Hines doesn’t mind if his wheelchair draws in listeners

Justin Hines is well aware that the physical challenge he’s had to overcome — a condition that has confined the Toronto native to a wheelchair — has also opened doors in the music industry.

TORONTO — Justin Hines is well aware that the physical challenge he’s had to overcome — a condition that has confined the Toronto native to a wheelchair — has also opened doors in the music industry.

And if Hines’ situation inspires listeners to give him a chance, well, he’s just glad they’re listening.

“I think I’m lucky,” Hines, 28, said in a recent interview in Toronto.

“I have a tool that just is an instant attention-grabber, and I think so many people in music are looking for that, and they have to work for it to make it happen. I just have to show up sometimes.”

“(But) I would have to (put) out good music or the novelty of the chair would wear off pretty quickly. I don’t think people would pay attention if it was just a chair.”

And the soft-spoken Hines is confident that his latest collection of intimately intoned folk-pop tunes will ward off any such concerns.

Days to Recall, out today, is Hines’ third studio album of original material, and it nudges the singer into some new territory.

Sprightly single Tell Me I’m Wrong is one of several tracks buoyed by lush string arrangements, the fleet-footed shuffle of See You Like I Do is augmented by horns, tenor sax and flute and the ambling Somewhere in the Middle even features a verse from Canuck rap pioneer Maestro (he dropped the Fresh Wes a few years back).

“I’m honoured that he considered it,” Hines says of the two-time Juno winner.

Still, the record isn’t a total departure for Hines.

His honeyed voice and bright melodies are still the main attraction, while his lyrics remain resolutely hopeful, with tales of light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel optimism and odes to the value of pluck in the face of adversity ruling the day.

But given that such sanguine positivity has become Hines’ calling card, does he ever feel trapped by an obligation to deliver cherubic cheer?

“I’ve been thinking about that lately, actually — I’ve realized that there’s a certain expectation that’s going to be what I do,” he replies thoughtfully.

“But the reality is, I don’t have to work at it. That is my perspective in life, it’s not a gimmick, it’s not a shtick.”

“It’s not a rosy-coloured glasses kind of thing, where I don’t acknowledge hard times and I don’t give them their due.

“It’s just the way I was raised and brought up, I always found a light at the end of the tunnel, and sometimes it’s harder than other times.”

He pauses, before cracking a joke.

“Maybe someday I’ll write a straight-up goth record, who knows…. But for now, this is where I’m at.”

Aside from crafting his new album, Hines has spent the past few years trekking to such far-off locales as China, South Africa, Dubai and Italy, while filling his days with his typically ambitious slate of charity work.

He created the Justin Hines Foundation, which seeks to raise awareness of those with physical challenges. Hines himself has Larsen’s syndrome, a congenital condition characterized mainly by the dislocation of multiple body joints.

Obviously, an ambitious touring schedule is only made more difficult by Hines’ condition. Travelling is more complex and taxing than for other artists, and many venues still aren’t accessible. But Hines says such hurdles can be overcome.

“Sometimes I’ll take on the challenge of actually performing at a completely non-accessible place,” he said.

“Just because we have the experience and know that we can do that and it’s totally possible, but also, it just kind of raises an interesting level of awareness that some people may not have had before.

“I think getting angry about it and being sort of activist about it … would be counter-productive. I think it’s important to show up and do it anyway. And then people can see the challenges and what maybe what needs to be done in the future.”

“If you’ve never had to deal with it, you’ve never had to deal with it. I think it’s just about showing up and doing your thing anyway.”

Which brings him back to why he doesn’t want to try to hide his condition, or shy away from the attention it might bring.

Days to Recall will be his first album yet to be distributed by a major label, and he points out with cautious optimism that he’s started to gain some traction on U.S. radio.

He’s also taped a PBS special featuring guests Ron Sexsmith and the Canadian Tenors that should bring him further Stateside attention (though he questions, with characteristic humour, why the public broadcaster was interested in him: “I realize I’m not the choreographed Lady Gaga type — my choreography’s not very good.”)

If the new album provides a commercial breakthrough, he’s ready. And if he can become an ambassador of sorts for performers with physical challenges, well, he’s ready for that too.

“I think in a lot of ways, it’s kind of new ground in the music business. And it’s kind of great to be part of something different. I’ve just learned to really embrace it.

“I think in the beginning I was a little insecure, but as time’s gone by, (I’ve realized) it’s actually a good thing. I’m definitely not trying to hide it.”