Iskwé Fights Within and Throughout

Photo by Lisa MacIntosh

Singer-songwriter Iskwé is using her music as not only a means to express herself, but bring attention to her community. Mixing tones of her Cree and Irish roots with more modern tones, she's been able not only start a conversation around the issues facing the indigenous community but work in it to help others. Her latest record The Fight Within, found her working with people like the Darcys and Keolya to make a wide sonic pallet, while her work with the 2017 CBC Canadian Music Class Challenge has her on a panel with the likes of Ewan Currie (The Sheepdogs), Min-Jeong Koh, and Julie Nesrallah. We caught up with Iskwé ahead of her show at the National Arts Centre on November 23 to talk about her collaborative tick, giving back and the interesting side of getting your song on Netflix.

Ottawa Life Magazine:  I heard you turned much more introspectively on your latest album, can you talk about that process and what it brought to the album?

Iskwé: It was less about wanting to and more just that I had got so frustrated with things I was observing and experiencing within the community, as well as how our community was being viewed and treated, or acknowledged outside of the community. There was one case where a young member of our community went missing, and two days later her body was found in the river in Winnipeg, her name was Tina Fontaine. It was a tipping point for me where I felt like no one was listening, and I felt like we had been sharing these stories for so long but no one outside was paying enough attention. I started having these conversations more and more, so it became something I needed to do rather than wanted to do.

You've spoken to a lot of issues in the indigenous community, so how are you hoping your music will work to help this issues?

Just through conversation. More people being aware of it and talking about what's going on is part of change and growth. It's important to speak, and we're in a time of reconciliation. We've had the Truth And Reconciliation Commission take place where our community was sharing stories, and now it's time for people to listen and understand. For change to happen it needs to be on the other end now.

Was there anything particularly that inspired you musically for this album?

I have a pretty broad sense of music in terms of what I listen to, and I have an appreciation for music. The sounds that I am inspired by are often low-end, kind of bassy sorts of tones, mixed with classical, hip hop and other streams. That's where I'm pulling from the most. There's all these sounds I'm pulling from and enjoy, so how can I blend all these things that I love into something cohesive that is also me.

Looking at your background and all the ranges of genres in your music, how do you start writing a song, and when do the large electronic productions factor in?

It's funny because it depends on each song. Sometimes I hear all the productions in my head but I'll start with something like a piano line because I'm not extremely versed in production. But sometimes it starts with a lyric line and melody, but there's several steps of evolution to each song with the production. For instance the song "The Storm," and it began as song I wrote during my residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. The first version of that song is my phone in the centre of a room, with my friends around on guitars, mandolin, violin and vocals. It was this very folky tune that I didn't want to keep as a folk song.

How did you get involved with judging the Canadian Music Class Challenge?

We're listening the submissions in December but I was asked to be a part of it. I don't know how I was selected for the process. I'm really excited, I feel quite humble to be on it considering the jury members. I've done a lot of youth advocacy and youth work in non-musical careers as well, so to be able to blend the two is a dream.

How did you get involved with The Darcys and Keolya to produce your album, and what did each of them bring to the table?

I really enjoy working with different producers on a single project, my first album had several producers as well. It's a nice way for me to really get the sounds, messages and songs out of my head in a coherent way. When I work with only one person there's too much of the same. Having that diversity gives you more creative room and freedom. With the Darcys, it was through a project put on by the Canadian Council for the Arts and Manitoba Music. It was this project where they asked me who I might like to work with and I requested them, they were interested and available. Keolya found me through Soundcloud and reached out.

What was it like to see "Nobody Knows" featured on Netflix's 'Between'?

That was interesting, because the topic of conversation was quite different than the theme of the film. However I felt like unless you talk to me you might not know what I'm singing about. So I really enjoy when there's this individual interpretation. It was awesome because it showed my goal of writing these songs with all these messages is important, but they need to be accessible so people can pull their own stories and interpretations as well. I don't want it to  be obvious because that can deter people from being part of the conversation. If they interpret it and then later on discover what my message is, it's more room for understanding. We each experience life differently but we're all using music to heal.