“My band, The Kitchen Party, is known for its revelrous live shows. After a brain aneurysm, I didn’t think I’d ever perform again”
Freeman Dre, a long-time Toronto musician, performed solo and with his folk band at venues across the city. After he collapsed in his apartment one afternoon, his community rallied to help him get back on his feet
I had an unconventional start to my career as a folk singer-songwriter. I started writing poetry around age 10, and in my early 20s, I realized that if I set my rhymes to a beat, more people would pay attention to the words. In the early 2000s, I started experimenting with beats in the halls of my apartment building at Davenport and Christie, where some of my neighbours would freestyle. A few years later, I joined a five-man hip-hop collective called the Rhythmicru. We performed monthly at the Reverb and Rivoli in Toronto, to crowds of a few hundred fans. We released three albums over seven years, which each sold around 2,000 copies. I loved freestyling with the other guys in the collective.
In 2009, my musician friend Nick Fothergill, who was living in Taiwan, helped us set up a tour there, and when it wrapped, Nick invited me to open for him on his 14-day tour around the country. Performing with Nick allowed me to explore new genres, like folk, blues, and rock and roll, and I caught the songwriting bug.
When I got back to Toronto, I knew I wanted to commit more time to playing and writing music. I also started writing more personal songs, which I thought were better expressed in the folk genre. Around this time, I moved into the Parkdale area and immersed myself in the community, connecting with local musicians and spending time at popular venues like Not My Dog. It was a lively neighbourhood full of quirky, interesting people, from artists to Tibetan monks. Inspired by storyteller musicians like Shane MacGowan, Tom Waits and John Prine, who created music about the people in their communities, I started writing songs about Parkdale. One song, “Saturday Night in Parkdale,” is a romantic portrait of what it was like to be an artist there, observing the eccentric residents living out their daily lives.
I continued to write and perform around Toronto, and music became my full-time gig. Then, in 2010, I connected with a group of local folk musicians through mutual friends, and they started coming over to jam in my kitchen. At first, there were two or three of us, plus a few friends who would pull up chairs to listen to us play. But, soon, I was hosting 20 or 30 people in my small apartment, including musicians who came by from Not My Dog to play. My kitchen became a gathering place for music fans and local musicians alike, and our jam sessions turned into raucous celebrations that resembled cèilidh-style kitchen parties.
After a few months, in 2011, we figured we should book a real venue. We chose Not My Dog for our first show, and after that, The Kitchen Party was born with five founding members. We all shared an affinity for singer-songwriter storytelling and Irish cèilidh party tunes. Our gigs were known for their East Coast whiskey stomping sets and revelry at venues across the city, including the Cameron House, Inter Steer Tavern, Drom Taberna, the Dakota Tavern and the Painted Lady.
We independently released our first record, Red Door, Second Floor (the directions we’d give to people looking for parties at my apartment), later that year. Eventually, we built up enough of a following to go on tour, and I also had opportunities to perform solo in Austria and Germany. Over the next few years, I toured a lot on the Georgian Bay strip, both solo and with the band. I’ve been all over the country and down to New Orleans and Nashville, playing shows to packed bars. But there isn’t any city better than Toronto to grow as a musician. The community here is so talented, supportive and accessible. Fans can easily connect with musicians at the city’s smaller venues, and the scene is humble and intimate. I felt like I was part of something unique.
On the afternoon of January 28, 2023, I was enjoying some local entertainment at Communist’s Daughter, at Ossington and Dundas, when I began to feel a dull ache in my head. It soon got worse, I went home to rest. Minutes after arriving at my apartment, I heard a loud bang, like a gunshot. Then I felt the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt in my life; it was like someone had stabbed me in the head. I knew that something was seriously wrong. Then everything went black.
My girlfriend came home a couple of hours later to find me writhing in pain on the floor. She called 911 and then my family, to let them know what had happened. Paramedics rushed me to St. Michael’s Hospital in life-threatening condition. My mom, sister and dad met me at the hospital.
Doctors performed an MRI and discovered an aneurysm in my brain. They didn’t know how long the aneurysm had been there, but it was hemorrhaging, making my condition critical. They immediately sent me to the operating room for emergency surgery and performed a coiling procedure, in which a catheter is inserted into an artery and tiny platinum coils are injected to fill the aneurysm, blocking it off from the main artery. The procedure also stops the aneurysm from growing or bursting, which would cause more hemorrhaging.
After the surgery, I fell into a coma, which was my body’s way of shutting down to begin the healing process. Unbeknownst to me, a steady stream of friends, fellow musicians and fans came to visit me at the hospital. Some, including the owners of Drom Taberna, planned a fundraising concert to help with my recovery. The concert raised about $50,000, which I used to pay the nurses who took care of me after I returned home. It also helped me pay for food and rent as I continued to recover from my brain injury. I was so touched that my friends had rallied around me while I was fighting for my life.
After two and a half weeks, I left St. Michael’s and was admitted to the Toronto Rehabilitation Centre. I was conscious and able to speak, but I soon developed excruciating new symptoms. I had trouble walking, and I experienced extremely distressing hallucinations. At one point, I believed there were snakes all over the wall. My hallucinations were terrifying; I thought they were a sign that my mind was deteriorating and I was dying. To make matters worse, doctors initially didn’t have an explanation for why this was happening.
I also lapsed into phases where I only spoke in rhymes, and there were a few instances when I would only sing. I was looking for comfort, and singing became a coping mechanism through which I could hold on to my talent while my health was falling apart.
I returned home from Toronto Rehab in mid-March, but my hallucinations and walking difficulties worsened. I spent most of my days in bed, with home-care nurses supporting me around the clock. Unable to do anything and with no end to my health difficulties in sight, I worried that I would never play music again. I even began to question whether life was worth living if I couldn’t create and perform for people. In late April, my family stepped in and took me back to the ER at St. Michael’s.
Doctors ran some tests and discovered that I had developed hydrocephalus as a result of the coiling procedure. Spinal fluid and blood had pooled in my brain, which was causing the hallucinations. So, on April 28, I underwent another critical four-hour operation to install a shunt in my brain that would relieve the pressure caused by the built-up liquid.
It was successful, and within hours of the procedure, memories from the past several months started coming back to me in fragments. I realized that I hadn’t been fully aware of my interactions and surroundings, and I now had the sensation of coming back to life—it was like my life energy had returned to my body. The procedure was exactly what my brain needed to function properly again, and my walking improved drastically. I felt an overwhelming sense of love and appreciation for all the people who had supported me through my difficult time.
I continued to get stronger, and by May, I was well enough to return to the stage at the Cameron House. It was a sold-out show, and there were fans lined up along Queen Street trying to get in. Local musicians like Nate Mills, Julian Taylor, Nick Teehan, Clayton Yates, Devin Cuddy, the Lemon Bucket Orkestra and countless others came out to support me. As I played my music that night, a huge sense of gratitude washed over me. I’d returned to a world that hadn’t forgotten me: my community had saved me a spot at the table while I was fighting for my life.
I’m now working on a solo album that will be released in the new year and developing another album with The Kitchen Party. My solo album explores the belief that the love and support you receive during hard times and illness can help heal the mind and body. I experienced it first-hand, from the collective positive energy of my family and friends. In her 2019 book, Columbia University psychiatry professor Kelli Harding even coined a name for it—the Rabbit Effect—based on experiments where rabbits that were held and treated with kindness were healthier than those that weren’t. I thought it would be fitting to call my new album The Rabbit Effect.
I’ve been leaning in to the healing, cathartic aspects of writing and performing since my aneurysm. It’s been a big part of my overall recovery. I’m also embracing the comforting energy that music creates—something we all need more of in an uncertain world, which can be unforgiving and beautiful at the same time.