A detail from the cover of Digawolf album Yellowstone, released in February 2019.
Digawolf took a page out of Queen’s book for the band’s latest album – which is being called “an early contender for one of the year’s best.”
The Juno-nominated group fronted by Diga (aka Jesse James Gon) came up with the record, Yellowstone, in a barn in the middle of Denmark.
The move channeled Queen’s use of a barn-turned-studio in Surrey for 1975 album A Night at the Opera, which gave the world Bohemian Rhapsody.
For Diga, the tranquillity of a Danish barn was perfect: nothing there but a chance to play music.
When he was growing up, the idea of doing music was a lost cause, he told Cabin Radio.
“I grew up with five older brothers who were into music. I had no interest in music,” he said. “I wanted to be a painter. I always loved cartoons.”
Diga grew up in Behchokǫ̀ listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones, songs that remind him of his brothers and home. Only when he acquired a Tom Waits cassette tape from his brother-in-law did he find music he felt he could truly call his own.
“It wasn’t easy,” he says of growing up. “I’m surprised I’m still alive.”
For his first nine and a half years, he spoke only Tłı̨chǫ and no English – which changed, dramatically, when he was sent to a school in Alberta.
“My brothers started becoming concerned,” he remembers, “and they had a right to be.
“So they sent me down south, and I thank them for that.”
Diga became the only Indigenous person in an all-white school.
“The sudden experiences really opened my eyes. I still have friends that I keep in contact with,” he says. “The ones that hit me the hardest became some of my best friends at the end of my southern school days.”
If that seems an unusual observation, it’s in keeping with the way Tom Waits saw the world – and the Californian’s cassette tape, with his unique, gravelly vocals, remained something to which Diga was intimately connected while in school.
“I thought I was the only one that listened to Tom Waits because he so strange. He was so out there, and that was how I felt in school,” Diga recalls.
“Returning to the North years later, I was at a party and people were listening to him. I had no idea he had more albums.”
Listening is one thing. Diga only considered playing when his brother came south to visit, brandishing his own, unreleased album, and a guitar. When the brother left, the album and the guitar stayed. Diga – ‘wolf’ in Tłı̨chǫ – was born.
“It started off as a band name, and when I would do shows down south people would ask me what it meant. I got fed up so I added ‘wolf’ to the end of it,” says Diga.
“Then, when people would ask what Diga meant, I’d tell them – and they would go, ‘Oh… Wolf wolf.’ It became a joke.”
Yellowstone, Digawolf’s seventh album, was released on February 22, featuring a journey into northern life through a mixture of English and Tłı̨chǫ songs.
“The raw ambition and sense of storytelling will leave a powerful mark on all who witness it,” said Dominionated.
Bandcamp wrote: “Diga has nothing to prove – and he carries the North, with all its grandeur and confidence, with him.”
Now Toronto, urging readers to catch Digawolf at the city’s Burdock music hall on March 22 – a show now, unfortunately, cancelled – declared: “The album alternates between beautiful, sonorous ballads and grimy, blistering ragers that nicely complement Diga’s world-weary vocals.”
The album took 30 days to make in Denmark, with the help of producer Jan de Vroede.
“I showed up with barely any songs that were written. I just had my poetry book, and just saw what came out of it,” says Diga.
“A lot of the songs recorded were based on my insecurities about walking into a studio and not having anything written.
“It’s important for my music – and for my art, if you will – that if it comes across better in Tłı̨chǫ than in English, then I keep it. If it loses the meaning, then I translate it to English.”
Diga hopes the new album is a step away from his usual sound.
“It’s totally out there and different from my past album, which I really don’t mind, you know?
“You sort-of get tired of your old stuff and you want to expand and explore, and sometimes It takes someone like Jan to open your eyes to other ideas and other sounds.
“I hope people walk away from this album with the feeling that it can all happen in the North.”
Shows are coming in the summer and fall. Meanwhile, Diga shares some advice for young songwriters from his time putting this album together.
“Write every day and reach out to other people who can help,” he says.
“I know it’s hard to share your heart – and share songs that are close to your heart – but you need a team that can help you.”