Literary buffs may already be familiar with Kingston’s writing powerhouse Steven Heighton. He’s written world-renowned works, such as Afterlands, The Shadow Boxer, and scores of others, garnering him a seat in the upper echelon of Canadian literary heroes, among the likes of Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen. He won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2016, has received a variety of other notable awards, and his works have been translated into 10 languages for worldwide distribution.
Much like the late great Cohen, Heighton is not only a novelist and poet, but also a singer and musician, having released the album The Devil’s Share through Wolfe Island Records in the spring of 2021. The genre-bending album features 11 songs that simmer in a melting pot of blues, folk, rock, and country music. According to Heighton, his latest single, New Year Song, adds an pinch of gospel to the auditory stew as well.
Heighton describes New Year Song as “spiritual and metaphorical at the same time. That song is celebrating the virtues of surrender, but not surrender to a specific authority of any kind, not the authority of an organized religion, not the authority of a government. It’s surrender to something more important than your individual eye consciousness, your individual ego. It’s a gospel song, but then it’s ecumenical, and it’s embracing all faiths.”
Heighton goes on to explain other symbolism in New Year Song: elements of political uprising, civil rights, and post-hardship introspection being enmeshed within the track’s symbolism-rich lyrics and videography. Written last New Year’s Eve in the wake of the death of John Prine, New Year Song was inspired, Heighton says, by his own contemplation on new beginnings, specifically the personal epiphany that one cannot change qualities or aspects of oneself until forced to do so by consequences, or through surrender to “something larger than yourself,” which Heighton says is an almost spiritual experience.
Torontonian by birth, Steven Heighton was always inclined toward the arts in childhood; he confesses that he was “that kid in class who was always drawing or writing poems” since the age of 10 or 11. Though as a youth Heighton never fully settled on which art form he would devote himself to, he was heavily influenced by his father, who taught English at a local high school.
“I was sort of immersed in literature and books from the time I was a little kid, but also in records, as [my father] also loved music of all kinds. So in a way, it’s not surprising that I ended up choosing this path,” he shared.
In time, Heighton says he began to gravitate towards music and songwriting, even being in a “terrible” band in his teens with a group of friends before earnestly devoting himself to the literary arts in his college years.
It was during that time in the late 80s that Steven decided to move further east to Kingston after graduating from Queen’s University. Opting to pursue full-time writing, Heighton saw Kingston’s (then) very affordable living costs as key to his ability to do so. “Kingston has been a great place to make a life as a writer, ” he states, “partly because it’s been affordable and that’s been essential for me – I wanted to write full time, and that’s why I chose to settle here 30 years ago. I have to add, that Kingston is not affordable now the way it was when I first started out here.”
“I know Kingston must be there in my work, as well, but you can’t always see,” Heighton says. “I know that in the series of short stories I’m working on right now, they are set here [Kingston], but as for New Year Song, I think that one kind of transcends setting.” His comments hint strongly at more Kingston-set literature being released in the spring of 2023 and assure us that his future artistic endeavours will not be purely musical — though, surely, music will be included.
As for Heighton’s shift from literary arts to musical works, he says it was less of a transition than a “returning” to a muse that has waited patiently on the back burner for the proper outlet. Having suffered a serious throat injury several years ago, Heighton was told by doctors that he would “certainly never sing again,” even if he regained his ability to speak. Years later, in 2021, Heighton’s single New Year Song, as well as the album The Devil’s Share on which it is featured, serves as a humbling reminder that human adaptation and the call of one’s muse are powerful forces.
You can see and hear “New Year Song ” by Steven Heighton on YouTube (or below), and find more of his musical works at the Wolfe Island Records website. For information on Heighton’s literary works, visit his website.