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Aysanabee talks about his meteoric rise, his Polaris nod, and the trouble with the music biz

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Aysanabee.

Pat Chessell just spent the weekend at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, where he was busily filing dispatches for Roots Music Canada. While there, he had the opportunity to speak to “the artist of the moment” these days: Aysanabee.

Originally from Sandy Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario and raise near Thunder Bay, the artist formerly known as Evan Pang was working as a Toronto journalist and thinking of putting music on the back burner when his songs caught the attention of the newly-minted Indigenous record label Ishkode, founded by Amanda Rheaume and ShoShona Kish. Aysanabee’s debut album, Watin, is based on conversations he had with his aging grandfather early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when the threat of losing elderly loved ones to the illness prompted many people to try to preserve their stories and knowledge before they left the earthly plane. The album has been a global phenomenon and is currently shorlisted for the Polaris Music Prize.

Here’s Pat’s conversation with Aysanabee.

RMC: What have you been up to? And what do you have going on in the near future?

Aysanabee: Oh, man. I’ve been up to a lot, it seems. You know, I don’t think I’ve had a day off for a year. I think last year, we did 184 shows. This year, I don’t even know how many we did. But you know, when I’m not playing shows, I’m working on new music, reading, writing new songs and just experimenting. Because that’s a very important part too is to make sure you’re still creating.

RMC: Sweet. What are you going to do after Edmonton?

Aysanabee: We play tomorrow at 5:45, our main set, full band, and then fly back to Toronto at 11 p.m. Because I’ve got to get back to finish up this project for all of you. And then I’m back on the road on Wednesday, and I don’t get back for another month. But I’m really feeling good about the new music. And, you know, it’s a little bit of a departure from what I’ve been doing.

But yeah, I go to Newfoundland for the Woody Point Writers Festival. Should be interesting. I’ve never been to Newfoundland. I’m interested to see what those landscapes look like for sure. I do that. And then I come back here for Bear Creek Music Festival in Alberta. And then I go to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And then I go to Denmark for a festival. And then I go to Sweden to work with this producer for a week, and then go to Berlin to work with this producer for a week. And then I have five days off. And since I’m over there, I’m going to go to Portugal because a friend I went to journalism school with, couldn’t get a job in Canada as a journalist, found a job in Lisbon. And we have this cool plan to kind of rent a car and drive down the Algarve, which is like this Pacific Coast Highway of Portugal.

RMC: So you’re up for a Polaris prize. How did that feel when you heard that news?

Aysanabee: I mean, obviously it’s mind blowing. Like I did not think I’d be where I am now. When the pandemic hit, I thought, “All right. I’ve missed my shot at music. And that’s fine. I’m just going to be a journalist.” And I was happy with that, you know? Like I was a unionized salaried journalist. And that’s impossible to get in this country to begin with, especially for somebody from my background too. So, like, last March, I was working still full-time as a journalist and had used up all my vacation days. I couldn’t just call in sick and appear on a stage somewhere. So I had one foot in journalism, one foot in music. And you know, at that point, I had Ishkode Records, the Indigenous women-owned label. They signed me, and I was working with them. I had Stefanie Purificati, my agent. I had this team of people who had my back, and here I was with one foot in journalism, one foot in music, both suffering because neither had my full attention. So I made a choice, you know? March 2022, I was like, “Alright, I’m going to walk away from the security net. Let’s give it our full attention and see what happens.”

RMC: So obviously working great for you.

Aysanabee: It’s so wild to me that, you know, March of last year, I was wondering if I was going to have enough money for rent. And here we are, like, all over the world.

RMC: So your latest single, “Somebody Else.” What’s the background of that song?

Aysanabee: It’s a breakup song. You know, one thing they don’t tell you about this industry, it is taxing on a lot of other aspects of your life. You’re away a long time. And, you know, this song is very personal, because I remember July 2020, 21, sitting with the woman who the song’s about, and I have this contract in front of me, and it’s like, I’m about to sign this deal, and, you know, everything’s going to change when I do this. And she’s like, “This is something you’ve wanted your whole life. You’ve got to sign this.” [But I’m] like, “This is going to be next level, though. Like, now I’m going to have to do the work.” And she had full support, and I signed it. And then, yeah. You know, the reality came. I was away, and I was home less and less and less. And that was taxing. So that’s what that song’s about. We parted ways in December, and then, you know, I kind of wrote a number of songs about the break up. I wrote a lot by myself, but like also, in these different collaborative sessions, where you kind of just have these free therapy sessions with complete strangers.

RMC: I’ve got just one last question for you. What do you think is the biggest issue facing the music industry today?

Aysanabee: That’s a tough thing, man. There’s a lot. I mean, there’s no right or wrong way to make music. But sometimes I feel like it can be kind of factory-made music. Like people are just pumping it out, and I’m not sure if it means anything. But yeah. I would love for the industry to come back to art and kind of concept records. We live in a land of singles now, which I totally understand. It’s becoming normal now for people to not even write their own album now. People go out on the road and come back, and their album’s done for them.

Like I said, there’s no right or wrong way to make music. But I do miss big, long projects, where there’s chapters, and there’s a journey, and there’s a crescendo, and there’s a start and a finish of a thought and an idea. We played Osheaga last weekend, and I got to see Kendrick Lamar play. I saw him five years ago at WayHome, and I said back then, that was the best performer I ever saw. I saw him again last weekend. That hasn’t changed.

I remember, like, getting in the van with the band. And we were all, like, leaving, going back to the Airbnb. And everyone’s talking, and Kyla, my singer, is like, “Hey, man. Everything all right? Why are you so quiet?” I was just like, “Yeah, no. Everything’s good. I’m just trying to remember the feeling I have from the set. I don’t want to forget what Kendrick made me feel in that moment.” It reminded me why I do music for sure. And I think that is maybe what’s wrong with the industry is you kind of forget why you do it.

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