Dying man ‘spending his time living’
Jonathan Densem has an inoperable brain tumour. It pushed him to complete a lifelong dream. Vicki Anderson reports.
With his two young sons Otto and Caspar embracing him, Jonathan Densem pauses his guitar playing and smiles across at his wife, Emma Smetham. The family is sitting outside on a glorious Canterbury summer’s day. Through an open window at their historic Cust home one of his songs plays on the stereo as Cookie the puppy races around the lawn.
It’s an idyllic family scene but there’s sadness here too.
In early 2016, the singer, songwriter, actor, and music teacher was diagnosed with grade four glioblastoma multiforme – the ‘‘big kahuna’’ of cancers.
Densem, 48, taps the top of his head with one finger.
‘‘There’s a kiwifruit sized-thing with tentacles on my brain,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s inoperable. But I’m not spending my time dying, I’m living.’’
The prognosis was bleak but Densem remains optimistic. At one point he was given 12 months to live. That was more than 18 months ago.
For 25 years, Densem had written songs but never done anything with them.
The ‘‘nightmare’’ diagnosis ignited his desire to fulfil a long held dream and tick off a wish from his bucket list. This month he releases his album, I’m Saying It Now.
Twenty-five years in the making and one year in recording, it was recorded thanks to the generosity of those who gave to a Givealittle campaign started by Smetham that raised more than $50,000 last Christmas.
This year, Densem found himself in Auckland with a newly assembled ‘‘band of great musicians’’ in Neil Finn’s prestigious Roundhead Studios.
‘‘I even met the man himself,’’ says Densem. ‘‘Neil was very encouraging . . . I went from being
‘‘I did this for my boys . . . my family. Our sons will always have something to remember me by.’’ Jonathan Densem
a guy playing his music on his own in a Canterbury garden shed to standing in the best studio in the southern hemisphere with a band to call my own. I felt like a rock star.’’
Each song tells a story – ‘‘directly or obliquely’’ – from his life. ‘‘My father was a jazz pianist, he died when he was just 47 and never got to record his music. Cape Reinga recounts my visit there after he died.’’
His influences range from Billy Joel to Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, Missy Higgins and, ‘‘of course,’’ Finn.
Classically trained Smetham, who has played violin with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, joined him in the studio, playing violin on Come Sit with Me.
‘‘Emma and I met through the CSO,’’ he says of his wife of 21 years. ‘‘I always say that she had one eye on me and the other on the conductor.’’
The first single he will release is called Beautiful Girl. It is one of the first songs he ever wrote.
Densem says recording the album made lifelong memories the whole family will cherish. Out of her earshot, he credits Smetham with ‘‘keeping everyone going’’.
Bending to pat Cookie, Smetham says the family has faced many challenges together.
Life has often been tough but in response they are gentle with one another. Moments together, like this where the family link arms and do ‘‘the ministry of silly walks’’ across the lawn. This is living.
In 2009, while Smetham was pregnant with their youngest son, Caspar, the family were caught in the middle of the Black Saturday bush fires in Australia. Caspar was born in the middle of the disaster.
‘‘One of Jonny’s piano students died in the fire.’’
After the family returned to Christchurch, Densem’s teaching studio was destroyed by the Canterbury earthquakes.
A full-time singing and piano teacher before the diagnosis, Densem now teaches singing and piano at St Margaret’s College for 15 hours each week.
The album release party, a ticketed event, is being held at St Margaret’s College on Monday.
‘‘After chemo treatment, the tumour has shrunk a little and it hasn’t grown any larger,’’ he says, sipping a turmeric latte. ‘‘I’m thinking positively and I’m hoping to increase my work hours next year.’’
For many years, he says, people would hear him play and ask if he had an album they could buy.
‘‘I always had to say no, but now I can say ‘yes, yes I do have my own album’,’’ Densem says.
Caspar, 8, smiles up at his dad and drapes one arm around his neck. ‘‘My favourite song of dad’s is I’m Saying It Now,’’ he declares. His parents turn towards him, startled.
‘‘I didn’t know that was your favourite,’’ replies Densem. ‘‘My dad, your grandfather . . . so much of him is on that song.’’
Densem places his guitar down and picks up his cellphone.
The proud dad plays a video featuring the ‘‘guitar-playing genius’’ of eldest son, Otto, during a recent public performance by the family.
It looks as if it was filmed in a local community hall, the type of place which is so beautifully simple small-town New Zealand – generous wooden floors, billowing white curtains framing a window with a view of paddocks and grazing cows.
‘‘Caspar is still mastering the drums,’’ says Smetham, pointing to the screen.
Earlier, on his own in the studio, Densem had placed his hands on his piano keys before turning back to answer a question about mortality.
‘‘We tend to seek the big moments in life, the grand gestures, but I’ve come to appreciate that it’s all in the detail, those small moments.’’
The last song on Densem’s album is titled Love Lives On.
‘‘I did this for my boys . . . my family. Our sons will always have something to remember me by.’’
Jonathan Densem with his wife, Emma Smetham, and sons Otto and Casper, 8, and dog, Cookie.