A 10-year-old boy steps off a Greyhound bus in San Jose with his mother. After a trip that took the better part of two days, the boy blinks in the California sun for the first time. He is 1,700 miles away from everything he’s ever known—friends, family, school, everything.
There’s a plan: the boy and his mother are to stay with a relative. But one phone call changes everything. The relative cannot, or will not, host them after all. She has her reasons. The boy doesn’t know, or understand, what those reasons are. The relative gives them the number of a homeless shelter.
“This was definitely something new to the both of us,” said the boy 15 years after the fact. “I never had to live like that. Since I was a kid, I never had to ask or beg for anything. Everything was pretty much handed to me. But this was a real struggle. I’m in a whole new atmosphere. I don’t know where I am, or who I’m with. My family’s not here. It was a nightmare.”
Saintjohn Ward is remembering the darkest days of his life while sitting in the sunshine of Gilroy on an unseasonable February day. He is now 25, an aspiring singer with a new recording, a new stage name and a burning ambition to be a professional performer. It’s something of a miracle that he’s even here, considering where he was. You might think, given the circumstances, that he and his mother Janice would have climbed right back on that bus and headed back to Texas, from which they came.
But the move to San Jose was no lark. It was a desperate move to escape calamity back in Dallas. The year before, Saintjohn’s father had died of cancer, which led to the loss of the family home and most of their possessions. They had lost almost everything. But going back to Dallas, particularly in the face of some relatives who thought the whole San Jose idea was a big mistake, was not an option. Janice was determined to stick it out. With her son in tow, she went to that shelter.
The memories are not all bad, however. For her son’s sake, Janice worked to maintain a sense of adventure. “We would get up super early,” said Saintjohn. “We would get on the bus and we would ride that bus all the way to the end of the line. We were just looking, learning our way around. That’s how I go to know San Jose so well.”
She told her son that she would give them three months to get out of the shelter. “Three months later, sure enough,” he said, “we’re moving into our first condo. I was so glad to have my own place. I just laid on the floor and said, ‘Thank you, God, thank you, God.’”
None of this compelling backstory is apparent on Ward’s first album, “Remind Me to Forget,” that he released in January under his stage name Vashoun Stjon (The first name is pronounced vuh-SHAWN and the last name is an alternate spelling of his given name). The music is sensuous, seductive R&B. It’s not music of the streets; it’s music of the bedroom. When you hear that wink-wink term “Netflix and chill” (older folks would use the term “hanky panky”), this album represents the “chill” part.
Before the catastrophe of his father’s death, Saintjohn lived a comfortable life during which he fell hard for the particular brand of R&B that flourished in the 1990s. Think R. Kelly, Usher, D’Angelo. “Even though we’re sitting here in 2018,” he said, “I still find myself going back to ’90s R&B. That was a good time for music.”
The album opens with “2 A.M.,” a gently swaying booty-call tune in which Saintjohn intones “Don’t be shy/It’s all right,” followed by the only slightly more upbeat “The Way You Love” that showcases the singer’s tender falsetto. Of the seven songs, all are originals, except for a cover of the Drake hit “Hotline Bling,” which Saintjohn turns into a sweet-soul piano ballad.
“My goal is to bring it back,” he said, in reference to 1990s-style R&B. “Because we lost it. If you turn on the radio today, you won’t hear R&B. I want to bring that feeling back. I’m trying to write for the women.”
A few years after the lowest point in Saintjohn’s life came one of the high points, another pivotal moment that was to determine his future. Like that awful moment at the bus station, this one was also marked by a last-minute betrayal.
He was a freshman at Willow Glen High School in San Jose. A group of friends had talked him into joining them on stage at the school’s annual talent show. But on the day of the event, every one of those friends withdrew from the show. Saintjohn, who had to be persuaded to participate in the first place, was suddenly a solo act. He could have bailed too, but “Something hit me: You gotta do this.”
The song he chose was “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys. No one had the vocal-less karaoke recording, which meant that Saintjohn had to sing an unwitting duet with one of the world’s most popular and talented singers. “I was singing on top of Alicia Keys,” he said. “I was harmonizing. It wasn’t the ideal situation.”
Nervous, shy, annoyed at his friends, the young man took the stage anyway. His first clue that things were going well was when he looked at the audience mid-song and saw couples embracing and people standing to wave their arms back and forth.
When he finished, the crowd erupted, catching him by surprise. “It could not have gone any better,” he said. In an instant, he went from invisible freshman to campus star. It was that moment, more than any other, that led in a straight line to the recording of an album of original material a decade later. Before that talent show, Saintjohn never thought about singing professionally. “I wasn’t sold before,” he said. “But after that, I figured, y’know I might have a shot at this.”
Not long after the Willow Glen talent show, the young singer and his mom were on the move again, this time to Gilroy where Saintjohn attended Gilroy High. A few years later, while working at Gilroy Gardens, he befriended a co-worker named Eric Garcia.
Of all the friends that expressed interest in his music career, who entertained ideas of collaborating with him, Garcia has the been the most stalwart. On the new album, Garcia is not only co-songwriter on two songs, he has signed on to be Saintjohn’s bass player. He’s also put his hard-earned money into the project.
“If you’re sure about something,” said Garcia, “and you want to put your all into it, you have to invest in it, so it’s not all talk.”
Garcia was purely a rock fan until he met the amiable Saintjohn, who was eager to share his love for old soul. “I always say that I’m kind of cheating on rock because I’m playing R&B,” he laughed.
The two friends began recording “Remind Me to Forget” in the summer of 2016 and now that the album is finished and finally in hand, it’s time to take the next step—touring and promotion. Saintjohn, who now earns his living at Wells Fargo in Gilroy, said he’s aiming high in determining a performance strategy, reaching out to every platform from the Gilroy Garlic Festival to Coachella.
“All I’m trying to prove with this is that I have something to give,” he said, “that the best is yet to come and I’m up for the journey.”
In a fickle and often arbitrary business, Saintjohn is certainly a long shot, but his unusual backstory, as painful as it was to live through, has taught him some valuable lessons in perseverance. “It’s been a blessing,” he said of that period of loss and upheaval he experienced as a child. “But it did not feel like a blessing at the time. I felt like God had cursed us. I kept thinking, what did we do that was so bad to deserve all this? But God puts you in different situations to see what you’re made of, like putting a tea bag in hot water brings out all the flavors. This,” he held up a CD copy of his new album, “this is my flavor.”