Chantal Chamberland still remembers the sound of jazz music wafting through her grandmother’s house, the distinctive voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Edith Piaf. “It was always playing in the house,” the Canadian chanteuse recalls. “I went to live with my grandmother when I was 5 after my mother died, and she raised me. So I grew up with jazz.”
She also has a naturally rich, smoky voice that has enabled her to build a career as one of the country’s most popular jazz vocalists, with her 2008 album, The Other Woman, reaching No. 3 on the jazz charts. More recently, she was nominated as 2009 Smooth Jazz Female Vocalist of the Year. Chamberland’s musical success, however, follows nearly two decades of struggles with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) that, at one point, left her fearful that she might never be able to walk onto a stage again.
The symptoms started when she was 24; lumps began to appear around her Achilles’ tendons. Within a few years, the disease began to affect her feet, knees, hips and hands. She had to give up playing guitar and limit her concert appearances.
Managing her disease proved difficult. At one point she was taking 10 pills a day, many of them designed to stop the side effects of her other medications, and she wasn’t getting better.
Chamberland began using a cane, and when the cane hurt her hands too much, she relied on a wheelchair. The pain of RA threatened to stop her budding career.
“My last showing the summer of 2006 was the Montreal Jazz Festival, and I told myself: Get me through this and then we’ll reassess,” she says. “After that, I went to my GP [general practioner] and told her I can’t take these meds anymore – they’re making me sick. There’s got to be another option.”
That option turned out to be a combination of Enbrel (etanercept) and methotrexate. For Chamberland, it was a lifechanger. “It was unbelievable,” she says. “Within two weeks I became a totally new person. It happened so fast; it freaked me out. I kept wondering: Is this going to last?”
Three years later, it has. Her latest album, This Is Our Time, is her fourth but the first she recorded pain-free. She’s even playing the guitar again, and every performance includes some of the standards that she used to hear in her grandmother’s living room. “She was my mentor and my hero,” says Chamberland. “Every time I play those songs, I think about her and how she’d be pretty proud of what I’m doing.”