After a three-decade music career that established him around the world for exceptional guitar playing, Oscar Lopez has recently been living out of his car in Calgary.
He’s shared the stage with ballet companies and orchestras, has recorded a dozen albums and racked up a pair of Juno Awards.
But recently, he’s taken a step he thought he’d never have to: he set up a GoFundMe for himself.
“I did enjoy the (musician) lifestyle a lot, but I knew it wasn’t going to last forever. But I never knew it was going to get to this point,” he said from a motel room in Calgary on Monday.
Lopez has been open about his mental health struggles and took a break from performing for two years to deal with depression.
He said living this way hasn’t been easy but he’s learned to adapt.
“I’m still in the hole, but I am strong. I never pictured myself in this situation ever. I’m here and who knows where I’m going to be tomorrow,” Lopez said. “Everything I am absorbing right now is good for me. It’s made me humble. It is made me honest, and transparent.”
He came to Canada from Chile in 1979 and soon took up playing the guitar.
“I didn’t speak a word of English. I was working as a janitor. There’s nothing wrong with that. I was cleaning toilets. I was paying my dues. I’m a survivor and I was a survivor back in Chile,” Lopez said.
While seeking treatment for his mental health at Rockyview Hospital in Calgary, he had a revelation while playing guitar in his room.
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“Everyone outside my room was listening to the music I was playing. I said, ‘What are you guys doing? Do you want to come in come in?’ Everyone went bananas. they went crazy,” Lopez laughed.
“I realized then the power of music. I realized then the power of honesty and transparency.”
Lopez has since been volunteering at the hospital helping others with their struggles.
Former band mate James Keelaghan said many artists often don’t have funds for mental health counselling or medication.
Keelaghan and Lopez have been performing off and on in a joint project called The Compadres since 1993.
Their first CD together in 1997 was a Juno-nominated critics’ favourite.
“Oscar has been very much upfront in public talking about mental health,” Keelaghan said. “People in the industry are extremely prone to mental health issues. A lot of musicians have very deep-seated self-esteem issues which the music industry enhances. It’s hard for us to get the kind of support we need and it’s hard to get people to talk about it.
“We tend to function just on the line between survival and destitution.”
Keelaghan, who will be performing in Edmonton in March, said finances for musicians were bad during the pandemic and got worse when revenue from CD sales dropped off.
“All that revenue has now gone. Streaming services have completely destroyed a huge swath of our income,” the folk singer-songwriter said.
Lopez still insists on being well dressed despite his precarious living situation.
He has encouraged others who are struggling to have hope, often adding “you never know what’s around the corner.”
“We have to learn there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of the tunnel is always light. It could be a little light, but it’s all up to us to make it bigger,” Lopez said.
He said he’s thankful for those who have responded with donations and encouragement, but now the 70-year-old is reinventing himself at a time when the economics of being a musician have changed.
He’s planning to offer master classes in guitar and is confident better times lie ahead.
“This is just a bump in the road,” Lopez said. “And if I had to stay for the rest of my life in the car, so be it, I will. I’m willing to do it because I had learned a lesson how to survive.
“I will come up again.
“I will do what God put me here to do and that is to make myself happy and make others happy on the stage because who you see is who you get. I don’t put a mask on. I’m a straight shooter. I’m not perfect, but I am honest.”