Jeremy Dutcher celebrates the best of both worlds, and more, on Motewolonuwok
Music | Gregory Beatty
Jeremy Dutcher burst onto the Canadian music scene when his debut album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa won the 2018 Polaris Prize and a 2019 Juno for Indigenous Music Album of the Year.
Dutcher is a Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) member of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick. The Fredericton-born musician, who currently lives in Montreal, is a classically trained tenor, composer and performer. Dutcher identifies as two-spirited, and with Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, he took some wax cylinder recordings of traditional Maliseet songs he found at the Canadian Museum of History and wrote chamber music around them.
After a stretch of COVID interruptus Dutcher is back with his second album, Motewolonuwok — which translates as “those who work with that which can be heard but not seen”. He also has a cross-country tour which lands him in Saskatoon on Oct. 26.
I spoke with Dutcher from New York — where he was playing a pre-tour show — before he set off on his epic trek.
With the first album, you had a specific anchor in the wax cylinder recordings. This album, though, seems grounded more in a contemporary/personal reality, would you say?
I would say you nailed it on the head. It’s definitely a more personal exploration. It’s also bilingual too, so I’m singing in English for the first time. It developed over the last couple of years, where I was collecting ideas, poems, and other material. The first album was very DIY, where we had a chamber ensemble and a couple of voices. But this one features a full choir and orchestra, so it’s a big offering.
Did COVID impact you in any way?
Yeah, COVID did impact my process. But it also taught me to be flexible. And sometimes things need a little longer to cook. With the first record, I had been very busy and on the road a lot. To sit down for two years and not have that as an option, I had to figure out, ‘Okay, what stories do I want to tell, and how can I tell them in a way that’s tuned into the moment?’
Is it your perception that in that time our politics have become darker, and did that become an influence for you?
It’s not just Canada, of course. It’s a global movement. It’s fear-based politics. But in uncertain times, certain leaders will come forward. It’s nothing new. And I think that’s important to remember. Even though it feels dark, we always have the option to speak beautifully to that darkness. I spent a lot of time in my early 20s doing the activist thing, holding a protest sign and raising my voice. What I’ve found though is that nothing moves people more than a song, and an invitation into a dialogue.
Is that the rationale behind some of your new songs being in English?
Because it is in English, I think, it will be understandable for a lot more people than my first record. Yes, this is a tumultuous time in our collective history. But a lot of important truths are coming out and we, as a country, have had to look at that history. For a long time, these stories were told in our communities. We knew residential schools had graveyards, it’s nothing new for us. But if we all grapple with that hard truth, I think it will come out in a good way on the other side. And I think music can be part of that, when you can share a collective experience with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people at a concert.
I’m struck by your characterization of two-spirited as not being a deficit position. I don’t want to trivialize it by saying it’s the best of both worlds, but –
If you won’t say it, I will! It does offer the best of both worlds. Truly though, I think there’s a special magic that sits with those who are in-between. And that deficit model is something we really need to interrogate. It’s a Western model, a Judeo-Christian model, and I don’t think it’s true. When we look at Indigenous cultures, there are many examples where it was recognized that we should be listening to these people because they carry gifts from both our brothers and our sisters.
What about the musical direction of the album? You said it’s a big offering.
What I ended up doing is taking the quartet from the first album and making it an orchestra, then taking the singers and making a choir. The choir was special to me. They’re just singer friends from my life, so it was a real coming together of different musical aesthetics. It was a fun and challenging process. Then there was the collaboration with Owen Pallett. He did all the string arrangements, and helped record it. It was amazing to work with him.
You’d maybe had an introduction to that with the shows you’ve done with different symphonies?
It’s kind of where it came from. With the first record, I would do a solo show, sometimes a band show, and other times we’d have that orchestral offering. It’s cool to be able to shape-shift between those sonic places. There was one particular gig, actually, with the Regina Symphony Orchestra. They’d done a concert the year before with Buffy Sainte-Marie, and I said ‘Who did those orchestrations? They sound amazing.’ And it was Owen. So that’s how I came to choose him as a collaborator.
When we look at the tour, it’s a true cross-country one, coast-to-coast. What band will you be touring with?
We are going coast-to-coast, although I wish it could be a total national tour, but we were unable to include the territories on this one. It will be the band we assembled for the two records which will be myself on piano, with a drummer, an upright bass, guitarist and a trumpeter. We’ll bring in some of those orchestral elements and mix it with a rock band.
Maybe a bit of jazz, too?
There is, for sure. I was shocked! When I listened to the record for the first time, I was like ‘Did I just make a jazz record?’ And all the players are jazz improvisers. It’s not the world I came from, but the freedom they can express is so inspiring. We’ve done a couple of shows in Europe, and now one in New York. But with this fall tour, we’re really going to dig in. I’m excited. It will be fun. ■