How music-making is part of Mimi O’Bonsawin’s creative, land-based life
“Every album you make is a chapter of your life,” said Mimi O’Bonsawin. “Everything that I’ve experienced, that I’ve learned, that I’ve absorbed over the years has kind of been reflected into this album.”
The album is Willow, the sixth release by singer-songwriter Mimi, whose Franco-Ontarian and Abenaki roots are the foundation for her music. As someone who started her performing life at the age of 15, Mimi reflected on her progression as a artist.
“Being a young Indigenous/Francophone woman in a big music industry, it took me some time to find my footing, find my confidence and find my voice,” she said from her Ottawa Valley home. “As I’m getting older, collecting skills, having a studio in my home and feeling more comfortable behind my instrument, I’m just kind of leaning into that. It’s been an amazing journey. I always remind myself of these lessons I’ve learned and the reason why I love making music. It’s holding that passion and keeping those fires burning.”
Mimi’s vision for Willow was to break away from the so-called “industry standard” way of making music. Recording the album at home was at the heart of accomplishing this.
“My personal journey was creating music and art in a really safe environment,” she explained. “I was living inside the album, and it brought everything we have together. So the home studio works really well for us.”
Helping Mimi to create Willow was her husband, Ryan Schurman, on drums.
“Ryan and I tour and get to play these awesome festivals,” she said. “To have that connection and dynamic in the studio, it makes it really easy to create and to try. For this record that was something really important, to have the space to try things that maybe I’ve never done before. If I was in a big studio surrounded by a bunch of people I might not have tried. To be able to experiment was really valuable to me. So to have that connection on stage and in the studio has really helped me build that foundation.”
Mimi and Ryan are keenly connected to the environment that surrounds them in so many ways, whether gardening, foraging, making medicinal remedies or growing almost 50 per cent of their own food last year on their two acres of land. Making an organic and healing space to live and create is integral to their lives.
“It becomes an extension of you,” she said. “I think I felt that disconnect a little bit when I was working in big studios. I’m bringing out elements that are sometimes really intimate and personal, so to have that happening in the place where you live…you eat dinner with your album, and you mix it while you’re drinking tea. I love that dynamic and that energy. Our journey with this pandemic really shifts the focus and brings in the elements of healing and taking care of our minds, spirits and hearts. To kind of put that lens on making this album was really important for me. I needed that healing time.”
Among the albums Mimi has released are the 2020 French language EP Elle Danse – she has another French album planned for later this year – and last year’s instrumental album Fiddleheads & Ferns, which heavily influenced the songs on Willow.
“I loved diving into making instrumental music because how can you tell a story without words? How can you create a moment or landscape without having to say the words?” she said. “Doing that album really helped shape this new album because we could bring in those elements, those instrumental textures, those moments without words, bringing people into your universe. So I learned a lot doing Fiddleheads & Ferns and bringing those lessons into Willow.”
Mimi’s music has been heard further afield from the festival and concert scene, having been used by Radio-Canada, the CBC, APTN, Showtime and two documentaries.
“There’s an incredible team of people called Nagamo Publishing,” she explained. “It’s an Indigenous-curated catalogue for film and TV. They helped nurture that creativity in how to compose music and see myself as a composer creating instrumental music. They really challenged me and said, ‘I know you’ve never composed to a cartoon or a film but give it a try. Here are some tips.’ Ryan and I fell in love with it, and I think it really fueled the songwriting. So that’s been a true gift, and I still love doing it to this day.”
While Mimi doesn’t involve herself with music every day, she knows the importance of music in her life and what she wants to accomplish in her career.
“Think of creativity as a muscle,” she said. “If you’re not playing music, how can you keep that creative muscle active? So I also sew. We garden. I like to paint, and I like to do other things. It’s how to use that creative muscle in different ways which all lends itself to the music I think. It’s not one or the other. They both kind of work together.”
For more on Mimi O’Bonsawin and Willow, go to mimi.ca.