When I rang him, it seemed as though all that hard work may be taking a bit of a toll, as he was in hospital getting checked out for possible pneumonia.
At 14 years old and with a massive crush on Jon Stevens, I wouldn’t have believed that my first words upon finally meeting him would be “You sound like shit,” and yet, 27 years later, here we were.
Between coughs, Jon explained that he was something of a regular when it came to chest infections. Not an ideal scenario for anyone, and certainly less so for a professional singer, however he managed to push on. With health on the brain, we touched on his 2009 brush with death, when a heart MRI showed a major artery block that required an immediate double bypass.
“I didn’t even have a heart attack,” he explains. Due to a family history of heart trouble, Jon’s GP had him going through a battery of routine tests, suggesting the MRI at the end of the session, almost as an afterthought.
“Twenty minutes later I got a call from him saying ‘Get to emergency. Don’t go home, don’t stop, don’t talk to anybody and whatever you do, don’t exert yourself.’
“I mean here I was in the sunshine, I’d just run from Bronte to Bondi and been to the gym, feeling stupidly healthy, but I thought I’d go along and see what the fuss is about. They sat me straight away in a wheelchair and said ‘your main left artery is 99% blocked and you’re about to drop dead.’ They said I wouldn’t have lasted the weekend.”
Fortunately, this current trip to hospital has a much less dramatic ending, and Jon is sent home with a nasty case of bronchitis. We catch up later in the day, when he is sounding a little brighter. I ask about his most recent single, ‘Rain Down on Me’, which was written initially to be a standard release, but was later re-written to encompass the dire situation being faced by drought-stricken farmers, with 100% of the proceeds going directly to them.
“I’d written the song in February or January 2018 and when I was asked to get involved in drought relief I said ‘yep let’s do it’,” Jon explains. “As you know it was the worst drought, but it turns into something that lasts only for a few days in the press and then they’re onto something else. There’s all this money that gets spent on infrastructure in the cities but they can’t do something about the farmers getting water to these places.
“I’m no expert by any means but I did the drought relief concert in 1994, and again in 2018, and it felt like nothing had changed. What are we going to survive on if the poor farmers can’t make it, cardboard? The government’s priorities seem wrong.”
Jon’s priorities are certainly very clear to him. He made the move to Melbourne to be closer to his family, but ultimately can’t resist the lure of a stage and his great love, performing.
“I love what I do, I mean I LOVE it,” he tells us. “Like even when I’m in the hospital getting an antibiotic drip because I’ve been in bed for the last three days, all I can think about is how I want to be on stage on Friday.
“As a performer and songwriter and someone who makes music, that feeling you get when you play it to people, that’s what you’re doing it for. Anyone who says they don’t want to change the world with their music is full of shit. Anyone who makes music has something to say and wants to affect people in a good way, like losing yourself to punk rock or falling in love to a beautiful song. The emotion that connects us is what it’s all about.”
And has Jon ever fallen in love to a beautiful song, I ask? He laughs, and fumbles around a bit.
“Oh you know, I’ve written a couple… haha… I’ve certainly had some fabulous times to fabulous music. I’m sure everyone has. It’s the mood of the moment, you know what I mean.”
We certainly do. 2017 saw Jon release full length album ‘Starlight’, which was unique not only for its cache of happier love songs inspired by Jon’s romantic relationship at the time, but also because it involved collaborations with two of the music industry’s most respected legends, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and Ringo Starr of – of course – The Beatles fame.
“We made ‘Starlight’ on the fly,” says Jon. “Dave Stewart and I wrote all the songs upon meeting, the whole album, apart from one riff I already had. We worked a couple of weeks here, then I’d go back and forth to LA, it probably took three months.
“Ringo heard what we were doing and loved it. He’s a friend of Dave’s and I still can’t believe it – it’s one of those moments in time for me.”
I wonder if there are any other people Jon would love to play with in his career, or any performance experiences he’s yet to have.
“Playing Wembley Stadium would be fun,” he says. “But you know I’m happy to jam with anybody. I love great music and I love people who are really passionate about what they do. I love that because I’m very passionate about what I do so I recognise it in other people.
“I already feel that when I’m 70 or 80 I’m gonna be this old grizzled musician sitting on a stool, strumming guitar. An old blues cat bringing it,” he laughs.
Given that Jon has recently given up drinking and started taking better care of his health (“I don’t want to be sixty, fat and fucked,” he declares) we’re sure he’ll make it to that stool at eighty. And we’ll still be buying tickets to see him.