As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
For Kitchener-Conestoga, Liberal MP, Tim Louis, life and love happened when he least expected.
Born in 1969 in New Jersey, Louis grew up in the United States, and later moved to Kitchener in 1994.
He smiles as he relates his reason for relocating to Kitchener: a girl, Brenda, he’d met while playing in the U.S. For once in his life, music suddenly took second place in his life. He threw everything he owned in his car, followed his heart and followed Brenda back to Canada in 1994.
Louis calls it the single greatest turning point of his life and a decision he would never regret for a second. Recently, the couple celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary and the Louis family today includes a son who’s in his third year of university and a daughter who just graduated high school and plans to attend post-secondary school.
“That was a good move and (I know) it was a dangerous thing for a young guy to throw everything in the back of a car and drive up to Canada,” he says. “But Canada has been very gracious to me and has offered me the security and safety that I needed to raise my family and I won’t forget that.”
Louis has travelled around the world as a working musician; he’s played in a country band, a rock and roll band; and eventually, he returned to his roots as a Jazz singer-songwriter and performer.
He studied classical piano from age five, and got into Jazz during his teenage years. Later on, he graduated from New Jersey’s Rutger University in 1991 with a BA in Music, having studied under Jazz great Kenny Barron.
“I enjoyed it. Classical music taught me how to learn the rules and how to do it. It was that improvisation that attracted me to Jazz,” he says, adding he also studied orchestration at Rutger. Later, in 2010, he wrote an original Christmas album for a show with the K-W Symphony, where they gave him the opportunity to use his orchestration skills. Louis also performed the title track of that album, Snowflakes In Bloom, later on, on CTV’s Canada AM.
After graduation in 1991, his first professional gig was playing for “a lot of big weddings” in an Italian wedding band in New York City and New Jersey.
“That’s what I paid my bills on,” says Louis.
From 1992 to 1994 he toured with a rock and roll band when a small, independent record label picked them up and signed them. They recorded an album with producer Teo Macero, an American jazz saxophonist, composer, who had also been a record producer for 20 years with Columbia Records. Macero also produced such notables as the legendary Miles Davis. Unfortunately, Louis’s label folded before the album saw the light of day.
“That’s when I decided to follow ‘that girl’ from Canada,” he says, smiling.
MP Louis Gets the Girl and Goes Country
Fortunately, his gift for music also accompanied the classically-trained piano player to Canada where he endeavoured to make a living as a full-time musician, even foraying into the unfamiliar territory of country music. He had dropped off a demo tape at a local Kitchener studio and told them that if anyone needs him, he’s available.
“There was this guitar player who was looking for a keyboard player,” he says. “They auditioned me on the spot and said, ‘fantastic, you’re in the band and we leave tomorrow.”
The guitar player turned out to be one of Canada’s most awarded, independent male Country music artists, originally from Hanover, ON – Jamie Warren.
“We did a tour of northern Ontario in winter,” he says with a smile, “and that was my christening into Canadian winters and country music for the next six years.”
Louis also toured the world from 1998 to 2001 with a band called Lace, a Canadian country music group, formed in 1998 with the backing of music producer, David Foster.
“And then one day,” he says, “I came home. I remember I was at the Calgary Stampede and I woke up one morning and I went, ahh, you know, my heart’s not into what I’m doing. I want to do my own thing.”
So, he went home and started writing and that’s when the Jazz inside him resurfaced:
“That’s when I started recording my own albums. You know, typical story.”
In his time, Louis has performed pretty much anywhere that any aspiring musician would only dream about, including for such audiences as Prince Andrew, President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Jean Chretien and – something he recalls with great pleasure – physicist, Stephen Hawking. As it turned out, Hawking was also a fan of classical music.
From Citizen Louis to Federal MP Louis
Louis knew that once he followed Brenda back to Canada that he was here to stay, so one of the first things he did was work toward achieving his Canadian citizenship status.
“I tell people I was an American by birth but I’m a Canadian by choice,” he says. “When I came here, I needed to get my papers as a working musician so I could stay here.”
He did that by gaining employment as a full-time musician at Kitchener-Waterloo’s Duke of Wellington on Erb Street. He became a permanent resident and got his citizenship. Now he just had to keep working and find his footing in his new home country.
“There was no fallback at that point,” he says. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat so that drives a person to work a little harder.”
That drive manifested itself in other ways, it seems. That passion for music seems to have manifested itself in rather unforeseen ways in the form of helping out in his community. Around 2010, he decided he just didn’t like the way things were going, so he entered the world of politics. He was politically active back then he says, but it really wasn’t on his list of things to do at the time.
“Now, I have no other aspirations than serving my community,”Louis says. “Maybe it was that entrepreneurial spirit (in me). If you see a problem that needs a solution, then let’s do something about it, so I decided to take a shot.”
If at First You Don’t Succceed . . .
Louis ran for the first time in any level of politics against incumbent Conservative MP, Harold Albrecht in 2015, losing by a mere 215 votes. That vote was close enough that he remained focused. He spent the next four years, getting out in the townships, talking to his friends and neighbours in the community and hearing their concerns.
“I just didn’t feel like I was done.”
When Louis ran again in the 2019 election, he won by just another couple of hundred votes and became Kitchener-Conestoga’s newest Federal MP for the Liberal Party of Canada on October 21, 2019.
One of the first things Louis did – which may seem odd in these times of increasing partisan political divide – was to invite the outgoing MP, Albrecht, to join him as they lay the ceremonial wreath during the November 2019 Memorial Day ceremony in New Hamburg.
Louis, who says the qualities he most admires in any person are honest and humility, simply shrugs at the question of why he would such a thing: “I just thought it was the right thing to do. That’s why we’re Canadians.”
“Those qualities, you probably wouldn’t find in a politician or someone in show business, but they’re relatable and I think that’s something the world needs more of now.”
True, especially now as the issues and concerns that were in the community before Covid-19 have,now only further deepened since mid-March 2019.
“Everyday is a roller coaster,” he says. “I didn’t expect to be serving during a global pandemic but I did get involved to help as many people as possible.”
In his work as a full-time musician, he says, he was able to volunteer and do fundraisers and help any way he could. This is a different way of performing those services but the level of need, the level of cooperation and the level of government assistance is greater than people would have thought, so he feels fortunate to be able to give:
“Every moment of the day, I try to make a difference.”
Most of an MP’s time, he says, revolves around attending events and festivals and talking to people but now it’s difficult getting those same opinions when you can’t walk into a room full of people. Louis misses that personal interaction of meeting people and talking with people in the community who need help but there are ways around it, with the help of modern technology, such as social media.
“Of course, it’s completely different from what I was used to,” Louis says “Now I’m set up in my basement in what was once my recording studio. Now it’s my home office so I’m sitting in my basement with a headset on, participating in the House of Commons.”
Louis has more than his share of experience in the media, as well, which is a good skill to have right now.
Since the advent of Covid-19, the MP has continued to reach out to his community in various ways, such as Facebook Live, says Louis, who also hosted a volunteer radio show, called Jazz Sessions, for seven years in Elora. The show featured a live studio audience and a house band, with Louis interviewing and featuring local Jazz and Blues musicians. He also did two pilot television episodes of the show.
“(Now I do) virtual town halls where people can login and ask questions or leave comments, and we can still have these discussions. Sometimes I’ll pick a topic that’s relevant or things I hear about in the office and I can still get certain feedback. I also have special guests on.”
He’s featured various mayors of Townships around his Kitchener-Conestoga riding, as well as the Regional Chair, the police chief and some of the the community’s organizations, giving them the opportunity to explain some of the work they do.
“It’s almost like a television show, where you can promote your community,” he says, adding the last few he’s done have been about local tourism and how hard it’s been hit since the pandemic began. “You still become accessible. It’s just a different way of doing it now.”
Before Covid-19, Louis served on two committees he chose specifically: Agriculture and Heritage. The Heritage Committee represents culture, sports and art.
“We had just gotten started when Covid hit, and that hasn’t come back yet,” he days. “So what we’re talking about now is cyberbullying and online hate crimes.”
He continues to help the agricultural community in any way he can, however. As many people have now come to understand, food insecurity and food safety is critically important at this time so it’s been front and centre on his mind:
“We’re already working on crisis management proposals to make sure our food supply is safe and to that end, we continue to work with farmers.”
In the early days of the pandemic, many grocery stores were empty but, as Louis says, farmers couldn’t get their products to the market and it quickly became apparent that support was needed.
“Farmers and the agriculture sector have always been extremely resilient,” he says, “so it was good that we could work together and I met with members of all the organizations in our riding, nationally, as well. We found out their needs and, as a committee, we’ve been working well together across party lines because we all know it is the support they need.”
Louis says he knows that, before the pandemic, people probably didn’t realize that their food doesn’t come from the supermarket but from farms and that is where the awareness needs to be brought front and centre.
“Now,” he says, “I think people understand we need to support local agriculture and our farmers and we know we can do more. I also know we need to keep farmland from being developed. We need to keep it for our farmers.”
Louis is happy to see, he says, a definite movement to support local with the increase in local roadside stands and local markets:
“It’s amazing. You can walk in and have a conversation with the person who actually produced the food and theirs is a great story.”
The lifelong musician also sees comparisons in his past vocation to farming.
“Coming from being a self-employed musician, when I got into agriculture and said I wanted to support (them) and got on this committee, I didn’t know how much I could bring to it, but the resilience of farmers, their ingenuity and their innovation and self-reliance, those are the types of qualities that a lot of artists have and I see that farmers have that as well.”
“If something’s wrong, you fix it. If something needs to be addressed, you address it. You know you can’t (pass the buck). You have to do it yourself, (especially when there are such) razor-thin margins in agriculture and arts and culture.”
You are at the whims of trade agreements, he says, and at the whims of environmental issues, so it’s a very challenging lifestyle:
“I’m proud to say I sit on that committee.”
Louis says he most likely will run in the next election, citing his parents – now in their mid-70s – as his life’s biggest influences. They still live in the same New Jersey apartment where he grew up:
“We didn’t have everything we wanted but we had everything we needed.”
Of all the things he has accomplished in both his musical and political careers so far, Louis has no hesitation in saying he is most proud of the fact that he was always able to do what he liked to do and earn a living from it.
“I was able to support a family of four of us as a working full-time musician. It doesn’t matter how much you have; you scrape by, through those lean years and I made a living and did what I wanted to do.”
When asked what is the most important decision he has ever made in his life, Louis flashes his easy smile and laughs:
“I think that decision was the day I decided to visit that girl (in Canada).”