When the pandemic placed the live music industry on indefinite hold, the touring schedule of Cree-Métis musician iskwē disappeared just as her third album was garnering international acclaim and awards recognition.
Like many artists, she turned her creativity to other avenues. In March, she launched a nightly Instagram series called “Live from my Living Room” from which she held virtual chats with famous friends in the entertainment industry. A similar concept roots the new video interview series “The Chesterfield”.
“When the world pushed pause, I was so used to being busy that I was like, what am I going to do,” iskwē told the Nation. “I was having some waves of anxiety. Maybe I’ll go on Instagram with friends, acknowledge what we’re going through collectively but use this time to find some joy. The basis of that show was to have fun, play games and be silly.”
A few months later, she was approached by a friend who was producing “The Chesterfield” for FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting, a non-profit watchdog group advocating for public journalism and storytelling. She immediately expressed interest and was soon chosen to host alternate episodes with entertainment journalist Ben Rayner.
Each 15-minute episode features one of the hosts interviewing a prominent Canadian artist over a Zoom session about a favourite piece of Canadian art that inspires them. The series premiered on October 6 and will run weekly for 12 episodes.
“It was exciting and in the vein of how I like to speak with people,” said iskwe. “It feels there is a lot of space on either side to steer the conversation, something I learned from being the interviewer. It’s like sitting with friends and getting to know something that I didn’t know about them.”
The resulting conversations are often funny and insightful, revealing unexpected cultural connections while exposing viewers to unfamiliar books, films, music, paintings and television shows. So far iskwe has interviewed musician Jann Arden, graphic novelist David Robertson and filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin.
“She’s absolutely an icon of mine,” iskwe said of Obomsawin. “It was really powerful and humbling to speak with somebody who has done such extreme work as an Indigenous woman in the arts. I was so in awe, I had to remind myself to continue asking questions and not get lost in her words.”
Obomsawin discussed Willie Dunn’s The Ballad of Crowfoot, an epic protest song about the 19th century Blackfoot chief that serves as a departure point for important issues still facing Indigenous peoples. When the Mi’kmaq singer/songwriter’s powerful music was skilfully set to a compilation of archival photographs by Dunn and the National Film Board’s (NFB) Indian Film Crew in 1968, it was called Canada’s first music video.
“I cried most of the way [while watching the video],” iskwe said. “I was overcome with emotion. The thing I found quite poignant about the lyrics is addressing something so painful but at the end there is this element of hope. The visuals are outstanding and bring you to another time, but potentially of my loved ones’ lifetime.”
Dunn’s 10-minute video ends in a crescendo of furious guitar strumming and flashing images of Indigenous tragedy before Crowfoot’s image is revealed to be from a Christmas card, signifying there is a long way to go to before reaching the “better tomorrow” that he sings is possible. Obomsawin notes that though the song is sad, “his voice brings you to the right place in your heart.”
“Not only does she bring such grace and experience, but she is able to show a duality of Indigenous beings,” asserted iskwe. “Addressing such difficult narratives from Indigenous communities but [showing] people we are not a people of the past or who only live in struggle and strife.”
Iskwe hadn’t previously heard the song but was inspired by Obomsawin’s eloquence in discussing it and her own experiences as a young filmmaker working with the NFB. The musician believes taking the opportunity to shine a light on successful Indigenous people via “The Chesterfield” helps the wider population to appreciate the thriving cultural renaissance.
“There are challenges in our communities that need to be addressed and there are beautiful elements that I feel don’t get enough attention,” said iskwe. “We thrive at our craft, whatever that craft may be. That’s what I feel speaking with her directly highlights, and the piece she selected is so monumental and important.”
While there are plans for more episodes of “The Chesterfield”, iskwe has also been busy with her other chosen craft. Her latest project is a collaboration with former Junkhouse frontman Tom Wilson, who discovered at age 53 that he was Mohawk. Their new song, Blue Moon Drive, which features Ojibwe trumpet player Chuck Copenace, was recently released on Indigenous label Red Music Rising.
“We have a couple of songs we will release over the next few months and we plan to continue to craft and create together,” said iskwe. “I’m visiting with my artistic director now. What I miss the most is absolutely live performance.”