Dr. Jamie Bonaparte: Successful doctor by day, award-winning musician by night
Posted on Wednesday, July 20, 2022
By David McFadden
Dr. Jamie Bonaparte has a secret. When he’s not practicing medicine or teaching at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine, he’s one half of an indie rock duo that’s lately winning music awards, becoming a fixture on college radio, and attracting an international fanbase.
How’s this for momentum? Earlier this year, Dr. Bonaparte’s synth-driven rock band Paragon Cause won two major awards at Canada’s East Coast Music Awards—a “rising star” honour and the 2022 electronic album of the year. The Ottawa music community recently awarded the group’s latest album, Autopilot, with its nod for best production and arrangements at the Capital Music Awards.
The duo’s catchy and atmospheric songs are the result of his double life as a physician and a musician. With a musical outlet outside his primary medical career, Dr. Bonaparte has found he’s improved at creative problem-solving in both areas, allowing him to sharpen his focus and keep burnout at bay.
How the Otolaryngology - Head and Neck surgeon and assistant professor at the Faculty of Medicine ended up as an award-winning rock musician and producer from his basement recording studio is a remarkable story unto itself.
As a youngster in a blue-collar Cape Breton neighbourhood, Bonaparte loved the arts, starting piano at an early age and entering drawing competitions. He got hooked on hip hop as a teenager. During his 20s, he played guitar when he wasn’t studying at Dalhousie University. He was in a few semi-professional groups in Halifax, including one with Rose Cousins, now a Juno-winning singer-songwriter.
But when he started residency training in 2007 at uOttawa, the demanding stage of graduate medical education that essentially creates the practicing doctor, music fell by the wayside.
“Even though I tried to keep doing it, it just wasn’t possible. I was way too busy,” he says.
He threw himself into his medical career, notching numerous publications and winning research accolades including the prestigious John Orlando Roe Award, named after the surgeon who accomplished the first rhinoplasty in 1887. Among other things, Dr. Bonaparte is a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
Though he took tremendous satisfaction from his flourishing medical career in Ottawa, it gradually dawned on him that he missed making music. His “always-on” working life was beginning to grind him down, leading him to seek more balance with creative pursuits.
For fun, Dr. Bonaparte got out his guitar and started performing at weekend open mics. He posted a profile on a musician matching website, eventually meeting Michelle Opthof, a high school teacher with a background as a vocalist in theatre productions. They hit it off, and Paragon Cause was born.
The new bandmates boosted each other’s confidence, making a vow to put out a record. They released music online while playing small shows around town. Then, in a moment of kismet they still marvel over, one of Dr. Bonaparte’s all-time favorite guitarists—Sune Rose Wagner of the Danish indie rock outfit The Raveonettes—was flying into Ottawa to collaborate with them.
“Kind of jokingly, I had written to him on Twitter saying ‘Hey, maybe you can come to Ottawa to record with us and help produce our next album.’ He responds, ‘OK, let's do it,’” Dr. Bonaparte says with a laugh. “We ended up having the best time!”
Over the course of a week, they recorded eight songs in Dr. Bonaparte’s basement studio. That became their first album, Lies Between Us. The Raveonettes’ leader—now a buddy and songwriting collaborator—returned to Dr. Bonaparte’s house three weeks later for another productive recording session. That became their second album, What We Started.
“It really was pretty amazing. Those two albums started building up our name here in Canada and in the United States. Then Europe started getting into the music, and we’ve just kept going with it,” he says.
Now with their third and latest album, written and recorded over the COVID-19 pandemic with Sune Rose in Dr. Bonaparte’s basement, which is outfitted with enough gear to produce professional-sounding music, they’re earning their highest profile yet. For this album, they also worked with Liam Howe of The Sneaker Pimps and Eric Avery, formerly of Jane’s Addiction.
Dr. Bonaparte and partner Michelle are becoming sought-after sonic architects, recently helping the 1980s new wave band Berlin with production work for a re-release of the hit single “The Metro.” Partners in music and in life, the two also recently had their first child.
The duo’s growing success is partly due to Dr. Bonaparte’s realization that he needed to push more to create balance in his life. Remembering his inner artist, he realized he didn’t need to be solely defined by his profession, no matter how much he loved it and how well it was progressing.
“Music and art are my way to prevent getting burnout. I think a real professional embraces things that allow them to maintain their mental health and become better at what they do because they’re taking care of themselves,” he says. “And you know, there’s nothing worse than a doctor who is a bad patient.”
Dr. Bonaparte is confident his musical explorations have also helped him become a better surgeon and researcher.
“In any kind of any surgery or research, you really do have to be creative,” he says. “I think music makes me a better doctor. I can come home from work after a stressful day and go downstairs, put on my headphones, and record music.
“It really allows you to escape for that brief moment, so you can recharge those mental batteries and come back stronger the next day.”