Deadly illness redefines singer’s faith

By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ staff writer

Kevin Mark Gardels has played in local bands and recorded music for years, but his upcoming album, “God’s Hands,” will have a different focus from much of his previous work.
A year ago, Gardels was on the verge of death from myelofibrosis, a rare cancer for which the only treatment is a bone marrow transplant. Gardels was diagnosed with the disease in July of 2002 and his weight dropped from 280 pounds to 140 before a matching bone marrow donor was found and transplant surgery was performed in early 2003. He’s doing well now, but the disease left him weak for many months and Gardels said it had a strong impact on his faith.
“The spiritual background of the album comes from my experience,” Gardels said. “Once you are told you have a cancer that is fatal unless a match is found, that’s when you really have to do some soul-searching and begin a relationship with God in a very personal way.”
Studying the Bible wasn’t new for Gardels. Growing up as the son of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, he grew up with the liturgy of the church and learned its theology in confirmation classes and from his father’s sermons. However, Gardels said re-reading Scripture passages in the context of severe illness was an eye-opening experience.
“Twice I was at death’s door; the songs all revolve around that experience,” Gardels said. “I’ve read the same passages I’ve done for years and years, but you finally realize you can’t do anything at all to lift yourself up, it’s all (God’s) grace and His power.”
While Gardels’ music has a strong Christian message, he said it doesn’t fit neatly into the contemporary Christian music scene.
“It’s not a praise music album — the main influences on my life as a musician were people like Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan,” Gardels said. “I call it ‘Clovis music,’ music in the country western tradition as it was becoming rock.”
While the style of the music may be different, Gardels said the message is strongly focused on Christ’s power and human weakness, stemming from his own experience with mortality.
“I was given a new dose of life. My bone marrow was dead, my body was dying, but when the donor arrived, it was almost like being a kid again,” Gardels said. “You get to the point where all you have left is God.”
Gardels’ pastor, the Rev. Scott Blazek, said his Lutheran training gave him an appreciation for music and the arts.
“Art forms throughout the ages have dealt with love, mortality, and faith. Kevin’s music touches on these elements,” Blazek said. “ He enjoys R&B and does a good job rendering it and I appreciate it. It’s good music, not just good Christian music.”
“I have listened to his previous album, ‘Keep the Faith,’ and I enjoyed listening to it,” Blazek said. “The occasion of his illness has been an occasion for him to share how much God has done for him.”
Gardels, now 47, said he’s played nearly 35 years and much of that time has been working with Johnny Mulhair, who owns a Clovis recording studio and helps him with his production work.
“I enjoy his creative talents. He’s a very gifted guitarist and a very ‘rootsy’ songwriter. He mostly plays a lot of blues and country and folk music,” Mulhair said.
“I think it’s very inspired spiritually, and due to a lot of these songs coming about because of his illness it’s really spiritual music,” Mulhair said.