Stan Walker is a shadow of his former self, and better than ever. In September, he celebrated his first year since having his stomach removed and, though he’s a lot lighter, he says his voice is the best it’s ever been. It’s been just 10 months since a photo of him and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shocked fans, his gaunt appearance spurring rumours of ill health. Indeed, as it turned out, he was due for emergency surgery for an infected gallbladder at the time, but he’d delayed the procedure. His doctors weren’t happy, but he said, ‘‘no, tonight I have a dinner with the Prime Minister’’.
The infected gallbladder was a complication from the surgery he’d had the September before, where he’d had his stomach removed. There had been 13 ’’spots’’ of cancer on it. The cancer was due to a rare gene mutation, CFH1, which was thought to have led to the deaths of at least 25 of his family members. His mother, April, had undergone treatment in 2016 for breast cancer, causing Stan to cancel a planned New Zealand tour.
Stuff talked to him earlier in the year ahead of the release of the documentary, Stan, that followed him as he underwent treatment. It’s now a year since his stomach was removed, but Walker says it was the best year of his life so far. He feels good.
‘‘I just feel normal now. I’m tired from working hard, but that’s it. Going through that stuff… doesn’t affect me now. Unless I eat something bad, but that’s about it.
‘‘I’ve done that a few times, sacrificed taste for pain. I can’t eat dairy, I can’t eat greasy food, I can’t eat processed food. So everything I shouldn’t eat, I’m not supposed to eat, my body just tells me what’s up real quick. Sometimes I do it just for the taste because, y’know, I’m hungry.
‘‘It’s hard because I try to be the person that I was, and try to eat the way I was, and my eyes are way bigger than my no-stomach.’’
He scans the room. A cavernous space filled with gymnastics equipment, crash pads of every size, colour and shape. A twinkle in his eye tells me he’d love to go and play silly buggers. He turns back to me, though. Walker has work to do. He’s on the Wellington leg of his New Takeover tour.
‘‘It’s good to be back out on the road. I love working constantly, I love being on the road, I love touring, I love performing. That’s what I live for. I do everything that I do so that I can do this. I like recording and I like performing to my fans, everything else I don’t like, but it’s necessary.’’
He says despite facing his mortality, he never questioned his purpose in life.
‘‘It wasn’t ever a question for me [that I wanted to keep singing]. As soon as I got better I was straight back into it. So I haven’t really looked back or stopped or… I don’t know, even talking about that is really weird for me, because I feel like it was so long ago. My mindset, where I’m at, my body and everything is like, fully, completely removed and far from what it was.’’
It strikes me that his body hasn’t completely caught up yet, and nor should it have – it’s only just a year since he had his stomach removed. He had a collapsed lung, another complication. That must have been scary, I ask. ‘‘That was just a thing that happened. Singing was the last thing I was thinking about, I was just thinking ‘I need to breathe’. That was all I was concerned about, breathing and being alive, but we’re good now, my lungs are back to full capacity.
‘‘I think now, singing, I’m a lot like – bar this bad throat, dry throat – I’m a lot better singer than what I was. I’ve got more range and more power coming from my little body – it’s really weird. I miss my girth of my voice, it was a bit thicker. But now, I can stretch more, which is really weird. I don’t know [why]. Maybe I got skinnier and everything got skinnier and stretched out, I don’t know. It’s the only thing I can think of.’’
He laughs, and I can see the exuberant, untamable Walker of old. To him, cancer was an ‘‘inconvenience’’.
‘‘There were the scary times, but even those were inconvenient. Every time something went wrong, I wasn’t thinking about ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to die’, I was like, ‘this is longer in hospital, this is taking up my time, it’s taking up my whole life, I want to get back into work’. I love working, I’m a workaholic.
‘‘Not being able to sing at the early stages, it was frustrating for me because I’m so used to being in control of my body. My mind was all the way there way before my body got there. So it took a while for my body to catch up to my mind.’’
A self-described ‘‘staunch Christian’’ he said his faith helped him get through, but he wasn’t perfect.
‘‘I would have these conversations with God before it all happened and I was like, ‘yeah, it’s all good’ and when I got into it I was like ‘hey now, hurry up’!
‘‘It’s not all roses, it didn’t all turn out to be like the Cinderella story where I trusted God throughout everything, because there were times where I was like, ‘can you hurry up, already?’ Like c’mon. But everything worked out to be better than I expected. I am more than what I expected.’’
The inconvenience seems to have, if anything, reinvigorated his drive. His eyes widen as he talks about his commitment to his work.
‘‘I don’t want people walking away saying ‘far out, that was an awesome show’, I want them going, ‘that’s the best show’. I want people walking away, going ‘nobody can sing like him, nobody can play like them, nobody can put on a show like them’.’’
He said his latest tour had rounded up the conclusion of his ‘‘best year’’.
‘‘Parts of it have been the worst but ultimately this has been the best year of my life. I couldn’t have asked for a more incredible, fruitful, lifeproducing year. I’ve achieved more of my goals and dreams in this short span of almost a year – the year ain’t even finished yet. All the things I’ve wanted to do for years I’m doing now, and I’m more in control of who I am.
‘‘I’m touring off no album, no single, I haven’t had any music for ages. The fact that my fans are still with me, they still show up so I’ve got to give it up to New Zealand, I’ve got to give it up to my fans because this has been the best tour I’ve ever done
It was the worst of years, it was the best of years ... after undergoing a gastrectomy to remove his stomach, Stan Walker is back on tour, and spoke to Felix Desmarais about surviving cancer, discipline and hosting the Vodafone Music Awards on Thursday.
because they still choose me, after all these years. Whatever I’m going through in life, they still rock with me, so it’s been mean.’’
Going back into the recording studio to produce new music, Walker said he doesn’t want people to think he’s going to come out with a whole lot of songs about surviving cancer.
‘‘I think everybody, when they found out that I was going into the studio, they were like ‘aw, you’re going to be writing these inspirational songs about how you survived’, and I was kind of like, ‘well, actually I’m kind of the opposite’, I’m writing about summer, about living my best life.
‘‘I feel like that [other] stuff is draining. I’m a deep person but if you saw the documentary [Stan] me and my family – we are not like anybody else. We didn’t mope around, we mocked each other for having cancer.
‘‘It’s not part of my everyday conversation unless I want to get the front seat or I want my sister to go get me something, I’m like ‘aw, I had cancer, can you go and get that for me?’ I don’t even think about it. It’s not part of my thought process. That’s the type of person I am. So when this sort of stuff happens, I’m not gonna go in [to the studio] and be like, ‘I’m a survivor’.’’
Stan Walker’s Christchurch show in August.