Juno-winning guitarist Oscar Lopez stays positive as he struggles with mental health, housing

The 70-year-old lived in his car for a while, and has since found home at a motel in Calgary

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After a storied 30-year music career that included 10 albums and two Juno awards, life for Calgary-based guitarist Oscar Lopez has taken a turn he never saw coming.

The well-known 70-year-old musician has been laid low by depression and other health problems, as well as financial difficulties. He has resorted to living in his car for stretches and currently lives in a motel on Macleod Trail.

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Right now, he said, life feels like a personal war.

“It’s a battlefield of emotions in life. You got to go through this process, there’s no other way around it, and to stay positive is a hard thing to do.

“I never thought I would ever get to this situation in my life,” said Lopez. “But I’m flexible, you know, being flexible means you have to adapt yourself to the circumstances.”

He battled depression earlier in his career as well, taking a break from performing at the height of his fame in the early 2000s.

Lopez says a combination of things brought him to where he is today — mainly his health, along with his mental state and financial challenges.

“You never know what’s around the corner, sometimes good, sometimes bad.

“It’s easy to cry, it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself,” he said, “But to go through the process, go to the next step, the other side, that is the difficult part of it.”

“Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes we’re just humans, right? We are fragile.”

Juno award-winning guitarist Oscar Lopez
Oscar Lopez, photographed in a southwest Calgary motel where he has been living for a few days. Gavin Young/Postmedia

He says many artists struggle with depression, anxiety and feelings of abandonment. Some suffer in silence and are afraid to speak out or are too proud to reach out for help.

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“I want to be the voice of the people,” he said. “We’re gonna work on this and it’s gonna get better.”

His own call for help took the form of a GoFundMe, for which he set an initial goal to raise $5,000 to help with his housing situation. The page has since soared to more than $19,000, well beyond what he imagined.

He says the money will not only help with housing, but also enable him to get back to doing what he loves — playing guitar.

Lopez hopes to host master classes, teaching others to play the way he does.

He came to Canada from Santiago, Chile, in 1979 at the age of 26. First living in Winnipeg, he worked as a janitor, later moving to Calgary in 1981.

For his first gig at a Sunday brunch, he played without a microphone or speaker.

“I didn’t know what brunch was, so at 8 a.m. in the morning, (I) froze my butt off.”

At that time, nobody was doing what he did — especially in Calgary.

“I was the first one to get this established movement of Latin, Canadian guitar playing. From Day 1, I have been travelling around the world, representing my culture and Canada’s culture, and it’s been an honour.

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“The music inclination, the music feelings, it’s in your veins. It’s a virus. You cannot get rid of it,” said Lopez.

Oscar Lopez
Oscar Lopez poses with his two Juno Awards in 2008. Postmedia file photo

He teamed up with Calgary-born James Keelaghan to form The Compadres around 1993, and they toured together in Europe and across North America on and off over the years.

Keelaghan says they remained friends ever since. He argues the transition from CD sales to streaming music has hurt many musicians.

“Streaming is one of the greatest ripoffs that ever existed, and totally, totally destroyed that end of our income stream, (which was) selling CDs,” said Keelaghan.

Keelaghan also hopes that audiences recognize the challenges that artists face.

“Whatever it is about the music industry in particular, there’s a lot of mental-health challenges,” he said.

Guitar legend Oscar Lopez
Oscar Lopez performs at Expo Latino at Prince’s Island Park in 2015. Postmedia file photo

Tim Williams, a longtime friend and fellow musician, says Lopez was a fixture on the festival circuit in the 1990s, also playing local clubs at that time.

“He’s a really extraordinarily good guitar player, in a very kind of flashy, romantic Latin style,” said Williams, “Good singer, good entertainer, very funny, very entertaining.”

Williams, who is performing in Olympic Plaza for Chinook Blast on Friday, said he and Lopez crossed paths frequently over the years.

“Oscar’s younger than me, but he’s at a point where it gets harder for aging musicians, sometimes, to stay working,” said Williams.

Lopez said he’s feeling stronger every day and, on March 1, he’s moving into an apartment he can call home.

“I’m gonna have a place that I can lie down,” he said, “I can play music, do my business. What else do you want in life?”

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