Come Back Home

Eight gold and five platinum singes; one double platinum, one triple. Eight New Zealand Music Awards, five ARIA nominations. Actor, burgeoning fashion icon, te reo champion. Survivor. Stan Walker.

Stan Walker’s recent past has been framed by the stage lights of stardom, yet his childhood is set against a darker backdrop. But always and despite everything, this surprising Kiwi music renegade puts his love of culture, whakapapa and whānau first.

Words Cameron Officer Photos Joseph Kelly

The contradictory nature of a boy who spent his childhood trying to hide his true self away from the world being thrust into the bare-all limelight of a top-rated TV talent show as its ultimate victor, is not lost on Stan Walker.

But then, Stan Walker’s entire life seems built on contradictions. Violence and love, poverty and wealth, sickness and health.

“As a kid I had absolutely nothing, but I also had absolutely everything,” says the performing artist who got his start in the music business after winning Australian Idol.

“I grew up in beautiful places with my family all around me. I had my whānau, and every day there was music, always music around us. But yeah, we also lived with violence all the time. My father was a violent, controlling guy.

“There was very little money. I never had the nice lunch at school, or the proper school uniform. To a kid, that’s the stuff that matters – that makes you a target for bullies and being picked on. It makes you stand out.”

Walker has written that his automatic response to questions at school about bruises all over his body – the result of beatings dished out by his Pāpā on a sickeningly routine basis – was that he’d fallen down the stairs. “We didn’t even have a two storied house,” he says.

Growing up we would still have a laugh about the good times though, the funny stories. There were plenty of those too, despite everything else. It was a pretty chaotic childhood.”

The fondness with which he remembers aspects of his childhood, both in the Bay of Plenty and Australia, forms a large part of Impossible, Walker’s by turns devastating and uplifting autobiography released in 2020. Far from the sort of generic pop star cash-in tell-all you might expect of other performing artists, Impossible is jarring and confronting in its brutal honesty. But it also reveals Walker as quick-witted, optimistic and, ultimately, at peace with his past.

“I was approached about doing a book a few times over the years, but for a long time I always thought, ‘Nah there’s still a lot of life to live’. But then in 2018 after my surgery, I finally said yes. And when I said yes, I made the decision right then I was going to tell the whole story.

“I’ve been blessed to overcome a lot of stuff in my life, but all the stuff I’ve overcome, well that’s part of me,” he says. “I felt it was important not to pretend that never happened. I didn’t want to come across as superhuman on paper; that everything’s always dandy. Trauma is a weird thing; it fatigues you, but it focuses you. I think I used that trauma to recall everything I could.”

For the boy who hid his true self away from the world, Stan Walker is determined that you know who he is and where he has come from.

Part of that origin story, he discovered when he was 15, includes an inherited cancer-causing gene mutation known as CDH1. As a teen he was told he had an 80% chance of getting the same stomach cancer that had taken over 25 of his whānau over the years. He writes in Impossible that he was diagnosed, and then buried the knowledge – a “time bomb in my stomach” best not thought about.

But by 2017, and with the family history of stomach cancer an indelible fact, Walker’s mother April kept pushing him to get tested. What she didn’t know at the time was Walker had already undergone tests months before; tests which revealed polyps and ended with doctors advising the young star to get his stomach removed immediately. “Too busy right now,” was the response from Walker, deflecting once again.

Finally, though, after taking further tests at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne “just to shush mum up”, the almost inevitable result: Walker had cancer.

“All the stuff I’ve overcome, that’s part of me. I felt it was important not to pretend that never happened. I didn’t want to come across as superhuman on paper. Trauma is a weird thing; it fatigues you, but it focuses you.”

Necessary to long term survival, the surgery to remove his stomach would see Walker’s oesophagus attached to his small intestine, which would in turn stretch over time to act like a small surrogate stomach. Walker knew he was out of options whether the surgery would effectively end his career on stage or not. In the end, the operating team discovered 13 cancers in his stomach. Without the procedure he would have been dead in six months. Dead at 27.

Rather than end his career though, the surgery has afforded Walker even more creative energy. Today, fitter than ever and someone who, he admits “eats a lot of kai for a guy with no stomach”, Walker is a family man, living in Whanganui with wife Lou Tyson and her son Te Puuwairua.

Always in search of ‘home’ or wākāinga, the desire for a solid home base has been an intrinsic part of Walker’s character ever since those formative years at Mangatawa and Tamapahore Marae, surrounded by whanau and music. His latest single ‘Come Back Home’ reflects these sentiments and the peace he finds with Lou.

“Life is always on the move, but I feel blessed to be here. Whanganui is a beautiful place to be.”

He’s also a self-professed workaholic. Stage, studio, homelife – Walker is always working on what’s next. At odds with the blue-black shadows his father cast over his childhood, the singer believes his work ethic comes directly from his Pāpā.

“I never clicked at the time, but he was constantly working – pig farming, tar sealing, fruit picking… whatever he had to do. He expected us to do the same,” Walker says. “And before Idol came along, I was always working too; on farms, in factories, the supermarket… it wasn’t a choice, it was just what you had to do.”

It’s another shade of a cyclic reality that Walker acknowledges was, to an extent, almost beyond his father’s control. He speaks in Impossible of not knowing his dad’s dad, who died when the singer was still a baby. He does know that his paternal grandfather was a brutal man, dishing out punishments to his son that, says Walker, were much more severe than those meted out by his father.

“It’s all he knew growing up – it’s all he had ever known. The violence, the bashings. But also, as he got older: the idea that you have to work. I was a little kid accompanying him to all these jobs, watching him work, helping when he told me to.”

Walker made peace with his dad, Ross, many years ago. Photographs in Impossible taken at his parents’ 21st wedding anniversary celebrations show a large extended family, big smiles, lots of miles travelled – many of them painful – but ultimately a lot of healing done too.

“We’ve all got a switch inside us. For years and years my dad didn’t know how to control it, but me and my brothers and my mum, we all learnt to know when it was about to be flicked, you know? We knew what would happen. He has confronted that side of his nature though.”

Everyone is capable of change, says Walker.

He himself has changed, both physically and creatively. For some, the mind’s eye picture of Walker might still be of that fresh-faced pop star singing hits of the day on TV. But steal yourself: that was over a decade ago.

He has forged his own path on his own terms. Name another performing artist that has won a high-profile talent show, whose success was so carefully managed, but then goes their own way with introspective EPs, an album in te reo Māori, cultivating a unique aesthetic quite apart from their peers along the way.

You can’t because, despite his entrance into the artistic world under the carefully stage-managed lens of manufactured pop, Walker has resolutely pushed back against the stereotypes.

“Everyone wants to write a hit, but I don’t want to just make music to be making music. I don’t want to be on autopilot. If I want to write songs about Jesus, or sex, or heartache, I’m not scared to do that. Whatever demo I’m working on, as long as I can find love in the track then I know I’m on the right path,” he says.

“And if I fail, that’s fine as long as it was my decision to go down that road in the first place. I’m prepared to fail, but only on my terms.

“One of the hardest things about winning Australian Idol and entering the spotlight like that was being told what to do, where to stand, what to say, and having no power to push back. There was a fire inside me that started growing really early on – I was like ‘Don’t tell me what my vision is! Don’t tell me to just shut up and sing!’”

Walker says recording Truth & Soul, an album of soul covers released in 2015, saw him at his lowest ebb creatively. He writes in Impossible that, after six years of forging a path, of carefully but determinedly feeling his way and finding his feet in the music business with genuine hits and the gold and platinum discs to show for it, a contractually required covers album felt like an enormous backward step – a shouted demand to just ‘shut up and sing’.

“I don’t want to resent what I love and what I love is music. That feels like a long time ago now though. I’m so proud of what we’ve been producing lately. I’m excited about the music I’m making and I’m looking forward to getting out on tour again next year.

“But my family is my legacy. I take my strength from Lou, from God, from the sun. And from music, always music.”

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