Local artist rises up after debilitating brain injury

Nine years after a car accident left Marian van der Zon in excruciating pain and unable to listen to music, she debuts her first solo album.
Artist Marian van der Zon, a white woman with blonde hair wearing a blue shirt and black riding pants, leads two bay coloured horses through a richly green forest. They are headed towards the camera.
Marian van der Zon walks two horses on her homestead named The Valley of Miracles. Photo by Denisa Reyes

Before an accident in October 2013 transformed her life, local educator, sound artist, documentarian and media activist Marian van der Zon was, by her own admission, a bit of an overachiever. 

A respected professor in both the media studies and women’s studies departments of Vancouver Island University (VIU), she also helmed a weekly local radio show called Be the Media on CHLY 101.7 FM. 

Involved in radio for over a decade, van der Zon was a contributing editor to the 2010 book Islands of Resistance: Pirate Radio in Canada, as well as a member of the VIU-founded multimedia project, Meridian. 

Also a musician, van der Zon was a banjoist-vocalist in Puzzleroot, a folk act with her former partner, and they had released two albums.

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Then, in an instant, it was all gone.

While driving through an intersection, a truck ran a stop sign and slammed into van der Zon’s vehicle. Left with a traumatic brain injury, she suffered from extreme physical pain, acute migraine attacks, and an almost permanent state of exhaustion. Spinal surgery and years of challenging cognitive therapy followed.

During van der Zon’s glacially slow recovery, even ordinary daily situations like two or three people conversing in her company could cause considerable distress. 

She could not watch anything on television containing action sequences or subtitles — and worse, as a musician — she could not listen to music with a rhythm, only soothing, ambient sounds.

Despite this, by 2015 van der Zon had begun collating existing musical sketches and fresh ideas for songs, poetically chronicling her experience and attendant emotions, in what became a vital component of her healing process. 

Now, nine years on from the accident, those compositions have been collected into a debut solo album, released Sept. 22, titled Still Rising. 

Issued under the moniker Of the Sun, this deeply personal album contains a blend of wistful, pretty folk songs, catchy alt-country-flavoured foot-tappers, and the type of looped vocal tracks she has been experimenting with for years.

“It’s a ‘letting go’ of songs that have served me and may serve others, even just to lift spirits in the moment — and perhaps allow healing in others, beyond myself,” van der Zon says. “For me personally, it’s an artifact that documents and shares the last cycle. Nine years of my life that have been profoundly difficult, and yet have placed me on my soul path more firmly than ever before. The album is a tangible acknowledgement of these gifts.”

The cover of Marian van der Zon's new album, Still rising. Marian, a white woman with blonde hair, wears a green leaf patterned dress with a banjo slung over her left shoulder. She sits on a dark bay horse amongst a forest meadow of greenery. They are faced to the right of the camera and Marian looks off to the left.
Marian van der Zon’s new album, released under the moniker Of the Sun, Still Rising

Living with a brain injury means van der Zon is permanently unable to “work”, in the traditional sense of the word.

“My brain works at about one fifth of the speed of a fully functioning brain. Projects happen slowly, but I get there,” she adds.

Struggling with the intense stimuli of city life,  van der Zon retreated from Nanaimo in November 2018, and bought a property in Cedar. It was there that she then started to pursue an Arcadian, nature-based and increasingly spiritual existence. Drafting in close musician friends and working remotely with seven-time Juno winner Steve Dawson’s Henhouse Express, it was in this tranquil setting that she pieced together Still Rising, at the height of the pandemic. 

The surroundings in which she lives have a significant bearing on the music van der Zon is creating. 

“They ground me and keep me connected,” she says of the homestead she has named The Valley of Miracles. “So that I can get out of the way, to receive ideas, lyrics, music… peace, healing, love.”

From the depths of despair, excruciating pain, mental anguish and an uncertain future in any context, with a stirring force of will — and not a little patience — van der Zon has defied seemingly impossible odds. But now she has achieved that goal, what’s next for this fiercely determined woman?

“I will rest, celebrate, savour, play music, play with my horses and loved ones, and live my dreams,” she says.

Otherwise, with videos to film and a CD release show to plan, it seems there will be no stopping van der Zon for a while. She is, indeed, still rising. 

Still Rising is available as a digital download now through van der Zon’s website and on Bandcamp, with a limited edition CD to follow.

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