Kevin Lajiness didn't truly find his voice until he lost it.
He never sang - not in church, school or even the shower - until neck and throat cancer ravaged his body eight years ago. The treatment, a year's worth of chemotherapy and radiation, burned his salivary glands and caused his teeth to fall out. For a long time, he could barely speak and couldn't imagine singing.
But after he began working to clean up the open lot - now the Green Acres-protected SJI Park - near his Linwood home, the songs came. And they never stopped.
Three hundred songs later, Lajiness is still writing and singing.
"I forced myself to sing my songs because my son, the guitar player, wasn't interested," he said.
Lajiness' little red bungalow is full of the remains of hobbies and pastimes that have come and gone:
Hand-carved wooden busts of Genghis Khan, "Mexican Jesus" and St. Faustina sit around his dining room table - a hobby he picked up to "do something with my hands" after he quit drinking 13 years ago. Maps and portraits of distant relatives line the walls of his home. Boogie boards and surfboards lie in a corner of the den - Lajiness' 26-year-old son Daniel, an avid surfer, lives in Australia.
But the music remains.
"Some days I can sing and some days I can't, but the days I can sing are becoming more frequent," he said. "The funny thing is, my voice changed to where it's almost like an instrument. I have to warm up with it."
At 52, the artist and songwriter holds the No. 1 spot on ReverbNation.com's chart of the Top Alternative Artists of the Atlantic County area. But he isn't letting the attention go to his head.
"I'm sure it's a fluke," the former construction worker said. "I'm just real good at putting myself out there on social networks."
He's not kidding. A Google search reveals his digital fingerprints across MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and music-sharing sites such as ReverbNation.
But with his poor memory and unreliable voice, Lajiness said he won't be playing gigs anytime soon. Besides, he said, his music is an acquired taste.
"I'm not so sure I'm ready for prime time," he said.
He records the songs on a small black Sony voice recorder he carries with him. If a few lines strike him in the car, he said he'll pull over and record a song.
But most of his songs come from his interaction with nature. Lajiness' lyrics tells stories full of natural imagery and historical and religious allusions.
"I'll go sit in an open space, and I'll just let random thoughts flow," he said.
"You'll see the grass and the meadow, so you'll come up with: 'Grass and the meadows are dancing their life away/ and then it releases its seeds at the end of its life,'" he said. "Even though you're letting your thoughts flow freely, you're writing about what's around you."
Lajiness uses a 10-year-old Compaq computer to mix his own voice with drum and guitar loops and other sound effects for accompaniment. He layers several guitar tracks, one atop another, to come up with new beats and melodies.
That's another reason - aside from the fact that he doesn't play any non-digital instruments - Lajiness isn't ready for a live show.
"It's not going to be something somebody can do playing guitar," he said. "How can you play a 20-string guitar?"
While his family is supportive, Lajiness said few people in his life understand his newfound passion. At home, he wears headphones when he's playing back his recordings, and he never records indoors.
"After a while, it drives them crazy," he said. "Would you want to listen to your dad sing all day?"
And while he has made many contacts through his Internet prominence - including a sachem, or chief, of the Algonquian tribe - Lajiness said many people from his past are taken aback by his new hobby.
"What you find is people from high school, for instance, expect the same guy," he said. "They knew me as an athlete, and it's hard for them to accept who I am now."
Lajiness said he feels comfortable out in nature, alone with his thoughts and his voice recorder. While cleaning up SJI park four years ago, collecting and mulching fallen tree limbs and thick underbrush, he said bonded with a hawk and had a duck follow him home.
"It's so beautiful here," he said, walking through the park. "The walnut trees and there's apple trees and wild cherries over there. And the hawks come over here. There's one - flying up there, over the trees."
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
To hear Lajiness
To check out Kevin Lajiness' music, visit reverbnation.com/kevinlajiness.