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Frank Walker sets aside Stronach family empire to chase DJ dreams

Musician Frank Walker poses for a photograph in Toronto on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — Life can lead to the most extraordinary of crossroads when you’re the grandson of a billionaire auto industry magnate.

That’s where Frank Walker found himself three years ago when he faced a rare career quandary: should he settle into a comfortable job at Magna International, the auto parts giant his grandfather Frank Stronach built, or pursue his dream of becoming a globally respected DJ and producer?

Split between two worlds, Walker turned to someone he trusted — his mother Belinda Stronach. As a business woman and former member of parliament, she’d weighed tough options herself.

“Her exact words were: ‘You can’t start DJ’ing when you’re 40,'” the 27-year-old remembers.

“It was her kind of saying, ‘You need to take your shot at this now.'”

Walker is already reaping considerable dividends from her advice.

His melancholic dance single “Heartbreak Back” burst onto pop radio earlier this year, peaking at No. 8 on Billboard’s mainstream Canadian airplay chart. He followed that up with “Only When It Rains,” featuring warmly inviting vocals by Norway’s Astrid S, which found a solid audience on streaming platforms.

Building his reputation as a DJ wasn’t a lifetime goal for the heir to the Magna fortune. He “fell into” the role when most people saw him as someone else.

Walker grew up in a family of corporate strategists who respected musicality, but didn’t pursue it seriously. His grandmother casually played an accordion when he was a child, he remembers, and he picked up the trombone at a private arts school in King City, Ont.

“I was never really focused on it,” he admits.

Instead, Walker says he was “kind of always groomed to work” in the boardroom of Magna’s headquarters in Aurora, Ont., where his father, Don Walker, held various roles, including chief executive officer.

Starting in elementary school, his parents encouraged him to play hooky for the company’s annual meetings. He remembers watching his grandfather and parents field shareholders’ questions: “I had no idea what was going on.”

As Walker matured, he dedicated summers to working at a Magna facility — one year in the research and development department, another year at one of the Ontario plants.

And once he enrolled at Laurier University’s business school in Waterloo, Ont., Walker’s corporate trajectory seemed etched in stone, until he started to work as a DJ on the side.

Something clicked when he was invited to play a house party for his university rugby team in 2012, he says, and before long, he was playing sets at the local pub, which led to more bookings.

By graduation, Walker had amassed a small collection of original songs on Soundcloud, as the rift between his two lives widened.

On weekdays, he worked in the marketing department at Magna, but at night he was mixing tracks at home. On weekends, he’d drive to nearby Ontario cities to DJ.

After that pivotal conversation with his mother, Belinda Stronach rung up a family friend whose son Myles Shear was a successful music manager. Barely into his 20s, Shear was instrumental in making Norwegian DJ Kygo a gale force act on the club scene. Kygo has collaborated with megastars Selena Gomez and John Legend.

Walker arranged to visit Shear at his Miami home office.

Showing up with his mother in tow, Walker remembers stepping into Shear’s condo for the first time. The young powerbroker was chilling on his couch in a Miami Heat jersey while spinning a basketball on his finger. Two assistants tapped away on computers nearby.

Walker pitched himself as a hopeful artist who wanted to make an impact — but Shear says one comment made all the difference.

“‘I’m willing to do whatever I’ve got to do to make this happen,'” Shear says Walker told him.

“When I heard those words it really struck me.”

Walker returned to Toronto and awaited word on whether Shear would manage him. Instead, he got another invite from Shear, this time to join him alongside a dozen of his friends for a Halloween horror night at Universal Studios.

“I definitely need to take this opportunity,” Walker remembers thinking. “So I ended up flying back to Miami.”

The group partied the night away inside the theme park, and Shear said he “immediately felt this brotherhood” with Walker. Shear offered to sign him the following week.

Since then, the 26-year-old manager has invested big in making Walker a household name in electronic music. He’s booked him shows at Miami’s prestigious Ultra Music Festival, and brokered deals for Walker to remix a considerable roster of pop acts including Kesha, Alessia Cara and Tyler Shaw.

Along the way, Walker says his family has been supportive, especially his mother.

“If I’m playing somewhere fun like Mykonos she’ll be like, ‘Maybe I should take a vacation, pop by Mykonos for a day or two to support my son,'” he says.

Lingering in the background of Walker’s success is an uncertain future with Magna.

He doesn’t talk about the messy legal battle that’s captured national headlines in recent months. Frank Stronach is suing Belinda over control of the family fortune, alleging a misappropriation of family assets. Walker and his sister are part of a countersuit his mother filed against their grandparents and her brother.

The most he’ll say is that the family business is “a fallback.”

“Not that I need a fallback right now,” he adds.

“I keep an eye on what my family is doing… It’s always in the back of my mind,” he added.

“But I don’t think I’ll ever have to choose one or the other — hopefully.”

 

Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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