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Indigenous Juno nominee Aysanabee breaks out in a big way with Watin

Aysanabee by Jen Squires
Aysanabee always dreamed of being a musician, but his grandmother urged him to have a Plan B, which is why he worked as a journalist prior to recording Watin. Photo by Jen Squires.

Nowadays, life is very good for Oji-Cree recording artist Aysanabee. With tour stops at the Fox Cabaret in Vancouver on February 15 and in Toronto on March 2, he’s playing Canada’s two largest English-speaking cities. On March 11, he’ll be among the performers when CBC broadcasts the Juno Awards.

In addition, Aysanabee is up for contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year for his album Watin, which is named after his grandfather.

It’s been an astonishing ride for the former journalist, who comes from the Sucker Clan of the Sandy Lake First Nation in the western part of Northern Ontario. But success hasn’t gone to his head.

“I’m just standing on giants—the Indigenous artists that came before me,” Aysanabee says over Zoom. “Had this album come out 10 years ago, probably nothing would have happened.”

Watin is a concept album, integrating his grandfather’s voice in a collection of rhythmic and hypnotic songs chronicling Indigenous life, past and present. The pulsating final track, “Nomads”, hit Number 1 on CBC Music’s Top 20 chart. The video features images of his grandfather—Aysanabee’s “guiding light”—offering words of wisdom.

“I do remember getting quite emotional writing that song,” Aysanabee says.

His grandfather offered a refuge to him when he was three years old after he had wandered away from his home in Sandy Lake. The boy ended up living with his grandfather in The Pas, Manitoba, until he was reunited with his mom nearly three years later.

In his interview, Aysanabee reveals that writing “Nomads” lifted a burden on him.

“I made this record and it was really important to me,” he says. “I felt that I had done something good.”

Watch Aysanabee’s video for “Nomads”.

Grandfather shaped Aysanabee in big ways

He also suggests that Watin is actually a product of the pandemic. He was working for CTV News when his grandfather was admitted to a care home. Aysanabee was stuck at home and worried about the elder’s health. The musician would call him almost every day.

“He was forgetting a lot of things,” Aysanabee says. “And so that’s where the journalist kicked in.”

He asked his grandfather for permission to tape the conversations. That way, Aysanabee would learn more about his own heritage and retain this important family history.

“The album wasn’t even on the radar until so much later,” Aysanabee recalls. “We basically had almost a year of these recorded conversations at that point.”

He would sit in his studio with headphones listening to his grandfather’s voice as he strummed his guitar. And eventually songs started emerge. The first on the album, “Seeseepano”, resulted from Aysanabee asking his grandfather about the meaning of this word.

“Seeseepano is his father’s name,” Aysanabee recalls. “He didn’t know what it meant or what it stood for.”

It wasn’t because his grandfather had forgotten this. It was due to him being sent to residential school at such a young age that he never had a chance to learn it.

After writing this song and a couple of others, it dawned upon Aysanabee that he could make a record, which could be the musical equivalent of a photo album. He gathered a team, including producer and engineer Hill Kourkoutis, and they recorded it at The Lair in Barrie and Lincoln County Social Club in Toronto. It was released on November 4, 2022, via Ishkōdé Records/Universal Music Canada.

“It’s been kind of wild just trying to see the trajectory of everything that’s happened,” Aysanabee says.

Aysanabee granddad
Aysanabee shared this image of his grandfather on Watin.

From reggae to the big time

His talent is unmistakable, which is why the Toronto-based artist was signed by the female- and Indigenous-owed Ishkōdé Records in 2021.

Throw in a little bit of Tom Waits, a dash of Bruce Springsteen, and maybe a pinch of Caleb Followill from the Kings of Leon—and you’re getting close to the sound of Aysanabee.

But he didn’t always sing this way. His first gig was at a Battle of the Bands event in Thunder Bay, where most of the others competitors were rockers or folkies.

“We got up with a reggae band I started,” Aysanabee recalls. “And I started singing with the thickest, deepest Jamaican accent you’ve ever heard in your life.”

There’s a story behind this. Prior to moving to Thunder Bay, Aysanabee was living with his mom and siblings off the grid in Kaministiqua, which is about 40 minutes outside of the city.

There was no running water and no electricity. However, the family had a generator. And when his brother moved out, he didn’t take his Bob Marley music with him.

“I would listen to these Bob Marley CDs when we would put the generator on,” Aysanabee says. “He also left a guitar behind. I started writing songs. That was my influence.”

Looking back, he chuckles at the thought of how he must have come across singing reggae at that event. But he says it was Thunder Bay and no one really questioned it. And it took a while before Aysanabee realized that perhaps an Indigenous kid should not be engaging in cultural appropriation.

“I’m still wondering if there are videos out there,” he says with a laugh. “I’m hoping it never comes to the surface.”

Watch Aysanabee’s video for “We Were Here”.

Journalism provided the backstop

None of his meteoric musical rise would have happened had it not been for a life-changing event when he was much younger. To make a living, Aysanabee worked in the mining industry as a teenager. This wasn’t underground work with a pick axe. Rather, he would travel to remote areas of Northern Ontario by plane or ski-doo to stake claims.

“I did that until I was 19,” he says. “I had a few near-death experiences.”

The most horrific came when he fell through the ice while snowshoeing across a frozen river. He could feel himself falling through the ice and almost getting sucked underneath.

“That was the moment for me,” Aysanabee recalls. “I was just like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ as I’m pulling myself across this river, one axe swing at a time, as the ice is breaking.”

He made it to the other side, started a fire, and then snowshoed back to camp.

“We finished the job,” Aysanabee says, “and I just ended up booking my ticket to Toronto to go play music.”

From his teenage years, Aysanabee wanted to be a professional musician. But his grandmother cautioned him to always have a Plan B, which is why he went to journalism school, graduating from Centennial College with a diploma in 2012.

That was followed by a job at the Huffington Post and then a six-year stint as a digital content editor for CTV. He quit in March of 2022 to pursue music full-time.

“Had I not gone into journalism, I wouldn’t have been able to make this record the way that I did,” Aysanabee acknowledges. “The record was put together almost like journalism and music together.”

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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