Dene singer-songwriter Leela Gilday released new single K’eintah Natse Ju last Friday, the opening cut from her first album in five years.
“It means the world to me,” Gilday said of her new material. The forthcoming full release will be her fifth studio album.
“I was taking some time to really delve into things that matter to me,” Gilday told Cabin Radio, referring to the years since her 2014 album Heart of the People.
While some of that time involved other projects, Gilday added: “To be quite frank, I’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs in my personal life.
“I needed to focus on becoming well myself, and really getting through those difficult things that I had to deal with.
“When I began work on this record, it was like opening a huge, new door into a world that was completely brand new for me. It’s been an amazing journey and I’m very proud of the music that I made.”
Lead single K’eintah Natse Ju is, in Gilday’s words, a song “focusing on healing within our own families.”
The Yellowknife musician played Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on Saturday and will appear at Folk on the Rocks this summer.
On Friday, she introduced the track’s first play on Cabin Radio and discussed her return to releasing music under her name.
This interview was recorded on May 3, 2019.
Ollie Williams: You have new music out. How does that feel?
Leela Gilday: It’s a huge relief. It’s also quite nerve-wracking because, as you probably know, I haven’t released a new record in five years. So this is the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of soul-searching. It feels really good, though, to be able to share this because I know that people relate to my music and have been wanting new music from me. So here we go.
Tell me about this four or five years. Were you lost in a musical wilderness? Were you just on a rollercoaster ride of different artistic projects? What took you away from music and what brought you back to it?
Well, sort of all of the above. Definitely, part of it was I was doing other projects as well, but also I was taking some time to really delve into things that matter to me. To be quite frank, I’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs in my personal life. I needed to focus on becoming well myself, and really getting through those difficult things that I had to deal with.
And I know I’m being sort-of cagey about it but it’s just, you know, we all struggle with things that happened in our lives. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. And there’s no reason for it. In addition, some mental health stuff has sort-of put things more into perspective for me.
So when I began work on this record, it was like opening a huge, new door into a world that was completely brand new for me. It’s been an amazing journey and I’m very proud of the music that I made on this record with my producer, Hill Kourkoutis.
This is your fifth studio album. When you take a step back, as you listen to this album, can you hear that emotional, that personal journey reflected in the music that you’ve ended up making?
Yes. It’s the most raw, honest record that I’ve made. Even during the time that we were in studio, it was some of the most difficult and rewarding times.
Like, I have this really huge voice, and I’ve worked many years to develop it – I studied opera – but part of my challenge is to not just get on stage and then get off and people say, ‘Oh, you’re such a great singer.’ Part of my challenge is to be able to communicate my messages and really just sing – not not have to wail or do fancy vocal gymnastics, but just straight-up sing in an honest way with my voice. And that was actually really challenging for me.
My producer really helped me out with encouragement and love and being able to sort-of reveal those layers of myself for, really, what seems like the first time.
it’s not just that you have a new single coming out, there’s an album on the way, but also you’re playing and you’ve got some big shows coming up – not least Folk on the Rocks, which you are going to be playing this year.
I’ve played in Montreal, and then into Toronto, and I just came back from Albuquerque. Then we’re playing on Aboriginal Day Live, which is a big TV broadcast on June 22.
And not only that, but last month you played Old Town as well. They had a little celebration going on in Old Town, and you gave a few people a sneak peek, didn’t you?
The record cost me about $50,000 to make, so I did an online fundraiser and got $10,000, thankfully, which is really super appreciated. One of the perks was a house concert, and Old Town residents Christine and Rick chose to ask me to play at their business launch, which was really a lot of fun.
It was also quite hilarious, because they had about 15 two-to-five year olds, right in front of me! And I’m not particularly a children’s performer. They are a really straight-up, honest audience. I did play some of my more upbeat tunes for them to kind-of dance around and wiggle their wiggles out.
It was really fun to play. You know, I don’t get a chance to play too many house concerts, and it was really enjoyable.
In the middle of all of this, we’ve had a big controversy in the past month regarding the Indigenous Music Awards: who has the right and the authority, and who appropriately should be allowed to throat sing. Do you feel as though there was ever an adequate resolution to that?
I’m really glad you brought it up. I don’t think that there’s been a satisfactory resolution. And I do think that there’s still time to make things right. I do think that the indigenous Music Awards did not handle it properly. The way that things evolved, originally, the throat singing collective reached out directly to this person, right?
We should say for people who may not know what we’re talking about, this is one artist who performs throat singing…
A Cree artist.
… and there are many Inuit artists out there saying it is not their right to perform in this way.
Which I think they have every legitimate right to say that. And I do think that cultural appropriation takes place across cultures, even within different First Nations. I feel the individual concerned should have conceded that she did not have permission to include this on her recorded material.
It’s one thing to sort-of practice through singing in private or with your friend, for fun, you know, just to learn new things. That’s great. And, you know, I know a lot of Inuks that really enjoy teaching, enjoy practising with other non-Inuit.
But if she’s going out and putting out a track, making it commerce – it’s business, right? Then she’s taking up the space of those performers that legitimately have a heritage to practice that particular method of performance,
The organizers in came in for a lot of criticism. How did you perceive that?
I think that they actually did put quite a bit of energy and effort into considering it and consulting on it. I don’t think that their conclusions were correct, and I don’t think that the manner that they handled it was correct, either.
I think there’s a very clear protocol. It would have been one thing had she been given permission or performed with an Inuk on her record. But the fact that she’s going out and performing and people are paying money for this is really at the heart of the matter. Inuit worked really hard to be able to preserve and protect this particular piece of cultural heritage. So they should be able to have the right to say who makes money from it or not.
I think that the IMAs really have characterized it as bullying, and that is completely not an accurate account of what actually happened. So I’m really hoping that there could be a good resolution and that the person, Connie LeGrande is her name, is able to apologize and rescind that track. And, you know, continue with her own personal performance, because she does a lot of different things in her music which are totally valid and completely within her right to perform. It’s just this one aspect that she should really realize she doesn’t have permission to do it, and it is not going forward in a good way.
I do hope that the management at IMAs is able to acknowledge that this is wrong, and apologize to the Inuit collective for calling them bullies just for speaking out, for defending their own cultural practice.
Before I let you go, I want to come back to focus on something more positive with your music, which is: you’ve come back now and you’re back in the world of releasing new music. Now that there’s been four or five years of nothing, here you are. Are we gonna have a deluge? Will there be another album in a year’s time? Are you into it at this point? Is the momentum carrying you through? Or are we going to send you away for another few years here? What do you think’s going to happen?
I have no idea, Ollie! The album cycle in the music industry is two years. That’s the standard, you expect to see another release in two years. So you really should be starting to think about recording as soon as you release something. For me, I haven’t acted in the best business way in terms of that. I really follow the art.
So if I have songs that I want to release in a year and a half, in two years, I’m going to do that. But I’m not going to push myself to follow a business schedule. For me, it’s very much about just following the songs and following the art.
Please introduce for us your new single. [Want to hear it? Listen to Cabin Radio! It’s on our playlist.]
It’s called K’eintah Natse Ju. And Natse Ju means healing. The phrase, I was taught by Paul Andrew and Stephen Kakfwi, means “we’re healing together.”
A part of the discussion that’s happened surrounding ‘reconciliation’ has really been primarily focused on repairing relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and communities and governments. And that’s great. But sometimes what gets lost is repairing our own relationships within our own communities as Indigenous people. A part of the thing that happened with residential school was the dismantling of the family unit. So kids were taken away, they didn’t learn how to parent and that was very intentional.
Now we’re left with a legacy of these dysfunctional family systems which we’re repairing. And that’s what this song is about, is focusing on healing within our own families.