Nfld. & Labrador

How one St. John's teacher gave Steve Maloney the confidence to get on stage and sing

Jacinta Mackey Graham saw something in Steve Maloney's talent that he didn't know was there. Now, she's being inducted into the ArtsNL Hall of Honour.

Jacinta Mackey Graham is being inducted into the ArtsNL Hall of Honour this month

If it wasn't for theatre arts teacher Jacinta Mackey Graham's support, Steve Maloney says he might never have made it as a musician. (Katie Breen/CBC)

On the very first week of the 2004-2005 school year, Gongaza High School theatre arts teacher Jacinta Mackey Graham had the impulsive idea to pull an extremely shy Grade 10 student out of his science class.

She'd been desperately on the lookout for male singers for the school's chamber choir, and had been tipped off about a potential vocalist but was told "good luck" getting him to sing in a choir.

He'd sing along to the radio in the car, or maybe while hanging out with his friends, but absolutely never in public.

But Mackey Graham was persistent, and she asked him to sing anything, even O Canada, just to let her see what his voice sounded like.

When he opened his mouth and started to sing, she knew right away he had a gift.

"I remember saying 'Oh my God' and [his] reaction was 'See I told you I can't sing' and I said, 'No, oh my God, this is a beautiful voice.'"

The singer? Steve Maloney, now the winner of multiple MusicNL awards, star of a recent production of Rent, and arguably one of the province's most well-known contemporary songwriters.

Reunited at ArtsNL awards

Nearly 14 years later, the two are being honoured at April's ArtsNL awards.

Maloney is nominated for Artist of the Year, while Mackey Graham is being inducted into the ArtsNL Hall of Honour, in part for her contributions to the province's music and theatre scenes, but also for her role mentoring young students like Maloney.

Without Mackey Graham's early support, Maloney said it's possible, even likely, he wouldn't be the award-winning musician he is today.

"Definitely not," said Maloney. "I'd be probably working at the bank or something."

Steve Maloney performs in CBC's Studio F. (CBC)

Instead, with Mackey Graham's early vote of confidence, Maloney started on his journey.

"It was, I would say, terrifying at the time," he said.

"The strange thing is I think I always enjoyed it, like I feel like a part of me wanted to do it, but I always had sort of a mental block, or a personal block where I couldn't allow myself to do it because 'Oh no, you can't be that, you have to just fit in and not do anything.'"

After hearing his stirring rendition of O Canada, Mackey Graham went above and beyond seeking Maloney out for the choir, and called his mom to tell her she had set him up with a private voice teacher.

With a little negotiating, or to hear Maloney tell it today bribery (a bass guitar), his mom convinced him to go to the lessons.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Life-changing show of support

In the span of a day, Maloney's life was on a different track.

"It went from singing a couple of lines of Oh Canada to now you're in voice lessons, to now you're in the chamber choir, to now you're in every ensemble that Gonzaga has," said Mackey Graham.

These days, he's headlining shows in St. John's and other cities across Canada, starring in musicals, and is known for not only his voice but his deft lyricism and musicianship.

"To hear him now writing his own music, and he truly has the soul of the poet you know. Those steps, those baby steps that you take … I just truly believe that things are supposed to happen," said Mackey Graham.

Kim's Convenience star Nicole Power, far right, was a student of Jacinta Mackey Graham's while she was attending high school in St. John's. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

During her time as a theatre arts teacher — Mackey Graham retired in 2010 —  she taught many students who went on to work in the creative fields, including Broadway Mamma Mia! star Tina Maddigan, and Kim's Convenience actress Nicole Power.

For Maloney, he'll always remember and be grateful for the teacher who started him out on this route, and inspired him to get out of his shell and stake a claim to his talent.

"It's so important to have someone in your corner saying that this is okay and that you do have something worth pursuing," he said.

"All your students were better for that and found confidence in what you gave them, and I know we're all thankful for that."

Jacinta Mackey Graham will be inducted into the ArtsNL Hall of Honour on April 28 at a ceremony in Labrador City.

With files from On The Go