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Only a few months ago, John Popper, leader of the multiplatinum rock band Blues Traveler, found himself in a life-threatening situation. Weighing more than 400 pounds and hospitalized with chest pains, he underwent an angioplasty - a medical procedure to clear an artery that was 95 percent blocked.
"I had to realized that I don't want to die," the 32-year-old singer and harmonica player says quietly from his Pennsylvania home. "And before, it never really mattered to me. I'm really lucky that it wasn't a bona fide heart attack, because the heart isn't damaged."
The experience was a wake-up call for Popper to take a closer look at his life, both mentally and physically.
Popper's solo debute, Zygote, scheduled for release Sept. 7, delves into the issues of mortality and love. The lyrically introspective album offers a mirror into the singer's soul that can be painful, especially given the recent news that his best friend, Blues Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan, died a few weeks ago at the age of 31.
During an interview conducted before Sheehan's death, Popper said of Zygote: "A lot of people think the lyrics are sort of prophetic, what with my hospitalization. But really, the hospitalization was the aftermath."
Since founding Blues Traveler in 1988 with his New Jersey high school friends Sheehan, guitarist CHan Kinchla, and drummer Brendan Hill, making music has been Popper's priority.
So much so that when he was hospitalized, he was more concerned with the possibility of not being able to tour in support of Zygote than with his health. "Denial," he explains. "I was thinking, all right, how am I going to make those shows?"
Though his July tour dates had to be postponed, Popper has spent the past two months rehabilitating himself and is scheduled to kick off his tour on Wednesday. "I've lost 10 pounds so far, and I'm getting stronger," says the artist, whose weight escalated to 414 pounds before his hospitalization. "I think I've got my wind back. There was a time when just to play harmonica for two minutes, I'd have to take a nap for six hours."
In the wake of the operation, controlling his weight has become Popper's primary health concern. "I never thought I would get over 400 pounds," he says. "I've been 350 for a long time, and that's plenty obese, but it never really bothered me in terms of chest pains. To be 400 pounds just frightens me. I've got a real food addiction - it's every bit a drug."
As part of his new health regime aimed at reaching an ideal weight of 250 pounds, the singer has quite smoking and said he's trying to "learn to love whole-wheat bread."
Confronting death has affected every aspect of Popper's life. "I think this whole heart thing was a symptom of an ongoing revelation that I've been having for the last couple of years," he says. "I think once the members of the band started having babies and really getting married, I just started realizing, 'How did they get personal lives for the last 10 years?'
"You know, I've been keeping my head down, doing the same thing basically sinc high school. And I turn around, and what do I have when I get home?
Zygote, with its connotation of new life, was born out of Popper's desire to do something for himself. "It was going to be mine; it was going to be just something exactly the way I wanted," the singer says. "Every band has songs they can play that fit them and songs that don't. The more ballady side of things is not really a Blues Traveler dynamic. Blues Traveler is more of an epic band."
Zygote also touches on the subject of unrequited love. "I had this huge crush on someone who's been a friend of mine forever," Popper says, "and it kind of forced me to realize what was real."
Still, Popper can't help but believe he'll find his true love someday: "There is someone out there for me, and I've been alone most of my life, so I take that on faith."
The creative process of songwriting has been both cathartic and medicinal throughout these struggles. "I write songs well when I've sort of gone through the real crisis point," he says. "On some level, you've tried and succeeded to understand something. And if you understand it, then it doesn't hold the same power over you."
In light of the recent tragedies in Popper's life, the lyrics from "Once You Wake Up", off of Zygote, could not ring truer: "Once you wake up/ You can't just fall back asleep anymore/I know it isn't fair but once you're awake/You an backtrack all you want/You can mourn for what's gone/but you're oddly awake/You better deal with your day."
Popper says the song properly sums up his emotional journey: "I was asleep for 10 years, and now that I'm looking, it probably sucks, but you can't pretend you're sleeping."
Of the future, "I want to have to replace what I define as joy, serenity, peace with actual joy and serenity and peace," he says. "I want to really try and breathe life in and have it be good."
And most important, the singer hasn't lost faith. "I really believe that miracles happen," he says. "They don't have to be big ones - they just have to affect whoever it's happening to. I tell you this: I ask God for help out loud and it comes. It can be a friend calling, it can be a wrong number, it can be a TV commercial, but if you really want to feel better, you can ask for it and it's there."