Composing Conversations: isKwé Sings Out About Community, Culture and Finds Freedom in the Process

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By Jillian Groening

Welcome to the new sound of protest.

Powerful, compelling, and thumping with catchy keys and handclaps, this new breed of rallying anthems stirs both the body and the mind. For isKwé, making beats that call out for change has also helped her find her own voice.

Having been titled “One to Watch” by the The Grid TO as well as one of the “Top 10 Canadian Musicians You Need To Know” by CBC Music, isKwé — pronounced iss-kway and meaning ‘woman’ — is a force to be reckoned with.

Following the release of her newest single, “Nobody Knows”, the powerhouse singer was also declared by CBC Music as part of a “vibrant new era of protest music”.

“It felt really nice to be listed in that way,” isKwé says over the phone from Toronto. “A lot of what I talk about is linked to political or cultural issues, where in my mind I’m having this dialogue and I hope that it reaches somebody and they have a dialogue with someone else and that it goes somewhere. So to be listed makes me feel that the conversation is there.”

Featured alongside artists such as Tanya Tagaq, A Tribe Called Red, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, isKwé is aware of the weight of her most recent honour. Impacted by the experience of growing up as a Cree, Dené, and Irish woman in the city Maclean’s magazine dubbed as the brunt of Canada’s racism problem, isKwé has had no shortage of words.

“I’ve been responding much more emotionally to this record than I did my last one and I think it’s because there are so many elements that I’m now bringing forward,” isKwé explains. “Obviously there is the conversation about our missing and murdered Aboriginal women, which is a very big issue. It’s at the forefront of what I want to talk about all the time.” 

isKwé’s newest record, set to be released in January 2016, is sure to be an important societal statement as well as a dancehall hit. Her self-titled debut album, released in October 2013, was nominated for Electronic/Dance Album of the Year at the 2014 Western Canadian Music Awards and her single “Slack Jaw” was voted Regional Finalist in the 2014 CBC Searchlight Competition. With her previous projects sprinkled with accolades, isKwé has pushed her artistic voice even further with her next release.

After meeting JUNO-nominated alt-rock duo The Darcys at a Market Builder, a new initiative from Manitoba Music and the Canada Council for the Arts, isKwé knew they’d be the ideal mentors.

“It was serendipitous,” isKwé recalls of her time spent in the studio recording “Nobody Knows” with The Darcys. “It worked so well. Their writing style is much different than mine which was nice because it totally stripped me of my comfort level.”

Directly inspired by the tragic passing of First Nations youth Tina Fontaine, isKwé penned two different songs, one melancholic and the other, “Nobody Knows”, furious.

“The Darcy’s really encouraged me to pull out words, to make it more about emotion and less about lyrical content,” isKwé says of recording “Nobody Knows”. “It was a good challenge. They helped me to find comfort in letting go and being loud, finding how strong I can be in that sound and to not hold back.”

It hasn’t just been the aid of The Darcy’s who have helped isKwé find liberation. The first aha-moment was when she began painting her face for performance.

“It makes me so much more present and comfortable in giving my creativity,” isKwé states of her striking mix of First Nations imagery with contemporary abstraction. “I feel like my expression is coming out in every way that it can.”

Having recently returned from a European tour to playing upcoming showcases at BreakOut West in Victoria September 17-19, as well as gigs in Japan, isKwé is a highly in-demand artist. Two of the events that she is most excited for, however, is a collaborative show with composer Ryan Sommerville and a residency in the remote Cree community of Mistissini, Québec, where isKwé will act as an arts mentor to students while creating her own work.

With her bold on-stage presence and soulful voice, isKwé continues to find an even greater sense of freedom in her arts practice, specifically through performance.

“There’s a feeling that I get when I let myself go and I don’t care that I’m on stage or that I might forget my lyrics or miss a note,” isKwé says. “Everything around me dissolves and it becomes something that I’m a part of as opposed to something that I’m doing. That’s the nectar of it for me.”

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